Do we now dismiss parts of the Oral Torah as incorrect?

For example scientific statements in the Talmud are nowadays largely ignored (things like flies moving the air around/lice coming from nowhere).

Does this take away from the holiness of the Oral Torah? Is it heretical to say that the Oral Law was influenced by the cultures of the time, for example with regards to women etc?

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    @Superplane Did you mean the Ten Tribes?
    – Scimonster
    Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 11:19
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    @Superplane Or Qara'im?
    – Lee
    Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 12:14
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    likey he means the ethiyopians.
    – Double AA
    Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 12:47
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    The Ethiopians are not a very convincing proof against the validity of the Oral Torah, since we don't know their origin -- they could have been founded, for example, by converts who had access to the five books of the Torah but not the Oral teachings of the sages of that time. Or catastrophes or persecution may have led to the loss of any Oral Torah they had.
    – Kordovero
    Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 13:29
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    Regarding belief in midrashim see judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/53349/belief-in-midrashim/… the view of those who hold that belief is not obligatory relates to the idea that the rabbis lacked a tradition on these matters. Thus, they were not part of the Oral Law. Similar arguments could be made about other non-legal matters. This could include the mysticism of the Zohar. Additionally, some simply dispute the authenticity of the Zohar see judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/48084/…
    – mevaqesh
    Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 19:39

2 Answers 2


It's a broad question, I'll take a stab at it.

The Talmud represents Jewish "law and lore", as one writer put it. Those interpretations of the Bible that have legal force still do; the other material, less so. So I'd distinguish between "Oral Torah" and the narrower "Oral Law."

Do we now dismiss parts of the Oral Torah as incorrect?

Some pages of the Talmud are full of folk medicine, which today we don't use. Already in the 900s, Rabbi Sharira Gaon wrote that the sages of the Talmud were incorporating into their text all the wisdom at their disposal, which included medical thinking from that time that has since become outdated. Today (whether the year is 900 or 2015) we are obligated to use whatever medical treatments are deemed appropriate by today's medical mainstream.

Most rabbis will still study the medical pages of the Talmud, perhaps with a few shrugs -- it's interesting to see how they approached the problems, and it's amazing what a sophisticated legal system they could develop despite the scientific challenges of the era. (A more cautious, traditionalist interpretation would say "maybe this worked in their time and place, but we must use the medicine that works for us.")

The trickier question becomes laws in the Talmud that appear to be based on scientific understanding. The one everyone loves to quote is about killing gnats on Shabbat because they don't reproduce the way normal animals do. There are broadly three approaches:

A. The rabbis could never have been wrong about science. In the case of gnats, maybe they were using terminology popular to the common folk of their day (which today we'd call scientifically obsolete), but the underlying law intended was "animals, as defined by sexual reproduction visible to the naked eye", which hasn't changed. Alternatively: The same way why-bad-things-happen-to-good-people is beyond our comprehension, we're stuck just not understanding that passage in the Talmud.

B. The law is "on Shabbat, you may not kill animals that reproduce sexually." That law has not changed, the application has. 1500 years ago they thought that gnats weren't included, and today we know they are, so our practical advice regarding gnats has since changed.

C. When the Talmud was completed -- let's say around the year 500 -- certain laws as stated were locked into place, which we still respect. (A twist on this would be: the Torah's prohibition on killing "animals" applied to "animals" as the term was understood in ancient culture.)

On a given issue, you'll see any combination of A, B, and C applied today, depending on who you ask.

One high school student who was disturbed by the gnats-on-Shabbat statement consulted with the late Rabbi Emmanuel Gettinger, a Talmudist of the highest caliber and an astronomy enthusiast. Rabbi Gettinger replied:

Is your question one on Jewish law, namely, what do we follow if the legal statement appears to have been predicated on obsolete scientific understanding? [I.e. do we apply B or C above.] Or is it a philosophical one, if the rabbis of the Talmud had so much Godly wisdom, how could they have been wrong about science?

Rabbi Gettinger was prepared to deal with both of those conflicts.

Does this take away from the holiness of the Oral Torah?

Some rabbis will say you can skip certain passages and still say you completed "the Talmud"; but generally, no not really. It gives you an appreciation for how much effort went into study and complex legal codes, despite the scientific limitations of the day. It's also plausible that certain discussions (e.g. the laws of mythological creatures) were intended simply as theoretical constructs (thought experiments) to best understand the details of the underlying laws, which can then be used to apply those laws to today's technology. (E.g. if you have a precise legal definition of "cooking" on Shabbat, you'll know whether it applies to microwaves.)

Is it heretical to say that the Oral Law was influenced by the cultures of the time, for example with regards to women etc?

Again I'd distinguish between lore and law. A story of an interaction between a rabbi and his wife ... certainly culture comes into play, and it's not always clear-cut what lesson to take from that story. My personal preference is to read the story in whatever way gives it the most significance.

Some of the law is of biblical force. The same way that "an eye for an eye" means restitution, according to the Talmud, "you absolutely must dwell in a sukkah" was only addressed to men, not women. We accept that binding interpretation of the biblical law.

Some of the law is of rabbinic force, which we again don't have the power to change today. The rabbis of the pre-Talmudic period obligated men, not women, to pray three times a day. We don't have the authority today to suddenly give women that same level of absolute obligation. (Would we want to is a different question.) If you feel better crying bitter tears that the rabbis back then were outdated and boo-hoo they made the wrong law, but we're stuck with it, well that's your prerogative; personally I prefer to figure there was some universal wisdom that went into it. (Keep in mind that women in many pre-industrial cultures spend a significant part of the day gathering water. Between that and childrearing, it may not have been feasible to obligate all women to pray thrice daily. If a woman today is up to praying thrice daily, by all means that's a wonderful thing and we support it.)

The famous example that everyone loves to volley around is women reading the Torah. "Theoretically it's okay, but don't do it because it's dishonorable", says the Talmud. Those on the left of Orthodoxy will say that statement was predicated on cultural norms, "but today when women are Fortune 500 CEOs there's no such dishonor." Those on the center and right refer to this as a straw-man interpretation of the Talmud, and would say that the "dishonor" described is not predicated on culture. (In this instance, the Talmud also says that some women had signet rings as they owned their own businesses, and a woman who out-earned her husband could demand financial independence. The "dishonor" here would be that the men in the room, who were supposed to be more-obligated to study and spending more hours doing so, are doing a lousy job at Torah reading.)

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    Women are obligated to pray three times a day just like men accd to all known early authorities. I think you are confusing that with the fact that they unlike men are not obligated to pray with a minyan three times a day
    – Double AA
    Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 18:05
  • @DoubleAA yeah forgive me I'm going with Ashkenazic common practice today, whatever its source (or lack thereof). Would you advise a different example of a rabbinic obligation enacted only on men?
    – Shalom
    Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 19:33
  • "The rabbis could never have been wrong about science...we're stuck just not understanding that passage in the Talmud. (This is the view forcefully pushed today by Rabbi Moshe Meiseleman.)" This is actually a misrepresentation (perhaps common as few are willing to read through a 500 page book, and instead rely on hearsay). One of the primary theses of the book is that although Hazal lacked tradition on all matters of realia, just as they did not possess a complete tradition on legal matters (as evidenced by their disputes), they did have authoritative knowledge on those matters which they
    – mevaqesh
    Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 19:45
  • themselves were definitive of. This is a large distinction that ought to be accurately depicted. That is, R. Dr. Meiselman employs the same criteria for determining the accuracy of non-legal matters, as he uses to determine the accuracy of legal matters. When Hazal themselves were confident about a halakha, we too accept it as authoritative. When, however, the matter is subject to dispute, the views of wither disputant cannot be assumed to be conclusion (based on tradition, revelation, or any other source) and are thus non-normative.
    – mevaqesh
    Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 19:50
  • @DoubleAA Somewhat ironically, IIRC, R. Meiselman forcefully propounds women's obligation to pray in his Jewish Woman in Jewish Law
    – mevaqesh
    Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 19:54

The Oral Tora is devine and was given to Moshe along with the written Tora on mount Sinai (see for example Midrash Sifra, Behar, 1: "וידבר ה' אל משה בהר סיני לאמר, מה עניין שמיטה אצל הר סיני והלא כל המצות נאמרו מסיני אלא מה שמיטה נאמרו כללותיה ודקדוקיה מסיני, אף כולם נאמרו כללותיהם ודקדוקיהם מסיני").

However, there is a debate among what was included in the Oral Tora that was given. For example - Rabi Yehoshua ben Levi from one side takes the "broad" definition: "מקרא משנה הלכות תלמוד תוספתות אגדות ואפי' מה שתלמיד ותיק עתיד לומר לפני רבו כלן נאמרו למשה בסיני" (Vayikra Raba, Achrei Mois), and on the other hand we have Rabi Abahu taking a more narrow inclution: "משהשלים מ' יום, נתן לו הקב"ה את התורה מתנה, שנאמר: ויתן אל משה. וכי כל התורה למד משה?! כתיב בתורה (איוב יא): ארוכה מארץ מדה ורחבה מני ים, ולארבעים יום למדה משה?! אלא כללים למדהו הקב"ה למשה" (Shmois Raba, Tetsave).

Personally I don't think that saying that the Oral Law was influenced by the cultures of the time is heretic but only if you understand that those laws were directed by Hashem and that they all apply today according to the Halacha that is accepted apart from specific places with specific reasoning. There are clear examples of Poiskim (e.g. the Mishna Berura (who brings the Magen Avraham's words: "בכמה דברים השתנו הטבעים") and the Rambam) who state nature (even of the human body) in some aspects has changed with time, and some Psikot the ha makes in Mishne Tora are according to those changes in nature, and thus need to be adjusted to our (his) time. But again, only ones in the stature of the Rambam can determine such claims, it is not a conecpts that can be apprehended without having a "belly full of Shas and Poiskim" (= a deep knowledge and understanding of the Tora, Oral, written and the later literature by Rishonim, and Achronim).

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    Where does the Rambam say השתנו הטבעים?
    – Double AA
    Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 15:09
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    It's in Shmos Rabba Ki Sisa 41 6. And the Radal and Eitz Yosef understand it differently than you've presented it here.
    – user6591
    Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 15:18
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    @DoubleAA - daf-yomi.com/DYItemDetails.aspx?itemId=13374 Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 4:06
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    @EinbertAlshtein ??? That link doesn't contain the Rambam saying that AFAICT...
    – Double AA
    Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 4:30
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    @EinbertAlshtein Ok, and I asked you where the Rambam uses that idea in Halachic debates. And you haven't answered me...
    – Double AA
    Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 12:28

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