I am studying the history of various branches of Judaism. I understand the position of rabbinic Judaism that parts of the laws were oral and not written. But this alone would not justify the authenticity of the current rabbinic literature as given by God. In other words, how can one know that what is stated in them is the same as what was given by God? So my question is:

What are the arguments for the authenticity of rabbinic literature?

  • 5
    Rabbinic literature itself is not given by God. We believe that many of the concepts and laws that are discussed in Rabbinic literature, which comprise the oral law, are given by God.
    – jake
    Commented May 26, 2011 at 23:39
  • @jake, thanks. I see, so there is not a complete authenticity. So maybe I should have asked: how can one know that "many of the concepts and laws that are discussed in Rabbinic literature, are given by God" and "how can one identify the concepts and oral laws that are given by God?" (I hope that my question is not becoming too technical.)
    – Kaveh
    Commented May 26, 2011 at 23:54
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    I don't know that your asking about the authenticity of rabbinic literature so much as the authenticity of the oral Torah. In Talmudic literature, it is usually pretty clear what parts are from the oral law and what parts are rabbinic restriction and even what is just based on logic or speculation.
    – jake
    Commented May 27, 2011 at 0:05
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    @jake, thanks again. Yes, I am more interested in the oral laws than the rest of the scripture. Your comment seems to answer the second question to some extent (identifying the parts coming from oral Torah) but how do we know that they are authentic and are preserved as given by God?
    – Kaveh
    Commented May 27, 2011 at 0:57
  • This is an excellent topic for discussion during the run-up to Shavu'ot.
    – Isaac Moses
    Commented May 27, 2011 at 2:53

5 Answers 5


The Jews believe in the Written Torah as it was given word for word from God to Moses. But additionally, we believe that Moses was taught by God an Oral Torah, that is, a tradition of how to explain the text of the Written Torah, how certain laws are applied, how we practice certain mitzvos, and other additional concepts pertaining to Jewish law.

Moses taught this oral tradition to the Jews and the leaders of the nation, and it was passed down generation to generation until it finally came time to write it down lest it be eventually forgotten or distorted, which resulted in the Mishna, and then later expounded upon in the Talmud. The Talmud as we know it is a collection of rulings and legal discussions with regard to not only biblical laws, but rabbinic laws as well. But when the Talmud discusses biblical law, it assumes the existence of the oral tradition. It tells of the laws as they are traditionally understood through the lens of the Oral Torah.

There certainly is no lack of history when it comes to many Jews denying the existence of the Oral Torah. The Sadducee people come to mind, as well as Spinoza. But in general, the argument usually given for the authority of the Oral Torah is the obvious ambiguity of the laws of the Written Torah when taken at face value. Here are a couple classic examples:

  • One of the laws of the Torah is the daily donning of tefillin. But the Torah makes no mention to how this is done, to what tefillin are, to what goes inside them, nor to whom this applies (men, women, children?) Only the oral Torah addresses any of this.
  • The Torah writes that one may not do work on Shabbos. But it never mentions what constitutes work. Only with the Oral Torah is it clearly defined how one transgresses Shabbos.

It seems pretty clear that some form of tradition must exist to observe these mitzvos that we would otherwise not have any idea what they are talking about.

Another argument is simply that it was given to us by the previous generations along with the Written Torah. In other words, just as we believe the previous generation that this Written Torah they are showing us is divine, we believe their interpretation of it as well.

A story illustrating this argument is related in the Talmud (Shabbos 31a):

A non-jew who believed in the Written Torah wanted to convert. He went to the great rabbi Shamai and asked him, "How many Torahs do you have?". Shamai responded, "Two. One written and one oral." The gentile said, "I wish to convert to Judaism, but on the condition only to accept the written Torah." Shamai sent him away. Then the gentile went to Hillel and said again, "I wish to convert to Judaism, but on the condition only to accept the written Torah." Hillel accepted him as a student for conversion. The first day Hillel taught him the Hebrew alphabet. When he came the next day, he reviewed the alphabet, but this time, Hillel switched the letters, that is, he referred to letter aleph as "beit", and beit as "aleph", etc. The non-jew protested, "But yesterday you taught me differently!" Hillel responded, "You see? You rely on me for your understanding of even the simplest thing like the names of the letters."

Hillel's point was that we have no idea what the Torah means without the way it was taught to us and explained to us by our Rabbis. This was his reasoning for the authenticity of the Oral Torah.

  • 6
    This argument shows there is an "oral Torah"; it doesn't show that the one we have is the one Moshe had, which I think is what the question means to ask.
    – msh210
    Commented May 27, 2011 at 2:10
  • @mah210, You're right. I didn't fully understand the question. There are several rishonim, though, that trace the mesorah from Moshe to R' Yehuda HaNasi, which at least shows that the mishna is authentic, although it doesn't really prove anything.
    – jake
    Commented May 27, 2011 at 6:03
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    @msh210, another point is that once we accept that there must be an Oral Torah (as well laid out in jake's answer), then we know that what we have is it because there are no other competitors. The Sadduccees, Karaites, etc., denied the Oral Torah altogether; but there was never any group that said, "Yes, the Torah requires an oral tradition to understand it - and we have one of our own that is different than what the rabbis say."
    – Alex
    Commented May 27, 2011 at 16:31
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    @Alex, that there's no competitor doesn't prove that ours didn't get mangled along the way, does it?
    – msh210
    Commented May 27, 2011 at 17:29
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    @msh210: those parts of it that are universally accepted can well be assumed to be the ones that didn't get mangled. (Rambam makes this point in his commentary to the Mishnah.) Sort of like textual criticism: the parts of a work that are the same across all manuscripts are the ones that reflect the ur-text.
    – Alex
    Commented May 27, 2011 at 23:54

Frankly, kaveh, we don't know it's 100% the same. Traditional rabbinic literature is riddled with arguments about legal details. But, that is part of traditional Judaism. G-d expected unclarity in areas, that is why he gave us the laws of Deuteronomy 17- the Supreme Court on the Temple Mount. This becomes the absolute law even if a greater scholar disagrees. In fact, the rulings of the Supreme Court define the oral law (Rambam Mamrim 1:1) even if the court had no knowledge of precedent. There is even a case in the Talmud where a heavenly sign proclaimed what the law was in the heavenly spheres. The sages disregarded this sign based on the principle that the Law is not in heaven (Deuteronomy 30:12).

Disputes continue to this day concerning how to interpret earlier scholars and apply them to modern cases.

It certainly is not a free for all and there are rules about ruling, and there are disputes about these rules as well (Many disputes are concluded based on the Biblical principal of court majority.)

That being said, it is interesting to note that there are few disagreements on major ideas. There is a consensus about what constitutes prohibited work on the sabbath. There are disputes about how to categorize them and how to apply them biblically vs rabbinically.

How do we know our parents gave us the correct tradition at all? The same way you know your parents are your parents. You don't know 100%, but you know they would not lie to you about this. G-d did not write all laws in the bible, but instead commanded this generation to generation transmission as the vehicle for Judaic practice.

  • Thanks for your enlightening answer. So if I understand your answer correctly, one argument is that they are authentic because they are passed on from each generation to next one as tradition. The other one is that written Torah tells us that we should accept what Supreme Court tells us as oral Torah. The third one is that historically there has been an almost consensus on the major issues between scholars. Am I understanding the arguments correctly?
    – Kaveh
    Commented Aug 31, 2011 at 2:52
  • I wasn't trying to give 3 arguments. I was merely saying that G-d had set up a system in the Torah concerning laws not specifically discussed in the Torah- your first 2 points being part of that system. The third point is merely underscoring th success of the system.
    – YDK
    Commented Sep 1, 2011 at 1:02

I am collecting the arguments that has been given in one answer. I am making this a community wiki answer, so please feel free to improve this summery and add the summery of new answers in future.

(Note that we are assuming that there has been an oral Torah that was revealed by God to Moshe, and we are assuming the authenticity of written Torah, and we are not asking for arguments for them in this question, but only for arguments about why oral Torah we have today is the same as what was revealed by God to Moshe.)

  1. oral Torah as tradition is passed from generation to generation going back to Moshe.

  2. historically there hasn't been an alternative source for oral Torah.

  3. although there has been disagreements about minor issues and the details, there has been an almost consensus on major issues. Even these disagreements are regarded as not mutually contradictory in a way that is beyond our human level of understanding.

  4. Rambam lists the chain of people that it went through from Moshe on down. This means that what Rambam had was authentic. It's not perfect as it does not go to the present day, but we know the documents written by Rambam are authentic.

  5. about the details, the Torah says we should follow what Sanhedrin and the sages derive from the principles.

  6. the rulings of the Supreme Court define the oral law (Rambam Mamrim 1:1) even if the court had no knowledge of precedent.

  7. there are several rishonim, that trace the mesorah from Moshe to Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, which at least shows that the mishna is authentic.

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    Rambam's list relied on the first chapter of Avos for the time-line up to the Mishnaic era, and the Iggeres of Rav Sherier Hagaon for the time thereafter. Rav Sherier Hagaon was rosh hayeshiva of the Pumbedesia yeshiva in Babylon. He wrote the Iggeres in or about 987 CE. As the rosh hayeshiva of the longest running yeshiva in the world, dating back to the first exile, Rav Sherier's account of the development of the Talmud is the most reliable. Commented Feb 28, 2013 at 21:24

There are different views as to nature of the truth of the Oral traditions. Many Geonim felt it almost entirely originated from Sinai and was passed down. The kaarites argued that the existence of Machloket showed that the oral tradtion wasn't authentic. However, Rambam emphasized how there were certain principles and halachot which were passed down, while many details were left to the Sages to derive from the Torah.

Thus, one only needs to show that traditions existed for these matters. Rambam shows how in many examples, everyone agreed on the principle tradition, they just gave different reasons for its derivation from the Torah. For example, traditional Jews always used an Etrog on Sukkot, just different sages gave different hints to it from the Torah. More generally, there is a certain amount of agreement on the principles for deriving rules from the Torah (kal v'chomer, gzeira shava, etc.), there's just disagreement on the details of applying them.

Although many details are derived by humans, (and thus error is possible), the Torah said we should follow the Sanhedrin & the sages derivations. So even if its possible they didn't get everything right, it was given over to them to decide what is right.

  • 1
    A while ago I read an english translation to Rambam's Introduction to his explanation of the Mishna. (I think it was this one). In it the Rambam breaks down the history of the Oral Law. He divides them into different categories, and describes how some of the oral law came directly from Moshe, and some were established by the Rabbis based on guidelines given by Moshe. (I think there was a third way laws were established as well, but I can't remember)
    – Menachem
    Commented May 29, 2011 at 20:56

The Rambam lists the chain of people that it went through from Moshe on down. Its not perfect as it does not go to the present day, but I dont think that most would argue the authenticity of the rambam.

In addition, if you are interested, this is a lecture that is online about the subject given in an easy to understand, fairly logical way. Warning, it is long (hour plus if I recall correctly), but it does make a persuasive case (in addition to making a LOT of side points, most of which I found interesting).

  • Thanks, I listened to the lecture, it is a little bit long as you said but it was not boring so I enjoyed listening to it, he is a good speaker. (Personally I am not sure I agree with his arguments though, just as an example, in the experiment he designed there was only incentives to transfer the information correctly, but in reality there can be very strong collective incentives to modify the information. There are some other issues but I don't think this is the place to discuss the validity of the arguments. :) I will probably also listen to his other lectures when I find some free time.
    – Kaveh
    Commented Aug 31, 2011 at 5:57

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