The Gemara states that it is forbidden to write down the Oral Torah ("Torah SheBe'Al Peh") [1]:

דרש רבי יהודה בר נחמני מתורגמניה דרבי שמעון בן לקיש, כתיב: +שמות ל"ד+ כתוב לך את הדברים האלה, וכתיב: +שמות ל"ד+ כי ע"פ הדברים האלה, הא כיצד? דברים שבכתב אי אתה רשאי לאומרן על פה, דברים שבעל פה אי אתה רשאי לאומרן בכתב. דבי רבי ישמעאל תנא: אלה - אלה אתה כותב, ואי אתה כותב הלכות.

Why was this the case? Wouldn't it have helped the spread of Torah knowledge if it could be written down?

[1] Gittin 60b: “R. Judah b. Nahmani, the public orator of R. Simeon b. Lakish, discoursed as follows: It is written (Exodus 34), ‘Write thou these words,’ and it is written, ‘For according to the mouth of these words.’ What are we to make of this? — It means: The words which are written down you art not at liberty to say by heart, and the words transmitted orally you are not at liberty to recite from writing. A Tanna of the school of R. Ishmael taught: [It is written] ‘These’: these you may write, but you may not write ‘halakhot.’”


4 Answers 4


The Midrash (Exodus Rabbah 47:1) says that one reason was to maintain one portion of the Torah as a uniquely Jewish possession. The gentiles have the written Torah (ever since, under order of Ptolemy II Philadelphus, it was translated into Greek, and later into other languages); but so long as the Oral Torah remained orally transmitted, it was unavailable to them.

There is also the idea that it is vital not only to study Torah, but to develop a personal relationship with a teacher. This is expressed in the phrase, "Service of Torah is greater than its study" (Talmud, Berachos 7b). Thus, another reason for keeping the Oral Torah oral is to make its mastery dependent on that kind of face-to-face learning.

  • Thanks Alex. Regarding the second reason, does it also say that it is probably impossible to transfer this knowledge correctly only using writing form?
    – Kaveh
    Commented Nov 9, 2011 at 1:13
  • 1
    @Kaveh: I think so. I would have to find an actual source for that angle on it, though.
    – Alex
    Commented Nov 9, 2011 at 4:24
  • Note that this was written as an answer to not this question but judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/11159, which was closed as a duplicate of this question.
    – msh210
    Commented Nov 9, 2011 at 18:40

There are many answers given to this question:

  • The Midrash cited in the other answer refers to the exclusive relationship that the Oral Torah allowed. The Christians may read the written Torah, but only the Jews had the Oral Torah. (The Gemara in Gittin also quotes that Passuk.)

  • The Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim (I.71) takes this further and says that by keeping the Torah oral, it prevented machloket, for people couldn't misinterpret intervening texts, and the Sanhedrin haGadol ruled on every matter.

  • The Iggeres of R. Sherira Gaon describes how before the Mishnah was written, people were able to learn in their own style (Translation by R. Nosson Dovid Rabinowich):

Despite the unanimity among the sages in the underlying principles and teachings, each sage taught his students with whichever order and whichever method he preferred.… Some taught general rules; others added details; and others expanded and offered many, many examples and analogies

Putting things in a text format may confine things to a certain extent, while an Oral discussion can be more lively (and perhaps more flexible).

  • Perhaps there's another reason. When nothing else is written down, the entire focus of one's studies always remains on the Torah (or Pentateuch) itself. Students are able to constantly re-discover the sources for laws in the Torah itself. Maybe the study of Torah was less about the spread of information than about this constant connection with the Divine word.

A possible meaning of the following verse: ספר הושע פרק ח (יב) אֶכְתָּוב {אֶכְתָּב} לוֹ רֻבֵּו {רֻבֵּי} תּוֹרָתִי כְּמוֹ זָר נֶחְשָׁבוּ (as I heard from Rav Yonason David and is most likely from an earlier authority) is "If I allow them to write down the bulk of my Torah (which is clearly the Oral Torah) then they (Klal Yisrael) would be considered like strangers."

The explanation is that the covenant between G-d and Yisrael was ultimately sealed over the Oral Torah. Just like in any covenantal relationship there is an area that must be off-limits to outsiders, so too regarding the relationship between us and Hashem. Hence the oral Torah is to be an insiders-only experience. The minute the privacy is compromised the relationship is cheapened, diluted, and invaded.

I will edit this to reflect the midrash that Jake linked after Shabbos.

  • 2
    The "earlier authority" is Bamidbar Rabbah 14. (Toward the top of second column in the link.)
    – jake
    Commented May 27, 2011 at 19:51
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    jake, thank you so much! I was afraid to say he quoted Hazal because I was recalling b'al peh :-) what I had heard at a ma'amar in 1995 or thereabouts!
    – Yahu
    Commented May 27, 2011 at 23:22

The most obvious answer is to allow the Oral Torah to grow, shrink, and flow as needed based on the changing nature of the times and places. You can witness the danger that a "fixed oral Torah" has done to some communities, and how it has made the Jewish people separate.

However, at some points in time, that danger was minimal compared to the danger of losing the Jewish communities entirely.


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