Why was it necessary to have an oral law? Couldn't we have avoided inaccuracies and machlokot in the mishnah, gemara and etc by writing it down originally?


4 Answers 4


The Rambam in Moreh Nevochim 1:71 addresses this question. The Rambam actually says that the opposite is true - the integrity of the Oral law was preserved specifically by it's being oral. The Rambam writes as follows (קאפח edition):

וכבר ידעת כי אפילו תורה שבע"פ המקובלת לא היתה כתובה לפנים, כפי הצווי המפורסם באומה "דברים שאמרתי לך על פה אי אתה רשאי לאמרם בכתב", והרי זו היא תכלית החכמה בתורה, לפי שהיתה הרחקה ממה שאירע בה בסופו של דבר, כלומר רבוי הסברות והסתעפות השטות, ומשפטים בלתי ברורים שיארעו בהסברת המחבר, ושכחה שתארע לו, ויתחדשו מחלוקות בין בני אדם ונעשים כתות ונבוכים במעשה. אלא נמסר בכל זה לבית דין הגדול

(My rough translation) : Of course you are aware that even the Oral Torah which we have received was not originally written down, according to the accepted command "that which I have said to you orally you are not allowed to say in writing," and this is the epitome of wisdom by the Torah, as it serves to fend off that which eventually ended up happening, namely abundance of [conflicting] lines of reasoning and branching off of opinions, unclear statements through the explanatory skills and forgetfulness of the author, and disagreements arise and they become splintered groups, and what should be done becomes unclear. Rather, the entire system was given over to the Great Court.

As R' Yaakov Weinberg explained, a role of the Sanhedrin, as custodians of the Oral Law, was to explain it to the contemporary generation. Oral Law was specifically meant to be communicated in modern parlance, with examples that were clear to the person to whom they were being given. Oral Law was specifically not meant to be codified into static passages which would not have the same meaning in different cultures and periods. The system of Oral transmission forced that the Torah was given over in contemporary terms, face to face with a live person who would explain it in a way that you understood it.

It was only when this system broke down, and the ability to maintain the actual body of knowledge became impractical, that the risk of losing the content of the Oral Law overrode the method that guaranteed its clarity of transmission. This led to the current system, in which set-in-stone phrases become subject to the debate of their meaning, and different paths of reasoning in order to make sense of unclear statements emerge.

  • Also, in the days before the Torah Sheba'al Peh was written down out of fear it would become lost (which is a different subject), most of the Torah being oral prevented it from falling into the wrong hands. :)
    – ezra
    Commented Feb 14, 2018 at 4:20
  • So you're saying the machlokot we have on the oral law would have also occured if it was written drom the beginning because of the ambiguity of the statements?
    – Voctave
    Commented Feb 14, 2018 at 5:20
  • Why do we care that the torah shebeal pe not fall into the wrong hands and not the torah?
    – Voctave
    Commented Feb 14, 2018 at 5:28
  • @Voctave If you want a user to see your comments, you should "ping" him (as I just did to you). I assume you meant to direct your question to ezra. Commented Feb 14, 2018 at 19:22
  • In terms of your first comment, I believe the Rambam is saying that machlokot would have developed much faster, if not for the provision of first-hand explanation which was in place. Commented Feb 14, 2018 at 19:22

To just answer your question:

1- Because no finite text could fully describe what it the right answer for every situation and every context a human being might face. Therefore, Hashem gave Moshe a system, not a set of halachic conclusions and agadic guidelines. Something with which human beings can derive the rest.

2- No finite text could capture Hashem's Thought anyway.

3- The whole point of Torah study is the exercise of figuring answers out. G-d didn't want Torah study to be memorization. This is why we still study gemara, rather than just skip to the chase with the Rif's selection of its conclusions, or study just the Rambam's Mishneh Torah or the like.

Hashem gave Moshe a process for humans to work. This is why, in the tanur shel akhnai story (Bava Metzia 59a-b), even though R' Eliezer is capable of invoking miracles "if I am correct", the law still follows the majority against him. Halakhah follows the process given, the kelalei hapesaq -- the rules of decisionmaking, not revalation of Divine Truth. The debate concludes by quoting the verse "lo bashamayim hi -- it is not in heaven", because Hashem didn't intend to give us answers. And the story concludes with us learning that at that moment Hashem laughed (so to speak) "Nitzchuni banai -- My children have bested Me / My children have eternalized Me".

He intended to give us the tools with which to grapple with the question and work toward an answer. That is more important than always getting the answer right. For that matter, that work is itself the "right answer", which is why Hashem gave us a system in which Beis Hillel and Beis Shammai can disagree and still "eilu va'eilu divrei E-lokim chaim -- both these and those are the 'living' words of G-d". Because both worked the process.

That is the way we can fully realize our being "in the Image of the Divine", and to partner with G-d in the creative process. The latter being an idea explored at length in R' JB Soloveitchik's "Halakhic Man". Or as his grandfather, R' Chaim Brisker, put it, through the giving of the Oral Torah, the Jewish people were elevated into becoming the "parchment" upon which G-d's Word is written. The Torah becomes of us, instead of an externality to study.

  • Very interesting answer. I understand (I think) what you're saying about the process being more important than the answer because then religion becomes more engaging and less memorizing. Also, allowing religion to be more dynamic and relevant. However, for some reason, I still have a hard time grasping the idea that it is indeed better to follow a human beings' conclusion, with all his fallacies, instead of just having a book of true instructions.
    – Voctave
    Commented Mar 1, 2018 at 20:38
  • Is there a point of arguing with you about #1 and 2? #1 "Therefore, Hashem gave Moshe a system" - still why not in written form if it is a system? #2 "No finite text could capture Hashem's Thought anyway" - but the written Torah IS Hashem's thought and maybe more (קב"ה וארייתא וישראל חד הוא)?
    – Al Berko
    Commented Mar 4, 2018 at 10:52
  • @AlBerko: My opionion is just one person's opinion, and not yours. The value of arguing with me is if you find the exercise hones your own opinion. Trying to get me to change my mind is probably not worth your time. And besides, I can be pretty stubborn. But now, on to an actual response. I just wanted to set the tone -- I would prefer dialog to debate or argument. This is theology; any real right answers are beyond human ken anyway. It's all models and approximation. Commented Mar 5, 2018 at 17:15
  • First, I think that the Torah is not G-d's Truth, but a tool to help people reach it. Thus, "אמת מארץ תצמיח" and "וחיי עולם נטע בתוכינו" -- the Torah is described as the sapling, truth, the eventual flowering of that sapling. See the intro of the Qetzos, to get the source which my believe it based on. The Qetzos as Micha understands it, of course. Commented Mar 5, 2018 at 17:18
  • But let's say the entire system were in writing. Then, when you work the system, there are now new conclusions beyond what were in the writing. The second you talke process / system rather than conclusions, it's not a closed set of conclusions, it can't all be in writing. And then, much is הלכה למשה מסיני, given at the beginning, and yet not in writing. Commented Mar 5, 2018 at 17:20

There already are great answers, so I'll just add two more benefits to an oral law:

1) The written law (i.e. the Old Testament) was co-opted to form new religions. The oral law by definition will remain only among true scholars, who can be better trusted to keep it sacred and unique to Judaism.

2) Written texts are very limited in what they can teach. While they excel at holding facts and data, they struggle to convey methods of thinking and rules for dealing with principles. The benefit of oral instruction is that it serves better to convey these abstract ideas.

  • 1. Another book would change nothing in my opinion, think about the 6th Chumach. Torah itself includes a lot of portions of the "Oral law" - the Mitzvos, some of which are explained, some not. 2. The written Mishna and Talmud remained among scholars The writing changed nothing. 3. Keep it sacred - Tora's sacred too and it's written 4. #2 is also false, as since the Mishna and the Talmud were written they did not change at all.
    – Al Berko
    Commented Mar 6, 2018 at 10:08

Let me present my personal, less orthodox explanation of the subject.

The reason for the Oral Torah not to be written is in fact because
Torah's is not about "keeping the ultimate truth", but about "searching for it". In other words, Hashem "does not care" about the results of the Halachah, He likes the process.

The ultimate proof would be the "Tanuro Shel Achnai" Machlokes between the Sages and R' Eliezer (B"M 59b). The Sages knew that the "absolute truth" is with R"E, but nevertheless decided Hashem likes their effort better. They ruled "לא בשמים היא" - the Sages' decisions are "better" (more valuable) for Hashem, that the Oral law traditionally received from Moses.

If the authenticity or the exactness of the Oral Law (unlike the Written Torah) was ever of a primary concern, I have no doubt we were explicitly obligated to write it in stone, literally. The fact that the Jews spent 1500 years without written word clearly (for myself) indicates that either they all were geniuses, keeping data of a whole library in their heads (which does not seem plausible) or did not care about its validity.

  • That's an interesting take, but if that's the case, then how do you define the correct process of setting halachot?
    – Voctave
    Commented Feb 14, 2018 at 20:56
  • We are looking for answers, not chat and personal opinions. See Real Questions Have Answers.
    – Baruch
    Commented Feb 15, 2018 at 22:16
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    @AlBerko וכי מה איכפת לו להקב"ה בין שוחט מן הצואר לשוחט מן העורף הא לא נתנו המצות אלא לצרף בהם את הבריות (Bereishis Rabba). The Ramban uses this in one of a series of questions on the Rambam's approach to ta'amei hamitzvos. sefaria.org/… Commented Feb 22, 2018 at 18:15
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    @MichaBerger Doesn't that just mean that mitzvos are obviously for our benefit, and not for Hashem's? That doesn't seem to lend to the conclusion that therefore Hashem doesn't care if we do a certain way or not.
    – jim
    Commented Feb 23, 2018 at 0:11
  • 2
    But is there a "best" interest? This approach seems to feel that it's arbitrary, and "best interest" means "whatever you happen to conclude." I think that as the Ramban understands that statement is that mitzvos don't benefit G-d, but are designed in such a way that they benefit us. Therefore, their design does matter.
    – jim
    Commented Feb 27, 2018 at 23:24

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