I’d like to ask the opposite of this question.

There, the OP asked why we have a distinct Torah SheBa’al Peh; wouldn’t it help to disseminate the Torah better if everything were written? Answers brought there range from keeping a portion of the Torah unique to the Jews, to fostering the Rebbe-to-Talmid relationship, to helping prevent dispute, and more.

I’d like to ask the opposite. Why is there a Written Torah at all? Because of all of the positive benefits to having an Oral Law, why is anything written down at all?

  • I added the "theology" tag but I'm not sure that's your intention. Do you ask if any religion should have a written document to base itself on, besides the oral tradition?
    – Al Berko
    May 9, 2019 at 22:06
  • @AlBerko Theology tag is for questions about Hashem Himself, which this definitely isn’t. Hashkafah perhaps is appropriate. Whether I’d ask the same question about other religions is irrelevant, as such questions are off-topic here. I think I’ve explained my motivation well here: given all the benefits to an oral law, why is a written one necessary?
    – DonielF
    May 9, 2019 at 22:11
  • I think that every religion has to have "G-d's word" or something that descended from G-d "untouched". All the rest would be interpretations, but the lack of such a document would be considered that G-d never communicated with us.
    – Al Berko
    May 9, 2019 at 22:11
  • @AlBerko Along the lines of Alex’s answer, you mean? Or something else? In the latter case, why don’t you post your own answer?
    – DonielF
    May 9, 2019 at 22:12
  • I don't think Judaism here is different from other religions. The idea is simple and powerful. That's why Rambam includes it in his 13 principles. Otherwise, why bother with all the principles, just say, let's believe our sages.
    – Al Berko
    May 9, 2019 at 22:13

3 Answers 3


The Oral Torah being passed down orally, it is naturally subject to certain amounts of corruption via malicious distortion, improper application, simple forgetfulness, etc. The existence of a Written Torah can be seen as a protective measure against this. When someone forgets something, distorts something, or misapplies something from the Oral Torah it is hard to fight against it. You can't really prove that something not written down anywhere is one thing over some other thing. With a Written Torah, the basic fundamentals always exist in writing. If someone distorts, forgets, or misapplies something, everyone else can just refer back to the text and point out the truth.

We can see a prime example of this from the following Talmudic passage:

Temurah 16a

אמר רב יהודה אמר רב בשעה שנפטר משה רבינו לגן עדן אמר לו ליהושע שאל ממני כל ספיקות שיש לך אמר לו רבי כלום הנחתיך שעה אחת והלכתי למקום אחר לא כך כתבת בי ומשרתו יהושע בן נון נער לא ימיש מתוך האהל מיד תשש כחו של יהושע ונשתכחו ממנו שלש מאות הלכות ונולדו לו שבע מאות ספיקות ועמדו כל ישראל להרגו אמר לו הקב"ה לומר לך אי אפשר לך וטורדן במלחמה שנאמר ויהי אחרי מות משה עבד ה' ויאמר ה' וגו' במתניתין תנא אלף ושבע מאות קלין וחמורין וגזירות שוות ודקדוקי סופרים נשתכחו בימי אבלו של משה אמר רבי אבהו אעפ"כ החזירן עתניאל בן קנז מתוך פלפולו שנאמר וילכדה עתניאל בן קנז אחי כלב (הקטן ממנו) [ויתן לו את עכסה בתו לאשה

Rab Judah reported in the name of Rab: When Moses departed [this world] for the Garden of Eden he said to Joshua: ‘Ask me concerning all the doubts you have’. He replied to him: ‘My Master, have I ever left you for one hour and gone elsewhere? Did you not write concerning me in the Torah: But his servant Joshua the son of Nun departed not out of the tabernacle? Immediately the strength [of Moses] weakened and [Joshua] forgot three hundred laws and there arose [in his mind] seven hundred doubts [concerning laws]. Then all the Israelites rose up to kill him. The Holy One, blessed be He, then said to him [Joshua]: ‘It is not possible to tell you. Go and occupy their attention in war, as it says: Now after the death of Moses the servant of the Lord, it came to pass that the Lord spake; and it further says; [Prepare you victuals for within three days, etc.]. It has been taught: A thousand and seven hundred kal wahomer and gezerah shawah and specifications of the Scribes were forgotten during the period of mourning for Moses. Said R. Abbuha: Nevertheless Othniel the son of Kenaz restored [these forgotten teachings] as a result of his dialectics, as it says: And Othniel the son of Kenaz, the brother of Caleb, took it; and he gave him Achsah his daughter to wife. (Soncino translation)

Here we see that many laws were forgotten after the death of Moses. But as long as there was a Written Torah, almost everything could be rederived from the text. Without a Written Torah, we would be at the mercy of people's memories.

In addition to the fact that the Written Torah helps keep the Written Torah from being forgotten, it also actually helps the Oral Torah from being forgotten. This can be seen from the fact that the Sages often linked things back to the Written Torah even when there was not necessarily a real connection. Several authorities point out that this is to make it easier to remember. (I.e. if the something is linked to a written text, when you see the written text you can be easily reminded of the linked information.)

For instance, in reference to the hint to the Seven Noahide Laws in the verses of God's commandment to refrain from eating from the tree in the Garden of Eden, R. Judah Halevi writes:

Kuzari 3:73

There is a wide difference between these injunctions and the verse. The people, however, accepted these seven laws as tradition, connecting them with the verse as aid to memory. (Hirschfeld translation)

Rambam in his explanation of the rabbinic concept of asmachta writes:

Commentary to Mishnah, Introduction

והיתה התשובה על זה שהם הלכה למשה מסיני ואין להם שום יסוד שילמדו ממנו באחת המדות ואין להם רמז בכל התורה אלא הסמיכום לפסוק זה כעין סימן כדי שישמרום ויזכרום ואין זה מענין הפסוק וזהו ענין אמרם קרא אסמכתא בעלמא בכל מקום שנזכר (Kafih translation)

And the response to this was that they are halacha l'Moshe m'Sinai and they have no foundation from which we can learn via one of the methods [of derivation], and there is no hint to them in the entire Torah. But [the Sages] connected them to this verse as a sort of mnemonic, to ensure that they would be protected and remembered, but they don't [actually] have anything to do with the verse. And this is the meaning of their statement "the verse is a mere asmachta" in every place it is mentioned.

Ralbag actually explicitly states this point when he explains why he derives all the details of mitzvot from the plain meaning of the verses (rather than using the methodology of the Sages):

Commentary to Torah, Introduction

והנה בסמכנו אותם הדינים לפשוטי הכתובים תועלת להשאיר יותר זכרון אלו הדינים בנפשותינו כי פסוקי התורה אפשר שיזכרו בקלות לרוב התמדתינו בקריאתם וכאשר יוצאו מפשטי הכתובים ההם ביאורי המצוה יהיה זה סבה אל שיזכרו ביאורי המצוה בכללם עם זכירת הפסוקים ההם

And connecting those laws to the plain meaning of the verses is a help to better solidify those laws in our memory, for the verses of the Torah can be easily remembered due to the consistency of our reading them. And so when elaborations of the mitzvah are derived form the plain meaning of the verses it will be a cause of remembering all the elaborations of the mitzvah when remembering the verses.

  • If I understand from your sources, it is purely circumstantial and not necessary as "the verse is a mere asmachta" in every place it is mentioned. "It's better this way," you say, but nothing that necessitates the existence of a written document.
    – Al Berko
    May 9, 2019 at 22:21
  • @AlBerko It is theoretically possible to have a religion with no Written Torah. My answer is explaining what the purpose/value of having a written Torah is.
    – Alex
    May 9, 2019 at 22:24
  • Please see my new comment to the question, you're right, it may be not necessary at all.
    – Al Berko
    May 9, 2019 at 22:30
  • @AlBerko So are we in agreement?
    – Alex
    May 9, 2019 at 22:32
  • 1
    @AlBerko You're getting me excited.
    – Alex
    May 9, 2019 at 22:38

Let me surprise you a bit (with a non-standard answer) because it bothered me a lot and I couldn't find a clear explanation. This is all based on R' Moshe Luria Z"l Ariz"l's tradition as brought in his books Bays Gnozay.

  1. When the world was created by [some kind of heavenly] Torah, neither Adam or Noah or Abraham or Yaakov received anything written. That, probably, proves that the world does not require the Torah in written.

  2. The keyword for writing the Torah (or any other law) is what we (I and my Chevrosah) call "the crystallization". Just as the water crystallizes from its formless state to a fixed form, the written laws crystallize out of its oral "waterish" formless state.

  3. There is a general question that could be asked about any written Halachah - what was before that? What did people follow? What was before the Mishnah, Rambam Mechaber? The answer is - people/Rabbis followed their personal imagination, reasoning, tradition, whatever. It could take (theoretically) any form (like liquid water).

  4. Once something is written and can't be changed anymore. It may be interpreted or argued upon but not changed. So before Matan Torah, the written Torah might be different - maybe Adam wouldn't sin at all or Eysov wasn't so bad and he would marry Leah and establish the 12 tribes or Bn"I would behave differently in the wilderness. But once Moses wrote it down it could not be changed anymore, it is the ground for all the later Tora development.

  5. For some centuries it remained the only written document and all other tradition was fluid, anything could have emerged. Then Nac"h became written, then again some centuries passed and Mishnah crystallized, it took a form, and since then could not be changed. Then Talmud could take many different directions in interpreting those Mishnayos, as is clearly seen from it, but once it was finalized, it became "the written Torah" also, relatively to the following Sforim. Etc, every further work once put in writing became the written Torah, relatively to what's not written yet.

  6. It should be understood that writing is always a Tzimzum, a reduction of the original thought (anyone who wrote Chiduchim would know that). Torah was "reduced" to its written form, and therefore it is written in black, and the Gvil is white symbolizing "all possible forms" that Torah could be written. That's the reason that Chassidim look at the white Gvil when saying Zoys Hatoyroh, as opposed to those who look at the black letters.

In theory, if the generation of the Exodus would fulfill its ultimate goal of reaching the highest spiritual state during the 400 years of exile, they would not need Matan Torah and Torah was never written and stay "unlimited", "unreduced" and oral. But that didn't happen, G-d decided to take them out earlier (the reason Moses and the Zkenim originally opposed) and Matan Torah was meant to compensate for that, but again, they sinned with the Golden Calf and things went from bad to worse.

To summarize, the necessity for having the Torah in its written form came from the downgrading of the Jewish nation after the Exodus, and every other generation continues this trend with new books.

If you don't understand the idea completely, please don't just downvote before commenting and clarifying.

  • I actually really like this idea. Where in his Sefer is this discussed? I’d like to try and find it on HebrewBooks later.
    – DonielF
    May 10, 2019 at 0:24

The Written Torah is a finite encapsulation of the Divine Will in this World. When the Torah was given it was given in total and did not require an Oral Torah to be explicated, the text itself was able to be understood in all of its depth to the level of the Oral Torah we have today and beyond. However due to our many failings, and the sin of the Golden Calf, we lost that higher level and the Torah was given again, this time through Moshe's hand and as a result, we needed an Oral Torah, handed to us separately to explicate the written.

In that sense then, the situation we find ourselves is that the Oral Torah is not the best circumstance, but a necessary injunction to protect the Jewish people and the Torah from being misunderstood and misinterpreted.

However, had we not sinned and we would be on a higher level, the Torah would be read correctly and all the derivations of the Oral Torah would be obvious from the text.

The Oral Torah is, therefore, a necessary component of a situation in which we created through our failings, but it is hardly the best circumstance. We have to untangle and unravel the underpinning Halachos and relationship between man and man and man and Hashem in order to behave correctly in any circumstance and bring that out into the world. The Oral Torah's purpose and the way it is transmitted and learned today is precisely to enable a person to grow and understand the depth of Torah and achieve connection with the Divine Will. However, it is a tremendous loss that we cannot do that easily, explicitly and obviously simply by reading the Written Torah.

This underscores the point that while without the Oral Torah we would be lost, we are only lost because we created the circumstances that necessitates the Oral Torah. It is hardly the best scenario, but rather a "plan B", because "plan A" didn't work out.

  • I've heard of this concept in various other places, but I'm not sure what the original source for it is (I don't think its in Rashi). Can you direct me to it?
    – user8832
    May 9, 2019 at 5:30

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