Torah Oriytah – The Rabbinic Oral Law
The oral law, as it is commonly referred to, is first mentioned in Talmudic literature in the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Shabbat 31a:
Our Rabbis taught: A certain heathen once came before Shammai and asked him, ‘How many Toroth have you?’ ‘Two,’ he replied: ‘the Written Torah and the Oral Torah.’ ‘I believe you with respect to the Written, but not with respect to the Oral Torah; make me a proselyte on condition that you teach me the Written Torah [only]. [But] he scolded and repulsed him in anger. When he went before Hillel, he accepted him as a proselyte. On the first day, he taught him, Alef, beth, gimmel, daleth; the following day he reversed [them ] to him. ‘But yesterday you did not teach them to me thus,’ he protested. ‘Must you then not rely upon me? Then rely upon me with respect to the Oral [Torah] too.’
Orthodox Jews, also called “Rabinites,” believe that there was not only a written Torah from Mount Sinai, but also an unwritten law called the oral torah. The written Torah is called “Torah Sh’bektav” and Mitzvot d’Oraita. The oral torah is called “Torah Sh’b’alpeh” and Mitzvot d’Rabanan. It is taught that the written Torah with all of its divine instructions, colorful metaphors, and numerous stories of the good and bad deeds of the Hebrew people needed further explanation and clarification. According to the Rabbis, YHWH provided for the additional explanations through an authoritative “second revelation,” by giving Moses another set of teachings only to be passed down orally from teacher to student. In other words, it was supposed to be transmitted to future generations by word-of-mouth, and kept that way. Furthermore, it was taught by the Rabbis that without these oral teachings, the written Torah would not be complete and thus would be impossible to fully understand. However, this goes against what was understood in Nehemiah Chapter eight, where it says:
…and Ezra blessed YHWH, the great Elohim. And all the people answered, “Amen, Amen”…and the Levites, caused the people to understand the Law: and the people (stood) in their place. And they read in the book, in the Law of Elohim, distinctly; and they gave the sense (translating from Hebrew to Aramaic—the language of the people), so that they understood the reading (Nehemiah 8:6-8, abridged).
To cause the people to understand, the Levites read the written Hebrew out loud with an accompanying translation to Aramaic. Regardless, the Rabbis came to believe that we are not so skilled in understanding written Scripture in Hebrew, English, or any language. They believed that only they knew how to apply the commandments. Without the Rabbis, we would essentially have a nation of Hebrews (“Jews”) that could not properly discern the will of YHWH as passed down by Moses leading to strife and an unraveling of our national unity. Considering this a dangerous prospect, an elaborate system of teachings that the scribes and Pharisees staunchly called the halacha or simply, the oral law (also called “Mesorah,” meaning handed down traditions), was constructed. Interestingly, they called it a fence, in Hebrew—syag, in Aramaic—syaga. I will have more details on this in a later footnote, particularly as it relates to Ephesians 2:11-16.
The fence of the Rabbis was oral tradition which served to elevate the pure and “enlightened” ones, in order to keep them a safe distance from the “ignorant” and unclean masses. The oral law promoted Pharisaic authority and meant that the scribes and Pharisees (Rabbis) were the only ones who had enough training, insight, and knowledge to guide all Israel through the pitfalls of proper understanding and daily application of the written commandments. As the scribes and Pharisees understood matters, it was their belief that the common people were just not smart enough to figure out what the written Torah had to say, or if they were clever enough, there would always be the chance that people could “misinterpret,” and thus, keep the commandments in differing ways, creating discord amongst us. Imagine having too many dissenting ways of interpreting the Holy commandments! To the Rabbis, this was totally unacceptable and something that would serve to anger YHWH and tear down our national unity. Thus, a centralized Rabbinic authority was born and the supervisors of such a concept were the scribes and Pharisees. They promoted their new system as something that could bring national uniformity and religious consistency to Judaism’s religious structure. Then, it happened at about the time of Hillel and Shammai (c.30 BCE), some established rules of interpretation were placed into the hands of a select few scholars, but certainly not into the hands of the common people—the am ha’aretz (people of the land). It took a little time for the plan to get firmly accepted and entrenched into Jewish thought, but it did eventually take root in the early second century under Akiva, Judaism’s new “Chief Rabbi.” and “Father of Modern-day Rabbinics.”
Early, during the first century of this common era, while the scribes and Pharisees were building their centralized religious structure, Yeshua and Paul came along and tried to get this growing monster under control before it could destroy their outreach to the “Gentiles,” including those of the lost sheep of the house of Israel. While it was Yeshua who confronted this Goliath and its strength from Y’rushalayim, it was Paul that made as much, if not more progress in confronting it among the Roman Empire’s Gentile proselytes. I believe he was trying to protect them from the hands of his oral law kinsmen and proponants—the Pharisees of Shammai and Hillel.
Regardless of how much sway that Paul had over the minds of his converts, there also came many who were largely “pro-Pharisaic,” that it caused them to misunderstand Paul (Acts 21:17-24). Many sought to destroy him for his so-called “renegade” attitude against the Pharisaic system that he grew up under. Remember, Paul had lived according to the strict doctrines of the Pharisees as taught by his master Gamaliel I (Acts 5:34 and 22:3), who had him entrenched in the teachings of Pharisaic authority and oral tradition most of his young adult life. This is why it took a miracle from heaven itself to turn him around. However, once he was reeducated in the teachings of Yeshua and yanked out of the system that he grew up in—that of the schools of Hillel and Shammai, I believe Paul became dangerous to all those promoting their ideas and authority. Like Yeshua, he had a brilliant ability to argue forcefully from the Tanakh, saying that his opponents were not keeping the written Torah of YHWH as revealed in the first five books of the Law. Yeshua had said the same thing as recorded in Yochanan 5:44-47. The problem is that Paul simply knew too much and therefore, he had lots of enemies from among the Pharisees, men that he knew were bent on stamping him out for his impact, just like they did to Yeshua, and to Ya’acov, Yochanan, Peter, Stephen, and others.
Pharisaic authority and its oral tradition was a powerhouse doctrine that had many Jews and Gentiles tightly wound up with a noose around their neck. Not only did this affect the Jews, but it also created huge problems for the work of Yeshua’s talmidim who were working among the multitudes of goyim (i.e. “Gentiles); we will look at this in greater detail later. So, with a little bit of this background, perhaps you can see why Peter would blurt out something like this to the elders of the Jewish high court, in Acts Chapter 15:
…Now therefore why do you put Elohim to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? (Acts 15:10)
Of course, Peter was referring to the doctrines of the scribes and Pharisees, understood as enactments and decrees, works and traditions, customs and laws. Although these terms carry broad and complicated meanings in ancient Jewish law, nonetheless, it is something that you will have to become familiar with, if you want to understand the mind of Paul. Without an understanding of these things, there is no way to unlock the true meaning of Galatians.
Pharisaic Law and Customs
Let us now look at four general classifications of the Rabbinic oral law system, each of them contributing to the whole picture of what is staunchly taught against by Yeshua and Paul in the New Testament:
1. Halacha/ot (Rabbinic). A law or laws derived directly from a manipulated interpretation of Scripture (midrash) or Rabbinic logic that oftentimes uses a proprietary series of filters from one or more of the many interpretation rules built on the seven rules of Hillel.
2. Minhagim. Customs are traditions enacted as law. This is built on the axiom, “minhag Yisrael torah hi” (a custom in Israel is Torah). The line is blurred between Rabbinic halacha and minhag.
3. Takanot and Gezerot. Enactments and decrees of the Rabbis, invented out of thin air, with no Scriptural justification. Simply, new religious laws framed with the authority of the oral law; an unabashed violation of D’varim 4:2 and 12:32.
4. Ma’asim. The deeds or actions of Rabbis or sages, justifying how a tradition should be observed—the practicality of observance. The ma’asim (works) were derived from stories, incidents, and actions of Rabbis, not Scripture, making the ma’asim a source for new laws.
In this, the religious leaders of Israel taught the people of Israel to have faith only in the Rabbis, and not to have trusting faith in Yehovah, thus making the people of Israel violate the written Scripture, which says:
You shall not add to the word which I am commanding you, nor take away from it, that you may keep the commandments of YHWH your Elohim which I command you (Dt. 4:2)
Whatever I command you, you shall be careful to do; you shall not add to nor take away from it (Dt. 12:32).
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