For the week ending 8 November 2014 / 15 Heshvan 5775

Accuracy of Oral Torah

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Joel

Dear Rabbi,

Since so many years elapsed between G-d’s giving the Torah at Sinai and when the Oral Torah was written down, how do we know that the Talmud is an accurate account of what G-d originally taught Moshe?

Dear Joel,

You are right that a lot of time elapsed between Sinai (c. 1300 BCE) and the writing of the Mishna (c. 200 CE) – approximately 1500 years!

Some make the argument that if in a simple game of “telephone line” where whispering a message through a group of people one-by-one eventually distorts the initial message despite its being relatively short and via only a few people, the transmission of the voluminous Oral Torah through so many people over so many years certainly distorted its accuracy.

In truth, this argument is flawed for numerous reasons. One: in the game, transmitting the message is a game. However, the Divinely-ordained mandate to transmit the Torah was no joke! Two: in the game, the message is whispered, and usually obscured by subdued laughter. As anyone who’s been in a Beit Midrash for Torah study knows, it’s hardly learned in incoherent whispers! Three: in each relay of the game, the message is intentionally kept secret from everyone else. In the transmission of the Torah, it was intentionally disseminated among as many people as possible!

But what’s more, let’s consider who the people responsible for transmitting the Oral in each generation were. These were very intelligent, far-sighted rabbis who valued the Torah more than anything else in the world. For them it was the single life-line between the Jewish People and G-d.

Such people certainly wouldn’t have waited 1500 years to commit to writing what they noticed was becoming eroded, distorted or forgotten. Any average person would take precautions to preserve even something that’s only moderately important. All the more so these wise and farseeing Sages would have written down something as precious to them as the Torah long before its integrity would have become compromised.

And that’s exactly what they did! The Oral Torah was recorded in writing not because it had been forgotten by that time, but out of the concern that, because of exile and persecution, it might be forgotten some time in the future. Therefore, as a precautionary measure in order to preclude the possibility of inaccuracy, the Talmudic sages, under the leadership of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, codified the Oral Torah in the form of the Mishna.

And as further proof that this writing down of the Oral Torah was not because of its having been forgotten: If that were the case, they would have written down as much as possible of what remained at that time. Yet we find the exact opposite! The Mishna is merely a skeletal collection of pithy, terse teachings whose wording is so economical that it takes pages upon pages of Gemara to clarify the dense meaning compacted into only one short Mishna. People who were recording this vast amount of oral knowledge because of its having been significantly eroded would never have written the Mishna as they did. Rather, the intention was just to provide an overall, authoritative structure within which this voluminous amount of material could continue to be discussed orally by memory.

The same dynamic applies to the Gemara, written several centuries after the Mishna. The Sages did not wait until the remaining Oral Torah had been significantly distorted or forgotten before writing it down. Rather, on the contrary, they wrote it down at a time when they still considered it to be accurate, in order to preserve that accuracy throughout the generations of exile to come.

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