Part Five: What Jews Who Know Authentic Judaism Believe: The Oral Law and Written Law
(For Ellen of blessed memory.)
This is a ten-part series of online articles that, with G-d’s help, I hope to transform into a larger book. It is prompted and inspired by questions I have been asked over the past half century by my readers and particularly these past five years by non-Jewish political conservatives of Christian background who often love Jews but cannot figure us out. Because most online opinion articles range between 600-3,000 words, this subject cannot be treated properly and completely in one single article or even in a limited series. However, this series marks an ambitious effort to address a perplexing question, one that perplexes America’s one million Orthodox Jews more than it does even non-Jewish conservative Christians.
The purpose of this series is to inform readers authentically as to what Jews believe, to demystify. For those who live by other monotheistic faiths, may you be blessed in your pursuit of justice, kindness, morality, and ethics as you serve the One True Creator according to your understanding and belief. As explained in greater detail in Part 4, Judaism does not permit Jews to proselytize others.
Previous installments in this series can be found at these links:
Part One: The Basic Definitions of Jews and Non-Orthodox Jewish Denominations — can be found here.
Part Two: The Orthodox — can be found here.
Part Three: The Ethnicities — can be found here.
Part Four: Non-Jews — can be found here.
7. What Jews Who Know Authentic Judaism Believe: The Oral Law and Written Law
Judaism is a faith system that also is rooted in the practice of certain Divinely commanded laws and rituals. Jewish tradition teaches that G-d ordained 613 laws commanded in the Torah (“mitzvot” or “mitzvas”). Many additional practices, rituals, and customs deriving from them and from subsequent history further have been integrated into daily Jewish living under the system of Mesorah (authoritative rabbinic tradition).
The Tanakh (pronounced “tuh-nakh’” and called the “Old Testament” by Christians) is comprised of 24 books. The first five (Genesis or “B’reishit,” Exodus or “Sh’mot,” Leviticus or “Vayikra,” Numbers or “Bamidbar” or “B’midbar,” and Deuteronomy or “D’varim”) in the aggregate are called the Torah (sometimes also called the “Chumash,” the “Pentateuch” or “The Five Books of Moses”). Authentic Judaism believes that every word — even every single Hebrew letter, even every vowel — in those five books was dictated literally by G-d to Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses our Teacher) while the Jews wandered nearly forty years in the Sinai Desert, and that Moshe dutifully took dictation, recording it all on parchment for posterity. This text is known as “Torah sheh-bikhtav,” or the “Written Law.” It includes narrative describing the world’s creation in six time units that may have been 24-hour days or much longer time units (since the sun and moon were not even incorporated into our earth until the fourth time unit), the binary creation of humans as man and woman, Noah and the Great Flood, the rise of the Patriarchs Avraham (Abraham), Yitzchak (Isaac), and Ya’akov (Jacob) and their wives, the Matriarchs Sarah, Rivkah (Rebecca), Leah, and Rachel — and their core values as reflected in the lives they and their children lived and the challenges they encountered, the descent of their family to Egypt, the 210 years of Egyptian bondage, the Exodus from slavery, the creation of a Torah nation at Mount Sinai amid the Divine Revelation and the Ten Pronouncements (called the “Ten Commandments” by Christians), the nearly forty years of peregrinating through the Sinai Desert, sins and virtues, rewards and punishment, and the 613 laws (mitzvot).
In Jewish tradition, it is believed that Moshe penned the dictation either all towards the end of his life at one major extended sitting or that portions of the Written Torah were dictated to him by G-d at different periods of time after certain historical episodes unfolded. However, it is agreed by all that narrative aspects of forthcoming Torah events were not revealed to Moshe at Mount Sinai because, for example, otherwise he would not have selected the spies he did (Numbers 13:4, 5, 7, 9-15) nor would he have handled the matter at Mei Merivah (Numbers 20:9-13) as he did. Likewise, there are two alternate understandings as to how the Torah’s final eight verses were recorded recounting Moshe’s passing on Mount Nebo: either G-d dictated those words to Moshe who wrote them amid tears — or they were dictated by G-d to Joshua, who succeeded Moshe and led the Jews into Israel, crossing the Jordan River with the nation into Samaria and Judea.
While Christians see the Torah as part of an “Old” Testament, whose commandments no longer are fully to be practiced although Christian practice still ascribes great weight to the “Ten Commandments” and to such Torah laws as those regarding homosexuality and the sanctity of human life, Jews see Torah laws as eternal and the Torah as the only Testament from G-d. Thus, for example, observant Jews follow kosher laws faithfully, avoiding seafood or any fish that lack proper fins and scales, eating only ruminants (mammals with split hooves that chew their cud), and eating only fowl that are not listed in Leviticus and Deuteronomy as forbidden. The Jewish day begins at night because the Torah’s first chapter describes each unit of time during Creation as having begun in the evening; therefore, Shabbat (Sabbath) starts Friday evening at sunset and ends Saturday at nightfall. Since one cannot divine the exact moment during twilight when night precisely begins, Shabbat starts when the sun sets (to assure we do not begin too late) and ends at the time when three normal-sized stars would be discernible in the Saturday night sky (to assure we do not end the Sabbath observance too early). Although precise sunset times nowadays can be found in many navigational quarters and websites, most Jewish congregations publish annual calendars that list the weekly Friday night candle-lighting times when Shabbat begins.
In married households, the wife lights at least two candles (some light as many candles as there are household members) to begin the Shabbat observance (not “observation”). Some ascribe the custom of two candles to mirroring the two verbs by which G-d commanded the Shabbat: “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy” (Ex. 20:7) and “Observe the Sabbath Day to keep it holy” (Deut. 5:11). Through the next 25 hours, 39 forms of activity (inaccurately called “work”) are forbidden, and the family instead “rest” as G-d did after creating the world in six units of time. A special extended meal is eaten on Friday night and another on Saturday lunch and a third later in the day. The first two meals begin with a religious recital over a cup of wine (or grape juice for those who cannot imbibe alcohol) that declares the day sacred to G-d and the Jews, and the family and guests then ritually wash their hands and break bread: two complete bread items (can be rolls, challah, pita, bagels, matzo, or whatever unsliced bread item). The two breads remind that G-d fed the Jews forty years in the Sinai Desert with a daily morning downpour of mahn (manna) from Heaven, sufficient to last and nourish for 24 hours before turning to worms, except on Fridays when He rained down a double portion of mahn— which uniquely had twice the “shelf life” of every other day’s mahn — so that no one would need to gather food on the Sabbath Day. Exodus 16:4-25.
On the surface, the Sabbath would seem to be a dismal time — no computers, no social media, no telephones, no driving, no commerce, no TV or internet viewing, no shopping, “no nothing” it seems. Paradoxically, for those who live the authentic Judaic experience, Shabbat is the most yearned-for and anticipated time of week. With all the usual daily grind off limits — and food grinding is one of the day’s 39 forbidden practices — the day becomes a time for family to eat long meals together, to catch up on the past week and its joys and challenges, for parents and kids to interchange and study together afterwards or read or play family board games, for adults to share long meals at home with invited guests and neighborhood friends, and even for travelers to visit and sleep over because they need a place to camp out amid their journey that must take a hiatus on Shabbat. Interestingly, as American culture has evolved to a nation of people texting all day and devoting their time to posting on Instagram, the continued Orthodox devotion to the ways of Shabbat have resulted in a unique community that still finds delight (“oneg”) in spending unhurried quiet long meals together amid in a day of reading, conversing, taking a nature walk, studying some Torah, worshipping, and playing board games. Many manufacturers of classic board games have taken notice and now produce a “Jewish” edition, too, because they recognize that market still dotes on them once weekly.
Shabbat practices and the kosher diet are the defining practices of Judaism, as are marital rules that govern husband-wife fidelity and relations. In all, as stated earlier, there are 613 core commandments (mitzvot or mitzvas), many of them now impossible to observe because the Romans destroyed the Second Holy Temple (Beit Hamikdash) in Jerusalem. Until the Messiah comes and the Temple is rebuilt on Mount Zion (the source of the term “Zionism”), also called Mount Moriah or the Temple Mount, Jews worship three times daily in time windows that parallel when the daily Temple sacrifices were offered. Many other Temple-related laws remain suspended. Christians relate the impossibility of Temple practice with the appearance of Jesus and his crucifixion by Rome, presenting an alternative route to eternal salvation in the absence of Temple offerings. Jewish mesorah (authoritative rabbinic tradition) and law perceive that roads to salvation default to other alternatives when there is no Temple in place, as was the situation through the centuries before King Solomon completed (I Kings 6) his father David’s work (I Chronicles 22) in building the First Beit Hamikdash (Temple) and as happened again during the seventy years between the Babylonian Exile and the Temple’s rebuilding. II Kings 25; Ezra 6.
Beyond the Five Books of Moses — the Torah or Chumash — the Tanakh’s other 19 books include historic and religious narratives recounting the periods from when Joshua led the Jews into Samaria and Judea, to the era of the Judges (people like Deborah, Gideon, and Samson), the Prophet Samuel, the Kings (like Saul, David, and Solomon), the civil war that divided the Jews into two sometimes competing and sometimes cooperating countries (“Israel” or the “Northern Kingdom,” with its capital in Samaria or “Shomron” — and “Judea” or “Yehudah” with its capital in Jerusalem), later prophets and the kings with whom they interfaced (e.g., Yeshaya or “Isaiah” and King Chizkiya or “Hezekiah”; Eliyahu or “Elijah” and King Achav and Queen Izevel or “Ahab” and “Jezebel”), other prophetic narratives (like those of Yirmiya or “Jeremiah,” Y’chezkel or “Ezekiel,” Yonah or “Jonah,” and others), and additional historical narratives (like the books of Ruth, Daniel, Ezra, and Esther) and scriptural writings and poetry like Tehillim (the Psalms of David), Shir haShirim (Solomon’s Song of Songs), Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), and Mishlei (Proverbs). Whereas Jews believe that every single word and even letter in the Torah’s five books was Divinely dictated and then faithfully inscribed by Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses our Teacher), we believe that the authors of the Tanakh’s other 19 volumes spoke and wrote their religiously sanctioned words of their own volition and framing while guided spiritually under Divine inspiration.
And yet all the above has not yet included the very core of Judaism: the Oral Law (“Torah sheh-b’al peh”).
Jews who understand the architecture of authentic Judaism believe Moshe alighted Mount Sinai at the time that G-d Divinely revealed Himself to the assembled nation of some three million people and directly Divinely communicated the first two of the Ten Pronouncements (called the “Ten Commandments” by Christians) to all those assembled, Exodus 19-21. Moshe communicated the remaining eight. (Note the shift in the Decalogue’s text from First Person to Third Person.) Moshe then remained on Mount Chorev (“Horeb,” also called “Mount Sinai”) for forty days and nights, neither sleeping nor eating nor drinking, engaged in 960 hours of learning Judaism orally directly from G-d. Exodus 24:16-18. During those nearly thousand hours, all of Judaism — its totality, far exceeding what is found in the Pentateuch or Five Books of Moses — was taught to Moshe, and it then devolved on him to teach it all orally to the nation awaiting his return. Over the next nearly 40 years, he taught this Oral Law to the nation. After Moshe passed, Joshua his faithful servant bore the responsibility for its preservation and transmission to the next generation. Joshua’s role passed to the Elders after he died, and then to the Prophets after their era, and then to the Men of the Great Assembly. Pirkei Avot 1.
For approximately a thousand years the Oral Law remained and was transmitted by word of mouth only. Just as all people initially learn a great deal orally from their parents before they acquire writing and reading skills, while many less literate societies rely almost solely on oral transmission by griots for imparting values and preserving history over centuries, Judaism’s dominant core was preserved and transmitted orally, with the “Written Law” — the Torah — serving as a sort-of “Cliff Notes” or summary outline of Judaism. As but one example, the Written Law details the mammals, fowl, and sea life that kosher dietary law permits and forbids. Lev. 11; Deut. 14:3-21. However, kashrut (kosher rules) entails so very much more than that. The permitted mammals and fowl must be slaughtered under a humane process called “sh’chitah,” and there are five basic requirements that apply to the knife and slaughtering. For example, the knife must be free of any nicks, the slicing must be done in one continued motion with no pause, and the incision must be done by the knife’s blade and not by pressing down with force. The incision must be directed to sever both the esophagus (“food pipe”) and the trachea (“wind pipe”) simultaneously.
If the slaughtered animal is a ruminant, its lungs must be checked after slaughter for internal adhesions to assure that the animal never sustained an internal piercing or tearing (treifah) during its lifetime, not even from twigs or other sharp items in the grass it may once have ingested inadvertently. Certain of the animal’s sinews, veins, and fats (caul fat and suet) must be removed. See also Gen. 32:33. Note from all this that Jews not only are limited by the Written Law as to which animals are permitted (such as cows, sheep, goats, deer, chicken, turkeys, ducks, and geese) but may not eat any that die of natural causes (n’veilah), are killed by hunting, or are pierced by traps. The animal must have been slaughtered by sh’chitah.
Most kosher meat therefore tends to be beef and lamb. Cows and sheep are more susceptible to sh’chitah. Deer (venison) can be kosher, but we may not trap or shoot the animal, so good luck on that one. Bison, part of the cow family, is kosher but in shorter supply. Giraffe can be kosher — how could any shochet (slaughterer) miss the esophagus and trachea? — but, upon post-shechita inspection, their lungs often are found to have been pierced earlier in life, and then the cost of a $25,000-$30,000 animal has been wasted.
With the slaughter and inspection completed, next comes the “kashering” or koshering process: All evident blood must be washed off within 72 hours so that it does not coagulate permanently, and no continuous 72 hours may pass afterwards without a re-washing to continue preventing any remaining blood from coagulating irreversibly. The meat then must be thoroughly soaked for at least half an hour but not so long as 24 hours. The soaked meat next is layered with “koshering salt” (crystals larger than the table salt commonly used for seasoning because regular table salt simply would be absorbed, but crystals smaller than the larger salt chips used by cities to melt snow and road ice because those would slide off the meat without drawing out the blood), and the salt must remain layered on the moistened meat for at least an hour to draw out blood still inside the meat. All this must be done on a “koshering board” with holes that will allow the drawn-out blood to drain away. The meat then is rinsed of its salt and remaining residue three times.
The above description is a very bare-bones (intended) description of the kashering process, not to be relied upon by the novice as though an authoritative complete guide. Until half a century ago, Jewish mothers had to kosher at home all their purchased meat when they got back from shopping at the kosher butcher. The role of the kosher butcher was to assure that all meat being sold was of permitted species, had been slaughtered properly and checked internally after proper sh’chitah, had not gone more than 72 hours at any time from the moment of slaughter without a basic soaking to prevent permanent blood coagulation, had all forbidden fats and other prohibited parts excised from the final sold product, and had not been contaminated by non-kosher admixtures during transport from the slaughter houses to the butcher store. For obvious logistical reasons, the only meat the butcher himself was compelled to kasher in advance of sale was chopped meat before he chopped it.
Thankfully, as Irving Berlin once wrote, G-d bless America. Eventually, entrepreneurial American kosher butchers saw that Americans crave — and pay for — convenience, so some kosher butchers undertook to get a leg up (intended) on the competition by offering full-service koshering in advance — done by them at their store — so the consumer would not have to kasher the meat at home. Once some offered the service, all the other butchers had to follow suit to remain commercially viable, and today most kosher consumers never have seen a home-based soaking-and-salting, although many recall watching their Bubbies (grandmothers) doing so as late as the 1950’s and 1960’s.
The above does not conclude the kosher discussion. There is more. Fundamentally, meat may not be eaten with dairy. Therefore, a classic home kosher kitchen typically includes:
When a moving company arrives to move an Orthodox Jewish family to their new home, the movers comment that they feel like they are moving a restaurant. Then the family reminds them that, in the garage or cellar, they will find an almost-complete replica of the above kitchen equipment that remains in storage 51 weeks annually, to be used exclusively during Passover Week, when we pull that all inside and move out the “chametz” (the above non-Passover kitchen items). Don’t ask.
Oh, and all above items (with rare exceptions) that are made of metal or glass must, before being used for the first time, be immersed in a mikveh (ritual pool) or in a natural body of water like a lake or an ocean. Numbers 31:21-23. So if you see a young couple at your local beach ostensibly dipping the contents of the local “Bed Bath & Beyond” into the waves, now you know.
That is a kosher home kitchen. Reform Jews don’t bother. There are non-Orthodox “Conservative Jews” (with a denominational capital “c”) who tell me that, although they eat in non-kosher restaurants, their home kitchen is strictly kosher. I tell them: “Good, so your kitchen will repose in Paradise and have a place of reward in the World to Come.”)
Not only do the kosher requirements prohibit mixing milk and meat (so no cheeseburgers), but anyone who eats meat may not eat or drink any product containing dairy (even if only whey or casein in the list of ingredients) for the following six hours (if Ashkenazic, descended from East European paternal lineage) or three hours (if descended from German Jewish paternal lineage) or one hour (if from Holland). Sephardim typically wait six hours. Some outliers among Ashkenazim wait “into the sixth hour.” But all agree that, after meat, No Whey!
Beyond all the above laws, there are additional special rules governing consuming milk (“cholov Yisroel”), bread (“paht Yisroel,” “paht Akum,” and “paht palter”), products derived from the juice squeezed from grapes (“stahm yaynahm,” “yayin m’vushal”), and hard cheeses (“g’vinat Yisroel”).
All the above are core principles of kosher eating, and almost none of it appears in the Torah, the “Written Law.” Rather, it all stems from the “Oral Law” that we believe Moshe learned directly orally from G-d for 960 hours atop Mount Sinai and then transmitted to the Jews for the generations to come. And thus it is for virtually every other area of Written Law: the Torah’s instructions barely offer a most concise outline to what Judaism actually entails under the fuller Oral Law that remained unwritten for a thousand years but that comprises the core of Judaism to this day.
Now you know about Judaism, the Written Law, and the Oral Law. Part Six of this ten-part series will take this demystification to its conclusion as a fuller discussion is offered about the Talmud, the Codes, and the following centuries to this day of the authoritative rabbinic responsa that help comprise the mesorah (tradition).