The Oral Law

What was the Oral Law in Judaism?

With the overthrow of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 Judaism ceased to be an independent political state and became exclusively a religious community. With the ending of the temple sacrifices came the decline of the priesthood and the rise of the rabbinate. The study of the law took the place of offerings, and the teacher replaced the priest. As the teachers sought to interpret the law, they codified the traditions which had grown up around it and ultimately reduced them to writing. The Pharisees looked upon these traditions as contemporary with the written law and equally as binding, while the Sadducees renounced them entirely.

Undoubtedly there were ethical standards observed among the Hebrew people prior to the giving of the law at Sinai. Certain attitudes and observances were connected with the lives of Noah and of Abraham as recorded in Genesis, and there could hardly have been the keeping of unity during the bondage in Egypt had there not been some stable form of morals and of worship to hold the people together. Whether these traditions were actually transmitted through the many stages of Israel's history to the first and second centuries A.D. is uncertain. One thing is certain - the mass of tradition contained in the Talmud includes much that is older than the writing of the book itself. The existence of the oral law in New Testament times is attested by the references which Christ made to "the tradition of the elders" (Mark 7:3).

The collection of these traditions with the comments upon them by early rabbis constitute the Talmud. The name is derived from the verb "lammid" which means "to teach."