The Development of the Transmission of the Oral Law
Original Translation from “ / שלחן ערוךShul’han Aruj de Rabbi Yosef Caro”
“Recopilacion de las leyes practicas y sus comentarios hasta los Sabios contemporaneos segun la tradicion Sefardi”
by Rabbi Abraham M. Hassan
Pages 9-20, Printed for “Fundacion Hesde Lea”, Copyright (1989 ?), Spain
Translation by Shmuel Gonzales, 2012 – In use for education purposes only in keeping with Fair-Use Policy; please support this work by purchasing to enable its propagation and future endeavors.
All the ordinances received by Moses (Mosheh Rabbeinu), at Sinai were transmitted by G-d explicitly, as it is written: “I will give you the tablets of stone, and the laws and commandments.” (Exodus 24:12)
The Torah is the Written Law; and the order of the explanation which Moses received from G-d, that was called the Oral Torah – Torah Shebeal Pe – which conforms to the Torah so that it can be applied.
At the end of his life, Moses personally wrote all the Torah and gave an example of the Sefer Torah [the Torah scroll] to each one of the Tribes of Israel. Another Sefer Torah was kept in the holy Ark – Aron HaKodesh – were it was also kept as a testimony for all generations with the Tablets of the Law received by Moses at Mount Sinai, as we read “Take this Sefer Torah and place it in the Ark of the Covenant of the L rd your G d, so that it can serve as a witness” (Deut. 31:26)
In regard to the Oral Law, that was not written by Moses, but was still verbally taught to the Elders of his generation (the 70 Elders that comprised his Beit Din [court]), which in tern taught the people. Then Moses entrusted the transmission of the complete Oral Law to his chief disciple Yehoshuah Ben Nun “All the words that I have commanded you shall observe exactly, without taking away or adding anything.” (Deut. 13:1) Yehoshuah Ben Nun intern confided the transmission to Pinchas and the Elders (Zekenim), during the age of the Judges that succeeded him. And it was transmitted from master to disciple until [the time] of the Prophet Samuel The generations of prophets that succeeded the Prophet Samuel. Samuel continued on as trustees of the Torah. The last among them transmitted it to Ezra HaSofer [Ezra the Scribe]. He instituted an assembly of 120 Elders called the Keneset HaGedola [the Great Assembly], that later was replaced by a similar institution, The Sanheidrin. The finial Elder of the great assembly was Shimon HaTzadik [Simon the Just].
The Sanhedrin served the functions of educating and possessed judicial authority; it was comprised of 71 members, and had a seat in a section of the Temple called Lishkat haGazit (see Parshat Shoftim (2011): “The House of Hewn Stone: The Roots of the Sanhedrin”) The Oral Law was transmitted from master to disciple during six generations, from Shimon haTzadki until Hillel and Shammai When the second Temple and Jerusalem was destroyed Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai disciple of Hillel, took it upon himself to found a rabbinic institute in Yavneh, to perpetuate the teaching of the Law. It continued in this fashion of transmission for six generations until [the time of] Rabbi Yehuda haNasi, called Rabeinu haKodesh [Our Holy Teacher, and Rabbi].
The Elders that succeeded from Shimon haTzadik until Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi were called Tanaim. During the course of the age from that extended from Moshe Rabbeinu until the Oral Torah was not written definitively. But in each generation the president of the Beit Din or the Prophet of that age had a record written of the teachings of his teachers that was transmitted to the public verbally, that comprised the oral tradition of received by Moses, and as new laws that the great Elders were able to deduce from the “Thirteen Principals of Interpretation” (Shelosh Esrei Midot) of the Torah, introduced to the tradition after approval of the supervising Beit Din.
Rabbi Yehuda haNasi took an important role in securing the transmission of the Law. In fear that this system of oral teaching of the Torah could be be forgotten over the course of the generations as a result of persecution that the people were subjected, by their exile and the declining stature of disciples. As a result, he complied a compendium of principals received from the oral teachings of those that preceded, and constructed a written code, The Mishna thus transmitted this way for all Israel. Mishna,
The disciples of Rabbi Yehuda haNasi completed his work: Rav composed the Safra and the Sifri to state and explain the principals of the Mishna. Rabbi Hiya composed the Sifri, Tosefta, Tosefta a compendium of all the laws that Rabbi Yehuda haNasi, for the sake of being concise, did not introduce in the Mishna. Rabbi Oshaya and Bar Kapara composed the Braitot, a compendium of all the books written after the Mishna as commentary.
During the course of the ages of the Tanaim the population of Eretz Yisrael [the Land of Israel] were violently persecuted during the invasion [of the Romans], and a greater part of the people immigrated to Babylon. Great rabbinic schools were founded there and the Mishna was explained and taught to the people. The most celebrated academies of the time period were those of Punbedita Sura and Nehardea that for hundreds of years Punbedita, Nehardea, propagated the Law among all Israel.
The Elders that explained the Mishna were called Amoraim, (plural for Amora). Rav, the head of the yeshiva of Sura, and Shemuel the head of the yeshiva of Pumbedita were the primary Amoraim.
In the academies each law of the Mishna was discussed. There arose variances of opinions, followed by many discussions, supported by verses of the Law or Braitot. The concise laws of the Mishna were detailed and explained in the most minute details to allow the forming of halachic (legal) decisions.
In parallel, the Mishna was explained by the academies of Eretz Yisrael, where the most prominent Amora was Rabbi Yohanan.
Finally to preserve all the details of these fruitful discussions for future generations to come, Rav Ashe of the academy of Sura, six generations after Rav, undertook jointly with the cooperation of Ravina the prodigious work of redacting all the commentary concerning Ravina, the Mishna. This work called the Gemara was completed 300 years after the the redaction of the Mishna.
In Eretz Yisrael, this work was taken on by Rabbi Yohanan and completed 150 years after the redaction of the Mishna.
The combination of the laws of the Mishna with their commentary of the Gemara is called the Talmud The Babylonian Talmud is called the Talmud Bavli and that of Eretz Yisrael is called Talmud Yerushalmi. Of these two works the Talmud Bavli is the more important, Yerushalmi. because it was completed after the Yerushalmi and consequently contains the greatest part of these teachings in the end.
The teachings of the Gemara can be summarized as follows:
Explanations of the Mishna, development of the controversies and analysis of the different argumentation that leads one to grasp the subject; the development of the teachings after the redaction of the Mishna until the end of the completion of the Talmud.
Application of the Halacha [the way one should follow[, obtained from various opinions stated in accordance with the correct explanation of the Mishna, or new laws gained by deduction from the Thirteen Principals of Interpretation of the Torah.
Explanation of the laws introduced en each generation by the Prophets or the Elders to establish a “fence,” a “protection” around the laws of the Torah, in order to avoid profaning them; this is in accordance with instructions: “And make a fence for the Torah” [Avot 1:1, commentary on Lev. 18:30, “keep my charge,” the word charge is ” meaning fence or post]. The Gemara likewise gives all the rabbinic rulings laid down according to the exegesis of each age by the Beit Din of the corresponding period. The Torah gives authority of law to these rulings, in accordance with the verse: “According to the laws that they shall teach you, and according to the judgment that they shall tell you, you shall do; do not turn away from their rulings, neither to the right nor to the left” (Deut. 17:11)
Moral norms, instructive examples, and Jewish thought, etc.
This is a table of the primary Prophets and Elders who were the intermediaries of the Oral Law of the Torah, that was transmitted from generation to generation from Moses to the Talmud:
Transmission of Oral Law
Moses (Mosheh Rabbenu)
Pinchas (and the Elders)
Baruch Ben Neriya
Ezra, [the Scribe] whose court consisted of the Elders, the Great Assembly “Anshe Knesset HaGedolah”
Shimon haTzadik [Simon the Just], the final Elder of the Great Assembly
Antignos Yose Ben Yozer
Yosef Ben Yohanan
Yehoshua Ben Perahia and Nitai Ha’arbeli
Yehoshua Ben Tabah and Shimon
Ben Shatah Shemaya and Avtalion
Shamai and Hillel
Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai
Rabbi Eliezar HaGadol
Rabbi Yishmael, Rabbi Mier, and Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai
Raban Gamliel HaZaquen
Raban Shimon, the son
Raban Yehuda haNasi
Rabbi Yochannan, Rav, Sh’muel
Rav Ashe, redactor of Talmud
With the closure of the Talmud, the teachings were shared with all Israel; one may not aggrandize themselves nor subject no one under him. The work of the wise is therefore to give explanations and clarification from the Talmud.
The Talmud has laid out the way in order to arrive at the Halacha, in case of divergence of opinions. It is this way. in the controversies between Beit Hillel and Beit Shamai the Halacha was generally set according to Beit Hillel. And for those between Rabbi Eliezar and Rabbi Yehoshua, the Halacha is according to Rabbi Yehoshua. Between Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Akiva, it was established according to Rabbi Akiva. Between the Amoraim [of] Abaya and Rava, with the exception of six instances, the Halacha follows the opinion of Rava, etc.
In numerous cases however, the Halacha was not decided [finalized, definitive]. Likewise, because of the resulting variances of opinion between the Talmud Bavli and the Yerushalmi, there are different variations. The Saboraim, the Elders that pertained to the generation that followed the closure of the Talmud offered new explanations and clarifications. The Geonim succeeded them in the following period of 450 years.
The Geonim, the distinguished teachers of the yeshiva in Babylon, represented the dominant spiritual authority. They were the ones that were designated to receive clarification, particularly relating to concerns of new problems relating to Halacha that arose in each period. The answers given by the Geonim, with their explanations and decisions, formed extensive bodies of literature called “Teshuvot haGeonim,” which were their responsas (more specially Geonica) which until our days still constitute the basis for comprehension of the Talmud.
As these responsas were redacted in an academic style, it was only accessible to those who were trained in Talmudic teaching. But as a result of the persecution and instability that reigned, the quality of study decreased the comprehension of the Talmud and that of the responsas of the Geonim became only understood by a minority. Certain great teachers consequently sensed that there was a need to provide the public the decisions (Pesak) of the Talmud and the Geonim in a codified form of law. These master legislators were called the Poskim and their works were received with great interest from the public.
The first great Posek was Rabbi Yitzhak Alfasi (The Rif) who redacted a summary of the Talmud (which was written in Aramaic), divided according to topic, in which it withheld the debate in order to only present the deciding Halacha. The laws concerning the age of the Temple were likewise withheld. This masterpiece was the starting point and foundation of all the literature of the Poskim.
The Rambam (Maimonides the disciple of the Rif, composed his infamous code of law, the Mishneh Torah a compendium of all the laws contained in the Talmud and in the Torah, explanations of the Geonim, that was majestically constructed as artistically as [the work] of an architect. The Oral Law was divided into categories for the given themes, with all the laws relating to it and was preceded by fundamental explanations, systematically expressing with clarity and linguistic simplicity, carefully weighing each expression , as a single word can add or detract from the meaning; for virtually the entire Mishna. This work was divided into 14 parts, which is why it is called “Yad haHazaka (“the strong hand,” “yad” meaning hand has the numeric value of 14). The objective of the Rambam, specified in his introduction, was to place the knowledge of all the Oral Law within reach of the people, and not only a minority.
The Continued Development of the Halacha
The Geonim, succeeded the Rishonim [who were] distinguished teachers. Their era began Rishonim, with Rabbi Yitzhak Alfasi (the Rif 1013-1103), the first great posek, and continued until Rabbi Yosef Caro the author of the “Shulchan Aruch.” The teachers who successively came after, until our era were called Aharonim.
In addition, there were many wise men who took on the work of explaining the Talmud in systematic form of writing. Among the Rishonim there is:
The great classic great Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki (known by the name Rashi 1040-1105) who is merited with making the Talmud clear and accessible by his explanation; which explains why it is the commentary par excellence of the Talmud.
The Baalei Tosafot the rabbinic authorities that complimented the the explanation Tosafot, of Rashi, delving deeply into them. This is why each page of the Talmud is accompanied by the commentary of Rashi and Tosafot. Ramban,
Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman (the Ramban, Nachmonadies; 1195-1270).
Rabbi Shlomo Ben Aderet (the Rashba, 1245-1310)
Rabbi Menachem Ben Shlomo (haMeiri, 1249-1315).
Rabbi Nissim Guerundi (the Ran, 1305-1360).
Furthermore, certain geniuses who specialized in the work of explaining the Written Law which was contained in the Oral Law, through studying the 613 mitzvot; such as Rabbi Moshe Ben Yaakov de Kutsi (haSemag), one of the baalei tosafot.
The Continued Codification of the Halacha
After the Rif and the Rambam, Rabbi Asher Ben Yechiel (the Rosh 1230-1328) the disciple of the last baalei tosafot, became the third great posek, who authored a code of laws redacted in Hebrew and similar to the Rif.
Rabbi Yaakov Ben Asher (the Baal haTurim 1270-1343), was the son of the Rosh and based on the work of his father composed a classified collection by theme, called the “Arba’a haTurim” in four parts (Turim).
Orach Hayim: rules relating to the prayers and blessings, Shabbat Hayim: and Festivals, etc.
Tur Yore De’ah: Laws of Kashrut De’ah:
Tur Even haEzer: laws of marriage haEzer:
Tur Hoshen Mishpat, (the Maran, our master; 1488 1575): who was among the Spanish exiles, and was the author of “Beit Yosef” an important commentary on “Arba’a Beit Yosef,” and was the foundation for the infamous code of law [called] the “Shulchan Aruch (which adopted the the structural divisions of the Arba’a Shulchan Aruch” Turim):
The “Shulchan Aruch” is the definitive collection of Jewish laws that govern the conduct of the people of Israel. To determine the Halacha, Rabbi Yosef Caro based it upon the three fundamental works of his predecessors; Rif, Rambam and Rosh. In instances where the decisions of the three poskim disagreed, it went according to the consensus which is the opinion shared by the Sephardi; which in general is that of the Rif and Rambam.
Rabbi Moshe Isserlis (the Rema 1525-1573) of Poland, complimenting the Shulchan Aruch with an appendix that bears his name, Rema. And in certain instances where certain laws that Rabbi Yosef Caro had not been included, other opinions stated by the Ashkenezi teachers that were different from the Maran were cited, as well as the customs of the Ashkenaz.
Rabbi Mordechai Yaffe (1530-1612), disciple of Rabbi Moshe Issereles, composed a code of law called “Lebush in a simple, clear and comprehensible form based upon the “Arba’a Turim”
Based upon the teachings of the Geonim and the Rishonim who are irrefutable authorities, the Aharoni teachers continued on bound by precise principals and developmental methods. The Oral Law, of Divine origin, is applicable to all times; as are the responses of the Aharonim, dealing with the problems that present themselves in each period. In our days great geniuses continue to reveal the way to continue to apply the Oral Law in all its detail.
The “Shulchan Aruch” which is complimented by the Rema has been amply explained and commented upon by the greatest poskim of latter days. Among the most important we can cite:
Rabbi Yehoshua Falk haCohen (the Sama, who died in 1614); the author of the commentary “Sefer Mierat Enei’im” based upon Hosen Mishpat. Enei’im” Sefer
Rabbi David haLevi (the Taz, 1589-1667) author of “Turei Zahav” based on Yoreh De’ah, and “Magen David” based on Orach Hayim
Rabbi Eliyahu, the Gaon of Vilna (haGra, 1720-1789), author of the commentary that bares his name, based completely upon the Shulchan Aruch
Rabbi Hayim Yosef David Azulai (the Chidah, 1724-1806), author of “Birkei Yosef Chidah, Birkei Yosef”
Rabbi Yisrael Mier haCohen (Chafetz Chayim, 1835-1934) author of the “Mishna Berurah,” recognized as the greatest explanation that exists in our days of the sections of Orach Hayim of the Shulchan Aruch and has been turned out to be the most popular book of the Halacha.
Furthermore, certain teachers composed more later works of Halacha based on the four parts of the Shulchan Aruch or certain parts of it. We can cite:
Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (the Baal haTanya, 1748-1830), author of The Tanya, “Shulchan Aruch haRav,” which notes the customs of the Chassidim.
Rabbi Abraham Danzig of Vilna (1748-1821), authored the book “Chayei Adam” which deals with the laws relating to the section of Orach Hayim, and the book “Chochmat Adam” based upon the section Yoreh De’ah.
Rabbi Shlomo Gantzfrid of Hungary (1804-1886), author of “Kitzur Shulchan Aruch” (an abbreviated Shulchan Aruch), a very popular guide to the Halacha.
Rabbi Yechiel haLevi Epstein (1829-1908), author of the work [called] “Aruch haShulchan,” which details all the laws with their source in Talmud.
Rabbi Yosef Hayim of Bagdad (1834-1909), author of the “Ben Ish Chai”
The “Shulchan Aruch” with its ample explanations, its commentaries, and its different forms of presentation we have displayed all the details necessary for the practicing of Judaism. It is not a human code, but instead is the expression of the will of the Creator, transmitted throughout the Oral Law by Mosheh Rabbeinu, by means of an unbroken chain; the Prophets, the Elders, the Tanaim, the Amaraim, the Geonim, the Rishonim, and the Aharomim; who [through] divine inspiration successfully conserved this treasure in all its purity and its authenticity, while at the same time they scrutinized, clarified, and developed it so that it could be accessible for each and every one of us.
- Parshat Shoftim (2011) (hardcoremesorah.wordpress.com)