The Formation of the Oral Torah

How the Talmud came to occupy its place in the canon of authoritative Jewish texts as the "Oral Torah"

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The syntax is Indo‑European, in that we can translate the word order of the Mishnah into any Indo‑European language and come up with perfect sense. None of that crabbed imitation of biblical Hebrew, which makes the Dead Sea scrolls an embarrassment to read, characterizes the Hebrew of the Mishnah. Mishnaic style is elegant, subtle, exquisite in its sensitivity to word order and repetition, balance, pattern.

Rabbinic Solutions:  Avot, Tosefta, Talmud, Sifra

The solution to the problem of the authority of the Mishnah, that is to say, its relationship to Scripture, was worked out in the period after the closure of the Mishnah. Since no one now could credibly claim to sign the name of Ezra or Adam to a book of this kind, and since biblical Hebrew had provided no apologetic aesthetics whatever, the only options lay elsewhere. The two [solutions] were, first, to provide a myth of the origin of the contents of the Mishnah and, second, to link each allegation of the Mishnah, through processes of biblical (not Mishnaic) exegesis, to verses of the Scriptures. These two procedures, together, would establish for the Mishnah that standing which the uses to which the document was to be put demanded for it: a place in the canon of Israel, a legitimate relationship to the Torah of Moses.

There were several ways in which the work went forward. These are represented by diverse documents that succeeded and dealt with the Mishnah. Let me now state the three principal possibilities:

(1) The Mishnah required no systematic support through exegesis of Scripture in the light of Mishnaic laws.

(2) The Mishnah by itself provided no reliable information, and all of its propositions demanded linkage to Scripture, to which the Mishnah must be shown to be subordinate and secondary.

(3) The Mishnah is an autonomous document but closely correlated with Scripture.

The first extreme (1) is represented by the (Pirkei) Avot, ca. C.E. 250 (see quotation above--a later addition to the order of Nezikin of the Mishnah), which represents the authority of the sages cited in Avot as autonomous of Scripture. Those authorities in Avot do not cite verses of Scripture, but what they say does constitute a statement of the Torah. There can be no clearer way of saying that what these authorities present in and of itself falls into the classification of the Torah.

The authorship of the Tosefta (a collection of Mishnah-era materials, most of which are not included in the Mishnah itself, but many of which are parallel and include commentaries) ca. C.E. 400, takes the middle position (3, above). It very commonly cites a passage of the Mishnah and then adds to that passage an appropriate proof text. That is a quite common mode of supplementing the Mishnah.

The mediating view is further taken by the [Talmud] Yerushalmi and the Bavli, ca. C.E. 400-600.  With the Yerushalmi's authorship, that of the Bavli developed a well‑crafted theory of the Mishnah and its relationship to Scripture. Each rule of the Mishnah is commonly introduced, in the exegesis supplied by the two Talmuds, with the question, "What is the source of this statement?" And the answer invariably is, "As it is said," or ". . . written," with a verse of Scripture, that is, the written Torah, then cited.

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Jacob Neusner

Professor Jacob Neusner is the senior fellow of the Institute of Advanced Theology and a full-time professor at Bard College. He has published more than 800 books and innumerable articles. His publications range from the scholarly and academic to the popular and journalistic.