Adonai said to Moshe, “Come up to me on the mountain, and stay there. I will give you the stone tablets with the Torah and the mitzvot I have written on them, so that you can teach them.” [Exodus 24:12 (CJB)]
A friend told of reading her Bible in a coffee shop when a stranger came up and made a disparaging comment about her belief in God and Scripture. Identifying himself as Jewish, he said he no longer believed the Bible, adding “There are just too many laws in the Torah.” Observant Jews have even more than the 613 laws found in Scripture. The words of Exodus 24:12 were construed to mean that, along with the written commands in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, God gave Moses additional explanations and examples that he was to teach. Believing these oral explanations were passed from Moses to Joshua and on down to the following generations, Deuteronomy 17:8-11 was understood to mean that, along with declaring verdicts in disputes, the priests or sages could further clarify and interpret the law.
The sages often used this oral tradition to “put a fence around the Torah” and prevent transgressions. For example, beginning at midday on the 14th day of Nissan, leaven was prohibited during Passover. If clouds covered the sun, the sages were concerned that leaven might accidentally be eaten so they extended the law by two hours. While Scripture alluded to prohibited labor on the Sabbath, such as kindling a fire or doing business, it never listed every prohibited act. In great detail, the oral tradition specified kinds of work and explicitly prohibited anything even resembling labor such as braiding hair (weaving) or applying makeup (dyeing).
The work of compiling these oral traditions began around 200 BC and continued until what’s known as the Mishnah was completed around 220 AD. Divided into six sections, it deals with agricultural laws, prayers, festivals and fasts, family life, both civil and criminal jurisprudence, and the regulations defining what is “clean” and “unclean.” Since some earlier oral material had not been included in it, rabbis continued to interpret and clarify the law and their findings were gathered into the Gemara. Around 540, the Gemara and Mishnah were collected into the Talmud. Consisting of 63 tractates (treatises) divided into 523 chapters, the Talmud represents the labor of many generations over a period of approximately 800 years. Today, the Torah consists both of the written law, Torah Shebichtav, found in the first five books of the Old Testament, and the oral law, Torah Sheba’al Peh, found in the Talmud.
While the law was God’s gift to His people and a guide to life in Israel’s new land, human traditions ended up supplanting and complicating God’s word. With all of the Torah’s rules, regulations, and interpretations, it’s easy to see why the young man became discouraged. It’s not that the Torah is bad, it’s that his religion had become more about rules and obedience than relationship and faith.