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Why Do Rabbis Just "Make Stuff Up?"

Why Do Rabbis Just “Make Stuff Up?”


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Dear Jew in the City,

Can you explain how the basic Biblical commandments re: such subjects as the kosher laws have been vastly elaborated and expanded on by post-Biblical rabbis? For example, the kosher laws as spelled out in the Bible (in which God simply says “don’t eat this”) have morphed into a mammothly elaborate set of laws requiring separate sinks, dishes, etc. Since God didn’t order this in the Bible, the only explanation can be that Orthodox Jewish believers accept as just as definitive as God’s word the teachings of their own post-Biblical authorities. Yet where in the Bible does God say that he will set up a teaching authority that can expand upon and vastly increase the requirements of the commandments?

Or to cite another example, God says to do no “work” on the Sabbath — yet the rabbis have ruled that this means you can’t tear off a piece of toilet paper on the Sabbath. I understand that the rabbis believe that this logically follows, but do Jews believe that these opinions carry divine authority? Catholics believe that Jesus specifically handed over authority to the apostles and their successors and that this is documented in the Gospels. (“Whatsoever you bind on earth is bound in heaven.”) Hence our doctrine of “infallibility.” But are the rabbis likewise considered to be “infallible” and how do you know this? Could they ever be wrong in their interpretations?

Thanks so much for any light you can shed on this,

Catholic Mom

Dear Catholic Mom,

This is a terrific question in need of a complicated answer, so I just want to preface the response with one point. Most people have a general sense of what goes into becoming a doctor or a rocket scientist. Fields such as these require intelligence plus years of study in order to master both a breadth and depth of information. Understanding the halachic process – the process through which Jewish law operates – is not unlike the aforementioned fields.

The Talmud, or the Oral Law, comprises 63 volumes, with so many pages that if one studied one two-sided page every single day, it would take over seven years to complete! And the Talmud is just the beginning. The amount of books that have been written and expounded on about Jewish law go on and on.

I don’t mention this in an effort to evade the question, but rather to put the question into context. As with all the content on this site, we try to make it accessible to total beginners, but total beginners just need to keep in mind that the topic is anything but simple. In fact, my husband who grew up religious, went to Jewish day school his whole life and then an extra year of yeshiva after high school did not begin to appreciate the halachic process until he spent two additional years, post-college, studying Jewish law specifically, full-time (in kollel). He went on to law school after that and could see how the complexities of the American legal system had their basis in Jewish law.

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz (the JITC educational correspondent) is actually working on a book now on this exact topic, so I asked him if he could put together some preliminary thoughts on the subject. Here’s what he had to say:

There are actually two forms of extra-Biblical law in Judaism. One is called the Oral Law and the other is called rabbinic law. I will explain each.

The Oral Law (Torah sheb’al peh in Hebrew) contains the explanations of the Written Law, which we call the Torah and you might know as the Pentateuch or the Five Books of Moses. The Oral Law was given together with the written Torah and it constitutes an integral part of the Torah. Without the Oral Law, the written Torah is virtually incomprehensible, or at the very least, impossible to obey. I’ll give you several examples:

* The Torah tells us (Exodus 31:14, et al.) that performing acts of labor on Shabbos (the Sabbath) is a capital offense. Wouldn’t it be helpful if “labor” was defined, so we’d know what not to do?

* The Torah also tells us (Deuteronomy 6:8) that Jewish men are to put on “totafos.” The word “totafos” is what’s called in Greek a “hapax legomenon.” What that means is that it’s a word that appears nowhere else in the entire Bible. It’s not defined by the Torah and there’s nowhere else one can turn to figure it out. How can we put them on if we don’t know what they are?

* As far as I’m concened, this next one’s the clincher: in the Torah (Deuteronomy 12:21), G-d says that when we want to eat meat, we must “slaughter it… in the way I have directed.” The laws of ritual slaughter appear nowhere in the Torah and yet G-d specifically says that He told them to us!

In truth, the definition of labor and of totafos, as well as the process for performing the kosher slaughter of animals are all part of the Oral Law. These laws were communicated to Moses by G-d and He taught them to the Jewish people, but they were always transmitted orally until Talmudic times, when persecutions threatened the preservation of the oral tradition. Then, the unprecedented step was taken to commit the Oral Law to writing. This was first done in an abbreviated form as the Mishna (circa 200 CE – what you would call AD) and later in an expanded form as the Gemara (circa 500 CE). The Mishna and the Gemara are collectively known as the Talmud. (Actually, there are two Talmuds, the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud, but we are straying too far from our topic to discuss that.)

Getting back to the Oral Law, what the Rabbis of the Talmud did was to search the text of the Torah for “hints” to orally-transmitted laws. These were not the actual source of the laws, so much as they were mnemonic devices meant to “attach” an oral law to the text. So we knew from oral transmission that labor on Shabbos means the 39 categories of creative activities used in building the Mishkan (Tabernacle). The linchpin in the text was the juxtaposition of the discussion of building the Mishkan (Exodus 31:1-11) with a discussion of Shabbos (31:12-17). Just as the text “takes a break” from the subject of construction for Shabbos, we “take a break” from these activities when we observe Shabbos.

This is why, for example, Orthodox Jews will walk a mile to the synagogue in 90-degree weather on Shabbos but not drive; it’s about specific acts, not about effort or exertion. Driving a car involves ignition, combustion, etc. and lighting a fire is one of the 39 categories of labor. Similarly, you asked about tearing toilet paper on Shabbos; separating on scored lines is also one of the 39 categories of labor. (For a complete list of the 39 categories of labor, and a brief description of each, see my book The Taryag Companion.)

Similarly, we know from the Oral Law that “totafos” are black leather boxes with four compartments that contain specific passages from the Torah. The Rabbis expounded that the word “totafos” is made up of two words from ancient languages, each if which means “two.” (Two plus two equals four.)

The totafos are part of a mitzvah we call tefillin but there are many other aspects of tefillin that have no basis in the text whatsoever. (For example, the Hebrew letter “shin” is embossed in two different ways on either side of the tefillin.) Laws that have no “hook” in the text are called “halachos l’Moshe miSinai” – laws that were transmitted to Moses at Sinai. There are only a few such laws. The Rambam (Maimonides) lists 31, which he says is most, if not all, of them. (The Rambam’s list of halachos l’Moshe miSinai is also found in The Taryag Companion.)

So much for orally-transmitted laws. Rabbinic laws can come in two types: laws they derive from expounding the Torah and laws they institute themselves.

A famous example of the Rabbis expounding a law has to do with the prohibition against a Moabite convert entering the general marriage pool (Deuteronomy 23:4). The word “Moabite” in Hebrew can mean exclusively the male or it can also include the female. Some of the Rabbis interpreted that to mean that only a male Moabite may not marry in, while others took it also to exclude a Moabitess. Now this may seem like a strictly academic exercise to you and me but it was extremely relevant in the time of the Judges, when Boaz married Ruth, who was a female convert from Moab.

I’ll give you another example. When it comes to Temple sacrifices of birds, the Torah tells us (Leviticus 5:8), “lo yavdil.” This means “not sever” but the exact meaning is unclear. It could mean that the kohein (a descendant of Aaron, i.e., a Jewish “priest”) need not sever the bird’s head (but he may), or it could mean that he may not sever it. In Hebrew, these two directives are grammatically identical but they would lead to two very different outcomes because in one case a bird with a severed head would be acceptable as a sacrifice and in the other it would not. It was the job of the rabbis to interpret the Torah.

The power of the Rabbis (by which I specifically mean the members of the Sanhedrin and their successors, the Men of the Great Assembly and the Sages of the Talmud) is granted to them by the Torah. G-d tells us quite clearly (Deuteronomy 30:12) that the Torah is no longer in Heaven; it has been given to man and the decisions reached by the Rabbis are binding.

Aside from interpreting the laws of the Torah, the Rabbis were empowered to institute new laws. There were two types of laws: takanos were things that were instituted to be done in order to enhance communal life. Gezeiros were things that were prohibited in order to distance people from the possibility of sin. Using their legislative powers, the Rabbis instituted such holidays as Chanukah and Purim. (Rabbinic laws are not exclusively post-Biblical; they were instituted even in Bible times! For example, the Book of Esther describes how the holiday of Purim was instituted, while the seventh and eighth chapters of the Book of Zechariah talk about the various fast days, which were also rabbinically-instituted.)

You asked about Jewish dietary laws. Some things are Biblical but orally-transmitted, such as how to properly slaughter meat so that it should be kosher and how to remove the blood. (Eating blood is prohibited in Leviticus 7:26 and elsewhere.) Other things were instituted by the Rabbis using their legislative powers. This includes prohibiting such things as eating poultry with dairy. (Some people can’t tell a veal cutlet from a chicken cutlet. Errors are inevitable, so they prohibited milk-and-fowl combinations to remove the possibility of inadvertent sin.)

The decisions made by the Rabbis are binding. They are empowered by the Torah with both a positive commandment (a “Thou Shalt”) and a negative commandment (a “Thou Shalt Not”). The “Thou Shalt” is found in Deuteronomy 17:10-11, “…do as they shall instruct you, following every decision; keep the Torah as they shall interpret it for you and follow the laws they shall institute for you.” The “Thou Shalt Not” follows in the latter half of verse 11, “do not stray right nor left from the matter they shall tell you.”

The fact that the duly-ordained Rabbis were so empowered by the Torah, and that their decisons were binding, does not mean that we consider them infallible. Even the greatest people are human and prone to error. Our greatest leaders – people like Moses, Aaron, David and Solomon – were human beings who made mistakes. We consider no one to be incapable of error. The Torah (Leviticus 3:13-21) actually gives the process to be followed when the Sanhedrin discovers that it has made a mistake in a matter of law. This is the topic of an entire Talmudic tractate, called Horayos. This is not to say that such errors were common (I can’t think of a single such case offhand), just that the Torah acknowledges the reality of human fallibility, even from our greatest scholars. Accordingly, G-d provides us with the steps necessary to rectify things should such an error occur.

There’s a lot of information here and it’s still just the tip of the iceberg. As Allison mentioned, I am currently  working on an in-depth review of this topic. I expect it to take a year or so to collate all the data, but I hope to be able to offer a far more thorough take on the Oral tradition and rabbinic law for those who are interested.

All the best,

Allison (aka JITC) and Rabbi Abramowitz

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  1. Dear Rabbi, Thank you. I very much appreciation your answer, but. To be more clear, I will rephrase my question.
    How do we know that the ruling of the killing of lice is permitted, was from Sinai or was the ruling of the killing of spontaneous generated creatures are permitted, was from Sinai.
    If you say that killing of spontaneous generated creatures, are permitted was from Sinai. Abaye’s argument would then have been in disagreement with the ruling.
    If you say killing the lice is permitted, regardless of the reason, was from Sinai, then obviously the Rabbis had incorrectly identified their insect. Making this entire ruling highly questionable. In both situations, I would be compelled to rule, only for my own behalf, that this halacha to be invalid and unbinding. Unless you can provide any additional information that would change the realty of these facts. Thank you. Jay

    • Rabbi Jack Abramowitz : April 27, 2015 at 6:05 pm

      I don’t know that it *was* from Sinai; I’m saying that it *might have been.* The intention of the Talmud could be understood either way. I don’t, however, believe such a rule would have been that “spontaneously-generated creatures may be killed on Shabbos” because there aren’t any. (I didn’t mention an opinion that some people have to the effect that lice *used to* spontaneously generate but now they don’t. To be polite, I find such a position too untenable even to discuss. People who believe that, however, could possibly understand things that way.)

      • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs : April 27, 2015 at 7:00 pm

        Thank you Rabbi Abramowitz. Just a note for the comments moving forward – this got WAY off topic. Please let’s stay closer to the topic of each post. Thanks!

  2. Hi Allison, Nice to know that you are over seeing and are on top of things. But quite the contrary. This discussion is right on topic. Why Do Rabbis Just “Make Stuff Up?” I for one, if I may, am trying to discern exactly that. In this particular exchange with the Rabbi, my questions are in essence, was the statements by the Gemara on the killing of lice determined (as the title of your post reads) as Just “Make Stuff Up? or not. Thank you for a job well done. Your fan. Jay
    PS. Good job on your remake of your video on Shabbat. Were you inspired by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s essay on Shabbat.
    Dear Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, There is not any scientific evidence that lice *used to* spontaneously generate. Without any supporting evidence, I can never entertain such a possibility. Thank you. Jay

    • Rabbi Jack Abramowitz : April 28, 2015 at 10:08 am

      I don’t agree with it, either, which is why I didn’t mention it initially. But there are people who believe the Rabbis’ knowledge of science was G-d-given. Those people would posit that if the Rabbis believed in spontaneous generation, it must have once existed. So, I originally offered two possible answers: (1) the Rabbis used their belief in spontaneous generation to generate the law about killing lice on Shabbos and (2) they used the belief in spontaneous generation to explain a tradition about killing lice on Shabbos. You asked about the possibility of a tradition about killing spontaneously-generated creatures on Shabbos. I must reject the possibility of such a thing on the basis that there never were any such creatures but those who believe there once were might accept such a hypothesis. You and I, however, are on the same side in rejecting it.

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Allison Josephs

Allison is the Founder and Director of Jew in the City. Please find her full bio here.

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