Rabbinic Authority and the Oral Law

“… although the law revealed at Sinai always reigned supreme, the Sages made a massive contribution to its development.”  (H. Chaim Schimmel) [1]

In an earlier article we considered whether the Hebrew scriptures support the idea of an oral law originating at Mount Sinai. We now consider whether the rabbis legitimately hold the powers to interpret and apply the Torah – and also whether they may legitimately suspend or abrogate parts of the Torah, and make new laws by way of ‘rabbinic legislation’.

This further part to our enquiry is important not only because of the ‘massive contribution’ alluded to by Schimmel, i.e. the extent to which the oral law is comprised of rabbinic rulings and innovations, but also because of the control that the rabbis exercise over the Jewish people on the basis of these claims.

Power to interpret

Judicial authority (the power to interpret and apply the Law) is usually distinguished from the rabbis’ further claim to legislative authority (the power to suspend laws and to make additional laws). “The work of the Sages can conveniently be classified under two headings: Interpretation and Legislation.”[2] Both these authorities are claimed on the basis of Scripture.

The authority to interpret is claimed from the provisions of Deuteronomy 17, where Moses instructs the Israelites:

“If a matter is too hard for you in judgment, between blood and blood, between plea and plea, and between stroke and stroke, matters of strife within your gates, then you shall arise and go up to the place which YHVH your God shall choose. And you shall come to the priests of the Levites, and to the judge that shall be in those days, and ask. And they shall declare to you the sentence of judgment. And you shall do according to the sentence which they declare to you from that place which YHVH shall choose. And you shall be careful to do according to all that they tell you. According to the sentence of the Law which they shall teach you and according to the judgment which they shall tell you, you shall do. You shall not turn aside from the sentence which they shall show you, to the right hand or the left. And the man that acts proudly and will not listen to the priest who stands to minister there before YHVH your God, or to the judge, even that man shall die. And you shall put away the evil from Israel. And all the people shall hear and fear, and not be presumptuous any more” (Deuteronomy 17:8-13).

Deuteronomy 17 applied to Israel in the Land, where her citizens were taken to live in communion with God and under His authority.[3] Since the Law governed the daily life of the covenant people, questions would naturally arise. Does a particular act constitute a transgression? What is the penalty and how should it be imposed? How must the Law apply in specific cases? Deuteronomy 17 establishes the judicial procedure and authorityin Israel – thus providing the mechanism for resolving such questions.

If a matter is too hard for you in judgment,” follows the model that Jethro advised to Moses in the wilderness: “Every great matter they shall bring to you, but any small matter they shall decide themselves” (Exodus 18:22).

“Just as the judges appointed at Sinai were to bring to Moses whatever cases were too difficult for them to decide, that he might judge them according to the decision of God (Exodus 18:26 and 18:19); so in the future the judges of the different towns were to bring all difficult cases, which they were unable to decide, before the Levitical priests and judge at the place of the sanctuary, that a final decision might be given there.”[4]

The appointment of local judges was done according to Deuteronomy 16: “Appoint judges and officials for each of your tribes in every town the LORD your God is giving you, and they shall judge the people fairly” (verses 18-20).

Officials from the community in which difficult matters arose, were to go up “to the place which God would choose,” to hear the verdict or sentence from those who ministered there before Him.

The “place that YHVH shall choose” was the Temple in Jerusalem, which served as the nexus, the point of contact between heaven and earth, the place where the priests could intercede on behalf of the nation, and where God would respond. By designating this the place of final verdict, YHVH seemingly intended that Israel’s difficulties be brought to Him, as the ultimate authority on the Law’s meaning and application. (The rabbis depart radically from this principle, as we shall see later.)

The difficult matters were brought before “the priests of the Levites and the judge who shall be in those days”. These would “sit in Moses’ seat” (as Jesus said in Matthew 23:2-4), and act for the people in the way that Moses did in the wilderness: “you be for the people toward God, that you may bring the causes to God” (Exodus 18:19). As in the wilderness, God would reply with His verdicts in response to such intercessions.[5] A priest in this role was thus described as “the messenger of the LORD Almighty” (Malachi 2:7).

Only a descendent of Levi who had been ritually consecrated for this office could pronounce verdicts in God’s name. “The priests, the sons of Levi, shall step forward, for the LORD your God has chosen them to minister and to pronounce blessings in the name of the LORD and to decide all cases of dispute and assault” (Deuteronomy 21:5).

The severe penalty for disregarding the priestly ruling is a consequence once more of the fact that the sentence was declared “from that place that YHVH shall choose.”

“Such refractory conduct was to be punished with death, as rebellion against God, in whose name the ruling had been spoken.”[6] Those who came for the ruling were compelled to implement it. The duty to apply the sentence exactly as the priests had given it, “is unquestionably far more applicable to the judges of the different towns, who were to carry out exactly the sentence of the higher tribunal, than to the parties to the suit … since it did not rest on them”.[7]

Problems with using Deuteronomy 17 as the basis for rabbinic authority

Our cursory look at Deuteronomy 17 brings to light at least three critical problems with the rabbis’ claim that they act by its authority.[8]

(1) The rabbis are not mentioned there

Deuteronomy 17 and 21 confer the judicial authority on the priests. These were God’s appointed custodians of the Law and even in the post exilic period, rulings on the Law had to be sought from the priests.[9] As we saw earlier, the priests had to be from the tribe of Levi, and anointed for their office. Deuteronomy 17 does not mention anyone by the title of sage or rabbi. Neither do the Hebrew Scriptures create scope for a scholastic class or structure within Israel’s theocratic society.

“There is neither place, position, nor authority for the rabbis in the Bible. They are not even mentioned.”[10]

“As a group, rabbis were unable to claim a historically sanctioned locus standi within any of the traditional frameworks of Jewish government.”[11]

In the Hebrew Scriptures the title ‘Rav’ is given only to Nebuzaradan, the captain of the guard of the king of Babylon, to Daniel in his position as ruler in Babylon and to the captain of the boat on which Jonah fled. The leaders of Israel were always referred to as elder, judge, prophet, priest, or king. “Scribe” is used four times with reference to Ezra, but each time he is first described as a priest.[12]

Concerning the designation ‘Sage’ (חכם), “there are about 150 references in Tanach to ‘being wise,’ ‘wise men,’ or ‘sages.’ However, none of these references mention anything that would specifically designate a rabbi. The term is used for gentiles as well as Jews, including the wise men of Egypt, those of Babylon and those of Persia. It is also used for skilled artisans of different types, those considered wise in heart or learned in the law of God, whether king or counsellor, son or servant.”[13]

Nor is there any Biblical basis on which the rabbis can claim to be legitimate heirs to the judicial office. Apart from the priests serving in the Temple, the scriptures show that –

  • during times in which the priesthood was particularly corrupt or dysfunctional, verdicts from God were obtained through the prophets (e.g. in 2 Kings 22:13 and following).[14] The same applied during exile;[15]
  • certain kings administered justice (e.g. in 2 Samuel 15:2 and 1 Kings 7:7), this being in a foreshadowing of Messiah who would be “a priest upon his throne”;[16]
  • God promised that He Himself would assume the function that the priests and rulers had abused – through the agency of Messiah (Ezekiel 34);
  • After his coming, Messiah would judge the needy with righteousness and with justice give decisions for the poor (Isaiah 11: 4).

Nowhere do the Scriptures even hint at a time that responsibility for the Law would be transferred to scholars or rabbis, or that these would succeed the Biblically ordained priest, prophet and king. Such a shift of authority could not happen without the prophets making provision for it, for “the Sovereign LORD does nothing without revealing His plan to His servants the prophets” (Amos 3:7).

George Foot Moore describes how the rabbis assumed their role: “With the fall of Jerusalem the Sanhedrin came to an end. What succeeded it, taking its name ‘high court’ and claiming succession to its functions, was in fact only a self-constituted body of scholars, at first under the presidency of Johanan ben Zakkai at Jamnia [Yavne] …. So completely did this [new structure] predominate that the Jews of later times imagined the old political Sanhedrin as [being] in all respects similar to their rabbinical assemblies.”[17]

(2) The rabbis do not exercise authority from the Temple

The Talmud recognizes that the authority given in Deuteronomy 17 could not be exercised from anywhere but the Temple. When, forty years before the Temple’s destruction, the Sanhedrin wished to purposely avoid its power to impose the death penalty, it did this by moving its courtroom out of the Temple precinct.[18]

Rabbi Nahman ben Isaac explains: “Because when the Sanhedrin saw that murderers were so prevalent that they could not be properly dealt with judicially, they said, ‘Rather let us be exiled from place to place than pronounce them guilty, for it written (Deut. 17:10), ‘You shall carry out the verdict that is announced to you from that place that the Lord chose,’ implying that it is the place that matters.”

The same rationale applies also to any other judicial pronouncements or interpretations of the Law. For these also had to be sought “from that place that the Lord shall chose” (Deuteronomy 17:8). I.e. the same defect (absence from the Temple) therefore nullifies all verdicts not pronounced from that place.

Despite this, the bulk of rabbinic pronouncements originate not from Jerusalem, but from the rabbinic academy at Yavne,[19] and the rabbis later presumed even to impose the death penalty from localities outside of the Temple and Jerusalem.[20]

(3) The rabbis’ verdicts are derived through an intellectual process rather than divine revelation

That YHVH intended to be in a continuing relationship with His covenant people and reveal to them the application of His Law is clear from the various verdicts given by Him in the wilderness (Leviticus 24:10-23; Numbers 9:6-14, 15:32-35 and 27:5-8). Deuteronomy 17 directs all complex matters to the priests ministering before God in the Temple – with the apparent intention that the LORD would reveal His desired outcomes through their ministry.

The Lord God said: “The Law will go out from Me; My justice will become a light to the nations” (Isaiah 51:4). The Psalmist rejoiced, “Blessed is the man You discipline, O LORD, the man You teach from Your Law” (Psalm 94:12). King David consulted no rabbi, but cried for understanding from God:

Teach me, O LORD, the way of Your statutes; and I shall keep it to the end. Give me understanding, and I shall keep your law; yes, I shall observe it with mywhole heart.I have not departed from Your judgments; for You have taught me.(Psalm 119: 33-34, 102.)

הורני יהוה דרך חקיך ואצרנה עקב׃

  הבינני ואצרה תורתך ואשׁמרנה בכל־לב׃

ממשׁפטיך לא־סרתי כי־אתה הורתני׃


The rabbis take the opposite view: “from the moment of the giving of the Written Law – ‘from Heaven,’ at Sinai … it is handed over absolutely to the judgment of the human intelligence of the scholars of the Oral Law, who accept the ‘yoke of the kingdom of Heaven’ but give halachic ruling according to their understanding …”.[21] God is not permitted any further role.

In the famous account of a rabbinic dispute over a clay oven, various supernatural signs were given to support the view of a single dissenting rabbi, while the rest of the rabbis persisted in the opposite opinion. Eventually a Voice spoke from Heaven declaring the dissenting rabbi to be correct. To this one of his opponents responded: “it [the Law] is not in Heaven” (i.e. where God may yet rule on its application), but on earth (where the rabbis alone shall have jurisdiction) – at which God laughs and says, “my sons have defeated me”.[22]

The dissenting rabbi, Eliezer the Great (the first rabbi mentioned in the Talmud), was subsequently excommunicated.

From the position of Reform Judaism, Harold I. Saperstein writes, “The implicit understanding was that the law came from the Almighty. But in reaching decisions about it, the rabbis took the authority out of God’s hands.” [22a]

The insidious practice of following human opinions in place of the word of God was already evident at the time of Isaiah. Through this prophet, YHVH lamented:

“These people come near to me with their mouth and honour Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me. Their worship of Me is made up only of rules taught by men. Therefore once more I will astound these people with wonder upon wonder; the wisdom of their wise [חכמיו] will perish, the intelligence of the intelligent will vanish … You turn things upside down, as if the potter were thought to be like the clay!” (Isaiah 29:13-16).

Through Jeremiah, the LORD announced:

“The priests did not ask, `Where is the LORD?’ Those who deal with the Law [תפשׂי התורה] did not know Me [לא ידעוני] …” (Jeremiah 2:8).

“My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken Me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water” (Jeremiah 2:13).

“How can you say, ‘We are wise, for we have the Law of the LORD,’when actually the lying pen of the scribes has handled it falsely? The wise [חכמים] will be put to shame, they will be dismayed and trapped. Since they have rejected the word of the LORD, what kind of wisdom do they have?” (בדבר־יהוה מאסו וחכמת־מה להם) (Jeremiah 8:8-9).

These prophecies suggest that God remained keenly interested in the way that the Law was applied, and held those accountable who handled it corruptly.

‘It is not in heaven’

The rabbis’ response to the Voice from Heaven is taken from Deuteronomy 30:11-14:

“Now, what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?’ No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.”

While this is presented as proof that God has no further interest in how the Law is interpreted and applied, it is rather a beautiful assurance to anyone who seeks to obey Him. Namely, that the Word of Life is ‘not too difficult for you’, so that you need to rely on the understanding of others. It is not ‘beyond your reach’ – God empowers the humble to obey. ‘It is not in heaven’ – so that none but the super-spiritual should reach it. Nor is it in the depths, i.e. needing to be uncovered through occult or kabbalistic practices. ‘No …,’ it is very near you; ‘it is in your mouth’ (as you read it), ‘and in your heart’ (as you resolve to do it), so that you may obey it!

This requires faith in the Lawgiver to inform the hearts and minds of those who seek Him (the faith King David demonstrates in Psalm 119). But the rabbis have stolen this faith away and redirected it toward themselves – so that most Jews today believe in their rabbi, instead of their God. (cf. Psalm 118:8, טוב לחסות ביהוה מבטח באדם׃)

The reason for rejecting the Heavenly Voice is derived from Exodus 23:2:

“‘It is not in heaven!’ – what did he [i.e. the rabbi who rebuked the Voice] mean by this? Explained Rabbi Jeremiah: that the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because THOU hast long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, After the majority must one incline.”

A careful review of the Torah reveals that no such command, i.e. to follow after the majority, is to be found. What is written instead, is “You shall not follow a multitude unto evil”.

You shall not follow a multitude to evil, nor shall you incline after the majority to testify in a dispute to pervert

  לא־תהיה אחרי־רבים לרעת ולא־תענה על־רב לנטת אחרי רבים להטת׃


On the presumption that they are not out to do evil, but good, and not out to pervert, but to uphold – the rabbis turn this into a positive command: “you must follow after the majority [of the rabbis] to do good”.

Who, then, is the final arbiter of good and evil?

Since God has been purposely eliminated from making such judgments, we must conclude that the rabbis claim this privilege for themselves. Their reading of Exodus 23:2 presumes that ‘good’ is whatever the majority decides.

Can we confidently accept that the rabbis should be custodians of such a radical authority? What do the Scriptures say about the majority view of ‘good’?

“In the Torah, it is difficult to find a place where the majority was not in opposition to the will of God. They were in Egypt. They were in the wilderness. That is the Biblical reason for the wandering in the wilderness. The people would not believe Joshua and Caleb [the minority]. The believed the majority of the spies [the quorum (minyan) in the synagogue was in fact taken from the number of the evil majority, namely ten – see Megilla 23b]. Time after time, Moses stood alone against the majority of the people and the majority of the leaders; e.g., the Golden Calf and the waters of Meribah. In various supernatural ways, God made it clear that Moses was right.

“The rebellion of Korah is an instructive example because it arose concerning the same issues that put Rabbi Eliezer in conflict with … the majority. Korah, Dathan, Abiram, On, and 250 leaders of the people challenged the authority of the Aaronic priesthood and the leadership of Moses. These men were all “princes of the congregation, the elect men of the assembly, men of renown”. According to Rashi, Korah… “drew the heads of the Sanhedrin among them … He arose and assembled two hundred and fifty, the heads of the Sanhedrin …”. Had the authority of the majority of the sages been established at that time, Moses would have been excommunicated…”.[23]

The later prophets, also, were a solitary and lonely voice, speaking directly on behalf of God against the prevailing sentiments of Israel’s religious and political leaders – for which they were often persecuted and killed.

The rabbis accept no correction from a prophet.[24]

King Ahab had 400 false prophets who prophesied a decisive victory for him, while only one prophet dared to speak the word of God – predicting his defeat (1 Kings 22:7-24). Needless to say, the majority was wrong.

According to the Talmud, a majority decision has to be taken by the Sanhedrin to be binding: “The Talmud states that all controversies were referred to the Sanhedrin where they were put to the vote (Sanhedrin 88b).  For example, if a question of ritual cleanness was involved then ‘if the majority voted unclean, they declared it so; if clean, they ruled even so’”. [24a]

The rabbis’ version of the Sanhedrin is a body that comprised members only of their own circle. These moreover had to meet an important criterion: “Rab Judah said in Rab’s name: None is to be given a seat on the Sanhedrin unless he can prove the cleanness of a reptile from the Biblical texts” (Sanhedrin, 17a). “ … in other words, they had to be able to use the Scriptures to prove the exact opposite of what they actually teach.” [25]

Rabbinic approach to the written text

Most legal systems limit judicial discretion through a set of fixed ‘rules of interpretation’. Their purpose is ‘to give effect to the intent of the lawmaker,’ as that intent appears from the clear and literal meaning of the text. The rabbis have adopted a different approach:

  • Their rules of interpretation are not fixed and not applied consistently. E.g. while they hold that a text should always be read to have a limited application rather than a wider one, they often disregard the rule when it produces an undesired outcome.[26]
  •  Even where the intention for and purpose of a law is altogether clear, the rabbis hold that “the law is not governed by its purpose”.[27]
  • In many cases, conclusions are derived on unconventional or spurious grounds. E.g. the number of scripture portions and compartments contained in phylacteries is derived from the Hebrew word le-tot-e-foth, on the grounds that “‘tot’ means ‘two’ in the Coptic language and ‘foth’ means [another] two in the African language [making four].”[28]
  • Letters, words, punctuation marks and verses that seem superfluous or obscure are used as convenient pegs on which to hang rabbinic verdicts. For example, on the grounds of an apparently redundant letter vav in the Hebrew text of Leviticus 22:12, Rabbi Aqiva once held that a priest’s daughter caught in adultery must be executed by burning. (A more traditional rabbi responded to this ‘interpretation’: “Shall we burn this woman because you must find a meaning for your vav?”[29])

By these and other methods, the rabbis read their desired meanings into the text, rather than deriving it from the text: “.. although the peculiar literary methods of the Mishnahsometimes give an impression of deducing an ideal and theoretical practice out of academic interpretation and application of Scripture, it may often be that the reverse is the truth: what was sought was Scriptural grounds on which to justify … usage not expressly ordained or permitted by Scripture.”[30]

The rabbinic claim to legislative authority

If a decree or ruling has no basis in existing law, it is no longer interpretation, but rather new law. The Talmud acknowledges this phenomenon in respect of rabbinic decrees:

“The [rabbinic laws on the] dissolution of vows hover in the air and have nought to rest on. The [rabbinic] laws concerning the Sabbath, festal-offerings, acts of trespass are as ‘mountains hanging by a hair’. [Rabbinic laws] on civil cases and Temple services, Levitical cleanness and uncleanness, and the forbidden relations have what to rest on, and it is they that are the essentials of the Torah” (Hagigah, 10a).

Despite the rabbis’ efforts to link their pronouncements to Scripture – even on the most precarious grounds (‘hanging a mountain by a hair’) – the inevitable conclusion of the rabbis themselves is that they have, in certain cases, created new law (i.e. that in some cases even the ‘hair’ is missing).[31] This law making activity accounts for the bulk of what Shimmel calls the rabbis’ “enormous contribution” to the oral law.

Not surprisingly, the scriptures clearly prohibit any human additions to the commandments of God: “You shall not add to the Word which I command you, neither shall you take away from it, so that you may keep the commands of the LORD your God which I command you”(Deuteronomy 4:2).

The rabbis get around this in the following way: “Devarim 4:2 reads: ‘You shall not add to the word which I command you, neither shall you diminish from it.’ This presents a problem. Does this mean that all Rabbinic legislation is ultra vires? … However a distinction must be drawn between adding to God’s Laws and creating a new system of Rabbinic laws.”[32]

According to the Ramban, “‘ye shall not add’ only applies to an addition to the Torah meant to be equal therewith, but making fences and restrictions is not an addition, for these are not to be equated with the Torah.”[33]

This requirement is clearly not maintained in practice. According to the Encyclopaedia Judaica, “this distinction [between God’s law and rabbinic law] is theoretical only, having regard to the very many takkanot [rabbinic laws] which have become transformed into an integral part of the laws comprising the halachic system and have been accepted as decided law in the Talmud and codificatory literature.”[34]

The Ramban’s further requirement that rabbinic law ‘not be equated’ with God’s law is also absent. According to the Mishnah, “greater stringency applies to words of the Scribes than to the words of the Law. If a man said, ‘there is no obligation to wear phylacteries’ so that he transgresses the words of the Law, he is not culpable; [but if he said], ‘There should be in them five partitions,’ so that he adds to the words of the Scribes, he is culpable.”[35]

The claim that rabbinic law enjoys higher authority than God’s is in fact a fatal flaw in the argument that rabbinic law does not add or subtract in contravention of Deuteronomy 4:2. If God’s law is subordinate, the inevitable conclusion is that rabbinic legislation overrules (and thus diminishes from) God’s commandments! And it has in fact done so in a great many cases:

  • a ‘loophole’ created by rabbinic law can avoid the law of God. “The Oral Law is able to circumvent the Written Law.”[36] Examples are the mechanism devised by Hillel to avoid the commandment that debts to fellow Israelites be cancelled in the sabbatical year (Deuteronomy 15), and a mechanism devised by Aquiva to avoid the payment of tithes (when crops are held in a warehouses for which there is more than one key).[37]
  • the rabbis claim absolute authority to overrule a positive command in the Torah: “One rule, however, is clearly stated in the Talmud, namely, that the Sages were entitled to decree that an action which the Torah required to be done, should not be done.”[38]
  • in certain cases, the rabbis will even overrule a Torah prohibition, i.e.  command what is expressly prohibited in God’s Law. According to Schimmel, “in exceptional circumstances, the Torah empowered the Sages to legislate contrary to Sinaitic Law. Exactly what these circumstances were is a matter of dispute …”[39] (Schimmel does not however state where the Torah confers such a power.) As an example of this type of legislation: “it was held permissible to lay down punishment by flogging, and even the capital sentence, when rendered necessary by the prevailing social and moral realities. This was so despite the fact that the Torah law prohibits the flogging of any person for whom such punishment was not reserved and that certainly it is prohibited to kill a person not liable to the death sentence…”.[40]
  • “even their errors are binding as halachah.”[41] Even if the rabbis should deliberately miscalculate the date of Yom Kippur, the Mishnah requires that Israel should rather observe the day fixed by the rabbis (Rosh haShana 2.9).

The formula used for the ordination of rabbis, expressly confers upon the candidate the power to go beyond the Law, affirming that the ‘power is now in the rabbinate and not in the priest’. [41a]

Rabbinic law that is completely unrelated to Divine Law (e.g. laws dealing with the sale of goods and other civil matters), cannot be said to violate the Torah prohibition against adding and subtracting, but neither can the obligation to obey these laws be clearly established. While the need to obey God’s laws is clear “because they are God’s command,” writes Schimmel, “Rabbinic [enactments] are different in this respect. Their date of origin is not always certain, and the source of our obligation to observe them is not quite clear.”[42]

Some pin this obligation also on Deuteronomy 17, which requires Israel to do “according to the sentence of the Torah [התורה] which they shall teach you and according to the judgment which they shall tell you”. But, if this passage authorises the rabbis to legislate,Torah must mean something other than God’s law, and ‘teach’ must include the authority to make law.

While Schimmel concedes that “there is no suggestion that the text of the Mishnah is of Divine origin,” he favours an explanation advocated by the Rav Elchanan Wasserman, namely that the rabbis decree the will of God. “It is the Will of God that [rabbinic decrees] be performed … because when the Sages decreed any specific act, they revealed that it is God’s Will that this act shall be done.”[43] Apart from his circuitous reasoning, we have already seen from Scripture that the Will of God and the majority opinion of Israel’s leaders are, for the most part, divergent.

The most likely source of the obligation to follow rabbinic law is consequently that stated by Rab:[44] “the Sages have imparted to their enactments the same force as that of the Pentateuchal laws.” I.e. the rabbis are the authors of their own authority.


If God surrendered His Law to human reason and intelligence, it makes of man the final arbiter of good and evil. That the rabbis see themselves in this role is clear from their various claims to authority and the manner in which they exercise it.

The Bible narrative begins with an account of man’s creation and fall. Satan tempted Eve with the idea that man might be ‘like God’, knowing good and evil for himself. From the moment Adam succumbed, man exists as a morally autonomous being, deciding good and evil independently of God.

It is not surprising that rabbinic Judaism and Christianity hold radically different views on original sin. According to the rabbis, God desired that Adam should sin – not only to gain his independence from God, but then also to succeed in his independent existence and ultimately to work out his own redemption.

The Christian view is that God foreknew the fall of man, but ordained this experience to enable man to return to Him out of love, and then to be restored to His perfect will and order. This ‘homecoming’ to the Father is portrayed by Jesus in the parable of the lost son (Luke 15:11-24).

The Torah embodies God’s standard of holiness and is thus immutable. Just as YHVH does not change (Malachi 3:6), so too His standard of holiness is not affected by changing social circumstances and ‘the needs of the hour’. Jesus taught, “till the heaven and the earth pass away, not one jot or one tittle shall in any way pass from the Law until all is fulfilled.”[45]  I.e. not by clever interpretation, ‘loopholes’ or other form of tampering will the Law in any way be altered or diminished.

God offered Israel two opportunities to gain life: First through the Law (“for the man who obeys them will live by them” – Leviticus 18:5), and then in Himself (“the LORD is your life” – Deuteronomy 30:20). Having failed to obey and obtain life through the Law, Israel would be driven to find life in God. Moses sought this assurance after the Golden Calf (Exodus 33-34), and it is this life from God that Messiah came to offer (John 6:40).

While Judaism ends in the perfection of human morality and achievement, Christianity ends in man’s complete surrender to God, the voluntary subordination of his will to God’s, in order to receive life by His Spirit. This makes of Judaism an infinitely more attractive religion for those who want to continue in their independent existence from God, but the taste of death to those who want to find their life in Him.

By accepting everything the rabbis have contrived with the Law, religious Jews are deluded into the hope that they might yet obey it and obtain life in that way. But Daniel revealed the true heir to the priestly authority: [46]

In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”  (Daniel 7:13-14)

It is my earnest hope and prayer that many of those who have once eaten from the Talmudic Tree may now hunger for the Tree of Life. For, “YHVH is your life” (Deut. 30:20) and “whoever comes to Me I will never cast away” (John 6:67).

Further reading:
Has the Roman Catholic Church fallen into the same trap as the rabbis? Read ‘The keys of the kingdom – Matthew 16 and the church of Rome’
What is meant and understood by ‘apostolic succession’?  Read ‘Binding and Loosing’.

[1]  H. Chaim Schimmel, ‘The Oral Law – The Rabbinic Contribution to the Torah sheBe’al Pe’, 3rd  Revised edition, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem & New York, 2006, p.xv.

[2]  Schimmel, op. cit., p.xvii.

[3]  Deuteronomy 17 falls within the body of laws introduced by Deuteronomy 12:1: “These are the decrees and laws you must be careful to follow in the land that the LORD, the God of your fathers, has given you to possess – as long as you live in the land”.

[4] Keil & Delitzsch on Deuteronomy 17. This was not an appeal mechanism, since the matter was referred to the higher authority before a verdict was pronounced.

[5] “the Lord spoke to Moses, saying …” (Numbers 27:5-6)

[6]  Ibid.

[7]  Ibid.

[8]  A possible fourth, from Deuteronomy 12:1, is that Deuteronomy 17 is applicable only in the Land and not in the Diaspora. A possible fifth is that the verdicts announced by the priest were only binding on the matter at hand, whereas the rabbis purport to make binding rules on hypothetical cases: “there is much in the contents of the Mishnah that moves in an atmosphere of academic discussion pursued for its own sake, with (so it would appear) little pretence at recording historical usage …”. Herbert Danby, The Mishnah, Oxford University Press, London, 1933. Introduction, p. xv.

[9]   Haggai 2:10-13.

[10]  Daniel Gruber, Rabbi Akiba’s Messiah, Elijah Publishing, 1999, pp. 29-30.

[11]  Stuart A. Cohen, The Three Crowns: Structure of Communal Politics in early Rabbinic Jewry, Cambridge, 1999, cited in Gruber, op. cit., p. 30.

[12]  Gruber, op. cit., p. 29.

[13]  Ibid.

[14]  Where Huldah was consulted.

[15]  E.g. Ezekiel 20:1. Though Ezekiel was also a priest, the elders inquired of him as a prophet.

[16]  Zechariah 6:13.

[17]  George Foot Moore, Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era, Schocken Books, New York, 1st paperback edition, 1971, vol. 1, pp. 261-262.

[18]  Avodah Zarah 8b. All Talmudic references are to the Babylonian edition, unless otherwise stated.

[19]  This is the conclusion from Sanhedrin 86a, Megillah 2a, Menahoth 29b, etc. “When Moses ascended on high he found the Holy One, blessed be He, engaged in affixing coronets to the letters. Said Moses, ‘Lord of the Universe, Who stays they hand?’ [I.e. is there anything wanting in the Torah that these additions are necessary?] He answered, ‘There will arise a man, at the end of many generations, Akiva ben Joseph by name, who will expound upon each tittle heaps and heaps of laws” Menahoth, 29b.

[20] Sotah 8b, Sanhedrin 52b. In particular, the rabbis viciously persecuted the minim(Jewish believers in Jesus) for refusing to follow their imposter, Bar Kochba, as the Messiah, and put them to death. See Gruber, op. cit., pp. 165 – 180 and the authorities cited there. The Jewish disciples of Jesus were reportedly the only real threat to the rabbis’ nascent hegemony.

[21]  Encyclopaedia Judaica, 1972 edition, vol. 11, p. 1441.  Aryeh Lieb ben Joseph ha-Kohen states: “the Torah was given to be determined by human intelligence, even if human intelligence errs” (Introduction to Ketzot ha-Choshen).

[22]  Baba Mezia, 59b.

[22a]  Harold I. Saperstein, ‘The Origin and Authority of the Rabbi’, in Elliot L. Stevens, ed., ‘Rabbinic Authority’, CCAR Press, 1982.

[23]  Gruber, op. cit., p. 118, and citing Rashi, BeMidbar 16:1, pp. 162-163.

[24]  Baba Batra, 12a.

[24a]  Schimmel, op. cit., p.16

[25]  Gruber, op. cit., p.127.

[26]  See Gruber, op. cit., p. 64 and the authorities cited there.

[27]  Beitzah, 5a;  Schimmel, op. cit., p.132 and footnote 30.

[28]  Exodus 13:16, Menahoth, 34b.

[29]  Sanhedrin, 51b.

[30]  Danby, op.cit., p. xv.

[31]  See for example the Mishnah, Kelim 13.7 which states: ‘the Scribes invented an new thing’.

[32]  Schimmel, op. cit., p. 106.

[33]  The Ramban on Deuteronomy 4:2, Hilchot Mamrim 2:9. “According to the Ramban, the following criteria must be met so that the prohibition of Deuteronomy 4 is not violated by rabbinic legislation: (i) it is clear that their laws have been made as a fence around the Torah and are not from the Torah, or (ii) if the rabbis declare unequivocably that what they ordain is of rabbinic origin and do not treat their laws as if they were Torah laws” (Schimmel, p. 107.)

[34]  Encyclopaedia Judaica, op. cit., entry on Takkanot, p.715.

[35]  Sanhedrin 10.3, Danby translation.

[36]  Encyclopaedia Judaica, op. cit. p.1441; Kiddushin 1:2, 59d (Jerusalem Talmud).

[37]  The Mishnah, Shevi’it 10.3 and Ma’aserot 3.5, respectively.

[38]  Schimmel, op. cit., p. 109; Gittin, 36b.

[39]  Ibid.

[40]  Encyclopaedia Judaica, op. cit., Takkanot, p. 718.

[41]  Encyclopaedia Judaica, op. cit., Takkanot, p. 716.

[41a]  Berhard M. Zlotowitz “Semichah and its relation to Ishut” in Elliot L. Stevens, op. cit..

[42]  Schimmel, op. cit., p. 59.

[43]  Schimmel, p. 75. In this manner rabbinic law can thus be Divine law with Divine sanction, even though not of Divine origin.

[44]  Ketuvoth, 84a.

[45] Matthew 5:18.

[46] These verses applied to Messiah in Sanhedrin, 98a. Hagigah, 14a.