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       Overview of Jewish Law––Written and Oral*

         The Old Testament Bible is composed of five books—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus,
Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The corresponding Hebrew titles are taken from the first significant
word in each book1: Bereishes (Creation), Shemos (Names), Vayikra (Call), Bamidbar (Desert,
Wilderness), and Devarim (Words). Each book is divided into sections called parshiyot, the
plural of parsha, which is from the root meaning separated or set aside.2 There are fifty-four
parshiyot in the five books, and they are read out loud in Hebrew on the Sabbath and holidays
over the course of a year.3 At the end of the year all the parshiyot will have been read and the
cycle starts all over again.4

         The language in the original Hebrew is aesthetically elegant, but it is difficult to convey
its euphonic beauty in English. So, for example, the first parsha in Genesis states that before
Creation the world was tohu ve vohu. There is much scholarly discussion as to the meaning of
these words. Rashi, the famed eleventh century commentator on the Torah and Talmud,
translates them as astonished or baffled, emptiness, desolation, a void;5 nice, but not poetic.

         Translation of the Bible, however, has even greater perils. Hebrew is in many ways an
ambiguous language. The translations of the Bible, initially into Aramaic and Greek, and
thereafter into a plethora of other languages, including English,6 often resolve rather than
preserve ambiguities in the text, and of necessity favor one interpretation over another.

         The original Hebrew text has no vowels or punctuation––it is "a stream of contiguous
letters, without division into words."7 As is the case with many languages, in Hebrew a vowel
can drastically change the meaning of a word, just as a comma can change the sense of a
sentence in English. However, the root of the word may connect to other words with the same
root but different vowels. For example, the root "d,b,r"8 means either a word or a thing, or to
combine separate items into one.9 The root of the words talk (diber), thing (davar), and
pestilence (dever) are identical;10 the vowels, however, are different. Nonetheless, there may be a
connection, even if tenuous, and choosing one meaning over the other does not allow the reader
to fully grasp all the possible meanings and nuances that God may have intended to convey." As
it is said, the Torah is read on four levels, has seventy meanings, and is like a rock which, when
struck, splits into many pieces, and while it may yield a plethora of conflicting opinions, all are,
at least in a mystical sense, correct, constituting the words of the living God.11

         The matter is further complicated by the Oral Law. Traditional Judaism takes the view
that during his many days on Mount Sinai, Moses received not only the written Torah, but also
the Oral Law."When Moses descended from Sinai, he held the Tablets in his hands and the Oral
Law in his mind. The words to the Law would be contained in the Written Torah, but their
meaning and application would be transmitted from teacher to student in an eternal chain of
generations."12 Therefore, the Written and Oral Law must be read together,13 and, indeed, if there
is an oral tradition that seems contrary to the Written Law, the Oral Law governs.14

         The Talmud, which is over 5,000 pages and is contained in over sixty tractates,
comprises the Sinaitic and rabbinic Oral Law of Judaism.15 It consists of the Mishnah and the

* Irene Merker Rosenberg.

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