The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Oral law

An oral law is a code of conduct in use in a given culture, religion or other regroupement, by which a body of rules of human behaviour is transmitted by oral tradition and effectively respected, or the single rule that is verbally transmitted.

Many cultures do have an oral law, while most contemporary legal systems have a formal written organisation. The oral tradition (from the Latin tradere = to transmit) is the typical instrument of transmission of the oral codes or, in a more general sense, is the complex of what a culture transmits of itself among the generations, "from father to son". This kind of transmission can be due to lack of other means (like for illiterate or criminal societies) or can be expressedly required by the same law.


Oral law in jurisprudence

On a legal point of view, an oral law can be:

  • a habit, or custom with legal relevance or when the formal law expressely refers to it (but in this latter case, it is properly an indirect source of legal rights and obligations);
  • a command, an order, verbally given, that has to be respected as a law (in most modern western legal systems, some dispositions can be issued by word in given cases of emergency).

An oral law, intended as a body of rules, can be admitted in jurisprudence as long as it shows some efficacy, therefore it needs that the law is public, the human action is evaluated by a judge (ordinarily producing a sentence according to the general interpretation of the law) and then a punishment has eventually to be put into effect. Some oral laws provide all these elements (for instance, some codes of conduct in use among criminal associations like mafia do have a well known law, a judge, a condemnation), while others usually miss some of them.

Oral law in Judaism

Rabbinic Judaism holds that the books of the Tanakh (The Old Testament) were transmitted in parallel with an oral tradition, as relayed by the scholarly and other religious leaders of each generation. In this view, Jewish Law is based on a "Written Law" - Torah she-bi-khtav תורה שבכתב - and an "Oral Law" - Torah she-be'al peh תורה שבעל פה. Jewish law and tradition thus is not based on a literal reading of the Tanakh, but on the combined oral and written tradition. The written law comprises the Torah and the rest of the Tanakh. The Oral Law was ultimately redacted in the Talmud. The interpretation of the Oral Law is considered as the authoritative reading of the Written Law. (Jews point to the text of the Torah, where many words are left undefined, and many procedures mentioned without explanation or instructions; the reader is assumed to be familiar with the details from other, oral, sources.)

See: Relation between the Bible and the Mishnah; The thirteen rules by which Jewish law was derived

It was initially forbidden to write and publish the Oral Law: written material would be incomplete and subject to misinterpretation (and abuse). After great debate, however, this restriction was lifted. It became apparent that the Palestine community and its learning were threatened, and that publication was the only way to ensure that the law could be preserved. (Following the destruction of the Second Temple and the fall of Jerusalem; see Timeline of Jewish history.) Around 200 CE, Rabbi Judah HaNasi took up the redaction of oral law; it was compiled into the first written work of rabbinic Judaism, the Mishnah. Over the next four centuries this body of law, legend and ethical teachings underwent debate and discussion, or gemara, in both of the world's major Jewish communities (Israel and Babylon). The Gemara, with the Mishnah came to be edited together into compilations known as the Talmud.

See The writing of the Mishnah ; Structure and Function of the Talmud

Because Jewish Law, Halakha, must include codes of law and behavior applicable to virtually every imaginable circumstance, this body of teaching has subsequently developed throughout the generations in a constantly expanding collection of religious literature based on the Talmud. In antiquity, the Sanhedrin functioned essentially as the Supreme Court and legislature for Judaism, and had the power to create and administer binding law on all Jews - rulings of the Sanhedrin became Halakha. That court ceased to function in its full mode in the year 40 CE. Subsequently, the boundaries of Jewish law have been determined through "the halakhic process." Thus, although the "Oral Law" has been in a written form for almost 18 centuries, it is still referred to as Torah she-ba'al peh.

See Codes of Jewish law, Rabbinic literature and Eras in Jewish law.

See also

Jewish oral law and tradition

External links and references

Bibliography on oral law and traditions (general)

  • J. Vansina (tr. Wright), "Oral Tradition" (London, 1965); id., "Oral Tradition as History" (Wisconsin, 1985)
  • R. Finnegan, "Oral Poetry" (Cambridge, 1977)
  • D.P. Henige "The Chronology of Oral Tradition" (Oxford, 1974); id., "Oral Historiography" (London, 1982)
  • J. Goody & I. Watt, in J. Goody (ed.), "Literacy in Traditional Societies" (Cambridge, 1968), 27-68
  • E. Tonkin, "Narrating our Pasts" (Cambridge, 1992).
  • The survey essay by Finnegan in "History and Theory" 10 (1970), 195-201.

Bibliography on oral law and traditions (Jewish)

  • "Maimonides introduction to the Mishnah Torah" see English translation at Mechon-Mamre
  • "The Encyclopaedia Judaica", Keter Publishing (available in print or in an updated CD-ROM version.)
  • "The Talmud", Adin Steinsaltz
  • "Introduction to The Talmud and Midrash" H.L. Strack and G. Stemberger , Fortress Press
  • "The infinite chain : Torah, masorah, and man" Nathan T. Lopes Cardozo, Targum Press Distributed by Philipp Feldheim; 1989

Last updated: 02-06-2005 04:07:39
Last updated: 04-25-2005 03:06:01