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THE ORAL LAW OF THE JEWS WITHOUT FOUNDATION.
HOWEVER the Jews may seem to agree with us, in regard to the Canon of the Old Testament, this concord relates only to the written law; for they obstinately persist in maintaining, that besides the law which was engraven on tables of stone, and the other precepts, and ordinances, which were communicated to Moses, and were ordered to be written, God gave unto him another Law, explanatory of the first, which he was commanded not to commit to writing, but to deliver down by oral tradition.
The account which the Jewish doctors give of the first communication and subsequent delivery of this law, is found in the Talmud. It is there stated, that during the whole day, while Moses continued on the mount, he was learning the written law, but at night he was occupied in receiving the oral law.
When Moses descended from the mount, they say, that he first called Aaron into his tent, and communicated to him all that he had learned of this oral law; then he placed him on his right hand. Next he called in Eliezer and Ithamar, the sons of Aaron, and repeated the whole to them; on which they also took their seats, the one on his right hand, the other on his left. After this the seventy elders entered, and received the same instruction as Aaron and his sons. And finally, the same communication was made to the whole multitude of people. Then Moses arose and departed, and Aaron, who had now heard the whole four times, repeated what he had learned, and also withdrew. In the same manner, Eliezer and Ithamar, each in turn, went over the same ground, and departed. And finally, the seventy elders repeated the whole to the people; every one of whom delivered what he had heard to his neighbour. Thus, according to Maimonides, was the oral law first given.
The Jewish account of its transmission to posterity is no less particular. They pretend that Moses, when forty years had elapsed from the time of the Israelites leaving Egypt, called all the people, and telling them that his end drew near, requested that if any of them had forgotten aught of what he had delivered to them, they should repair to him, and he would repeat to them anew what they might have forgotten. And they tell us, that from the first day of the eleventh month, to the sixth day of the twelfth, he was occupied in nothing else than repeating and explaining the law to the people.
But, in a special manner, he committed this law to Joshua, by whom it was communicated, shortly before his death, to Phineas, the son of Eliezer; by Phineas, to Eli; by Eli, to Samuel; by Samuel, to David and Ahijah; by Ahijah, to Elijah; by Elijah, to Elisha; by Elisha, to Jehoiada; by Jehoiada, to Zechariah; by Zechariah to Hosea; by Hosea, to Amos; by Amos, to Isaiah; by Isaiah, to Micah; by Micah, to Joel; by Joel, to Nahum; by Nahum, to Habakkuk; by Habakkuk, to Zephaniah; by Zephaniah, to Jeremiah; by Jeremiah, to Baruch; by Baruch, to Ezra, the president of the great synagogue. By Ezra, this law was delivered to the high priest Jaddua; by Jaddua, to Antigonus; by Antigonus, to Joseph son of John, and Joseph son of Jehezer; by these to Aristobulus, and Joshua the son of Perechiah; by them to Judah son of Tibœus, and Simeon son of Satah. Thence to Shemaiah—to Hillel—to Simeon his son, supposed to have been the same who took our Saviour in his arms, in the temple, when brought thither to be presented by his parents. From Simeon, it passed to Gamaliel, the preceptor, as it is supposed, of Paul. Then to Simeon his son; and finally, to the son of Simeon, Judah Hakkadosh, by whom it was committed to writing.
But, although, the above list brings down an unbroken succession, from Moses to Judah the Holy, yet to render the tradition still more certain, the Jewish doctors inform us, that this oral law was also committed, in a special manner, to the high priests, and handed down, through their line, until it was committed to writing.
Judah Hakkadosh was the president of the Academy at Tiberias, and was held in great reputation for his sanctity, from which circumstance he received his surname, Hakkadosh the Holy. The temple being now desolate, and the nation scattered abroad, it was feared lest the traditionary law might be lost; therefore it was resolved to preserve it by committing it to writing. Judah the Holy, who lived about the middle of the second century, undertook this work, and digested all the traditions he could collect in six books, each consisting of several tracts. The whole number is sixty-three. But these tracts are again subdivided into numerous chapters. This is the famous Mishna of the Jews. When finished, it was received by the nation with the highest respect and confidence; and their doctors began, forthwith, to compose commentaries on every part of it, These comments are called the Gemara, or the Completion; and the Mishna and Gemara, together, form the Talmud. But as this work of commenting on the text of the Mishna was pursued, not only in Judea, but in Babylonia, where a large number of Jews resided, hence it came to pass, that two Talmuds were formed; the one called the Jerusalem Talmud, the other, the Babylonish Talmud. In both these, the Mishna, committed to writing by Judah, is the text; but the commentaries are widely different. The former was completed before the close of the third century of the Christian era; the latter was not completed until towards the close of the fifth century. The Babylonish Talmud is much the larger of the two; for while that of Jerusalem has been printed in one folio volume, this fills twelve folios. This last is also held in much higher esteem by the Jews than the other; and, indeed, it comprehends all the learning and religion of that people, since they have been cast off for their unbelief and rejection of the true Messiah.
Maimonides has given an excellent digest of all the laws and institutions enjoined in this great work.
The Jews place fully as much faith in the Talmud as they do in the Bible. Indeed, it is held in much greater esteem, and the reading of it is much more encouraged. It is a saying of one of their most esteemed Rabbies, “That the oral law is the foundation of the written; nor can the written law be expounded, but by the oral.” Agreeably to this, in their confession, called the Golden Altar, it is said, “It is impossible for us to stand upon the foundation of our holy law, which is the written law, unless it be by the oral law, which is the exposition thereof.” In the Talmud it is written, “That to give attention to the study of the Bible is some virtue; but he who pays attention to the study of the Mishna, possesses a virtue which shall receive a reward; and he who occupies himself in reading the Gemara, has a virtue, than which there is none more excellent.” Nay, they go to the impious length of saying, “That he who is employed in the study of the Bible and nothing else, does but waste his time.” They maintain, that if the declarations of this oral law be ever so inconsistent with reason and common sense, they must be received with implicit faith—“You must not depart from them,” says Rabbi Solomon Jarchi, “if they should assert that your right hand is your left, or your left your right.” And in the Talmud it is taught, “That, to sin against the words of the scribes, is far more grievous than to sin against the words of the Law.” “My son, attend rather to the words of the scribes, than to the words of the Law.” “The text of the Bible is like water, but the Mishna is like wine;” with many other similar comparisons.
Without the oral law, they assert, that the written law remains in perfect darkness; for, say they, “There are many things in Scripture, which are contradictory, and which can in no way be reconciled, but by the oral law, which Moses received on Mount Sinai.” In conformity with these sentiments, is the conduct of the Jews until this day. Their learned men spend almost all their time in poring over the Talmud; and he, among them, who knows most of the contents of this monstrous farrago of lies and nonsense, is esteemed the most learned man. In consequence of their implicit faith in this oral law, it becomes almost useless to reason with the Jews out of the Scriptures of the Old Testament. It is a matter of real importance, therefore, to show that this whole fabric rests on a sandy foundation; and to demonstrate that there is no evidence whatever that any such law was ever given to Moses on Sinai. To this subject, therefore, I would now solicit the attention of the reader.
Here, then, let it be observed, that we have no controversy with the Jews concerning the written law, Moral, Ceremonial, or Political; nor do we deny that Moses received from God, on Mount Sinai, some explication of the written law. But what we maintain is, that this exposition did not form a second distinct law; that it was not the same as the oral law of the Jews, contained in the Talmud; that it was not received by Moses in a distinct form from the written law, and attended with a prohibition to commit it to writing.
In support of these positions, we solicit the attention of the impartial reader to the following arguments:
1. There is not the slightest mention of any such law in all the sacred records; neither of its original communication to Moses, nor of its transmission to posterity, in the way pretended by the Jews. Now, we ask, is it probable, that if such a law had been given, there should never have been any hint of the matter, nor the least reference to it, in the whole Bible? Certainly, this total silence of Scripture is very little favourable to the doctrine of an oral law. Maimonides does indeed pretend to find a reference to it in Exodus xxiv. 12. “I will give you, saith the Lord, a law and commandment;” by the first of these he understands the written law, and by the last the oral. But if he had only attended to the words next ensuing, he would never have adduced this text in confirmation of an oral law; “which I have written that thou mayst teach them.” And we know that it is very common to express the written law by both these terms, as well as by several others of the same import. Now, if no record exists of such a law having been given to Moses, how can we, at this late period, be satisfied of the fact? If it was never heard of for more than two thousand years afterwards, what evidence is there that it ever existed?
2. Again, we know that in the time of king Josiah, the written law, which had been lost, was found again. How great was the consternation of the pious king and his court, on this occasion! How memorable the history of this fact! But what became of the oral law during this period? Is it reasonable to think, that this would remain uninjured through successive ages of idolatry, when the written law was so entirely forgotten? If they had lost the knowledge of what was in their written law, would they be likely to retain that which was oral? If the written law was lost, would the traditionary law be preserved? And if this was at any time lost, how could it be recovered? Not from the written law, for this does not contain it; not from the memory of man, for the supposition is, that it was thence obliterated. If, then, this law, by any chance, was once lost, it is manifest that it could never be recovered, but by divine revelation. And when we survey the history of the Jews, is it conceivable, that such a body of law, as that contained in the Talmud, immensely larger than the written law, could have been preserved entire, through so many generations, merely by oral communication? The Jews, indeed, amuse us with a fable on this subject. They tell us that while the Israelites mourned on account of the death of Moses, they forgot three thousand of these traditions, which were recovered by the ingenuity of Othniel the son of Kenaz. This is ridiculous enough. What a heap of traditions must that have been, from which three thousand could be lost at once! And how profound the genius of Othniel, which was able to bring to light such a multitude of precepts, after they had been completely forgotten! But the proof of this fact is more ludicrous still. It is derived from Joshua xv. 16, 17. “And Caleb said, He that smiteth Kirjath-Sepher, and taketh it, to him will I give Achsah my daughter to wife. And Othniel the son of Kenaz, the brother of Caleb, took it: and he gave him Achsah his daughter to wife.” The unlearned reader should he informed that Kirjath-Sepher, means the city of the book.
But who retained the oral law safely preserved in his memory during the long reign of Manasseh, and during the reign of Amon, and of Josiah? Where was that law, during the seventy years captivity in Babylon? Have we not a word to inform us of the fate of this law in all the histories of those times? What! is there not a hint concerning the preservation of a deposit so precious as this law is pretended to be? We must say again, that this continued silence of Scripture, through a period of so many hundred years, speaks little in favour of the unwritten law.
3. The Jews again inform us, that this law was prohibited to be written; but whence do they derive the proof of the assertion? Let the evidence, if there be any, be produced. Must we have recourse to the oral law itself, for testimony? Be it so. But why then is it now written, and has been, for more than fifteen hundred years? In the Talmud, it is said, “The words of the written law, it is not lawful for you to commit to oral tradition; nor the words of the oral law to writing.” And Sol. Jarchi says, “Neither is it lawful to write the oral law.” Now we say, there was a law containing such a prohibition, or there was not. If the former, then the Talmudists have transgressed a positive precept of this law, in committing it to writing; if the latter, then their Talmud and their rabbies speak falsely. Let them choose in this dilemma.
4. But it can be proved, that whatever laws Moses received from God, the same he was commanded to write. It is said, “And Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord. And Moses wrote all the words of the Lord.” Exod. xxiv. 3, 4.
And again, it is said, “And the Lord said to Moses, Write these words, for according to these words have I made a covenant with you and with Israel.” Exod. xxxiv. 27, 28. And it is worthy of particular observation, that whenever the people are called upon to obey the law of the Lord, no mention is made of any other than the written law. Thus Moses, when his end approached, made a speech unto the people; after which, it is added, “And Moses wrote this law, and delivered it unto the priests the sons of Levi, which bare the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and unto all the elders of Israel. And Moses commanded them saying, At the end of every seven years, in the solemnity of the year of release, in the feast of tabernacles, when all Israel is come to appear before the Lord thy God, in the place which he shall choose, thou shalt read it before all Israel in their hearing.” Deut. xxxi. 9, 24.
Here, observe, there is no mention of any other but the written law. There is no direction to repeat the oral law, at this time of leisure; but surely it was more necessary to command the people to do this, if there had been such a law, than to hear the written law which they might read from time to time.
In the time of Ahaz, the sacred historian informs us, “‘That the Lord testified against Israel, and against Judah, by all the prophets, and by all the seers, saying, Turn ye from your evil ways, and keep my commandments and statutes, according to all the law which I commanded your fathers, and which I sent unto you by my servants the prophets.” 2 Kings xvii. 13, 37.
Now, it is very manifest that the law which they are reproved for breaking, was the written law; for in the same chapter we have the following exhortation: “And the statutes, and the ordinances, and the law, and the commandments which he wrote for you, ye shall observe to do for evermore.”
The prophets continually refer the people “to the law and to the testimony,” and declare, “if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.”
When Jehoshaphat set about reforming and instructing the people, and set on foot an important mission, consisting of princes and Levites, to teach them, they confined themselves to what was written in the Scriptures, “And they taught in Judah, and had the book of the law of the Lord with them, and went about through all the cities of Judah, and taught the people.” 2 Chron. xvii. 9.
So also Ezra, when he instructed the people who had returned from Babylon, made use of no other than the written law; “And Ezra the priest brought the law before the congregation, both of men and women, and all that could hear with understanding. And he read therein before the street, that was before the water-gate, from the morning until mid-day, before the men and the women, and those that could understand: and the ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the law. And Ezra stood upon a pulpit of wood, which they had made for the purpose; and Ezra opened the book in sight of all the people, and when he opened it, all the people stood up. And the priests and the Levites caused the people to understand the law; and they read in the book, in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused the people to understand the reading.” Neh. viii. 2-5, 7, 8.
5. Besides, the written law is pronounced to be perfect, so that nothing need, or could be added to it; therefore the oral law was superfluous. “The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul.” Psa. xix. 8. “Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish aught from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you.” Deut. iv. 1, 2.
It is not a valid objection which they bring against this argument, that Christians add the gospel to the law; for this is not, properly speaking, a new law. The gospel is a promise of grace and salvation. The precepts of the law are, indeed, specially employed in the gospel, to a purpose for which they were not originally intended; but the gospel, in whatever light it may be viewed, is committed to writing, and no part of it left to depend on oral tradition.
6. In the numerous exhortations and injunctions of Almighty God, recorded in the Old Testament, there is not an instance of any one being commanded to do anything not contained in the written law, which proves, that either there was no other law in existence, or that obedience to it was not required; and if obedience was not required, then, certainly, there was no law.3131It would be tedious to refer to all the texts in which commands and exhortations are given, but the reader may consult the following:—Deut. x. 12, 13; xi. 32; xxviii. 1; xxx. 20. xi; xxix. 9, 20; xxxii. 45, 46. Josh. i. 7; xxiii. 6. 2 Kings xiv. 6. 2 Chron. xxv. 4; xxx. 16.
Moreover, many of the Jews themselves concur with us in rejecting the oral law. The chief advocates of traditions were the Pharisees, who arose out of the schools of Hillel and Shammai, who lived after the times of the Maccabees. On this subject, we have the testimony of Jerome, who says, “Shammai and Hillel, from whom arose the Scribes and Pharisees, not long before the birth of Christ; the first of whom was called the Dissipator, and the last, Profane; because, by their traditions, they destroyed the law of God.” Isai. viii. But on this point, the Sadducees were opposed to the Pharisees, and, according to Josephus, rejected all traditions, adhering to the Scriptures alone. With them agreed the Samaritans, and Essenes. The Karaites, also, received the written word, and rejected all traditions; although in other respects, they did not agree with the Sadducees. And in consequence of this, they are hated and reviled by the other Jews, so that it is not without great difficulty that they will receive a Karaite into one of their synagogues. Of this sect, there are still some remaining in Poland, Russia, Turkey, and Africa.
It now remains to mention the arguments by which the Jews attempt to establish their oral law. These shall be taken from Manasseh ben Israel,3232Concil. in Exod. one of their most learned and liberal men. He argues from the necessity of an oral law, to explain many parts of the written law. To confirm this opinion, he adduces several examples, as Exodus xii. 2. “This month shall be unto you the beginning of months, it shall be the first month of the year.” On this text he remarks, “That the name of the month is not mentioned. It is not said, whether the months were lunar or solar, both of which were in ancient use; and yet without knowing this, the precept could not be observed. The same difficulty occurs in regard to the other annual feasts.”
“Another example is taken from Lev. xi. 133, where it is commanded, that unclean birds shall not be eaten, and yet we are not furnished with any criteria, by which to distinguish the clean from the unclean, as in the case of beasts. A third example is from Exod. xvi. 29, ‘Let no man go out of his place on the seventh day,’ and yet we are not informed, whether he was forbidden to leave his house, his court, his city, or his suburbs. So, in Lev. xxi. 12, the priest is forbidden ‘to go out of the Sanctuary,’ and no time is limited; but we know that the residence of the priests was without the precincts of the temple, and that they served there in rotation.”
“Again, in Exod. xx. 100, all work is prohibited on the Sabbath, but circumcision is commanded to be performed on the eighth day; and it is nowhere declared, whether this rite should be deferred, when the eighth day occurred on the Sabbath. The same difficulty exists in regard to the slaying of the paschal lamb, which was confined by the law to the fourteenth day of the month, and we are nowhere informed what was to be done when this was the Sabbath.” “In Deut. xxiv. we have many laws relating to marriage, but we are nowhere informed what was constituted a legal marriage.” “In the Feast of the Tabernacles, beautiful branches of trees are directed to be used, but the species of tree is not mentioned. And in the Feast of Weeks, it is commanded, ‘That on the fiftieth day, the wave-sheaf should be offered from their habitations;’ but where it should be offered is not said. And, finally, among prohibited marriages, the wife of an uncle is never mentioned.”
In these, and many other instances, the learned Jew observes, that the law could only be understood by such oral tradition as he supposes accompanied the written law.
Now, in answer to these things, we observe first, in the general, that however many difficulties may be started respecting the precise meaning of many parts of the law, these can never prove the existence of an oral law. The decision on these points might have been left to the discretion of the worshippers, or to the common sense of the people. Besides, many things may appear obscure to us, which were not so to the ancient Israelites; so that they might have needed no oral law to explain them.
Again, it is one thing to expound a law, and another to add something to it; but the oral law for which they plead, is not a mere exposition, but an additional law.
It is one thing to avail ourselves of traditions to interpret the law, and another to receive them as divine and absolutely necessary. We do not deny that many things may be performed according to ancient custom, or the traditions of preceding ages, in things indifferent; but we do deny that these can be considered as divine or necessary.
But particularly, we answer, that the alleged difficulty about the name of the month has no existence, for it can be very well ascertained from the circumstances of the case; and in Exod. xiii. the month is named. The civil year of the Jews began with the month Tisri, but the ecclesiastical with Abib. There is, in fact, no greater difficulty here, than in any other case, where the circumstance of time is mentioned. There was no need of understanding the method of reducing solar and lunar years into one another, to decide this matter. And if the Talmud be examined on this point, where the oral law is supposed to be now contained, there will be found there no satisfactory method of computing time. And, indeed, the Talmudic doctors are so far from being agreed on this subject, that anything else may be found sooner than a law regulating this matter in the Talmud.
And in regard to the unclean birds, why was it necessary to have criteria to distinguish them, since a catalogue of them is given in the very passage to which reference is made? And I would ask, does the pretended oral law contain any such criteria, to direct in this case? Nothing less. The difficulty about the people leaving their place on the Sabbath, and the priests leaving the temple, is really too trifling to require any serious consideration. And as to what should be done when the day of circumcising a child, or of killing the passover, happened on the Sabbath, it is a point easily decided. These positive institutions ought to have been observed, on whatever day they occurred.
The question respecting matrimony should rather provoke a smile, than a serious answer; for who is ignorant what constitutes a lawful marriage? Or who would suppose that the ceremonies attendant on this transaction ought to be prescribed by the law of God; or, that another law was requisite for the purpose? As well might our learned Jew insist on the necessity of an oral law, to teach us how we should eat, drink, and perform our daily work.
If the law prescribed beautiful branches of trees to be used in the Feast of Tabernacles, what need was there of an oral law to teach anything more? If such branches were used, it was of course indifferent whether they were of this or that species.
Equally futile are the other arguments of the author, and need not be answered in detail.
It appears, therefore, that there is no evidence that God ever gave any law to Moses, distinct from that which is written in the Pentateuch. And there is good reason to believe, that the various laws found in the Mishna, were never received from God, nor derived by tradition from Moses; but were traditions of the fathers, such as were in use in the time of our Saviour, who severely reprehends the Scribes and Pharisees, for setting aside, and rendering of no effect, the word of God, by their unauthorized traditions.
The internal evidence is itself sufficient to convince us that the laws of the Talmud are human inventions, and not divine institutions; except that those circumstances of divine worship which were left to the discretion of the people, and which were regulated by custom, may be often found preserved in this immense work.
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