Validity of Oral Law: Tefillin Example
I am getting interested in Judaism – reading the Bible, and trying to practice its many laws. But I am having a hard time accepting the Talmud and all its laws. Isn't it enough just to do what's written in the Bible?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
Thank you for writing. This issue has bothered people throughout the ages, and in fact many break-away Jewish groups (Karites, Sadducees, and even the Christians) did so over this very point.
But it is a huge mistake.
Many of the mitzvahs which form the foundation of Jewish life are scarcely mentioned in the Written Torah – and with no explanation of their details. What's more, violating one of the precepts may even carry a penalty of death! Were it not for the Oral Torah, we would be left clueless as to how to observe these mitzvahs.
Let's look at one example: The mitzvah of Tefillin.
What are Tefillin! Are they Totafot? Are they Frontlets? Are they Phylacteries?
What color are they? What size? Shape? What about the straps? How many compartments? What parchments go inside? How should they be worn? Who should wear them? When?
What does the Torah say?
"And you shall tell your son on that day, saying, "It is because of that which God did for me when I left Egypt." And it shall be for you a sign on your hand, and a reminder between your eyes – so that God's Torah may be in your mouth. For with a strong hand God brought you out of Egypt..." (Exodus 13:8-9,16)
As Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan describes in his book, "Tefillin" (NCSY 1973):
"There is no description of Tefillin (in the Torah), nor any hints as to how they must be made. The Torah merely outlines their contents and tells us nothing more. It is most important to realize that God gave us the Torah in two parts. There is the Written Torah, which we keep in the ark. However, there is also the Unwritten or Oral Torah, consisting of the oral tradition handed down from Sinai. The Torah was not meant to be a mere book, lying on the shelf. It was meant to be part of the everyday life of the entire people. As such, it could only be transmitted by word of mouth. The Oral Torah was handed down from teacher to disciple for almost 1,500 years, until the harsh Roman persecutions finally threatened to extinguish it completely.
Finally, some 1,700 years ago, it was written down to form the Talmud. The Talmud itself cites Tefillin as a prime example of a case where the full description of the commandment is found only in the Oral Torah. If you think about it, you will realize that it was not necessary to write a description of Tefillin in the Torah. One need simply look at an older pair. Tefillin were worn by virtually every adult male throughout Jewish history, and they themselves provided as permanent a record as any book."
My advice is to find a rabbi who can study with you some sections of Talmud, to get you familiar with its value and see how it interfaces with the written Bible. This will unquestionably help clarify the Jewish methods of observance.