Source for Shabbat Laws

I know that Judaism places many restrictions on Shabbat activities – writing, electricity, etc. But when I opened up the Bible to read about that, I couldn't find anything at all! How can that be? And where does this information originate from?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

You are correct that most of this information is not written in the Bible. But it does appear in the Talmud, the compendium of orally-transmitted Jewish law and ideas.

It is important to clarify a common misconception many people have about the role of the Oral Torah in Judaism.

The Oral Torah is not an interpretation of the Written Torah. The fact is, the Oral Torah preceded the Written Torah. When the Jewish People stood at Mount Sinai 3,300 years ago, God revealed Himself to the entire Jewish people. He then gave Moses the 613 commandments along with a detailed explanation of how the Jewish People were to fulfill them. At that point in time, the teachings were entirely oral.

It wasn't until 40 years later, just prior to Moses' death and the Jewish people's entering the Land of Israel, that the written Torah as we know it (containing various stories and sources for the mitzvahs), was given to the Jewish people.

In the written Torah, it doesn't say anywhere what work we shouldn't do on Shabbat. All it says is: "You may do work during the six weekdays, but the seventh day shall be holy for you... Do not ignite a fire in any of your dwelling-places on Shabbat day." (Exodus 35:2-3)

It says, "Don't do any work." And if you do work, the punishment is death by stoning! So what work shouldn't we do? The Bible doesn't say!

Were it not for the Oral Torah, we would be left clueless as to how to observe Shabbat. In fact, the Oral Law tells us that there are 39 categories of prohibited work on Shabbat.

If the entire Torah would have been given in writing, everyone would be able to interpret it as he desired. This would lead to division and discord among people who followed the Torah in different ways. The Oral Torah, on the other hand, requires a central authority to preserve it, thus assuring the unity of Israel.

God – in His infinite wisdom – devised the consummate system for transmitting Torah throughout the generations. It is not a written law, and it is not an oral law. It's both.

More Questions

Due to limited resources, the Ask the Rabbi service is intended for Jews of little background with nowhere else to turn. People with questions in Jewish law should consult their local rabbi. For genealogy questions try Note also that this is not a homework service!

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