“Abraham listened to my voice; abiding by my …Torah” Genesis 26:5

How can the word Torah appear in the Torah before the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai?

Torah has the general meaning of teaching, so teaching or law is often used to translate the word Torah. But the Genesis narratives must have been passed down orally for generations or the Jews in Egypt would have been unaware of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

This oral Torah is what is referred to in Genesis, and again in Exodus 13:9 where it directly says: “…the Lord’s Torah should be in your mouth”. The Rabbis taught that an oral Torah was given with the written Torah at Sinai. But the rabbis thought of it primarily in terms of the legal developments that would flow from the original written Torah, although some rabbis included Midrashic glosses in the oral Torah.

But clearly the Oral Torah of Genesis (which was written down by Miriam the Prophet Exodus 15:20) was how the Jews in Egypt knew about the events and personalities of Genesis. Most modern Biblical scholars also believe that oral traditions proceed written ones by centuries; so it is reasonable to understand the verse as referring to this Oral Torah narrative of Genesis.

God says; “I WILL GIVE YOU THE STONE TABLETS AND THE TORAH AND THE MITSVAH THAT I WROTE TO BE TAUGHT.” Exodus 24:12 Rabbi Simon ben Lakish says the stone tablets refer to written scripture, the Torah refers to the Oral Torah i.e. the Mishnah which is the legal base of the Talmud, the Mitsvah means the mitsvot, ‘that I wrote’ refers to the Prophets, and ‘to be taught’ refers to the Talmud.

By this Rabbi Simon ben Lakish means that just as a seed already contains all the information/DNA to create a future tree including its roots, trunk, branches, bark and leaves; so does the revelation at Sinai already contained all future legal, midrash and religious developments within it.

But Midrash Hagadol glosses ‘to be taught’ to mean not that everything was already taught –but just the basics were, so future generations could study them and interpret new insights out of the old.

These views are rejected by the medieval commentators Rashi and Abraham ibn Ezra. They admit that some say that ‘Torah’ refers to the written Torah and ‘Mitsvot’ refers to the Oral Torah. Yet, both claim that all the terms refer to the stone tablets alone.

I think the stone tablets refer to the ten declarations. The Torah refers to the Book of the Covenant (24:7) that Moses wrote (24:4) and later included the Book of Deuteronomy that Moses wrote shortly before his death (Deuteronomy 31:24-27).

The Mitsvah refers to all the Mitsvot that God told Moses to speak to Israel (25:1 for example) These oral commandments, which were not written down until much later, were included in the Oral Torah.

Some oral mitsvot and narratives were written down 10-20 generations later and added to the Book of the Covenant and Deuteronomy by Ezra to constitute the Torah of Moses.

The Oral Torah Mitsvot that were not written down for almost 40-50 generations, were included along with the various views of 1st and 2nd century rabbis in the Mishnah of Rabbi Judah the patriarch and in collections of Midrash edited still later. Each generation added to the Oral Torah through legal opinion and narrative Midrash.

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 250 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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