Authority in Judaism

February 19, 2018

Judaism has four major sources of authority accepted today:  Tanakh, Mishnah, Midrash and the Talmud.


The Tanakh is the Hebrew Bible containing 24 books.  It is the Christian Old Testament with some books combined into one (i.e. 1 and 2 Samuel are one book called Samuel).  It is referred to as the Written Law and the belief is that God dictated the Bible to the writers word for word.  There is a three-fold division to the Tanakh: Torah, Prophets and Writings.


Torah means law.  In general, the Torah can refer to both the Oral and Written Law or the whole of the Tanakh.  However, the Torah more specifically refers to the Pentateuch, which are the first five books of the Bible also called the books of Moses.  The Torah is the most important of Jewish authorities.

Judaism teaches that every letter in the Torah is identical to that which was given to Moses on Mount Sinai and it is complete.

It follows from the perfection of the Torah that it can never be improved upon, and therefore God will never supersede it by another Revelation.  This dogma of Judaism is deduced from the text, ‘It is not in heaven’ (Deut. 30:12), which is expounded thus: ‘That you shall not say another Moses will arise and bring us another Torah from heaven, I have already made it known to you that “it is not in heaven,” i.e. there is nothing left of it in heaven’ (Deut. R. 8:6).[i]

The creation of the Torah is believed to have preceded Creation.

Seven things were created before the world was created: Torah, repentance, the Garden of Eden (i.e. Paradise), Gehinnom, the Throne of Glory, the Temple, and the name of the Messiah. (Pes. 54a)

Note: Jews would see the Christians as having multiple New Testament Bibles, referring to the different manuscripts.  They believe that proves that the New Testament cannot be from God because of the differences in the manuscripts. The passage above referring to “supersede it by another Revelation” is thought to be a veiled reference to the New Testament.  Below is another example.

Although, the Torah was created before Creation there is debate over how long before.  According to one opinion, ‘the Torah preceded Creation by two thousand years’ (Gen. R. 8:2); but another view is, ‘Nine hundred and seventy-four generations before creation of the world the Torah was written and lay in the bosom of the Holy One, blessed be He’ (ARN 31).


The Prophets contain the major and minor prophets.

Hayiographa or the Writings

The Writings are the rest of the writings of the Old Testament Bible (i.e. Psalm, Proverbs, Samuel, etc.).


The Midrash is a commentary on the Tanakh. Some Rabbis state that it is the system of interpretation employed throughout the Rabbinic literature.[ii]  Hence, the allegorical method of interpretation in the Midrash leads to some Jewish mysticism.  There are several different Midrash’s written by different Rabbis.  They are not assumed to be the Word of God, but they are an authoritative source of Judaism.


The Mishnah is an abstract or summary of the religious and civil law of the Jews.  It is referred to as the Oral Law.  It is believed that the oral law was given at the same time as the written law on Mount Sinai and was given to Moses but not written down until about 220 B.C.E.

Judaism teaches that the Mishnah was memorized concept by concept as opposed to word-by-word throughout the centuries.  The concepts given to Moses are preserved in what are now over 1100 pages.

Note: The Mishnah was given orally from generation to generation but not word for word, instead concept by concept. 

Jacob Neusner states in his translation of the Mishnah:

The Mishnah itself is generally supposed to have come to closure at the end of the second century, and its date, for conventional purposes only, is ca. A.D. 200. Now, of these two groups—sages from 70–130, and from 135–200—the latter is represented far more abundantly than the former. …

In the aftermath of the war against Rome in A.D.132–135, the Temple was declared permanently prohibited to Jews, and Jerusalem was closed off to them as well. So there was no cult, no Temple, no holy city, to which, at this time, the description of the Mishnaic laws applied. They observe at the very outset, therefore, that a sizable proportion of the Mishnah deals with matters to which the sages had no material access or practical knowledge at the time of their work.

A fundamental issue with the Rabbis was the acceptance of a traditional Torah, transmitted from one generation to another by word of mouth, side by side with the written text.  It was claimed that the Oral Torah equally with the Written Torah, goes back to the Revelation on Sinai, if not in detail at least in principle.  Forty-two enactments, which find no record in the Pentateuch, are described by the Talmud as ‘laws given to Moses on Sinai’.

The Roman governor Quietus asked R. Gamaliel, ‘How many Toroth were given to Israel?’ He answered, ‘Two – one in writing and the other orally’” (Sifre Deut. 351:145a).

Why, however, was it necessary for the Torah to be given in this twofold form? An answer suggested to the question is: “The Holy One, blessed be He, gave Israel two Toroth, the written and the oral.  He gave them the Written Torah in which are six hundred and thirteen commandments in order to fill them with precepts whereby they could earn merit.  He gave them the Oral Torah whereby they could be distinguished from the other nations.  This was not given in writing, so that the Ishmaelites should not fabricate it as they have done the Written Torah and say that they were Israel” (Num. R. 14:10).  In the word ‘Ishmaelites’ we must detect one of the substitutions which were employed in the Middle-Ages to circumvent the censor.  Obviously, Christians are meant.  Since the Church adopted the Hebrew Scriptures, they ceased to be the peculiar possession of Jews.  Therefore, the Oral Torah, which was not accepted by the Church, safeguarded the distinctiveness of the Jewish people living in a Christian environment.  The problem with the word ‘Ishmaelites’ referring to Christians is that by the seventh century the Muslims (Arabs descendants of Ishmael) ruled the area of Israel and Islam tried to unite the two but Judaism would not conform causing Muhammad to split from the use of the Hebrew Scriptures.  So depending on when it was written it could have been referring to either or both the Christians and Muslims. 


The Talmud is a commentary on the Mishnah.  The Talmud is a work wherein is deposited the bulk of the literary labors of numerous Jewish scholars over a period of some 700 years, roughly speaking, between 200 B.C.E. and 500 C.E.  There are two primary Talmud’s; the Palestinian and the Babylonian.

  • Palestinian Talmud – composed shortly after 400 C.E.
  • Babylonian Talmud – referred as the Talmud, completed about 500 C.E.

The Talmud, for the Jew, is not merely a great literary production, which it is.  It is not merely a great repository of law and ritual, which it is.  The Talmud is a great fund of Jewish religious experience and wisdom accumulated throughout the course of the ages.  The Talmud ranks next to the Sacred Scriptures in significance as a source for religious insight, inspiration and practice, and will instruct the last generations of mankind.[iii] (emphasis added)

The religious leaders of each generation were empowered through the Mishnah to legislate for their own time in the light of contemporary circumstances.  Therefore, the Torah, both written and oral, were static and unchanging.  However, the Talmud and Midrash were a running commentary on the Torah, both written and oral.

Note: The Talmud is their tradition and usually seems to take precedence over the Scriptures for faith and practice.  This is thought to be so that if the law is forgotten the tradition will not be and some time later someone will ask the reason for the tradition and the law will then be remembered. 

Rabbinic law

Rabbinic law are the rules of the rabbis found in the Talmud and the Midrash.  It is important to note thatritual keeping is essential to Judaism.  Jewish rabbis believe that the ritual keeps the message over time.  The message of the Torah could be lost over time, but if tied to the ritual eventually someone somewhere will question the meaning of the ritual and regain the message from the ritual.


[i] Cohen, A, Everyman’s Talmud. (New York: Schocken Books Inc.;1975), pages 134-135.
[ii] Cohen, pages xvii-xviii.
[iii] Cohen, pages v-vi.

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