Torah is the term used for the body of knowledge revealed on Mount Sinai to the Israelites as they were on their way from Egypt to Canaan following the Exodus. It is made up of two parts: the Written Torah, which is more widely known as the Pentateuch, or Five Books of Moses, and the Oral Torah.
Contrary to various misunderstandings and mistranslations, the Oral Torah is not a commentary on the Written Torah. It would be more accurate (though still an approximation of the truth) to say that the Written Torah is a mnemonic device whose purpose is to make the vastly larger Oral Torah more manageable.
The Oral Torah has two parts. These are referred to today as Niglah ("Revealed") and Nistar ("Hidden"). The part known as Niglah is much more widely known and is divided into six subdivisions:
The part of Torah called Nistar is also known as Kabbalah. Contrary to wild fantasies on the parts of such academic "experts" as Gershom Scholem, Kabbalah is not "Rabbinic Mysticism." It is not mysticism of any sort whatsoever. It is a kind of advanced study that can be thought of as being analogous to the most arcane fields of physics being studied today. It is an area that is unnecessary for proper understanding of Niglah, and in fact, due to the various religions in the world that have incorporated bits and pieces of Nistar into them, it is extremely easy to be misled about the meaning of Nistar unless one has a thorough grounding in Niglah.
There are three subdivisions of Nistar/Kabbalah:
This corpus of knowledge, not all of which is legal, but explanatory, was transmitted by word of mouth over the many centuries from the Revelation until the present day. There were phases of this transmission, which accounts for the difference between the way things are today and the way they were when the Torah was first given.
Up until the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians, Niglah was taught to everyone. The Sages teach us that at the time of King Hezekiah (a contemporary and son-in-law of the prophet Isaiah), even small children knew the most complex laws of ritual purity. It was just so much a part of the culture that everyone knew it. Nistar was taught in groups, or bands, of students. It was comparable to the difference today between simple arithmetic and quark physics.
The incredible and seemingly primitive and idiotic attraction of idolatry during the First Temple period was due to the fact that it actually worked. The "prophets" of crackpot religions such as Ba'al worship learned techniques that were part of Nistar and abused them in order to gain followers. Because of the role of idolatry in the destruction and Exile, the Sages of the time, known to us as the Men of the Great Assembly, decreed that Nistar could no longer be taught in public, and in fact, could not be taught to more than very select students, one at a time. This had the effect of damping out the plague of idolatry in Israel, but pretty much ended prophecy as well.
The Men of the Great Assembly also formulated the laws of Niglah into a set form, which became known as the Mishnah. The reason for this was that with the majority of the Jews living under foreign rulers, whose caprices could wipe out whole communities at any time, a slightly more rigid formulation could make the difference between the preservation or loss of the Torah. Even so, this Mishnah was only a further mnemonic device for the entirety of Niglah, and continued to be transmitted orally.
Following the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans, and the resultant chaos, the Sages of the time, known to us at the Tanaim, began to collect Mishnaic statements, with the intent of editing them into an authoritative corpus. The main force behind this effort was Rabbi Akiva, and the work was completed under the auspices of Rabbi Judah the Prince.
Once the Mishnah had reached all the various Jewish communities, it became a unifying force. But the situation continued to deteriorate. The Mishnah, and other collections of Mishnaic statements that had not made it into the final cut, continued to be discussed by the Sages of the time, who were now known as Amoraim. These discussion themselves did not add to the information contained in the Mishnah, but spelled it out more explicitly. The Amoraim knew that given current conditions, things would only get worse, and that each progressive generation would have a less certain understanding of the Mishnah. So they preserved their discussions, which were eventually edited into what we have today as the Gemara. The combination of the Mishnah and the Gemara is known as the Talmud.
All rabbinic literature subsequent to the Talmud (as regards Niglah) is commentary, explication, and the application of Talmudic principles to situations which arose from time to time. The Talmud itself is, with all its gaps, the essential corpus of Niglah. It must, perforce, be treated as if it is the living word of Hashem, as transmitted to Moses on Mount Sinai. And in fact, we have God's promise that the Torah will never be lost, and the chain of tradition never broken:
"And for My part, this is My covenant with them," said Hashem. "My spirit which is upon them, and the words I have set in their mouths, shall not be lost from their mouths, or from their children's mouths, or from their children's children's mouths," said Hashem, "from now until eternity."
The history of Nistar, due to its status as "hidden", was quite different. As with Niglah, Rabbi Akiva was one of the key players in its transmission. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, however, was responsible for compiling one of the most authoritative collections of Kabbalistic knowledge in his work, the Zohar. But the Zohar itself was transmitted orally until the 12th century, when the Kabbalist Moshe de Leon committed it to writing. It remains the least understood part of the Torah, except on the part of a handful of Sages alive today.
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