Sources and the Oral Law


I recently found this idea during Talmud studies with some friends. Rambam’s statements seem to indicate that no human can alter or create new laws contrary to Hashem’s eternal written Torah laws. Your insight would be greatly appreciated.

Mishneh Torah, Foundations of the Torah 9

“It is a clear and manifest principle concerning the Torah that as a Law it is permanently established forever and ever more; and that it is not subject to mutability, nor to diminution, nor to amendment; for it is said: “All this word which I command you, that shall ye observe to do; thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it” (Ibid. 13.1); and it is further said: “But the things that are revealed belong unto us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Ibid. 29.28). Here from we learn that according to all the words of the Torah we are commanded to do forever.

It is, moreover, said: “a statute forever throughout your generations” (Num. 15:15); and again, it is said: 1See Bava Mezi’a 59b:5. C. “It is not in heaven” (Deut. 30:12); here from we learn that no prophet is thereafter permitted to make any innovation. Therefore, should a man rise up, whether he be from among the Gentiles or whether from among Israel, and deliver a token and perform a miracle saying, that God hath sent him to add a commandment, or to diminish a commandment, or to interpret a certain commandment of among the commandments with such interpretation as we have not heard by tradition (statute) from Moses; or he said, that these commandments with which Israel was charged are not forever and throughout all generations, but that they were commandments in keeping with those times only, behold him, he is a false prophet, seeing that he came to deny the prophecy of Moses; and his punishment is death by strangulation, because he willfully spoke in the name of God concerning that which He did not charge him; for He, blessed is He! commanded Moses, saying, that this enactment was “unto us and unto our children forever” (Deut. 29:28); and, “God is not a man that He should lie” (Num. 23:19).

But, why then is it said in the law: I will raise them up a prophet from among their brethren LIKE UNTO THEE, (Deut. 18:18)? The answer is, that he (the prophet) is not to come to establish any new law, but only to enjoin the observation of the existing law, and to warn the people that they should not trespass against it; just as the last of the prophets said: Remember ye the law of Moses, my servant, (Mal. 3:22). Moreover, if he (the prophet) were to charge us with anything respecting private matters; as, for instance: go into that place, or do not go; join battle today, or do not join battle; build this wall, or do not build it; we are likewise’ commanded to hearken unto him. And he who trespasses against his words, will be visited with punishment of death by Heaven, for it is said; IM And it shall come to pass, that whosoever will not hearken unto My words which he shall speak in My name, I WILL REQUIRE IT OF HIM, (Deut. 18:19)

Moreover, a prophet who trespasses against his own words, or suppresses his prophecy, will likewise be visited with punishment of death by Heaven; and it is with regard to these three cases, that it is said: I will require it of him. Also, if a prophet, whom we know to be a prophet, were to tell us that we should trespass against any one of the commandments stated in the law, or even against several commandments, whether they be slight or important ones, for a certain time only; we are commanded to hearken unto him. For thus we are taught by the sages of old, who received traditionally: “In everything that the prophet bids thee trespass against the words of the law, as in the case of Elijah on mount Carmel, (as recorded in (I Kings 18), hearken unto him except in matters of idolatry.” This bidding of the prophet, however must be an exceptional one for present circumstances, as was with Elijah on mount Carmel, namely, when he offered a burnt offering without Jerusalem, though that city alone was chosen for this purpose, and though he who offers a sacrifice without Jerusalem deserves Careth (excision); but notwithstanding this, because he was a prophet, we were commanded to hearken unto him; for in such cases Scripture says: Unto him ye shall hearken, (Deut. 18: 15). Now had one asked Elijah and said unto him: “How can we break that which is written in the law: that thou offer not thy burnt offerings in every place that thou seest, (Deut. 12: 13)?” he would have answered thus: Scripture only says that he who always offers sacrifices without Jerusalem is guilty of Careth (excision) to be cut off, as Moses has commanded us; but as for myself, I shall offer a sacrifice without Jerusalem this day only, [and this I do] by the command of the Lord, in order to refute the prophets of Baal. And in this manner any one of the prophets order us to transgress a commandment temporarily, we are commanded to hearken unto him; but if he says that the thing is to be broken forever, he renders himself amenable to death by strangulation; for the law says: Unto us and to our children FOR EVER, (Deut. 29:28).

And in like manner if he (the prophet) propose to break any of the ordinances which we have learned by tradition (statute); or if he say, with respect to any point of the law, that the Lord had made known to him that such was the decision, or that [in any rabbinical controversy] the point ought to be decided by the opinion of such and such a person; (Bava Metzia 86a:7) that man is a false prophet, and amenable to death by strangulation, although he performs a sign; for he came to deny the law, which says: It is not in Heaven, (Deut. 30:12); but in temporary matters we must hearken unto him in everything.

The above, however, applies only to all other commandments; but as regards matters of idolatry, we do not hearken unto him, even temporarily. And were he even to perform great signs and wonders, yet if he say that the Lord commanded him that some idol should be worshipped, though for that day only, or for that hour only—then this man has spoken to turn you away from the Lord, and with respect to such a one Scripture commands as follows: And the sign or the wonder come to pass…Thou shalt not hearken unto the words of that prophet…Because he hath spoken TO TURN YOU AWAY FROM THE LORD YOUR GOD, (Deut. 13: 2, 3, 5). For behold! this man came to deny the prophecy of Moses; and therefore we know for a certainty that he is a false prophet, and that which he performed was done by deception and illusion, and he has rendered himself amenable to death by strangulation.





  1. The Rabbis never added a Torah mitzvah nor deleted one, so to speak. As you cite from the Rambam.

    Their teachings, in the Oral Law, are meant to help define the parameters of the Torah laws, enact Rabbinical decrees to “guard” the Torah laws from being desecrated, and establish Rabbinical mitzvahs – such as Chanukah, Purim, Shabbat candles and blessings – which all have some basis in the Torah and help bring the Jewish People closer to Hashem.

    Best wishes from the Team