Sadducees, Karaites and oral tradition

Dear Rabbi Fried
I have been doing some research into the opinions of the Sadducees and the Karaites, neither of whom accepted the oral tradition of the Torah and believed only in the written word. I have series of questions regarding the veracity of the Oral Law due to the beliefs of other sects of Judaism.

  • 1. Why did the Sadducees not believe in the Oral Law? If they also had ancestors going back to Sinai, shouldn’t they hold the same beliefs about the Oral Law the Pharisees held?
  • 2. The Mishnah quotes many conflicting opinions.
  • 3. The Mishnah does not go on to say in which opinion the truth lies. Rather, the Mishnah sometimes agrees with neither one nor the other, contradicting both.
  • 4. They argue that the truth of the oral law given to Moses could only be in one opinion, not many opinions.
  • 5. They question why the Mishnah does not solely speak in the name of Moses.
  • 6. The Oral Law is not explicitly mentioned in the Tanakh.
  • 7. When God told Moses to come up to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah He said, “Come up to me into the mountain, and be there: and I will give you tablets of stone, and a law, and commandments that I have written” (Exodus 24:12). The text states the commandments are written, and no mention is made of an Oral Law.
  • 8. The Tanakh reports that the written Torah was both lost and completely forgotten for over 50 years and only rediscovered by the Temple priests (2 Kings 22:8; 2 Chronicles 34:15). It is inconceivable that an Oral Law could have been remembered when even the Written Law was
  • forgotten.
  • 9. The words of the Mishnah and Talmud are clearly the words of people living in the 2nd–5th centuries CE, in contrast to the Torah, which is held to be a direct revelation by God through Moses.
  • 10. The Torah states, “You shall not add to the word that I am commanding you, nor take away from it, that you may keep the commandments of YHWH, your God, which I command you” (Deuteronomy 4:2). They argue that this excludes the possibility of later interpretation, when that interpretation is viewed as divinely ordained.

I would appreciate your thoughts on this,
Ron B.
Dear Ron,
These questions and the additional ones I didn’t yet print in your question will take a couple/few columns to address, so we’ll start with some this time.
Although the Sadducees had the same tradition, they, sadly, chose to reject that glorious tradition. The commentaries to Mishnah Pirkei Avos explain that the father of the Sadducees, a rabbi named Tzadok, and his colleague Baytus, erred in the interpretation of a teaching of their Rabbi, Antigonos of Socho, who taught the famous Mishnah: “Be not like servants who serve their master for the sake of receiving a reward (p’ras); instead be like servants who serve their master not for the sake of receiving a reward…” (Avos 1:3). This Mishnah, which teaches an important message of altruism, was misinterpreted by Tzadok and Baytus to mean that, according to their teacher and the Oral Law, there is no reward for performing mitzvos. This caused them to reject the Oral Law and its teachers and only accept the written Torah.
Reward and punishment
Without going into the deeper meaning of that Mishnah (and the difference between the word p’ras and reward), their teacher was not intending to reject in any way the concept of reward and punishment, which is one of Maimonides’ 13 core Jewish beliefs. Since, however, he taught the Mishnah in a way which was not clear enough to not allow such a misinterpretation, a later Mishnah exhorts the Rabbis to be careful in their teachings: “Scholars, be cautious with your words, for you may incur the penalty of exile and be banished to a place of evil waters (heresy), the disciples who follow you there may drink and die, and consequently the Name of Heaven will be desecrated” (Avos 1:11). This is referring to the mistake made by Tzadok and Baytus.
As to the other questions, which were thought up subsequently by them to justify their position, we will try to address in a later column.
Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel.
Questions can be sent to him at

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