The Rambam begins his monumental code of law with an introduction to explain the foundations of Judaism and the chain of the Torah’s transmission from one generation to the next.
Summary: The Rambam explains that the Torah has two components: the Written and the Oral. At Mount Sinai, Moses received the Two Tablets which contained the Ten Commandments. From then on, over the period of forty years in the Wilderness, he composed the Torah as dictated to him by God. At the same time, God explained all the commandments and teachings of the Torah to Moses, and Moses then taught them to the nation. The Written Torah itself is just an encrypted, shorthand summary of God’s Law. To truly understand the Torah, one needs the Oral Tradition to extract its deeper meaning.
The Rambam cites Exodus 24:12 as proof: “And I will give you the Tablets of Stone, the Torah, and the mitzvah.” The phrasing seems redundant – does not the Torah contain all the mitzvot? What is meant here is that God gave Moses the Written Torah, but also explained it to him orally, hence “the mitzvah“, literally “the command”. The Rambam further cites Deuteronomy 13:1, where Moses tells the people: “Be careful to observe everything that I prescribe to you.” In other words, Moses gave over more than just a written text, but also a set of oral teachings that the nation must carefully adhere to.
Insight: To properly understand Jewish law, one must grasp the fact that there is both a Written and Oral Law. It is nearly impossible to understand the Torah without the Oral Tradition. For instance, the Torah states four different times to bind a symbol upon one’s arm and between one’s eyes (the mitzvah of tefillin), yet nowhere does it say what this symbol looks like, or how it is to be bound. Similarly, the Torah states multiple times to tie fringes onto the corners of one’s clothes, but does not explain how these fringes must be tied or what exactly they should look like. Such information comes from the oral teachings, as transmitted by the Prophets and Sages over the millennia. In the coming passages, the Rambam will carefully lay out the chain of transmission, and the exact figures that passed on the Torah over the generations.