Project Genesis

Jewish History

The Great Rabbis

The Evolution of Jewish Law

Question: Can I have an introduction to the great works of Halachah (Jewish Law) and their authors. For example Mishneh Torah, Tur, Shulchan Aruch, and Mishnah Berurah?

Answer: Moshe received the Torah at Sinai, both the Written Law and the Oral Law. These are both considered to be from G-d and immutable. The Written Law is the Chumash, the Oral Law was transmitted from generation to generation, and studied and learnt by thousands of Rabbis and students in each generation.

In addition we have Rabbinic laws, most of which were enacted by the Men of the Great Assembly (at the beginning of the Second Temple era), though the earliest Rabbinic laws are from Moshe himself, and the latest are from the Mishnaic period.

This Oral tradition was written down by Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi in about 200ce in the Mishna. 300 years later additional material and commentary was compiled by Ravina and Rav Ashi in the Talmud (or gemara). The Rambam writes in his introduction to Mishna that no later authorities may argue on the Talmud since this was accepted by all of Klal Yisrael as binding. It is the Talmud that forms the main basis of Halacha.

The three pillars of modern Halacha are the medieval compendiums of the Rif (R’ Yitzchak Alfasi), Rambam (R’ Moshe ben Maimon – Mishne Torah) and the Tur (R’ Ya’akov ben Asher). The Rif is organized according to the order of the Talmud, the Rambam is divided into 14 sections, each dealing with a different area of Halacha, and the Tur is divided into 4 books. R’ Yosef Karo drew primarily on these three when compiling his Shulchan Aruch (which uses the same divisions and numbering system as the Tur). The Shulchan Aruch
and the glosses of the Rama (R’ Moshe Isserless) which are printed with it is the standard Halachic text for both Ashkenazi and Sefardi Jewry. Almost immediately commentaries and explanations were written on the Shulchan Aruch, many of which are printed today in the standard editions of the Shulchan Aruch. There is an accepted view that later authorities do not have the ability to go against the rulings of the Shulchan Aruch.

As the number of commentaries grew it became more difficult for the average person to know what to do and how to act. In the 19th century many books were written giving simple Halacha necessary for daily life. These include Shulchan Aruch HaRav (R’ Shneur Zalman of Liadi), Chai Adam and Chochmas Adam (R’ Danziger), Aruch HaShulchan (R’ Michoel Epstein), Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (R’ Ganztfried) and the Mishna Brura (Chofetz Chaim – R’ Yisroel Meir HaCohen Kagan). Each of these draws primarily on the Shulchan Aruch, adding later customs and practices and giving practical Halachic rulings. Today the Mishna Brura has assumed a great level of authority.

Contemporary Halachic works tend to be based around a single issue, such as kashrut, Shabbat, blessings or Nida. They incorporate the rulings of all the relevant earlier sources, as well as contemporary decisions. Although Halacha is constantly evolving to accommodate the modern world, every decision must be grounded in (and sourced from) earlier Halachic texts.

Rabbi David Sedley

2 Follow-ups »

  1. If the Shulchan Aruch was already written with practical laws, then why are the later codifiers necessary? What do they contribute as far as practical law?

    Later codifiers are able to bring in alternative opinions and to argue with the Shulchan Aruch. They also bring local customs or more modern opinions that were not available to the Shulchan Aruch. Finally, they deal with practical situations that have only arisen in more modern times, such as things to do with technology, or living in large cities etc.

    Rabbi David Sedley

    Comment by ATR — December 20, 2006 @ 4:43 am

  2. Then what is the point of learning outdated material? Wouldn’t that just confuse us? Why can’t someone arrange a current, up to date law book that we can all use?

    To a certain extent that does happen. There are many ‘up to date’ books that just list the ‘do’s and ‘don’ts without going through the entire topic from beginning to end.

    However, to be able to understand the Halacha properly a person has to learn everything from the beginning to the end, including the ‘outdated’ material, so that they can use that information to evaluate current issues. The more breadth of knowledge a person has the more they are equipped to answer questions that are not exactly the case mentioned in the more ‘up to date’ books.

    The other danger in the newer books is that they tend to become more and more stringent, including all of the strictest opinions of all the other books. If a person knows the original material they can decide for themselves which opinions to follow and which stringencies are appropriate, or which leniencies.

    Rabbi David Sedley

    Comment by ATR — December 20, 2006 @ 10:55 am

We respond to every follow-up question submitted, but only publish selected ones. In order to be considered for publication, questions must be on-topic, polite, and address ideas rather than personalities.


Powered by WordPress