The Evolution of Jewish Law

Did Jew Know?

The Basics

Jewish law is called 'Halacha' in Hebrew. It provides guidelines on all aspects of how to live. The word 'Halacha' comes from the Hebrew word meaning 'to walk'. Halacha is a path to follow.


Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai in around 1250 BCE. The Ten Commandments form the basic laws that Jews are to abide to:

  1. "I am the Lord your God..."
  2. You shall have no other Gods but me
  3. You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God
  4. You shall remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy
  5. Honor your father and mother
  6. You shall not murder
  7. You shall not commit adultery
  8. You shall not steal
  9. You shall not bear false witness against thy neighbor
  10. You shall not covet

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Written Law


Five Books of Moses

The Five Books of Moses retells God's creation of the world, then follows the Jewish people in Cannan, the exile and redemption from Egypt, the nation known as Israel and back to Canaan. God reveals rules for governing a virtuous society and worship. The Five books are Bereishit (Genesis), Shemot (Exodus), Vayikra (Leviticus), Bamidbar (Numbers) and Devarim (Deuteronomy).


Nevi'im (Prophets) tells the history of Israel as a nation through the lives of prophets between 1200 BCE and 515 BCE.

The Writings

The Writings is a very humble name for the variety of religious poems found in it. The poems express temple ritual, prayer, love, national tragedy and wisdom. Also included are retellings of historical events and stories.

Most books were written between the fifth and second centuries BCE. Unlike Prophets and the Five Books of Moses, the writings do not come directly from God or those who spoke to God (Prophets).

Oral Law


The Oral Law (Mishnah) explains how to apply the Written Law to our life; it is an in-depth analysis of how the commandments are to be carried out. The Oral Law also contains some laws that are only found in Oral Torah.

Without the Oral Torah, the Written Torah is incomprehensible.

Originally, the Oral Torah was not written down, but passed down orally from Rabbi to student. When Jews first dispersed Rabbi Judah the King decided that the Law needed to be written down so that nothing would be forgotten and to avoid alterations. Rabbis, based on their understanding of the Written and Oral Torah, discussed. This occurred between 200 BCE until 200 CE when Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi wrote it all down. There are six books, and each deals with a different point of law.


In the three centuries following the compilation, rabbis analysed and debated the Oral Law. These discussions and decisions form the Gemara.

The discussions are presented so that the law from the Mishnah is cited, followed by the deliberations of rabbis in the Gemara.


The Mishnah and the Gemara form the Talmud.

There exist two works of Talmud:

Talmud Yerushalmi: compiled in around 350 CE by Rabbi Yossi and Rabbi Muna

Talmud Bavli: compiled in 500 CE by Rav Ashi and Ravina.

Talmud Bavli is the one most studied today as it more complete. Talmud Bavli has superior context as it was written with knowledge of living in the diaspora.


Commentators discuss Jewish Law in order to decide on new issues that arise. Commentaries aid in understanding the Torah and Talmud further. Rabbis deeply analyse the Torah to draw conclusions. Famous commentators include:

Rambam 1135-1204

Rashi 1040-1105

Solomon Ibn Nagrela 993-1056

Rav Solveitchik

Codes of Jewish Law

With many books about Jewish Law came the need to summarise the material in a book with only the answers to these discussions- codification.

This makes Jewish Law easier to comprehend and find answers to. It also gives a definitive answer. On the other hand, codifying the Law minimises discussion and creativity.

The most famous Codes of Jewish Law are:

Rambam's Mishneh Torah and Karo's Shulchan Aruch


Responsa is questions and answers to modern issues. Rabbis use Rabbinic texts to analyse and deduce answers for new issues. For example, when printing was invented, the question arose of whether it should be considered writing for the purpose of Jewish law.

Responsa began being compiled in the Middle ages and continues today.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz: Making Sense of the Mishna

Coco Martel

Culture and Events Journalist

I hope you have extended your knowledge on Jewish Law and Judaism in general. Feel free to leave comments on my Facebook page below.


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