The Evolution of Jewish Law

Justin Bancroft

What is Halacha?

Judaism is not just a set of beliefs about God, man and the universe. Judaism is a comprehensive way of life, filled with rules and practices that affect every aspect of life.

What one does when he or she wakes up in the morning, what one can and cannot eat, what one can or cannot wear, how one can marry, how to observe the Jewish holidays and Shabbat, and, perhaps most importantly, how to treat God, other people and animals. This set of rules and practices is known as Halacha.

“Halacha” comes from the Hebrew word “holech,” meaning to go or to walk. Halacha implies movement, direction and progress, creating a concept of a pathway to follow, which represents the ways that Jews can live their lives according to Jewish Law.

Since God gave Moses the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, which form the basis of Halacha, Jewish Law has been developed. This brochure will inform you about the development of Halacha from what it was at the time of Moses, to what we know it to be today.

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A visual interpretation of Moses with the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai

The Written Law - Torah, Nevi'im, Ketuvim

God gave Moses the Ten Commandments in approximately 1300 BCE. These 10 Commandments formed the base of the Written Law (and, as a matter of fact, the base of Jewish Law throughout the ages). The Written Law is the Torah, which consists of the 5 books of Moses (which forms the Chumash), the Nevi’im, the prophets, and the Ketivum, the writings. Together, these sections form the Tanach, the sacred book of Judaism. The word Tanach is an acronym for the first letters of the words ‘Tanach’, ‘Nevi’im’ and ‘ Ketuvim.’

The Oral Law

Originally, the Oral Law was not written down. However, common sense suggests that some sort of oral tradition was always needed to accompany the Written Law, because the Torah alone, even with its 613 commandments, is an insufficient guide to Jewish life. For example, the fourth of the Ten Commandments states that Jews must “remember the Sabbath day to make it holy” (Exodus 20:8). It is clear that the Torah regards Shabbat as an important day. The Written Law is silent on (some of) the forbidden labour that one can do on Shabbat; such issues’ solutions are found in the Oral Law. Further, the Oral Law explains how commandments are to be carried out practically, and teaches Jews that certain Torah laws would be problematic if carried out literally.


As previously stated, the Oral Law was not originally written down. In Palestine, in approximately 160-200 CE, Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi made a decision to write down the Oral Law, and so formed the Mishnah, the codification and collection of the Oral Law transmitted by the word of mouth over generations. The 6 books or orders of the Mishnah supplements, complements, clarifies and systematizes the commandments of the Torah. Another reason that Rabbi Hanasi decided to codify the Oral Law was to prevent the possibility that the details of the Oral traditions would not be forgotten, changed, altered and so forth. The Mishnah is the first part of the Talmud.


Rabbis throughout the Land of Israel debated, analysed and discussed for 3 years following the compilation of the Mishnah. These discussions were recorded in writing and form the Gemara. The Gemara can be considered a “modernised” Mishnah, as it discusses the content of the Mishnah and relates it to everyday life. The Gemara is the second part of the Talmud.


The two components of the Talmud is the Mishnah and the Gemara. It contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis on a variety of subjects, including law, ethics, philosophy, customs, history and many other topics. The Talmud is the basis for all codes or rabbinic law and is much quoted in other rabbinic literature. Today, there are two works of Talmud that have been created.

1. The Talmud Yesushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud). This was complied by Rav Muna and Rav Yossi in approcimately 350 CE. This has never been finished.

2. The Talmud Bavli (Babylonian Talmud). This was compiled by the two Babylonian sages, Rav Ashi and Ravina in the year 500 CE. This is considered to be the more complete of the two texts, and is the one studied the most today.

One of the two works of Talmud - The Talmud Yerushalmi


The commentaries were intended as a contribution to the teaching and study of earlier texts and they help individuals understand the context of the Torah and Talmud. Some Jewish commentators are Rambam, Rashi and the Tosafot.

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One of many commentaries by Rashi


The large amount of volumes written on Halacha brought about the need to codify this material. To codify means to separate the Halachic decisions from the discussions and arguments of the rabbis and only record the bottom line, end result Halachic decisions. The most famous Codes of Jewish Law is Yosef Karo’s Shulchan Aruch and the Mishnah Torah.

Today, there are both positives and negatives of codification. It is good as it makes Jewish law ‘accessible’ to the average Jew, gives a definitive answer and allows Jews to easily know what to do. However, some negatives include the fact that it makes Jewish law less flexible, and it minimises the discussion and shades of interpretation as it gives a definitive answer.

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Yosef Karo's Shulchan Aruch


When a Jew cannot solve a problem, he or she would bring this problem to a Rabbi. The Rabbi would find a solution to the problem. This is known as ‘responsa.’ Should one not like the Rabbi’s decision, he or she cannot take the question to another Rabbi. Further, certain Rabbis specialise in certain issues. For example, one may be able to answer all medical questions, whilst another may be able to answer all questions based on food. Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg, one of the last Tosafits, wrote responsum.

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It is clear that Jewish Law has changed over many years. This picture is symbolic of the evolution of Halacha, as it has been developed, just like man was (see above).