The Evolution of Jewish Law

By Gabi Bergman

What Is Halacha?

Halacha is the Hebrew word for "Jewish Law", derived from the hebrew word "holech", which means "walk". By using the word "Halacha" as the title for Jewish Law, it implies the direction, movement and progress of the Law. The Halacha provides detailed guidelines for how a Jewish person should live. It is a path for Jews to follow.

TANACH - written law

The Tanach is the Written Law in Judaism.

The Tanach is an anagram in Hebrew for the 3 sections of Written Law: Torah, Nevi'im and Ketuvim.

The Tanach is usually published together, with all 3 books. The main exception to this is the Torah, as this is sometimes published as a single volume.

This part of Jewish Law does several things, such as:

  • tells us the story of our ancestors
  • educates us on how we should behave and conduct ourselves in life
  • teaches us moral lessons and skills for the future

The only issue with the Written Law is that is it quite complex to understand, and this is why we have things such as the Toshba and Commentaries - to help us better understand the Tanach, primarily the Torah.


The Torah is the first section of the Tanach. It is also called the Five Books of Moses.

There are 5 books of the Torah:

  • Bereshit (In the beginning),
  • Shmot (Names),
  • Vayikra (And he called),
  • Bamidbar (In the Desert)
  • Devarim (Things)

Each book addresses several things, such as the story of the Jewish people, statements of law and different statements of ethics for the Jewish people to follow. It also contains the different mitzvot that Jews should follow.

The Torah is the main text which is interpreted in the Rabbinical Commentaries, and in books such as the Mishnah and Gemara.


Nevi'im is the second section of the Tanach. It translates to "Prophets".

It contains writings of different Jewish prophets. The book is divided into 2 sections - former prophets, and latter prophets.

The books in Nevi'im are:

  • Joshua
  • Judges
  • Samuel 1 & 2
  • Kings 1 & 2
  • Isaiah
  • Jeremiah
  • Ezekiel
  • The Twelve Prophets (writings of 12 minor prophets)


Ketuvim is the third section of the Tanach. It translates to "Writings".

It is a miscellaneous collection of different Jewish texts, poems and Megillot that were composed over a long period of time.

Unlike the Torah and Nevi'im, which were both canonised as groups, each book of Ketuvim was canonised separately, often on the basis of its popularity.

The books of Ketuvim are:

  • The 3 poetic books - Psalms, Book of Proverbs and Book of Job
  • The 5 Megillot - Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Esther
  • The other books - Daniel, Ezra-Nechemia and Chronicles

Toshba - The Oral Law

Toshba, or "Torah She Be'Al Peh" (meaning The Spoken Torah), is the Oral Law in Judaism.

The Oral law is the overall header for a series of separate books, such as the Mishna and Gemara.

This part of Jewish Law helps us do several things, such as:

  • helping us understand how to deal with modern issues
  • explaining how to observe things in the Written Torah
  • showing us how to apply Judaism in our lives
  • elaborating on the Torah and Commandments
  • explaining how the Commandments are to be carried out
  • filling in the gaps regarding issues that may not be addressed in the Written Torah

The Toshba was originally purely oral, but at the time where the Jews were exiled from Israel, it was decided that they wanted to keep track of the Laws when they were in different places. It was written and edited by Rabbi Yehuda Hanavi in 200CE.

Because of this, we have 2 separate books of Talmud- Talmud HaBavli (the Babylonian Talmud) and Talmud Yerushalmi (the Jerusalem Talmud).

The Mishna

The Mishna is a part of the Toshba (Oral Law). It makes up half of the Talmud.

There are 6 Books in the Mishna:

  • Zeraim (Seeds) - deals with prayer, blessings, tithes and agricultural laws.
  • Moed (Festivals) - deals with the laws of Shabbat and the Festivals
  • Nashim (Women) - deals with marriage and divorce, some forms of oaths
  • Nezikin (Damages) - deals with civil and criminal law, and the functioning of the courts and oaths
  • Kodashim (Holy things) - deals with sacrificial rites, the Temple and the laws of Kashrut
  • Tehorot (Purities) - deals with the laws of purity and impurity, including the impurity of the dead, the laws of food purity and bodily purity.

The Gemara

The Gemara is a part of the Toshba (Oral Law). It makes up the other half of the Talmud.

The Gemara is a Rabbinical commentary of the Torah and Mishna. As the Jews were exiled from Israel, they had to understand and interpret the Mishna in different ways. Thus, there are 2 primary versions of the Gemara - a Babylonian version, and a Jerusalem version.

When studying the Gemara, and essentially the Talmud, we usually refer to the Babylonian Talmud.

The Talmud

The Talmud is the combination of the Mishna and Gemara.

There are 2 works of the Talmud:

  • The Talmud Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud): compiled around 350CE by Rav Muna and Rav Yossi
  • Talmud Bavli (Babylonian Talmud): compiled in the year 500CE by 2 Babylonian Sages, Rav Ashi and Ravina.

The Babylonian Talmud is considered to be the more "superior and complete" of the two versions, and thus it is studies the most today.

The commentaries

The commentaries are intended to help us study and teach texts such as the Torah and Talmud. Some famous commentators in Jewish history are Rashi, Maimonides and Rambam.

They link one concept to another, and respond to texts in the other parts of Jewish Law.

Codes of Jewish Law

The Codes are a huge number of volumes written on Jewish Law.

They are "codified", meaning that they are separating the Halachic discussions and decisions from the arguments of the Rabbis.

The Codes are an organized, summarized, and condensed version of Jewish Law.

There are several pros and cons of codifying the Jewish Law.


  • It makes Jewish Law more "accessible" to the average Jew
  • It is more straightforward than reading the original texts
  • It gives a definite answer


  • It makes Jewish Law less flexible by reducing the diversity of opinion
  • It gives a definite answer and minimized discussion and shades of interpretation

There are a number of Codes of Jewish Law, but the most famous are the Mishneh Torah (written by Rambam) and Shulchan Aruch (written by Josef Karo).


The Responsa is a book of the questions and answers regarding Jewish Law. These are given by the "poskim", who are the deciders of Jewish Law.

We use this in order to deal with modern day issues. It answers questions that may not be addressed in any of the other books of Jewish Law.

The Responsa plays an extremely important role in Jewish law, because the questions that are answered are much more practical for modern life, and address aspects of life that may not have been considered previously in volumes such as the Codes of Law. The Responsa "fills in the blanks" which the other books leave out.