The Evolution of Jewish Law

By Amy Silver


Today, I will be covering many exciting and interesting facets of Jewish Law. I will Start with the written law which encompasses Torah, Neviim and Ketuvim. Then I will move on to explain the extremely compelling Oral Law which includes Mishnah, Gemara, Codes, Responsa and Commentators.


The Written Law, also know as the bible, 5 books of Moses, Pentateuch and Old Testament is thought to have been complied as early as 1020 BCE and was completed around 400 BCE. The Orthodox and Reform have differing attitudes towards it. The 613 commandments made up of good mitzvot and acts that one should restrain themselves from doing also falls under the category of the Written Law. The significance behind the number of 613 is that according to gematria the letter value for Torah is 611. This added to the only 2 commandments heard from god equals 613.


The Oral law is extremely important to judaism and is not redundant even though we now have the Written Torah. It explains how commandments are to be carried out and the practical details that would be helpful to know. Where the Written Law is silent on an issue the Oral Law provides the answers in the form of commandments. Many laws in the Written Torah would be incomprehensible without the explanation of the Oral Law. It also helps people to understand the underlying meaning of texts that would have been taken literally otherwise.

Mishnah- The Mishnah means to study and review as well as repetition. The Mishnah is the commentry and interpretation of the Oral Law. It covers discussions and decisions of scholars and rabbis from 200 BCE to 200CE (approx 400 years). Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi edited/wrote it in 200 CE. The Mishnah was written during a time of Jewish persecution.

Gemara- Following the compilation of the Mishnah rabbis from the middle east analysed, debated and discussed the writings in it. These discussions were all recorded then compiled and become the Gemara. Together with the Mishnah these 2 books make up the Talmud.

Commentators- known as mefarshim, commentators would explain, clarify and help to understand the Torah and/or Talmud. By doing so they inadvertently created Halacha due to the fact that texts are explained, inconstancies are cleared up and make sense of unclear sources. Famous commentators includes Rashi (1040 - 1105 CE), Rambam (1135 - 1204 CE), Ramban (1194 - 1270 CE) and Ibn Ezra (1092 - 1167 CE)

Codes- Codes take the commentary away and explain how to apply the law in everyday life. There are a number of Jewish codes but the most popular are Shulchan Arooch and the Mishneh Torah. Both written in the Middle Ages by Caro and Rambam respectively.

Responsa- The translation of responsa in hebrew simply means questions and answers.This refers to ANY halachic questions asked of rabbis and there answers. This is how jewish law continues and thrives today.