The Evolution Of Jewish Law

Year 10 JS Toshba Assessment Task

Oral Law

What is Oral Law?

The Oral Torah comprises the legal and interpretative traditions that was given by God orally to Moses in conjunction with the written Torah after which it was passed down orally through the ages - later to be codified and written in the Talmud. While other cultures and Jewish groups maintained oral traditions, only the Rabbis gave ideological significance to the fact that they transmitted their tradition orally.


The codification and collection of the Oral Law, transmitted by word of mouth over generations.

  • Rambam or Maimonides wrote it - in Egypt 12th century
  • Compiled by Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi and his court around 160-200 C.E. in Palestine following the loss of many Jewish teachers in the failed Great Revolt and Bar-Kokhba rebellion.
  • It covers the discussions and decisions of the scholars from approximately 200 B.C.E - 200 C.E. (around 400 years)
  • It was written down at this time ^ as the persecution of the Jews and the passage of time raised the possibility that the details of the oral law traditions would be forgotten.
  • The Mishnah is considered the first work of Rabbinic Judaism.
  • The rabbis whose views are cited in the Mishnah are known as Tanna'im (teachers).

Lesson 3: The Mishna - Animated Talmud Introduction


  • Literature and answers and questions people may have
  • The responsa are thousands of volumes of answers to specific questions on Jewish law. If the Talmud is a law book, then the responsa are case laws.
  • The responsa are composed by well-respected rabbis who have been asked a specific question, and include a full description of the situation, references to the applicable Talmudic passages, the rabbi's answer, and the reasoning behind his opinion.
  • Responsa began to be compiled in the Middle Ages and continue to the present day.

Codes Of Jewish Law

The huge number of volumes written on Jewish law brought about the need to codify this material.

By codifying this material they separated the Halachic decisions from the discussions and arguments of the rabbis and only recorded the bottom line, end result halachic decisions.

The advantages of the codification were:

  • it makes Jewish law 'accessible' to the average Jew; allowing Jews to easily know 'what to do'.
  • Provides a definite answer not allowing for ambiguity.

The disadvantages of the codification were:

  • It makes Jewish law less flexible, reduces creativity and diversity of opinion
  • minimises discussion and shades of interpretation due to the definite answer provided - leaving things black and white.

The most famous codes of Jewish law are:
  1. Shulchan Aruch written by Yossef Karo
  2. Mishna Torah written by Rambam


Commentaries were intended as a contribution to the study and teaching of earlier texts and they help us understand the Torah and Talmud

Some of the famous commentators are:

  • Rashi (in France) - 11th century
  • Rambam (composed his acclaimed commentary on the Mishnah) - 1166–1168
  • Tosafot (medieval commentaries on the Talmud)


  • In the three centuries following the compilation of the Mishnah, rabbis or Amora'im throughout Israel and Babylonia analysed, debated and discussed that work. These discussions were recorded in writing, and form the Gemara.
  • Published by Judah Hanasi - 200CE
  • The Talmud consists of the Mishnah and Gemara.

Lesson 4: The Gmara and Talmud - Animated Talmud Introduction

Written Law


The Torah was given to Moses on Sinai, who transmitted it to Joshua, who later transmitted it to the elders, who transmitted it to the prophets and eventually, it was transmitted to the Sanhedrin.

When the Torah was given to Moses, God revealed his law and will to Moses and the people of Israel hence this event being called 'The Revelation'.

There are 2 different attitudes to the Written Law.

  1. Orthodox - the Torah is written by God, therefore since the laws are from Him one must obey them, as they are authoritative and binding.
  2. Reform - the Torah is not necessarily written by God but by the people who were inspired by God. Therefore, since the laws are not necessarily form God,one must not necessarily have to obey them; they are not regarded as authoritative and binding.


The Neviim is a book dedicated to past prophets. It contains two sub-groups, the Former Prophets - נביאים ראשונים which are the narrative books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings and the Latter Prophets -נביאים אחרונים which are the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel and the 12 minor prophets. The people mentioned in this book were profoundly influential on the direction and developement of Hebrew religion.

The first book of Joshua dates back to 625 BCE up until the last recorded book of Malachi which was written in the 5th century.


  • The third and final section of the Tanach, after Torah and Neviim. It is believed to have been written through Ruach Hakodesh - (prophesy).
  • The Ketuvim are a miscellaneous collection of poetry, wisdom literature, history, a short story, and a romantic tale. They were composed over a long period of time—from before the Babylonian Exile in the early 6th century bc to the middle of the 2nd century bc—and were not entirely accepted or recognized until the 2nd century ad. Unlike the Torah and the Neviʾim (Prophets), which were grouped, each book of the Ketuvim is separate.
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by: Shani Able