The Evolution of Halacha

The Written and Oral Teachings

The Foundation of Halacha

After the enslavement of the Israelities in Egypt for 215 years, the next 40 years were spent wandering in the desert searching for the 'Promised Land'. In the desert atop Har Sinai g-d revealed the Torah (The Written Law) as well as the Oral Law to Moshe and the Jewish people. From this period in time the Jewish Nation evolved and produced numerous pieces of writings which were later compiled into a single book, The Tanach.


What is the Tanach?

The Tanach contains the Torah (The Written Law) which includes the sections of:

- Bereshit;

- Shmot;

- Vayikra;

- Bamidbar; and

- Dvarim.


These sections are further divided into smaller portions, each one is called a Parasha. Each Shabbat (The Seventh Day of the Week, a rest day) a Parasha is read, with the first one being read at the beginning of the Jewish Year. The Torah details the evolution of the world and the history of the Jewish people.


Other sections of The Tanach include, Nevi'im (Prophets) and Ktuvim (Writings), this section includes Megillot (Scrolls plural) such as Megilat Esther which is read on the festival of Purim. The Megillot usually describe people, events or periods of time that have greatly influenced the Jewish people. In the section of Ktuvim there are also three poetic books.


The Evolution of Oral Law

From the age where Jews were wandering in the desert after receiving the Torah, the Oral Law, the details which allowed Jews to practice and understand the Written Law was passed down, generation to generation by word of mouth. In 160CE, Jewish Oral Law was written down for the first time in the Mishna by Rav Yehuda HaNassi, this was then followed by the Gemara in the 4th Century.


After the various conquests of the Land of Israel, Jews were exiled to foreign lands, Jews continued to extend on the Jewish Oral Law from across the many kingdoms in which they were exiled. This division of Jews across the globe produced two different 'Talmuds', which is a combination of both the Mishna and Gemara. The two Talmuds created were the Talmud Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud) which was complied in approximately 350CE by Rav Muna and Rav Yossi. The other is called the Talmud Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) which was compiled in approximately 500CE by Rav Ashi and Ravina of Babylonia. The various commentaries (such as those by Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki and The Tosafot) detailed in these two Talmuds are still used today to help solve modern day issues.


An Introduction to a Page of Talmud

Lesson 12: Rashi and Tosafot - Animated Talmud Introduction

The Codification of Halacha

The Jewish People are known by some as 'The People of the Book', but in fact they are the people of many books. So much so that the large number of writings on Jewish Law made it near impossible for a non-scholarly Jew to determine which Halachic Decision was correct or what was the Halachic Decision in reference to an issue which he was experiencing. This resulted in Jewish scholars codifying Jewish Halacha, meaning that only the decision was recorded without the arguments and discussions that are recorded in the Talmud. Overall this codification made Jewish Law more accessible and more easily understood. The most famous codifications are the Mishneh Torah, codified by the Rambam in the 12th Century and The Shulchan Aruch, codified by Yosef Karo in the 16th Century.


Responsa

Responsa or otherwise known as 'Questions and Answers' is a form of Rabbinic literature which answers questions in regards to practicing Judaism. These answers change as the Jewish People travel and the development of the world around them. For instance one may ask if they are allowed to heat up food on Shabbat using a stove, the Rabbi would then respond. The many 'Questions and Answers' are usually compiled by the author into volumes of Responsa. This allows the Jewish people to progress as a people and reflect on common questions regarding the practicing of Jewish life in a progressive world.


The Differing Opinions

Today in Judaism two groups of Jewish People hold different opinions as to how the Jews received the Torah and whether these laws described in the Torah are authoritative. The Orthodox believe that the Torah was either given all at once or in parts by God thus rendering the Mitzvot described in the Torah to be authoritative and binding. Whereas the Reform believe that the Torah was not necessarily written by God rather by the people who may have been 'inspired' by God. Therefore in the eyes of the Reform one is not required to obey the Mitzvot as they are not regarded as authoritative and binding.