The Evolution Of Jewish Law

Jamie Rotstein


Halacha is the Jewish law that is derived from the Torah, Rabbis and customs. The word Halacha comes from the Hebrew word “holech” which means to walk. Halacha implies direction, movement and progress meaning Halacha is a pathway to living your life according to Jewish law. Find out more here

The Written Law

The Written law includes Torah, Nevi'im and Ketuvim.

Revelation- God revealed his law to Moses and the people of Israel.

Advantages of the Written law:

  • Physical which means there is evidence.
  • Can't be changed, questioned, reworded or manipulated.
  • Easy to refer to because its right in front of you.
  • Accesible.


The Torah was given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai and includes all of the biblical laws of Judaism. The Torah teaches Jews how to act, think, feel, worship God and treat others.

  • The Torah contains 613 mitzvots, and stories that teaches us about God's relationship with the Jewish people.
  • The 10 commandments are the most important commandments of the Torah.
  • The Torah is also known as Chumash, Pentateuch and the 5 books of Moses.
  • The 5 books of Moses include: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Number and Deuteronomy.

God gives Moses the Ten Commandments [Animated]

Nevi'im (Book of prophets)

Nevi'im is the direct phrophosies or recordings of what God said to the prophets.

Some prophets include:

  • Joshua
  • Judges
  • Samuel
  • Kings
  • Isaiah
  • Jeremiah
  • Ezekiel

Ketuvim (Book of writings)

Ketuvim is the book of writing, written by the prophets with the guidance of God. Ketuvim is divided into 3 parts: Wisdom, Literature and Meggilot (scrolls).

Ketuvim was composed before the Babylonian Exile in the early 6th century BC to the middle of the 2nd century BC.

The Oral Law

Toshba is known as the Oral Law which includes the Mishna, Gemara, Talmud, Commentaries, Codes and Responsa.

The Oral Torah contains explanations of the Written Torah which was originally passed down verbally from generation to generation. After the destruction of the temple it was decided by Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi that the Oral Torah should be written down so it would never be forgotten or lost.

The Oral Law explains how commandments are to be carried out practically, for example "Remember the Sabbath day to make it holy." The Oral Law also explains certain laws that would be questionable if carried out literally, for example "An eye for an eye."


  • Mobile and accessible.
  • Available at all times.
  • Creates discussion.
  • Spiritual.
  • Remains and never will be destroyed.
  • Flexible and open to interpretation.



The Mishna is a written outline of the Oral Torah and is an explanation of the Torah and how to Incorporate these laws into daily life. It covers the discussions and decisions of the scholars and Rabbis from approx 200 BCE to 200 CE.

  • Rabbi Yehuda Hansai wrote down and edited the Mishah around 200 CE.

  • Mishna is divided into 6 books/orders- Zeraim, Moed, Nashim, Nezikin, Kodshim and Teharot.
  • The Mishna was written at the time of the persecutions of the Jews because they were afraid the oral traditions would be forgotten.
  • The majority of the Mishna is written in hebrew.



The Germara is commentaries and further explanation of the Mishna that Rabbis and Jewish scholars throughout Israel and Babylonia discussed, questioned, debated and analysed.

There are 2 versions of the Gemara:

  • The Jerusalem Gemara which was published between about 350-400 CE.
  • The Babylonian Gemara which was published around 500 CE.

The Jerusalem Gemara is much larger and more significant.

Mishna + Gemara = Talmud


The Talmud is a combination of the Mishnah and Gemara
  • In the 4th Century the Jerusalem Talmud was complied in Israel by Rav Muna and Rav Yossi and it was never completed.
  • In the 5th century the Babylonian Talmud was complied in Babylon by two Babylonian sages- Rab Ashi and Ravina.

The Babylonian Talmud is studied and used more today because it is more comprehensive.

The Tanach is written in Hebrew and Aramaic. The Talmud includes the opinions of thousands of rabbis on a variety of subjects, including ethics, law, philosophy, customs and history.

The first completed edition of the Babylonian Talmud was printed in Venice by Daniel Bomberg 1520-23. The Talmud today known as Vilna Shas, was printed by his widow and sons.


Jewish commentaries allow us to study and teach earlier texts and help us to understand the Torah and Talmud.

Famous commentators were:

  • Rashi (February 22, 1040 – July 13, 1105)
  • Rambam (1135- December 12, 1204)
  • Tosafot- The descendants of Rashi (12th-13th Century)

Codes of Jewish Law

There were many volumes that were written on Jewish law, that needed to be codified. To codify means to separate the Halachic decisions from the discussions and arguments of the Rabbis. This meant they were only to record the bottom line- the end results of the Halachic decisions.


  • Jewish law is accessible.
  • Gives a definitive answer.
  • Allows Jews to easily know what to do.


  • Jewish law is less flexible.
  • Reduces creativity and diversity of opinion.
  • The definitive answer minimizes discussions and interpretation.

The most famous codes are:

  • Shulchan Aruch coded by Joseph Karo in Palestine in the 16th century.
  • Mishneh Torah by Maimonidies in Egypt in the 12th century.


Since the day of the Mishna 1800 years ago, whenever a Jew had a ethical or legal question they would send a letter to their Rabbi containing a question. They received a detailed reply from their Rabbi with their answer being based upon the Bible, Babylonian Talmud, commentaries and codes of Jewish law.

Responsa simply means question and answer. There are a variety of different questions asked today by Jews to their Rabbis and Responsa is the way that Jewish law is decided today.


Orthodox vs Reform

They believe the Torah was written by God, and since the laws are from God they must obey them!


They believe the Torah wasn't necessarily written by God but by people who may have been inspired by God. Therefore since the laws are not directed from God they don't have to obey them.