The Evolution of Jewish Law

Sammy R

How halacha has evolved

Halacha is the Jewish law that provides us with guidelines as to how to live. Halacha contains laws which are separated into the written and oral law.

Written Law

The written law is made up of the Torah, Nevi'im and Ketuvim which together make up the Tanach. God revealed his law and will to Moses and the people of Israel on Mount Sinai in approximately 1250 BCE. The Orthodox Jews believe the Torah was written by God and therefore, they must follow the laws and mitzvot. The Reform Jews believe that the Torah wasn't necessarily written by God but by people. Therefore, as the laws are not from God they don't have to obey the laws and mitzvot.


The Torah is made up of the five books of Moses. Within the Torah are the biblical laws of Judaism that guide our lives.


Nevi'im is the book of prophets. It is divided into two major parts which are the four books of former prophets and fourteen books of the latter prophets. These books trace Jewish history from Moses' death until the time of the destruction of the first temple.


Ketuvim is the book of writings. Most of the individual books in Ketuvim were written or put in to final form from 5BCE to 2BCE. The book of Ketuvim do not present themselves as written by God.

Oral Law

The Oral law explains the practical details on how to carry out the laws from the written Torah. Originally the Oral law was spoken, but in Yavneh Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi decided to codify the Oral law. He did this to ensure consistency with the dispersed Jews, so that everybody had the same details as well as he was worried parts would be lost if they weren't codified. The oral law was ultimately recorded in the Talmud.


The Mishna is divided in to 6 book that cover the discussions and decisions of the scholars and rabbis from around 200BCE to 200CE. Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi edited and codified the Mishnah in approx 200CE. It was written down at the time of Jewish persecution. The passage of time raised possibilities that the details of the oral traditions would be forgotten.


In the three centuries following the compilation of the Mishna, Rabbis analysed, debated and discussed the Mishnah which were then recorded and form the Gemara. It was written in approx. 500CE. The Gemara helps us understand the Mishnah through explanation.


Commentaries are there to help us understand the Torah and Talmud and contribute to the study and teaching of earlier texts. Several commentators such as Rashi, Rambam and Tosafot are still well known today because of their contributions and explanations.


The large amount of information written on Jewish law brought about the need to codify the material, separating the Halachic decisions from discussions and arguments and record the Halachic decisions. The most famous codes of Jewish law are Shulchan Aruch which was composed by Rabbi Yosef Karo in the 1560's as well as the Mishneh Torah which was composed by Rambam.


Responsa is the book of question and answers that covers a variety of topics relating to Jewish law. The responsa's are written by Rabbis who have been asked a certain question and then describe the situation and answer it in depth. They explain why this is the answer and use the Talmud to make reference to their answer. Responsa's started being compiled in the middle ages and continue to this day. It is hard to know when the responsa's were written but were not known to exist before the Mishna. Responsa was known about in the medieval time but did not appear in print to as late 19th century.