The Evolution Of Jewish Law

By Adam Cohen

Written Law

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  • Also known as the Chumash, Pentateuch and the Jewish Bible
  • Revealed by God to the Jews on Mt Sinai
  • It is the written law
  • Contains the 5 books of Moses

Different Attitudes


  • Believe that the Torah is written by God
  • The laws must therefore be followed and obeyed


  • Believe that the Torah may not necessarily be written by God and more likely written by humans who were inspired by God
  • The laws therefore don't necessarily have to be followed

Neviim (Prophets)

The second section of the Tanach; Neviim is compiled of 8 books, all containing historical narratives regarding the prophets of Judaism. Neviim can be split into two parts, The Former Prophets and the Latter Prophets.

The Former Prophets are the books of Joshua, Samuel, Judges and more. These writings begin immediately after Moses' death and end with the release of the last king of Judah from prison.

The Latter Prophets include books of Isaiah, Jeremiah Ezekiel and the 12 minor prophets.

Ketuvim (Writings)

The final part of the Tanach; Ketuvim is composed of 3 groups. The poetic books, the five scrolls (known as Megillot) and other books.

  1. The Poetic books are Psalms, proverbs and Job. They are all presented in a two column state which expresses the parallel stitches in the verse.
  2. The 5 Megillot are Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Esther. These books are traditionally read in shules today over the course of the year.
  3. Finally, the 'Other books' are the books of Daniel, Ezra-Nechemia and chronicles.

Oral Law

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The oral law - Torah she-be-al-peh

The Mishnah is the collection of the oral Law passed down through word over hundreds of years. It was compiled by Rabbi Judah Hanasi and his court in Palestine around 160-200 CE. It can be divided into 6 books which all deal with a different area of Halacha.


Discussion of the Torah and Gemara

After the creation of the Mishnah, rabbis throughout Israel reviewed and discussed the writings. The Gemara is basically a compilation of their discussions regarding the Torah and Mishna.

There are in fact two Gemarot. Created in the 4th century was the Jerusalem Gemara and created in the 5th century was the Babylonian Gemara. The Jerusalem Gemara was written by the Amora'im in Palestine whereas the Babylonian one is written by scholars of the Babylonian academies. The Babylonian Gemara is much larger and more significant and together with the Mishnah the Babylonian Talmud is created.


Since the completion of the Torah and Talmud many people have studied the writings and written their own explanations and findings to aid others. These people are known as commentators of Jewish texts and have been a massive help to those attempting to look deeper into and learn about texts in Judaism. Examples of famous commentators include:

  • Rashi (France, 11th century)
  • Rambam (Egypt, 12th Century)
  • Ramban (Spain, 11th century)


The need to organise Jewish law came about when such large volumes of it were written. By organising the law Halachic decisions and arguments of the Rabbis were separated. Only the 'bottom line' would be considered and the result would be based on Halachic decisions.

This codification creates a system of Jewish law that is accessible to the 'average' Jews and gives a straight-forward answer. On the other hand it causes Jewish law to loose flexibility and reduces creativity as well as different opinions.


The Responsa is basically a body of written answers by scholars regarding questions asked to them. The Responsa literature covers a period of 1700 years.