The Evolution of Jewish Law

By Darren Flaks

Backtrack a Few Thousand Years...

  • According to Orthodox tradition, the whole Torah was given to Moses on Mount Sinai (yes, after forty years wondering in the desert without a GPS...)
  • The whole Torah given contains both the Written Law and Oral Law

What is Halacha?

  • Halacha is the Hebrew word for "Jewish Law".
  • It is derived from the word "holech" meaning "walk". This literal meaning implies a pathway or sense of guidance.

What is the Purpose of Following Jewish Law?

  • It acts as a guidance for the Jewish people; it provides a sense of purpose.
  • To obtain spirituality.
  • It is what makes people Jewish and different from others.
  • Supports our ability to make ethical choices and to solve dilemmas.
  • Connects Jewish communities all around the world.

Torah - The Written Law

  • The Written Law is comprised of: The Torah (Chumash, 5 books of Moses and Pentateuch), Ketuvim (writings), Nevi'im prophets.
  • All together, the Torah, Ketuvim and Nevi'im make up the Tanach.

  • According to Orthodox tradition, the Torah was received from G-d and therefore the laws comprised are authoritative, binding and immutable.
  • According to Reform tradition, the Torah may not have necessarily been written by G-d but was instead inspired by G-d. Thus they are not regarded as authoritative and binding.

Some of the issues which have arisen as a result of the two differing attitudes are:

  • Orthodox will struggle to change over time, whereas Reform is changing when necessary.
  • Conflicting ideologies - not everyone is observing the same thing and traditions will vary as a result.

Toshba - The Oral Law

Also known as "Torah she-be'al peh", Toshba is the Oral Law which was passed down by word of mouth for many generations.

Toshba is the overriding heading for many other Oral Traditions such as the Mishnah and Gemara.

Why do we need it?

  • It explains how commandments are to be carried out, such as remembering the Sabbath and making it holy.
  • It is the key to unlocking the secrets of the Written Law
  • it is basically the "How To" for the the Written Law
  • Fills in the gaps of the Written Torah
  • Keeps the traditions relevant for modern society

The Oral Torah was not intended to be written down, however as a result of the destruction of the second temple and the Jews living in the diaspora, it was feared among many that oral traditions would be forgotten and lost forever.

As a result, Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi began the process of editing and writing down the Oral Torah (The Mishnah). Finally around 200CE, after 400 years of compiling and writing down the Laws, the Mishnah; first layer of the Oral Law was written down.

Other layers of the Oral Law include: the Talmud (4th/5th C), Midrash, Tosafot (12th/13th C), Rambam - Mishneh Torah (12th C), Yosef Karo - Shulchan Aruch (16th C) and Responsa (current).


  • The Mishna is the first layer of the Oral Law which was written down.
  • It covers the decisions of the Rabbis from approximately 200BCE to 200CE (approximately a time span of 400 years).
  • It is divided into 6 sections, where each section discusses another topic or issue.
  • The 6 sections are: Zeraim, Moed, Nashim, Nezikim, Kodshim and Teharot


  • The Gemara is the second addition to the Oral Law.
  • The Gemara was comprised of dicussions of the Torah and the Mishna.
  • It was compiled by rabbis throughout Eretz Yisrael and Babylonia.
  • Hence, there was a Gemara of Jerusalem and a Gemara of Babylonia.
  • The Gemara was fully compiled by the end of the 5th century.

Mishna + Gemara = ?

Rule for today's math lesson: Mishnah + Gemara = Talmud

The picture below is the BABYlonian Talmud

Big image


  • Since one large Jewish community was living in Eretz Yisrael and the other in Babylon, two Talmuds were created.
  • The first Talmud created was the Talmud Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud), compiled by approximately 350 CE by Rav Muna and Rav Yossi.
  • The second Talmud created was the Talmud Bavli (Babylonian Talmud), compiled by Rav Ashi and Rav Ravina.
  • Talmud Bavli is considered to be the superior, as they tended to write down more information in order to keep track of current laws/ regulations. They were also living in the diaspora and there was the element of understanding of being in exile.

  • After the Talmud comes the Tosafot, Mishneh Torah, Shulchan Aruch and then finally the Responsa.

Commentaries and Commentators

  • They were intended to contribute to the study and teaching of earlier texts and help later generations understand the Torah and Talmud.
  • They effectively analysed the information they were given and provided an answer.
  • Some of the most famous commentator in biblical history are: Rashi, Soloveitchik and Rambam

Codes of Jewish Law

Pros of Codification

  • Makes Jews Law accessible to the average Jew (especially in modern society).
  • It gives a definitive answer.

Cons of Codification

  • The Rabbis cannot analyse the information is there is already a definitive answer. Hence it minimizes the discussions.

Since there were large volumes of Jewish Law and discussions, it was necessary to codify the material. To codify means to separate the decisions from the discussions and only show the definitive answer. Jewish Law was effectively condensed and put into an organised fashion.

There are a number of Codes of Jewish Law. Some of the most famous/ notable are:

  • The Mishneh Torah (12th Century) written by RamBam
  • The Shulchan Aruch (16th Century) written by Joseph Karo


  • The Responsa literally means "questions and answers"
  • It is used to solve dilemmas faced in modern society
  • Only Rabbinical scholars are able to actually produce a legitimate law.