Halakhah: Jewish Law

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As rabbinic teachings increased, it was necessary to commit them to writing, lest they be forgotten. Around the year 200 CE, the Mishnah, the earliest compendium of Jewish law, appeared. It became the curriculum of rabbinic instruction. In approximately 425 CE, the interpretive traditions of the rabbis of the Land of Israel were compiled, forming the Talmud Yerushalmi (Palestinian Talmud).

Another Talmud, the "Bavli" (Babylonian Talmud), was compiled in the Persian Empire a century later. It presents digests of the various teachings of many generations of rabbis on issues of law and other subjects. Although it frequently fails to specify which cited opinion is authoritative, it nevertheless became the universally accepted arbiter of halakhah and the subject of many extensive commentaries.

halakhic texts

Leaders and Researchers

In every age, outstanding Jewish teachers and thinkers emerged who became the rabbinic leaders of their communities. Individuals, including other rabbis, would send them questions about the proper observance of Judaism or matters of Jewish thought. This body of questions and responses (teshuvot, or responsa), preserved through the ages, is also an important source of halakhah.

In the Middle Ages, the body of Jewish legal writing was so voluminous that great scholarly acumen was required to be able to determine exactly what the halakhah was on many points. Compendia of Jewish law were written to summarize the debate and render a decision. One of the most complete and influential of these, Maimonides' Mishneh Torah, was compiled in the 11th century. The sixteenth-century Sephardic rabbi Joseph Caro developed a handbook of halakhah, the Shulhan Arukh ("Prepared Table"). Supplemented by the comments of Rabbi Moses Isserles, the leading Polish rabbi of the time, the Shulhan Arukh became the worldwide standard of halakhah, authoritative (even if not the final authority) even now in the eyes of observant Jews everywhere.

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