Halakhah: Sources and Development

From biblical law, through classic rabbinic debate and medieval law codes, and continuing in the modern period, Jewish law has undergone constant development.

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Yet, occasionally, the Talmud does give a final ruling, the halakhah in particular instances. For example, according to the talmudic accounts, the great debates of the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai are, with just a few exceptions, always to be decided in practice in favor of the House of Hillel.

The Development of Law Codes

Where such clear rulings are not given in the Talmud, attempts had to be made to discover the mind of the Talmud, so to speak, as this could be gauged from the talmudic academic dialectics. This exercise leaves room for considerable differences of opinion. On the academic level, it is possible to say that Rabbi A says this and Rabbi B says that and to discuss the reasons why, without any guidance being given as to which view is to be followed in practice. It became necessary for codes of law to be drawn up in which the practical laws would be stated with precision.

The three main codes, the Mishneh Torah ["Secondary Torah"] of Maimonides [a Spanish-born North African scholar and philosopher, 1135-1204], The [Arba`ah Turim ("Four Columns"), often abbreviated as the] Tur of Jacob ben Asher [of 13th-14th century Spain], and the Shulchan Arukh ["Set Table"] of Joseph Karo [a 15th-16th century Spanish-born talmudist and mystic who settled in the Galilee town of Safed], all had their antagonists who gave, in many instances, rulings different from theirs.

This is true even of the Shulchan Arukh, although this, as the most widely accepted of the three codes can be seen, in a loose sense, as the standard code of the halakhah. [The Shulchan Arukh is always published with the glosses of the Polish scholar Moshe Isserles, whose words—interwoven with Karo’s own statements—indicate where the law for Ashkenazi Jews differs from that for the Sephardic world, for which Karo served as the leading legal authority.]

Transmission and Development: The Traditional View

The above is, in broad outline, the traditional understanding of halakhic transmission--from God to Moses, through the prophets, through the "Men of the Great Synagogue," the talmudic rabbis and the talmudic literature, down to the codes. In addition to the codes, the various responsa collections [which record the written answers given by prominent rabbis throughout the ages to specific halakhic queries sent to them] enjoy authority as sources of the halakhah, as do the commentators to the Talmud and, to some extent, the customs of the Jewish people.

"Transmission" is the key word in the traditional scheme. From Moses onwards, through the whole chain of tradition, the halakhah is seen as the word of God handed down intact from generation to generation. The debates themselves were seen as part of this static process. Although, obviously, only one opinion could be decisive for practice, the whole system, debates and all, was seen in terms of static transmission.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.