Orthodox Halakhic Texts

Orthodox leaders responded to modernity by producing legal works on a variety of topics, in a variety of genres.

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Although responsa volumes were generally organized topically, following the order of the Shulhan Arukh, there was not always a link between individual responsa. For example, under the heading of mourning practices, authors of responsa could jump from obscure talmudic exegesis on one page to political crises on the next.

Among the most influential Orthodox responsa collections of the modern period were the Hatam Sofer of Rabbi Moses Sofer, the most strident 19th-century voice opposing any concessions to modernity; the Igrot Moshe of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the most respected American halakhic decisor of the 20th century, who dealt with many new realities of the modern world and shaped the character of post-World War Two American Orthodoxy; the Tzitz Eliezer of Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, who discussed many issues unique to life in the Land of Israel; the Yabia Omer and Yehaveh Daat of Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, who brings an encyclopedic knowledge of both Ashkenazic and Sephardic responsa to bear in his lengthy discussions; and Minhat Shlomo of Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, who was particularly known for his analysis of issues raised by modern technology.

Legal Collections

While some scholars collated and published their own responsa, others composed legal collections by gathering landmark rulings from the range of scholars who had been active in the years since the publication of the Shulhan Arukh. This second genre of Orthodox halakhic texts--legal collections--brought together rulings on several closely related topics, or divergent rulings on the same topic from multiple sages.

Legal collections were generally meant as guides to practical observance, and thus tended to cite only the legal conclusions and omit much of the legal reasoning. They also brought together several types of comments and explanations. For example, commenting on a specific passage in the Shulhan Arukh that discusses the time for the evening service, a legal collection might present definitions of the key terms that determine the proper times for prayer; several conflicting opinions about when one may pray; and rulings in a series of exceptional cases not discussed in Caro's text but raised in later responsa.

These legal collections took one of two forms. Some functioned as commentaries on the Shulhan Arukh, explaining how its rulings should be understood, filling in gaps, and highlighting cases where current practice differs from its rulings. The most influential of these texts, both written in the early 20th century, are: the Hazon Ish of Rabbi Abraham Karelitz, the definitive reference work for ultra-Orthodox communities; and, probably the most widely studied book of halakhah today, the Mishnah Berurah of Rabbi Israel Meir haKohen, known as the Hafetz Hayyim (after the title of his popular treatise on laws of gossip).

Other legal collections were free-standing books, rewriting many of the laws and combining rulings of the Shulhan Arukh with those of earlier and later authorities into one continuous text, in order to achieve maximum clarity. This was the approach of the first Rebbe of Habad, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, in Shulhan Arukh Harav, and Rabbi Avraham Danzig in his Hayyei Adam and Hochmat Adam (early 19th century).

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Rabbi Joshua Cahan

Joshua Cahan is a Ph.D. candidate in Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He also serves as director of the Northwoods Kollel at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin and Rabbi of Congregation Kehillat Shalom in Skokie, IL.