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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Particularly noteworthy is Rabbi Yehiel Epstein's Arukh Hashulhan (late 19th century). Epstein went beyond his contemporaries to not only include recent developments in the law but to trace each law from its biblical and rabbinic roots. This approach clarified many confusing details of the law, allowing for easier application to new cases. It also enabled him to present the Shulhan Arukh as one stage in the development of the law, rather than the single authoritative source. This supported a widespread view among Ashkenazi scholars that the rulings of the Shulhan Arukh, while influential, are not always accepted.

Digests and Summaries

Legal digests and summaries of practical halakhah are another significant genre of Orthodox halakhic literature. In the modern era, with Orthodoxy facing more serious challenges from the outside world, as well as from within the Jewish world, the work of simplifying rules and making them accessible to a broad readership has become pressing.

On the one hand, more people in the Jewish world today have access to Jewish books, and more study in the growing number of yeshivot. On the other hand, with many different ideologies competing for adherents, books have become a crucial medium for giving laypeople access to the law and also reinforcing and clarifying the core beliefs which mandate continued strict adherence to the traditional way of life.

Modern digests and summaries present the key obligations of Jews in simpler terms than traditional lawbooks. The most popular Ashkenazic work of this nature was the Kitzur Shulhan Arukh, written by Rabbi Shlomo Gantzfried in the 19th century. This work distilled the Shulhan Arukh by removing rulings not relevant to daily life and by presenting only the most prevalent Ashkenazic practice. The most popular Sephardic legal digest was the Ben Ish Chai of Haham Yosef Hayim of Baghdad, which mixes practical legal rulings with mystical interpretations of the law.

In more recent times, many such digests for the lay reader have been published, in Hebrew and in a range of other languages. In English, publishers such as Artscroll and Feldheim have published collections on the laws of the Sabbath, ritual purity, kashrut, and many other areas. These books generally present a simple and accessible explanation of the law, focusing on proper behavior. They are, however, sometimes criticized for blurring distinctions between obligatory and recommended practices, and between rulings that are universally accepted and those that are subject to debate among authorities.

Halakhic literature tends to reflect the multiple roles that legal authorities play in a community. Rabbis write to make the dictates of the tradition more accessible and more meaningful to their followers; to offer guidance in dealing with new and unfamiliar challenges; and to navigate between adapting to and resisting the many changes that constantly threaten the traditional order. In doing so, they shape how observant Jews think of themselves and their relationship to the Jewish past, and the terms in which Orthodoxy will continue to debate those whose visions of Judaism differ from its own.

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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.