T O P I C
Religions have a central book and/or oral tradition that keeps adherents together, in Christianity it is the New Testament, in Islam it is the Koran, in Judaism it is the Torah
• Torah in the narrowest sense refers to the first five books of the Bible
• In a broader sense, Torah includes all Jewish law and tradition
• Torah was given to Moses in written form with oral commentary
• The oral component is now written in the Talmud
• There are additional important writings . These books are interpreted and provide ‘rules’.
The concepts and interpretation of Judaism have evolved over thousands of years. It has been the central core in keeping a people together in facing suffering, making major contributions to society and returning them to their own land after two thousand years.
How these rules are interpreted may lead a religion to divide into groups who may have animosity or be happy to live together. For example in Christianity they include Roman Catholics and Protestants, in Islam Shia and Sunni, in Judaism ultra orthodox and reform.
The Mosaic (that is, from Moses) Code was the first truly judicial, written code and eclipsed previously known laws with its humanism, passion for justice and love of democracy. Ideologically it was divided into three categories: man’s relation to man, man’s relation to the state and man’s relation to God.
The laws of Moses anticipated the statehood God promised the Israelites and the first principles of the separation of church and state. This was a concept not encountered again in world history for another three thousand years.
There is a resemblance between the philosophic outlook of American constitutional law and Mosaic law. The Federal government has only the powers granted by the Constitution. Individual states can do anything not specifically denied them.
The gulf in thinking between Jews and Christians is illustrated by the following maxim. According to the Christians, Jesus said, “Do unto others what you want others to do unto you.” According to the Jews, Hillel, who lived 100 years before Jesus, said, “Do not do unto others what you don't want others to do unto you.” There is a major philosophic difference between these two expressions. Reason out why you would prefer one to the other as applied to yourself.
The Mosaic Code made allowances for transgressions.
The Second Commandment, prohibiting making images of God had a profound influence on the Jewish character. By making God spiritual instead of material the Jews were free to change the spirituality of God instead of merely altering his physical appearance.
The final fusion of the Five Books of Moses, (the Pentateuch), occurred around 450BCE eight to sixteen hundred years after some events narrated in them took place. The final part in 1600CE is the Shulchan Aruch so an evolutionary period of over 2,000 years passed aimed at meeting the needs of different periods. It governs all aspects of a persons life from birth to death including all social and civil aspects and what can be be eaten. Hebrew remained in continual use. This evolution is shown in the table below.
The 18th century, saw the appearance of ‘reform’ Judaism when a group modified accepted teachings. Today there are groups ranging from Ultra Orthodox to Liberal. There are also variations in practice and interpretation between countries. Development eras are shown at Jewish Law - Eras.
The importance of Interpretation is discussed by ex-British Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks
Talmudic law made a major impact on civil law. For example Jewish financiers under the Angevin kings were responsible for the use by the English legal system of the Talmudic property law.
Talmudic law went on to influence legislation throughout the English-speaking world.
Minhagim are local customs and prohibitions. Some customs were eventually adopted widely such as wearing a head covering or monogamy. Others are observed by some major segments of Jewry but not by others for example some forbid rice to be eaten on Passover while others allow it to be eaten. The Jews became the only people to develop a common culture without having having their own state for 2,000 years.
The final fusion of the Five Books of Moses, called the Pentateuch, occurred around 450 BCE — 800 to 1600 hundred years after some of the events narrated in them took place. Is it not reasonable to suppose that in that period of time, before there were any written records, many changes and alterations must have occurred as the stories and legends were handed down orally from generation to generation? Furthermore, as we have seen, priests, prophets, and policy makers were also busy during these centuries editing the manuscripts.
The Torah was a bold leap into the future, a giant stride ahead of anything existing at that time. Its concept of equality before the law, a law based on a written code, seems be a Semitic innovation. The Sumerians, whose written code of laws dates back to 2500 BCE were probably the first people on earth to have a written code, but it lacked the passion for justice of the Mosaic laws. Five hundred years later, the Sumerian code was augmented and incorporated by the Babylonians into the Code of Hammurabi, but again this body of laws did not have the democratic spirit of the Torah. A written judicial code applicable to all without favoritism was totally unknown to the Egyptians until 300 BCE. We know of no written Roman laws until the second century BCE.
The Mosaic Code, then, was the first truly judicial, written code, and eclipsed previously known laws with its all- encompassing humanism, its passion for justice, its love of democracy. It also helped to establish a new Jewish character and directed Jewish thinking into new paths which j tended to set the Jews further apart from their neighbors.
The ideological content of these Mosaic laws is of great interest. Here we find the Jewish concept of the state and philosophy of law. These laws were essentially divided into three categories: those dealing with man’s relation to man, those dealing with man’s relation to the state, and those dealing with man’s relation to God.
The laws of Moses anticipate the statehood God promised the Israelites. Though at this juncture of their history the Jews are still nomads, the Code of Moses is not for a nomadic people. These laws of Moses are designed to safeguard a national entity, not merely the family unit, though individual rights are never subordinated to the needs of the state. The lofty framework of these laws permitted the emergence of a democratic form of government virile enough to last eight hundred years until the Prophets in turn renovated them. The American Constitution thus far has weathered just over two hundred years.
The Mosaic Code laid down the first principles for a separation of church and state, a concept not encountered again in world history until three thousand years later, during the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century of our era. In the Mosaic Code the civil authority was independent of the priesthood. Though it is true that the priesthood had the right io settle cases not specifically covered by Mosaic law (Deuteronomy 17:8-12), that did not place it above the civil government. The priesthood was charged with the responsibility of keeping this government within the framework of Mosaic Iaw, just as the United States Supreme Court is not above the federal government but is, nevertheless, charged with the responsibility of keeping it within the framework of the Constitution. Moses also laid the foundation for another seperation, which has since become indispensable to any democracy. He created an independent judiciary.
There is a curious resemblance between the philosophic outlook of American constitutional law and that of Mosaic law The federal government has only the powers specifically granted to it by the Constitution. The individual states can do anything not specifically denied to them. In essence, the Mosaic law also established the principle that the Jews could do anything not specifically denied to them. Instead of saying “Do such and such a thing,” the laws of Moses usually say “Don’t do this or that.” Even where the Mosaic law makes a positive statement, it is often either an amendment to a negative commandment or else hemmed in by a negative admonition, saying, in effect, “When you do this, then don’t do that.” The Ten Commandments, for instance, list only three do's but seven don’ts. The three positive Commandments are: “I am the Lord thy God”; observe the Sabbath; and honor your parents. The seven don 'ts leave little doubt as to what one is not supposed to do. By fencing in only the negative, Moses left an open field for positive action. This allowed the Jews great flexibility. As long as they did not do anything specifically prohibited, they could, like the individual American states, do anything they wanted to do. This type of thinking led Jewish philosophers into stating their maxims in negations.
We can see this gulf in thinking interestingly illustrated in a maxim attributed by Christians to Jesus and by Jews to Hillel, one of the great teachers of Judaism. According to the Christians, Jesus said, “Do unto others what you want others to do unto you.” According to the Jews, Hillel, who lived 100 years before Jesus, said, “Do not do unto others whal you don't want others to do unto you.” There is a world of philosophic difference between these two expressions, and the reader is invited to ponder on them and reason out why he would prefer one to the other as applied to themself.
In reading these laws, formulated some three thousand years ago, one is amazed at their humanitarianism. One cannot help but wonder if the world would not be better off to-day if these laws, in the main, had been universally adopted. Slaves were treated more humanely and leniently than they were treated in the United States in 1850. All laws applying to free men also applied to the slaves, who had to be set free after seven years of servitude. Divorce laws were more liberal in the time of Moses than in present-day England, and women were held in high esteem.
It might be of interest to outline briefly the views on sex held by Jews twelve hundred years before Christ. The Puritan idea of sex as a sin never gained a foothold in Judaism. Sexual desire was held to be normal. It also was felt that its fulfilment should be within the marriage institution only. Therefore, early marriages were encouraged. Cohabitation between man and wife should be joyous, but it also had to be voluntary. It was a crime for one partner—wife or husband—wilfully to avoid sexual relations, and such continued avoidance was grounds for divorce. Bachelorhood was frowned upon, and all males were strenuously encouraged to marry, whereas women were given greater freedom to remain unmarried, though they, too, were expected to marry early.
The Mosaic Code also realized that transgressions would occur and therefore provided for the safety of children born out of wedlock. Children born to partners who could not marry legally (such as one partner already married, or couples related by blood) were the only ones regarded as bastards. All other children born out of wedlock were legitimate and could not be disinherited. Chastity among the unmarried was held in high esteem, prostitution was looked upon as a degradation, and religious prostitution, so prevalent in pagan days, was viewed with abhorrence. Homosexual relations between men were grave criminal offenses, whereas such relations between women were regarded as scandalous but not criminal.
The Second Commandment, prohibiting the making of images of God, had a profound influence on the Jewish character. Freud makes a most interesting observation. “If there were to be no images of God”, he says,“ “If this prohibition was to be accepted,” says Freud, “it was bound to exercise a profound influence. For It signified subordinating sense perception to an abstract idea it was a triumph of spirituality over the senses.”
By making God spiritual instead of material the Jews were left free to change the spirituality of God instead of merely altering his physical appearance. This was done successively by prophets, redeemers, and rabbis. Having a spiritual God rather than gods in stone gave the Jews a feeling of cultural superiority. Thus Moses succeeded in inculcating a feeling of pride in the Jews, not merely a veneer of uniqueness. The intellectualism of the Jews was a character trait which also followed as a direct result of making God abstract. Another result was the renunciation of brutality and sadism. Here we have an instance where a value judgment can be put to a statistical test. Though Jews presently constitute three percent of the total American population, the number of Jews imprisoned for crimes of violence is but one tenth of one percent of the prison population. For whatever else Jews are sent to prison, it is not, as a rule, for sadistic acts—murder, rape, beating, or bestiality—though exceptions do exist. This tremendous disproportion in the statistic continually amazes sociologists.
The Second Commandment also had an adverse effect. It helped to stultify the Jewish artistic spirit. Because the Jews were prohibited from making images of God, they turn away from painting, sculpture, and architecture, though as will later be discussed, there were notable exceptions. Not until the nineteenth century CE, when Jews began disregarding the Second Commandment the way the Christians had been doing for two thousand years, did they, too, begin to develop painters, sculptors, and architects. However, by the nineteenth century the Jewish character had already been formed, and their expansion into the fields of plastic arts does not seem to have affected this “Jewish character.”
The Mosaic theophany — the giving of the divine law - had been accomplished. The mission of Moses had been fulfilled. Now he had to die. Younger men were ready to take over the destiny of this people to whom he had given a constitution. Abraham’s grand illusion had not been a delusion. Moses, the reluctant Prophet, had made it a reality.
When, finally, in the twelfth century BCE the Jews settled in a country they could call their own, they used the worst possible judgment. They selected a strip of land that was a corridor for the armies of warring empires. Over and over again the Jews were to pay for this error of judgment by being decimated in battle, sold into slavery, or deported to alien lands. Yet they showed up persistently at the same old place, building anew their little strip of real estate which has been alternately called Canaan. Palestine, Israel, Judah. Judea, and now again. Israel.
The final fusion of the Five Books of Moses, called the Pentateuch, occurred around 450 BCE, 800 to 1600 years after some of the events narrated in them took place. The final part occurred in 1600 CE in the form of the Shulchan Aruch and so covered an evolutionary period of over 3,000 years. Its evolution meeting different needs at different times. It governed all aspects if a persons life from birth to death including all social and civil aspects and what could be eaten. Hebrew remained in continual use.
The 18th century, saw the appearance of "reform" Judaism some of the teachings and the authority of earlier rabbis in many matters of halakhah were changed. Today it comprises groups ranging from Ultra Orthodox to Liberal with variations between countries.
HOW MUCH SHOULD JEWISH LAW CONTROL THE JEWISH STATE?
Forward, Dr. Shuki FriedmanFebruary 5, 2018
Dr. Shuki Friedman is the director of the Israel Democracy Institute’s Center for Religion, Nation, and State, and a lecturer in law at the Peres Academic Center.
Jewish men gather to watch the funeral of leading spiritual authority for ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel and around the world, Rabbi Aaron Yehuda Leib Shteinman, in the central Israeli city of Bnei Brak on December 12, 2017. Shteinman, who also wielded heavy influence on Israeli ultra-Orthodox political parties, had been hospitalised at the Mayanei Hayeshua medical centre three weeks ago over breathing problems. He died aged 104, the hospital said.
Jewish men gather to watch the funeral of leading spiritual authority for ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel and around the world, Rabbi Aaron Yehuda Leib Shteinman, in the central Israeli city of Bnei Brak on December 12, 2017. Shteinman, who also wielded heavy influence on Israeli ultra-Orthodox political parties, had been hospitalised at the Mayanei Hayeshua medical centre three weeks ago over breathing problems. He died aged 104, the hospital said.
For decades, religious and ultra-Orthodox members of Knesset, backed and encouraged by their rabbis, have worked to inject the secular state with as much Judaism as possible. In an extended and collective effort, they have done all they can to pass religious laws, to base the governing of the state on Jewish law, and to make Jewish law the foundation for Israeli law wherever possible. Over the course of 70 years, the results of this ongoing effort have been minimal, but the price paid by Judaism has been great.
Since pre-state times, the founders and leaders of the State of Israel have been secular. As a result, the state is not run according to halacha or to a religious vision, but according to principles of modern Western law. This being the case, those who have a religious vision for the state have had to resort to religious politics.
Judaism and Islam differ fundamentally from Christianity on the issue of the desired relationship between religion and state. According to the Christian approach, (which has not always been enforced in reality), religion and state should be kept separate. Pope Gelasius I (died 496) encapsulated this idea in his “Two Swords” letter to Emperor Anastasius I, in which he distinguished between the sword of God, wielded by the clergy, whose concern is the spiritual realm; and the sword of Caesar, wielded by the state rulers, whose role it is to oversee terrestrial life. Later on, this idea developed into the separation between religion and state that has been maintained, to some degree or another, in most Western Christian countries.
Unlike Christianity, Judaism (like Islam) is a holistic religion. That is, it seeks to regulate all areas of existence, and to direct the conduct of both the individual and the state by legal (halachic) means. The openly declared goal is that “no area [of life] is free of Halacha” and “The whole earth is full of his glory.” (Isaiah Chapter 6 and 3). Many thinkers, especially ones in recent decades such as Chief Rabbi Isaac Herzog, have adopted the position that the state should be run according to the dictates of the Shulchan Aruch, the code of Jewish law, and that halachic responses should be developed for issues regarding the public arena that are not covered in its four volumes. From hospital management to the defense establishment and the systems of government and the courts, in this opinion, all areas of the state can and should be run according to Halacha. In modern legal terms, Judaism does not limit itself to private law between individuals, but also seeks to institute public law, which regulates the conduct of the entire state.
The past few weeks have made very clear the consequences of religious politics. In one wintry month, the ultra-Orthodox MKs, supported by national-religious MKs and others, have managed to incur harsh criticism, and even loathing, felt by large parts of the Israeli public. In God’s name, Deri, Litzman, and their colleagues have passed a series of legislative changes (amendments to the Hours of Work and Rest Law, the “Supermarket Law,” (to give the Minister of Interior the authority to deny confirmation of Shabbat municipal laws) and the “Litzman Law” (to confer powers to deputy ministers) that have contributed nothing to the Jewishness of the state, that were based on nothing more than political cynicism, and whose only outcome has been the sullying of religious Judaism in the eyes of the public that reject the Haredi religious coercion and cynicism.
Has the time come to give up on the Jewish character of the State of Israel, and to simply pray and wait for Messianic times? Heaven forbid. I believe it is legitimate, and even desirable, for the state to have a Jewish character, and the way to achieve this is undoubtedly through the political system. However, the conduct of religious political parties and representatives in recent weeks and months demonstrates the potential inherent in the confluence of religion and state, and the promotion of a religious, heavenly agenda via earthly means, for causing damage that far outweighs any benefit, either for Judaism or for the state.
I do not believe that the Church was right. The “Two Swords” philosophy has no place in Israel, and I do not support the separation of religion and state. I also believe that the Torah has much to say about running a Jewish state. But this is not the way. No “religious” gain that is achieved via cynical political means, including ensuring a tiny majority by pulling MKs away from sitting shiva (mourning) for their loved ones in order to vote in the Knesset, will advance the standing of Judaism in Israel; in fact, it will only have the opposite effect. As much as we may want the Torah to play an influential role, this can only be achieved in a consensual and respectful way, and not by coercion. In this issues of Shabbat, personal status, conversion and religious services, only a serious willingness to compromise from the Haredi side or unity of all the others, might bring an accepted solution. The path of coercion leads to disaster for us all, religious and non-religious alike.
HALACHA: THE LAWS OF JEWISH LIFE
alacha is the "way" a Jew is directed to behave, encompassing civil, criminal and religious law.
My Jewish Learning
he root of the Hebrew term used to refer to Jewish law, halacha , means “go” or “walk.” Halacha, then, is the “way” a Jew is directed to behave in every aspect of life, encompassing civil, criminal and religious law.
The foundation of Judaism is the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, sometimes referred to as “the Five Books of Moses”). “Torah ” means “instruction” or “teaching,” and like all teaching it requires interpretation and application. Jewish tradition teaches that Moses received the Torah from God at Mount Sinai. The Torah is replete with instructions, directives, statutes, laws, and rules. Most are directed to the Israelites, some to all humanity.
WRITING AND TALKING
The words of the Torah constitute what the rabbinic tradition calls the Written Torah. However, beginning around 400 BCE, teachings emerged based in or connected to the Torah, but not literally evident in the text. This body of teaching is known as the Oral Torah, and rabbinic sources claim that it, too, was revealed at Sinai. Halacha per se begins with this “Oral Torah.”
Some laws in the Torah required procedures for their observance that were not explicit. Sometimes conditions under which Jews were living were so different from earlier periods that the ancient rabbis simply enacted new rules in keeping with the laws of the Torah. This process of developing, interpreting, modifying and enacting rules of conduct is the how halacha develops. The rabbis of classical talmudic Judaism developed a system of hermeneutic principles by which to interpret the words of the written Torah.
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 halachah and the subject of many extensive commentaries.
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 halacha.
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 halacha 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 halacha, 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 halacha, authoritative (even if not the final authority) even now in the eyes of observant Jews everywhere.
Historically, in Jewish law, a majority view prevailed. While the majority opinion usually became the accepted practice, in certain circumstances later rabbis could rely on a minority view in deciding a difficult matter. By the high Middle Ages, most Jewish communities each recognized one rabbi as the arbiter of Jewish law in that community.
MODERNITY AND HALACHA
This system collapsed with the onset of modernity in the 18th century, particularly in western Europe. Rabbis emerged who wanted to “reform” Judaism. They rejected both some of the teachings and the authority of earlier rabbis in many matters of halacha.
Today, spiritual descendants of both traditionalists and reformers interpret Jewish law according to their respective principles for their communities. Many Jews reject the notion of Jewish law as binding, regarding halachah as spiritual guidance for Jewish living. The approach to halacha is the central factor differentiating Jewish religious movements today. Secular Israeli jurisprudence treats halacha as a valid and valued source of precedent.
Judaism 101 (click on link for more detail)
The word "Torah" is a tricky one, because it can mean different things in different contexts. In its most limited sense, "Torah" refers to the Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. But the word "torah" can also be used to refer to the entire Jewish bible (the body of scripture known to non-Jews as the Old Testament and to Jews as the Tanakh or Written Torah), or in its broadest sense, to the whole body of Jewish law and teachings.
To Jews, there is no "Old Testament." The books that Christians call the New Testament are not part of Jewish scripture. The so-called Old Testament is known to us as Written Torah or the Tanakh.
The Mishnah or Mishna (/ˈmɪʃnə/; Hebrew: מִשְׁנָה, "study by repetition", from the verb shanah שנה, or "to study and review", also "secondary") is the first major written collection of the Jewish oral traditions known as the "Oral Torah". It is also the first major work of Rabbinic literature. The Mishnah was redacted by Judah the Prince at the beginning of the third century CE in a time when, according to the Talmud, the persecution of the Jews and the passage of time raised the possibility that the details of the oral traditions of the Pharisees from the Second Temple period (536 BCE – 70 CE) would be forgotten. Most of the Mishnah is written in Mishnaic Hebrew, while some parts are Aramaic.
The Mishnah consists of six orders (sedarim, singular seder סדר), each containing 7–12 tractates (masechtot, singular masechet מסכת; lit. "web"), 63 in total, and further subdivided into chapters and paragraphs. The word Mishnah can also indicate a single paragraph of the work, i.e. the smallest unit of structure in the Mishnah. For this reason the whole work is sometimes called in the plural, Mishnayot.
THE MISHNAH AND THE HEBREW BIBLE
According to Rabbinic Judaism, the Oral Torah (Hebrew: תורה שבעל-פה) was given to Moses with the Torah at Mount Sinai or Mount Horeb as an exposition to the latter. The accumulated traditions of the Oral Law, expounded by scholars in each generation from Moses onward, is considered as the necessary basis for the interpretation, and often for the reading, of the Written Law. Jews sometimes refer to this as the Masorah (Hebrew: מסורה), roughly translated as tradition, though that word is often used in a narrower sense to mean traditions concerning the editing and reading of the Biblical text (see Masoretic Text). The resulting Jewish law and custom is called halakha.
While most discussions in the Mishnah concern the correct way to carry out laws recorded in the Torah, it usually presents its conclusions without explicitly linking them to any scriptural passage, though scriptural quotations do occur. For this reason it is arranged in order of topics rather than in the form of a Biblical commentary. (In a very few cases, there is no scriptural source at all and the law is described as Halakha leMoshe miSinai, "law to Moses from Sinai".) The Midrash halakha, by contrast, while presenting similar laws, does so in the form of a Biblical commentary and explicitly links its conclusions to details in the Biblical text. These Midrashim often predate the Mishnah.
The Mishnah also quotes the Torah for principles not associated with law, but just as practical advice, even at times for humor or as guidance for understanding historical debates.
The Gemara (also transliterated Gemora, Gemarah, or, less commonly, Gemorra; from Hebrew גמרא, from the Aramaic verb gamar, study) is the component of the Talmud comprising rabbinical analysis of and commentary on the Mishnah. After the Mishnah was published by Judah the Prince (c. 200 CE), the work was studied exhaustively by generation after generation of rabbis in Babylonia and the Land of Israel. Their discussions were written down in a series of books that became the Gemara, which when combined with the Mishnah constituted the Talmud.
There are two versions of the Gemara. The Jerusalem Talmud (Talmud Yerushalmi) was compiled by scholars of the Land of Israel, primarily of the academies of Tiberias and Caesarea, and was published between about 350–400 CE. The Talmud Bavli was published about 500 CE by scholars of Babylonia, primarily of the academies of Sura, Pumbedita, and Nehardea. By convention, a reference to the "Gemara" or "Talmud," without further qualification, refers to the Babylonian version. The main compilers were Revina and Rav Ashi. see Talmud.
Demonstrating how the Mishnah's rulings or disputes, derive from interpretations of Biblical texts. The Gemara will often ask where in the Torah the Mishnah derives a particular law. See Talmudic hermeneutics.
(Editor’s Note: All pages of the Talmud have the same layout.
Click here to view a A sample page in English and Hebrew )
The Talmud is the comprehensive written version of the Jewish oral law and the subsequent commentaries on it. It originates from the 2nd century CE. The word Talmud is derived from the Hebrew verb 'to teach', which can also be expressed as the verb 'to learn'.
The Talmud is the source from which the code of Jewish Halakhah (law) is derived. It is made up of the Mishnah and the Gemara. The Mishnah is the original written version of the oral law and the Gemara is the record of the rabbinic discussions following this writing down. It includes their differences of view.
The Talmud can also be known by the name Shas. This is a Hebrew abbreviation for the expression Shishah Sedarim or the six orders of the Mishnah.
Between the 2nd and 5th centuries CE these rabbinic discussions about the Mishnah were recorded in Jerusalem and later in Babylon (now Al Hillah in Iraq). This record was complete by the 5th Century CE. When the Talmud is mentioned without further clarification it is usually understood to refer to the Babylonian version which is regarded as having most authority.
The rabbi most closely associated with the compilation of the Mishnah is Rabbi Judah Ha-Nasi (approx. 135-219 CE). During his lifetime there were various rebellions against Roman rule in Palestine. This resulted in huge loss of life and the destruction of many of the Yeshivot (institutions for the study of the Torah) in the country. This may have led him to be concerned that the traditional telling of the law from rabbi to student was compromised and may have been part of his motivation for undertaking the task of writing it down.
In addition to the Talmud there have been important commentaries written about it. The most notable of these are by Rabbi Shelomo Yitzchaki from Northern France and by Rabbi Moses Maimonedes from Cordoba in Spain. They lived in the 11th and 12th centuries respectively. Both of these men have come to be known to Jews by acronyms based on their names. These are respectively Rashi and Rambam.
Rambam compiled the Mishneh Torah which is a further distillation of the code of Jewish Law and has come to be regarded by some as a primary source in its own right.
It is also worth mentioning another codifying work from the middle ages. This is the Shulchan Aruch (laid table) by Joseph Caro which is widely referenced by Jews.
Some Orthodox Jews make it part of their practise to study a page of the Talmud every single day. This is known as Daf Yomi which is the Hebrew expression for page of the day. The tradition began after the first international congress of the Agudath Yisrael World Movement in August, 1923. It was put forward as a means of bringing Jewish people together. It was suggested by Rav Meir Shapiro who was the rav of Lublin in Poland.
It is now possible to study the Talmud online.
The Mishnah (original oral law written down) is divided into six parts which are called Sedarim, the Hebrew word for order(s).
Zera'im (Seeds), is about the laws on agriculture, prayer, and tithes
Mo'ed (Festival), is about the sabbath and the festivals
Nashim (Women), is about marriage, divorce and contracts – oaths
Nezikin (Damages), is about the civil and criminal laws, the way courts operate and some further laws on oaths
Kodashim (Holy Things), is about sacrificing and the laws of the Temple and the dietary laws
Toharot (Purities), is about the laws of ritual purity and impurity.
The Talmud (/ˈtɑːlmʊd, -məd, ˈtæl-/; Hebrew: תַּלְמוּד talmūd) is the central text of Rabbinic Judaism and the primary source of Jewish religious law (halakha) and Jewish theology. Until the advent of modernity, in nearly all Jewish communities, the Talmud was the centerpiece of Jewish cultural life and was foundational to "all Jewish thought and aspirations", serving also as "the guide for the daily life" of Jews.
The term "Talmud" normally refers to the collection of writings named specifically the Babylonian Talmud (Talmud Bavli), although there is also an earlier collection known as the Jerusalem Talmud (Talmud Yerushalmi). It may also traditionally be called Shas (ש״ס), a Hebrew abbreviation of shisha sedarim, or the "six orders" of the Mishnah.
The Talmud has two components; the Mishnah (Hebrew: משנה, c. year 200 CE), a written compendium of Rabbinic Judaism's Oral Torah; and the Gemara (circa year 500 CE), an elucidation of the Mishnah and related Tannaitic writings that often ventures onto other subjects and expounds broadly on the Hebrew Bible. The term "Talmud" may refer to either the Gemara alone, or the Mishnah and Gemara together.
The entire Talmud consists of 63 tractates, and in standard print is over 6,200 pages long. It is written in Mishnaic Hebrew and Jewish Babylonian Aramaic and contains the teachings and opinions of thousands of rabbis (dating from before the Common Era through to the fifth century) on a variety of subjects, including halakha, Jewish ethics, philosophy, customs, history, lore and many other topics. The Talmud is the basis for all codes of Jewish law, and is widely quoted in rabbinic literature.
These writings, which fill in gaps in biblical texts, falls into two categories: halacha and aggadah
My Jewish Learning.
Midrash (מדרשׁ) is an interpretive act, seeking the answers to religious questions (both practical and theological) by plumbing the meaning of the words of the Torah. (In the Bible, the root d-r-sh [דרשׁ] is used to mean inquiring into any matter, including occasionally to seek out God’s word.) Midrash responds to contemporary problems and crafts new stories, making connections between new Jewish realities and the unchanging biblical text.
Midrash falls into two categories.When the subject is law and religious practice (halacha ), it is called midrash halacha. Midrash aggadah, on the other hand, interprets biblical narrative, exploring questions of ethics or theology, or creating homilies and parables based on the text. (Aggadah means”telling”; any midrash which is not halakhic falls into this category.)
It is often difficult to determine, simply from reading the biblical text, what Jewish law would be in practice. The text of the Torah is often general or ambiguous when presenting laws. Midrash halacha attempts to clarify or extend a law beyond the conditions assumed in the Bible, and to make connections between current practice and the biblical text. It made possible the creation and acceptance of new liturgies and rituals which de facto replaced sacrificial worship after the fall of the Second Temple, and the maintenance of continuity by linking those practices to the words of the Torah .
Midrash halacha from the two centuries following the fall of the Temple was collected in three books — the Mekhilta on Exodus, the Sifra on Leviticus, and the Sifrei on Numbers and Deuteronomy — known as the tannaitic midrashim. (The tannaim were the rabbis from the time of the Mishnah, edited in approximately 200 C.E.)
The type of midrash most commonly referred to (as in, “There is a midrash which says…”) is from the collections of midrash aggadah, most of which were compiled between about 200 and 1000 C.E. (Many midrashim circulated orally before then). Midrash aggadah may begin its exploration with any word or verse in the Bible. There are many different methods of interpretation and exposition.
Written by rabbis both steeped in Bible and absorbed by the Jewish questions of their time, works of midrash aggadah often occupy the meeting ground between reverence and love for the wording of the fixed text of the Torah, and theological creativity. Midrashic writings thus often yield religious insights that have made Torah directly applicable to later Jewish realities, especially the concerns of its authors. Some of what midrash aggadah yields is insight into the burning, sometimes time-bound questions of those who wrote it. Still, the interpretations produced often have more universal and timeless application to our, or any, generation.
In addition to works devoted to midrashic compilations, midrash aggadah also appears throughout the two Talmuds. Midrash Rabbah, the “Great Midrash,” is the name of the collections linked to the five books of the Torah and the “Five Scrolls” (Esther, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, and Ecclesiastes) read on holidays. Some of these works read like verse-by-verse commentaries. Others may have originated in sermons linked to the weekly Torah reading.
A tractate is a written work dealing formally and systematically with a subject; the word derives from the Latin tractatus, meaning treatise.
One example of its use is in citing a section of the Talmud, when the term Masekhet (מסכת) is used in conjunction with the name of the subject, for example, Masekhet Berakhoth, which is relevant to plants and farming.
The Zugot (515 BCE - 70 CE)
during the time of the Second Temple (515 BCE – 70 CE), in which the spiritual leadership of the Jewish people was in the hands of five successive generations of zugot ("pairs") of religious teachers.
The Tannaim from approximately 10-220 CE.
Tanna "repeaters", "teachers" were the Rabbinic sages whose views are recorded in the Mishnah, The period of the Tannaim, also referred to as the Mishnaic period, lasted about 210 years. It came after the period of the Zugot ("pairs"), and was immediately followed by the period of the Amoraim ("interpreters")
The root tanna (תנא) is the Talmudic Aramaic equivalent for the Hebrew root shanah (שנה), which also is the root-word of Mishnah. The verb shanah (שנה) literally means "to repeat [what one was taught]" and is used to mean "to learn".
The Mishnaic period is commonly divided up into five periods according to generations. There are approximately 120 known Tannaim.
The Tannaim lived in several areas of the Land of Israel. The spiritual center of Judaism at that time was Jerusalem, but after the destruction of the city and the Second Temple, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai and his students founded a new religious center in Yavne. Other places of Judaic learning were founded by his students in Lod and in Bnei Brak.
Some Tannaim worked as laborers (e.g., charcoal burners, cobblers) in addition to their positions as teachers and legislators. They were also leaders of the people and negotiators with the Roman Empire
The Amoraim (200 to 500 CE)
"those who say" or "those who speak over the people", or "spokesmen"), were renowned Jewish scholars who "said" or "told over" the teachings of the Oral Torah, from about 200 to 500 CE in Babylonia and the Land of Israel. Their legal discussions and debates were eventually codified in the Gemara. The Amoraim followed the Tannaim in the sequence of ancient Jewish scholars. The Tannaim were direct transmitters of uncodified oral tradition; the Amoraim expounded upon and clarified the oral law after its initial codification.
The Savoraim (500 to 700 CE)
A term used in Jewish law and history to signify one among the leading rabbis living from the end of period of the Amoraim (around 500 CE) to the beginning of the Geonim (around 700 CE). As a group they are also referred to as the Rabbeinu Sevorai or Rabanan Saborai, and may have played a large role in giving the Talmud its current structure. Modern scholars also use the plural term Stammaim (Hebrew; "closed, vague or unattributed sources") for the authors of unattributed statements in the Gemara.
The Geonim (589 to 1040 CE)
The presidents of the two great Babylonian, Talmudic Academies of Sura and Pumbedita, in the Abbasid Caliphate, and were the generally accepted spiritual leaders of the Jewish community world wide in the early medieval era, in contrast to the Resh Galuta (Exilarch) who wielded secular authority over the Jews in Islamic lands.
Geonim is the plural of גאון (Gaon') [ɡaˈʔon], which means "pride" or "splendour" in Biblical Hebrew and since the 19th century "genius" as in modern Hebrew. As a title of a Babylonian college president it meant something like "His Excellency".
The Geonim played a prominent and decisive role in the transmission and teaching of Torah and Jewish law. They taught Talmud and decided on issues on which no ruling had been rendered during the period of the Talmud.
The Rishonim (1038 to 1563 CE)
sing. ראשון, Rishon, "the first ones") were the leading Rabbis and Poskim who lived approximately during the 11th to 15th centuries,
The distinction between the Rishonim and the Geonim is meaningful historically; in Halakha (Jewish Law) the distinction is less important. According to a widely held view in Orthodox Judaism, the Acharonim generally cannot dispute the rulings of rabbis of previous eras unless they find supports of other rabbis in previous eras. On the other hand, this view is not formally a part of halakha itself, and according to some rabbis is a violation of the halakhic system. In the The Principles of Jewish Law Orthodox rabbi Menachem Elon writes that:
The Principles of Jewish Law — [such a view] "inherently violates the precept of Hilkheta Ke-Vatra'ei, that is, the law is according to the later scholars. This rule dates from the Geonic period. It laid down that until the time of Rabbis Abbaye and Rava (4th century) the Halakha was to be decided according to the views of the earlier scholars, but from that time onward, the halakhic opinions of post-talmudic scholars would prevail over the contrary opinions of a previous generation. See Piskei Ha'Rosh, Bava Metzia 3:10, 4:21, Shabbat 23:1
The Acharonim (literally the "lasts") 1563 to the present.
Hebrew: אחרונים Aḥaronim; sing. אחרון, Aḥaron; lit. "last ones") is a term used in Jewish law and history, to signify the leading rabbis and poskim (Jewish legal decisors) living from roughly the 16th century to the present, and more specifically since the writing of the Shulkhan Arukh (Hebrew: שׁוּלחָן עָרוּך, "Set Table", a code of Jewish law) in 1563 CE.
ROLE OF THE TALMUD IN JUDAISM
Many believe that the Talmud was written between the second and fifth century CE, yet Orthodox Jews believe it was revealed to Moses, along with the Torah, and preserved orally until it was written down. The Talmud is thus known as the "Oral Torah," with the first five books of the Tanakh designated the "Written Torah."
In Orthodox Judaism, the Oral Torah is accepted as equally sacred, inspired, and authoritative as the Written Torah. One of the aims of Orthodox Judaism in Israel is to establish Talmudic law as the state law of Israel. Elsewhere in the world, Orthodox Jews submit themselves voluntarily to Talmudic law and the rabbinic court system, especially in matters of dietary and ritual law, marriage and divorce, and social work.
COMPARE JEWISH DENOMINATIONS
The Talmud also plays an important role in Conservative Judaism, although it is viewed as an evolutionary process that changes with the times. Both professional and lay Talmudic scholarship is dedicated to determining the proper response to modern issues by intensive study of the Talmud. Reform Judaism officially rejects the Talmud as an entirely human invention reflecting medieval thought and values.
In 1923, Polish Rabbi Meir Shapiro organized the Daf Yomi ("the daily page") for a group of students, in which one page of the Talmud is studied each day. This took 2,711 days - about seven and a half years.
The Daf Yomi has since been undertaken by thousands of Jews around the world, and in 1997 a global celebration was held to celebrate the completion of the 10th cycle of readings. Over 70,000 took part in the celebration, which gathered at the locations around the world connected by satellite, including Madison Square Garden, Nassau Coliseum, Eugene, Oregon, and Sao Paulo, Brazil. Current Daf Yomi groups, now embarked on the 11th cycle of readings, can be found around the globe and the daily reading is available on the Internet.
THE BABYLONIAN TALMUD
There are actually two Talmuds: the Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud. The former was composed circa 500 CE and the latter was completed around 600 CE. By the 11th century, the Babylonian Talmud had established supremacy and today it is the one that is meant by "the Talmud." Thus it is the one on which we will concentrate.
THE ORGANIZATION OF THE TALMUD
The Talmud consists of two parts: the Mishnah and the Gemara. The Mishnah is rabbinic commentary on the Torah and the Gemara is rabbinic commentary on the Mishnah.
Mishnah The Mishnah ("a teaching that is repeated") is organized as a law book, and consists of legal rulings and teachings by rabbis of the first through third centuries CE. It was codified by Rabbi Judah Ha-Nasi around 200 CE and divided into "six orders," or shisha sedarim in Hebrew (the Talmud is known colloquially as "shas" for short), each of which addresses a different aspect of Jewish life:
- Zera'im ("Seeds") - blessings, tithes, temple offerings, agriculture - Mo'ed ("Set Feasts") - Sabbath laws and holiday observances - Nashim ("Women") - marriage and divorce - Nezikin ("Damages") - idolatry, matters of civil law, and the Pirke Avot - Kodashim ("Holy Things") - sacrificial system in the Temple, dietary laws - Tohorot ("Purities") - ritual purity and impurity
This 16th-century text by Joseph Caro is the ultimate code of Jewish law.
My Jewish Learning, Rabbi Jill Jacobs,
See also Layout of a Shulchan Aruch Page
Ask the average Jew where to learn about Jewish law, and you’ll probably be sent to the Bible or Talmud . Once there, you may find yourself a bit confused. The Bible includes many laws, but generally offers little explanation of the details of observance; the Talmud, on the other hand, includes an excess of detail, but also incorporates multiple viewpoints, stories, and digressions.
A person wondering, for example, how to light a Hanukkah menorah, what activities are permitted on Shabbat , or what one may eat during Passover, will have to weed through pages of discussion in order to find answers, and those may not be straightforward at all.
Given the Talmud’s complexity, scholars since the medieval period have attempted to codify Jewish law in an easily accessible format. In the 12th century, Moses Maimonides (Rambam) composed the Mishneh Torah, a summary of laws relating to all areas of Jewish life. This work, written in simple Hebrew, is meant to be accessible for the average Jew who does not have the skills or motivation to access Talmud.
A century later, Jacob ben Asher produced the Arba’ah Turim (often called the Tur for short), a code that addresses only the practical areas of Jewish law. Unlike Maimonides, Jacob ben Asher restricted his discussion to laws relevant to post-Temple Jewish life, and cited his sources, referencing different opinions when necessary.
THE SHULCHAN ARUCH’S BEGINNINGS
On the heels of the Tur, the next influential Jewish code of law was the Shulchan Aruch (literally, the “set table”), written by Joseph Caro (1488-1575). Caro was part of a Sephardic family that was expelled from Spain in 1492. After the death of his father, Caro was adopted by his uncle, Isaac Caro, the author of a commentary on the Bible. The Caro family eventually settled in Safed, the area of northern Israel where the mystical circle of Isaac Luria then flourished. Both Isaac and Joseph Caro became part of this community of mystics.
Joseph Caro originally set out to write a commentary on the Arba’ah Turim that would cite sources not mentioned by Jacob ben Asher and that would often differ from the Tur’s conclusions. This commentary, named the Bet Yosef, reads like a set of footnotes to Jacob ben Asher’s more concise statements of law.
In the introduction to this work, Caro explains that the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and their subsequent dispersion among Ashkenazic communities had caused confusion about the rules of observance. Sephardic Jews often found that their inherited traditions differed from those of the Ashkenazi Jews into whose communities they had moved; with the dismantling of Sephardic communities, it was no longer clear who had authority to decide matters of law. By presenting all known sources on particular issues, Caro hoped to clear up this confusion.
The Bet Yosef eventually became the notes for the Shulchan Aruch, which would become Caro’s most famous and influential work. Originally intended as a crutch for those not sufficiently learned to read the Bet Yosef or the halachic works referenced there, the Shulchan Aruch soon became the most important code of Jewish law.
FORMAT OF THE SHULCHAN ARUCH
Caro divided his work according to the categories introduced by Jacob ben Asher. Like the Arba’ah Turim, the Shulchan Aruch is divided into four sections:
Orah Hayim (laws relating to prayer, Shabbat and holiday observance, and other rituals of everyday life),
Yoreh De’ah (laws of kashrut, tzedakah, conversion, and other ritual matters),
Even ha’Ezer (laws relating to women and marriage), and
Hoshen Mishpat (civil law, including sections on lending money, renting and buying homes, and worker-employer relations).
Within each of these four sections, laws on similar subjects are grouped together. Each section is divided into simanim (paragraphs), and those are further divided into se’ifim (sub-sections). A citation of the Shulchan Aruch, thus, might read: Hoshen Mishpat 335:1, meaning: section Hoshen Mishpat, siman 335, se’if 1.
In general, the Shulchan Aruch presents laws in a straightforward way, with virtually no discussion. For example, Caro’s instructions for lighting Hanukkah candles read:
How many candles should one light? On the first night, one lights one; from then on, one adds one each night until there are eight on the last night (Orah Hayim 671:2).
Although the Talmud and other earlier texts include other traditions for the appropriate means of lighting Hanukkah candles, Caro chose to present only what he considered to be the correct procedure, in order to avoid confusing his readers.
CARO AND MYSTICISM
It may seem strange that Caro was simultaneously a mystic and the most important codifier of Jewish law. We tend to associate mystics with meditative practice and with an emphasis on achieving visions of the divine. When we imagine a medieval legal scholar, we might conjure up an image of a very serious man who spends his days bent over a set of musty books. However, within the context of the mystical circle of Safed, Caro’s double identity makes sense.
For Isaac Luria and his school, the goal of religious observance was to reunite the parts of the divine being that had been scattered as a result of human disobedience. This process, known as tikkun (fixing), required — first and foremost — the practice of mitzvot. Luria and his followers believed that the performance of each mitzvah helped in some way to unify the various aspects of God. The composition of a compendium of Jewish law would thus help Jews to participate in this tikkun.
For the most part, Caro’s mystical leanings have little effect on his legal decisions. In some instances, however, Caro does explain a particular law with reference to a mystical teaching.
COMMENTARIES ON THE SHULCHAN ARUCH
When Caro published the Bet Yosef, Rabbi Moshe Isserles (known as the Rema), an Ashkenazi legal scholar, responded with his own commentary on the Arba’ah Turim, called Darkhei Moshe. Learning that Caro was about to issue the Shulchan Aruch, Isserles abandoned this project and instead wrote a commentary on Caro’s work.
Isserles criticized Caro for often ignoring the opinions of Ashkenazic scholars, commenting that, “Caro’s books are full of decisions that do not follow the interpretations of the sages from whose waters we drink …[the sages] whose children’s children we are.”
It has become a familiar joke that every time a person claims to have the last word on Judaism, multiple commentators appear to challenge this assertion. Famously, Maimonides had the chutzpah to claim that a person could read the written Torah and then the Mishneh Torah and “from them, know the oral Torah and have no need to read another book.” Not surprisingly, Maimonides’ code did not become the last word in Jewish law, but rather almost immediately became the subject of numerous commentaries and critiques.
Similarly, the Shulchan Aruch did not immediately achieve widespread acceptance. Many scholars thought publishing a comprehensive code of law was forbidden, fearing that readers of such a code would have no way of knowing the history or range of opinions on various laws.
Rabbi Shlomo ben Yechiel Luria (the Maharshal), a contemporary of Caro’s, was the author of Yam shel Shlomo, a commentary on part of the Talmud. In the introduction to that work, the Maharshal declared the impossibility of “explain[ing] every uncertainty in the Torah to the point that there is no disagreement.” Rather, he argued, each scholar should delve into the sources, add new interpretations, and decide among various opinions.
ronically, the Shulchan Aruch ultimately gained its legitimacy through the publication of two major commentaries by 17th-century Ashkenazic scholars. These works, known as Turei Zahav (“Taz”) and Siftei Kohen (“Shakh”) and written by David ben Shmuel haLevi (Poland, 1586-1667) and Shabbetai ben Meir haKohen (Lithuania, 1621-1662), respectively, respond to the critiques of the Shulchan Aruch by explaining Caro’s reasoning, introducing alternative opinions, and offering their own conclusions.
In treating the Shulchan Aruch as an independent work worthy of a commentary of its own, rather than as the poor cousin of the more extensive Bet Yosef, these two scholars secured the place of the Shulchan Aruch as the authoritative code for generations to come.
The best-known later commentary on the Shulchan Aruch is the 19th-century Mishneh B’rurah, written by Yisrael Meir Kogan, which includes explanations and a collection of later opinions on the Orah Hayim section of the code. The 19th century also saw a number of attempts to abridge the Shulchan Aruch. The most famous of these is Shlomo Ganzfried’s Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, which summarizes Caro’s work while also incorporating some alternative opinions and contemporary customs.
INFLUENCE OF THE SHULCHAN ARUCH
To this day, the Shulchan Aruch remains the most influential code of Jewish law. Contemporary legal scholars may, on occasion, disagree with Caro’s conclusions, but they cannot ignore him. The proliferation of commentaries on the Shulchan Aruch has only solidified its central position in the canon. Almost 500 years after Caro produced a work intended primarily for those unable to study more complex legal works, his code has become the primary textbook for most traditional Jewish schools and yeshivas.
1. ITS HEBREW NAME MEANS ‘SET TABLE’
The Talmud contains 2,711 densely packed pages, full of involved discussions on all matters of Jewish law. In the years following its completion, countless comments, questions, and explanations were added by the various commentaries. Known in Hebrew as Shulchan Aruch (“Set Table”), the Code of Jewish Law lays out practical and concise instructions culled from the intricate web of Talmudic deliberation and rabbinic commentaries that come along with it.
2. ITS CURRENT FORM IS A HYBRID OF SEPERATE TEXTS AUTHORED BY TWO MEN WHO NEVER MET
The Shulchan Aruch was written by Rabbi Yosef Caro (1488-1575), a Sephardic sage who lived in the holy city of Safed, in the north of Israel. At the same time that Rabbi Caro was completing his work, Rabbi Moshe Isserles, an Ashkenazi rabbi in Cracow, Poland, was working on a similar project.
Upon seeing the work of the Sephardic scholar, Rabbi Moshe chose to discard his manuscript and add glosses to the already-released text instead. He also notes wherever Ashkenazic tradition differs from the rulings codified by Rabbi Caro. Thus, a unified text was able to be used by all segments of the Jewish world.
3. THE COMMENTARY IS THE ‘CLOTH’
Keying off the name Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Moshe called his commentary Mapah, which means “tablecloth.” In the words of his introduction: “I have come after [Rabbi Caro] to spread a cloth over the set table, upon which he has collected all the delightful fruits and delicacies that a person may love. For without this [addition], the table he has set before G-d was not placed before the people of these lands…”
4. IT HAS FOUR PARTS
Rabbi Caro structured his work to mirror the Arba Turim (“Four Rows”) written by Rabbi Jacob ben Asher. It comprises four books, each dedicated to another area of Jewish life:
5. IT WAS NOT INTENDED TO BE A PRIMARY SOURCE
The author of Shulchan Aruch never intended that the work be used in isolation. Rather, he hoped that it would serve as a review for students of his lengthier commentary, the Beit Yosef, where the background and discussion behind many of his rulings are found.
6. IT WAS CONTROVERSIAL IN ITS DAY
When the Code of Jewish Law was first released, it received criticism reminiscent of the complaints lodged against Maimonides’ Yad Hachazakah. The fear was that people would become lazy, only consulting the sparse rulings of the Code, without bothering to understand the copious scholarship and nuance that stands behind every line.
There was also the initial concern that Rabbi Caro had based his rulings primarily on the teachings of Rabbi Isaac Alfasi (Rif), Maimonides, and Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel (Rosh), and did not represent the scholarship of the broader Jewish community. This concern was greatly assuaged by the glosses Rabbi Moshe Isserles added.
7. IT WAS FIRST PRINTED IN VENICE IN THE 1560’s
The first printing of the Shulchan Aruch was produced in Venice in approximately 1566, and included just the work of Rabbi Yosef Caro. The first edition to contain the teachings of both rabbis was printed in Cracow in 1578 (or earlier).
8. IT BEGINS WITH A WAKE-UP CALL
The first book of the Code of Jewish Law begins with the following exhortation: “He shall strengthen himself like a lion to rise in the morning to serve his Creator, Who wakes the dawn.” Rabbi Moshe adds a qualifying note, that at the very least one should not sleep past the time of communal prayers.
9. IT CONTAINS BOTH RASHI SCRIPT AND REGULAR SCRIPT
In the original Cracow edition, which included no commentaries, the words of both rabbis were printed in Rashi script, with the words of Rabbi Yosef Caro appearing slightly larger. In the standard editions of centuries since, Rabbi Caro’s words are printed in standard block script, with the additions of Rabbi Moshe Isserles in Rashi script, allowing the reader to easily discern between the two.
10. THE CODE IS NOW SURROUNDED BY COMMENTARIES
Many commentaries have been written on the Code of Jewish Law. Some of the most prominent ones have been printed on same page as the Code itself, including:
11. THE ALTER REBBE WROTE ONE
In response to a request from his mentor, Rabbi Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezritch, the Alter Rebbe (1745-1812), founder of Chabad Chassidism, composed his own version. Commonly known as Shulchan Aruch Harav, it takes into account the rulings of the Shulchan Aruch and many others, most notably the Magen Avraham. Although it follows the chapter divisions of Rabbi Caro’s work, the text is entirely reworked and significantly longer.
12. THE KITZUR SHULCHAN ARUCH IS NOT AN ABRIDGEMENT
Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried (1804-1886) wrote the very popular Kitzur Shulchan Aruch. Although its name means “Abridged Shulchan Aruch,” it is actually an original work, which clearly and succinctly spells out the basics of Jewish law in a manner that is easy for the layperson to understand.
13. MISHNAH BERURAH IS A POPULAR COMMENTARY
Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan (known as the Chafetz Chaim, 1839-1933) wrote a commentary to the Shluchan Aruch called the Mishnah Berurah (“Clear Study”). Printed along with the text of Orach Chaim, it fills six volumes.
14. IT IS SYNONYMOUS WITH JEWISH LAW
Although the totality of Jewish law is much broader than the Shulchan Aruch, the name has become synonymous. Hence, when one wishes to describe a Jew whose every move is in sync with halachah, one could use the moniker, a “Shulchan Aruch Yid.
The centers of Jewish scholarship in Europe switched from country to country, according to where it was safest and permissible for Jews to live. Talmudic law was to make one of its largest impacts in England. The Jewish financiers under the Angevin kings were responsible for the entry into the English legal system of the Talmudic property law, which the Jews used in commercial transactions. Some of these laws are actually enshrined in the guarantees of rights and privileges granted by King John in the Magna Carta of 1215. Although trial by combat remained on British statute books until as late as 1817, its place was gradually taken by the rule of law to which the Jews had always subjected themselves: the right to be judged on the facts alone. Through the English legal system, Talmudic law went on to influence legislation throughout the English-speaking world.
Minhag (Hebrew: מנהג "custom", pl. minhagim) is an accepted tradition or group of traditions in Judaism. A related concept, Nusach (נוסח), refers to the traditional order and form of the prayers.
The Hebrew root N-H-G (נ-ה-ג) means primarily "to drive" or, by extension, "to conduct (oneself)".
The actual word minhag appears twice in the Hebrew Bible, both times in the same verse and rendered in this translation as "the driving":
The watchman reported, saying, "He has reachef d them, but has not returned. The driving is like the driving of Jehu [grand]son oNimshi, for he is driving [his chariot] recklessly." (II Kings 9:20, Tanach: The Stone Edition)
Homiletically, one could argue that the use of the word minhag in Jewish law reflects its Biblical Hebrew origins as "the (manner of) driving (a chariot)". Whereas Halakha (law), from the word for walking-path, means the path or road set for the journey, minhag (custom), from the word for driving, means the manner people have developed themselves to travel down that path more quickly.
The present use of minhag for custom may have been influenced by the Arabic minhaj, though in current Islamic usage this term is used for the intellectual methodology of a scholar or school of thought (cf. Hebrew derech) rather than for the customs of a local or ethnic community.
MINHAG AND JEWISH LAW
Observant Jews consider Halakha, Jewish law as derived from the Talmud, binding upon all Jews. However, in addition to these halakhot, there have always been local customs and prohibitions. Some customs were eventually adopted universally (e.g. wearing a head covering) or almost universally (e.g. monogamy). Others are observed by some major segments of Jewry but not by others (e.g., not eating rice on Passover). These minhagim exist in various forms:
Ancient minhagim go back to the time of the Talmud and earlier. Today they are generally regarded as universally binding. The oldest recorded minhag is that of 'beating the Aravot' (Willow Branches) on Hoshanah Rabbah, and dates back to the era of the Prophets.
LATER MINHAGIM ARE FOLLOWED BY SPECIFIC GROUPS.
Jews whose ancestors continued to live in the Middle East and Africa until the establishment of the State of Israel, regardless of where they live now, tend to follow a variety of customs, such as Mizrahi-Sephardi or Temani. Jews whose ancestors lived in Central Europe in the Middle Ages (regardless of where they live now) tend to follow Ashkenazic customs, while those whose families originated in the Iberian peninsula generally follow Sephardic customs. (The Talmud gives detailed rules for people who visit or move to a locale where the custom differs from their own.) Hasidim tend to follow their own minhagim.
Within these broad categories there are also sub-groups by origin (e.g. Lithuanian or Polish or German customs), by location (e.g. "minhag Yerushalayim") or by branch (e.g. Skverrer Hasidim follow different customs than Chabad Hasidim).
Families and even individuals may adhere to specific minhagim not followed by others.
DISCUSSION IN RABBINIC LITERATURE
Various sources in Rabbinic literature stress the importance of a long-held tradition, culminating in the statement "the minhag of our fathers is [equivalent to] Torah" (e.g. Tosafot to Menahot 20b s.v. nifsal). Custom can thus determine halachic practice in cases of disagreement among rabbinic authorities. In numerous instances, Rabbi Moses Isserles warns that one should not abolish long-held customs. (Isserles' gloss on the Shulchan Aruch was, in fact, written so as to delineate Ashkenazi minhagim alongside Sephardi practices in the same code of law.)
Despite the above, a minhag does not override clear biblical or talmudic enactments, and one may not transgress the latter for the sake of the former. In fact, any minhag that intrinsically involves an element of halakha violation is considered null and void (see Piskei Riaz, Pesachim 4:1:7).
The Talmud (Pesachim 50) rules that a valid minhag accepted by previous generations of a family or community is binding upon all later generations. The Rosh (Makom Shenahagu, 3) states that the Talmud's ruling fundamentally applies to practices undertaken by learned individuals; innovations by the unlearned need only be followed publicly. Other halakhic authorities hold that the Talmud's ruling applies to all valid practices initiated by either learned or unlearned individuals (for discussion of this point see Bach and Beit Yosef to Yoreh Deah 214; Shach, ibid., 214:7).
In most cases, personal acceptance of a new minhag is tantamount to vowing performance of that minhag. Consequently, abandonment of such a minhag typically requires hatarat nedarim or sh'eilat chakham, halakhic procedures for absolving oneself from oaths. This was often necessary when, for example, an Ashkenazi Jew moved to the Ottoman Empire and wished to join the local Sephardi community.
Jewish law provides for a number of mechanisms to change or remove a custom when it is held to be mistaken or illogical. (See Tosafot on Talmud Pesachim 51a; Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Issurei Biah; Be'er Heitev, Orach Chaim 182 in Hilchot Birkat Ha'mazon, Orach Chaim 653 in Hilchot Lulav, Orach Chaim 551:4 in Hilchot Tisha B'av.) Orthodox rabbi and historian of Jewish law Menachem Elon writes:
Custom, because of its spontaneous and undirected nature, sometimes calls for a measure of supervision and control. At times a custom may be founded on error, or develop unreasonably or illogically in a certain direction, or may even be in conflict with substantive and fundamental principles of Jewish law in a manner leaving no room for its integration into the system. From time to time the halakhic scholars exercised such control in order to contain or discredit entirely a particular custom.
The acute displacement brought about by World War II and the Holocaust, and the large-scale immigration to the United States, various European countries, and especially the State of Israel, have led to a "liberal mixing" of various minhagim, and arguably the falling into disuse of certain customs. In addition, the baal teshuva movement has created a large group who have no clear tradition from their parents. In response to these phenomena, certain scholars have focused on the minhagim, and attempts have been made to revive minhagim that have fallen into disuse.
Nusach (properly nósach) primarily means "text" or "version", the correct wording of a religious text. Thus, the nusach tefillah is the text of the prayers, either generally or as used by a particular community. In common use nusach has come to signify the entire liturgical tradition of the community, including the musical rendition. It is narrower than minhag, which can refer to custom in any field, not necessarily that of communal prayer.
Both nusach and minhag can thus be used for liturgic rite or liturgic tradition though sometimes a nusach appears to be a subdivision of a minhag or vice versa; see different Jewish rites and popular siddurim under Siddur. In general one must pray according to one's "nusach of origin" unless one has formally joined a different community and accepted its minhag. (Perisha rules that if one abandons a nusach that has been accepted universally by the wider Jewish community, his prayer is disqualified and must be repeated using the accepted nusach: Arba'ah Turim, Orach Chayim, 120 ad loc).
The main segments of traditional Judaism, as differentiated by nusach (broadly and narrowly), are these:
Nusach Ashkenaz: the general Ashkenazi rite of non-Chasidim. Can be subdivided into:
Nusach Sefard or Nusach Ari (Ashkenazi Chasidic rite, heavily influenced by the teachings of Sephardi Kabbalists)
Minhag Sefaradi: in general refers to the various Sephardi liturgies, but also to obligation/permissibility of Kabbalistic elements within the rite. Versions of this are:
Minhag Edot HaMizrach: often used to mean the Baghdadi rite, is more or less influenced by the Sephardi minhag
Nosach Teiman, can be subdivided into:
Nusach Eretz Yisrael; has not survived in any community, though an attempt to revive it has been made by Rabbi David Bar-Hayim of Machon Shilo; however it is thought to have had some influence on:
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