Orthodox rabbis in the last two centuries saw themselves as a bulwark against assimilation, fighting for the survival of tradition in the face of deep challenges from within the Jewish community. The Reform Movement in late 19th century Germany called for the rejection of most ritual practices, preferring a focus on the ethical teachings of Judaism. Increasingly large and vocal groups of secular Jews went further and rejected prayer and ritual altogether. Also at this time, the academic study of Bible and Talmud called into question beliefs about the divine origins of the law, which were considered essential to traditional observance.
Orthodox figures saw these innovative approaches as a direct challenge to the authority of halakhah and, ultimately, God. They sought to preserve the community’s continuity with the past in both study and practice of Jewish law.
During this period, Orthodox rabbis issued rulings on all areas of Jewish life. Many rulings simply presented decisions, either with or without explaining the relevant legal sources. Other more controversial issues required the scholar to present a range of opinions and to argue on behalf of one.
Some of these had been debated for centuries: When can Jews rely on a shabbes goy (a non-Jewish neighbor) to light or extinguish a fire on the Sabbath? In what types of urban areas may one build an eruv, the symbolic boundary that permits carrying in the street on the Sabbath? Others had to balance legal analysis against pressing communal concerns like anti-Semitism, assimilation, and economic survival.
In many cases, rabbis explored new realities that earlier sources had not dealt with. These included the use of electricity on the Sabbath; the kashrut status of gelatin; whether and when women should be permitted to study Torah; and how the law should relate to secular and Reform Jews.
In such cases, scholars offered arguments for how the new situation should be approached in halakhic terms, seeking to fit the new cases into previously established categories. Typically, there was initially a range of ideas on these questions. Some, like electricity, were soon settled by a combination of rabbinic consensus and communal sanction. Others, like the debate on women’s roles, have remained points of deep contention and have defined many of the fissures in the Orthodox world until today.
Three main genres of Orthodox legal works were published during this period. Responsa, teshuvot, were perhaps the most numerous. As in previous generations, the important responsa of prominent scholars were collected, edited, and published. The responsa of a particular scholar would be published in a volume that was generally titled with a biblical phrase or a pun on the author’s name.
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.
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).
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.
Pronounced: AHSH-ken-AH-zee, Origin: Hebrew, Jews of Central and Eastern European origin.
Pronounced: AHVR-rah-ham, Origin: Hebrew, Abraham in the Torah, considered the first Jew.
Pronounced: moe-SHEH, Origin: Hebrew, Moses, whom God chooses to lead the Jews out of Egypt.
Pronounced: seh-FAR-dik, Origin: Hebrew, describing Jews descending from the Jews of Spain.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.