Early Modern Halakhic Texts

An introduction to the works of the aharonim.

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The Pri Megadim attempts to shore up the Taz's unproven assertion that even Rabbenu Tam would agree that women could spin wool for tzitzit, implicitly against the critique of the Magen Avraham. He makes two attempts to justify the Taz's opinion that women may spin. First, he points out that in an earlier section of the Shulhan Arukh (11:1-2) which discusses spinning, the Rema, who would ordinarily bring the Ashkenazic opinion represented by Rabbenu Tam, is silent, thus implying that indeed Rabbenu Tam would agree that women may spin the wool for tzitzit.

His second justification is more complicated, relying on a distinction between two possible ways to exclude women from making tzitzit:
(1) Interpreting the phrase "children of Israel" as "sons" and not "daughters"

(2) The principle that being exempt from a mitzvah disqualifies one from being able to make items related to it.

Pri Megadim notes that the Levush follows the first opinion, and allows women to spin because this phrase ("children of Israel") appears in the verse about tying, but not in reference to spinning. Rabbenu Tam, however, seems to agree with the second reason, and therefore thinks that women are excluded from any step in the process of making tzitzit.

Here we see some elements of the Pri Megadim's halakhic strategy. He bolsters the Taz's case by incorporating the opinion of the Levush. In the process he clarifies the two main opinions underlying the law, gives some practical differences between them, and even ends up with a possibility that contradicts the Taz. He concludes that this matter requires further thought.

Responsa Literature

Responsa literature (she'elot u-teshuvot, or shu"t) as a genre is notable for the way it confronts challenges posed by new realities and behaviors, as well as its development of new theoretical halakhic argumentation. Some of the greatest aharonim are known primarily through their responsa. They include:

Hakham Tzevi, R. Zevi Hirsch ben Jacob Ashkenazi (1660-1718, Moravia, Berlin, Altona, Amsterdam). One of his famous responsa addresses whether a golem can count in a minyan; another involves observance of yom tov by travelers to Israel.  His most controversial teshuvot--which were attacked by his colleagues--declare a chicken born without a heart to be kosher.

Sha'agat Aryeh, R. Aryeh Leib Gunzberg (1695-1785, Lithuania, Minsk, Volozhin, Metz). Several of the issues he addresses involve the status of various halakhot in contemporary times (bi-zeman ha-zeh), including the mitzvah of writing a Torah scroll, circumcision of Muslims by Jews, and rejoicing on holidays.

She'elat Yavetz, R. Yaakov ben Zevi Emden (1697-1776, son and student of Hakham Tzevi, Altona, Moravia). Unlike many rabbis of his time, he was learned in many secular disciplines. He is noted for his unusual halakhic positions, including permitting concubinage.

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Will Friedman is an MA candidate in Talmud and Rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. He has previously studied at the Conservative Yeshiva, Pardes, and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.