Early Modern Halakhic Texts

An introduction to the works of the aharonim.

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Noda bi-Yehudah, R. Ezekiel ben Yehudah Landau (1713-1793, Poland and Prague). Among the contemporary issues he addressed in his halakhic writings were autopsies and shaving during hol ha-mo`ed (the intermediary days of Passover and Sukkot).

R. Akiva ben Moses Guens Eiger (1761-1837, Eisenstadt, Lissa, Posen). He confronted issues resulting from interaction with the growing Reform community, and, among other works, wrote glosses to the Shulhan Arukh and the Talmud.

Responsa literature in this period deals with a full array of halakhic matters, both practical and theoretical. Evidently, the presence of the Shulhan Arukh did not end halakhic discussion or innovation.

The Vilna Gaon

The prolific writings and intellectual prowess of one particular figure served to transition from one generation to the next--R. Elijah ben Solomon Zalman (1720-1797), known as the Vilna Gaon (Gr"a). The Vilna Gaon took extremely strong stands on the issues of his day, particularly in opposition to Hasidism. As a scholar, he studied all the secular sciences which he felt necessary to understand halakhah, including astronomy, mathematics, and geography. 

The Vilna Gaon is often compared to a rishon, because he made halakhic decisions independently, relying on readings of the Talmud. His methodology rested upon establishing correct readings of texts and determining the precise sources of halakhot; Be'ur ha-Gra, his commentary to the Shulhan Arukh, is extraordinarily terse, noting sources and offering only the barest of explanations. Through his few students, and their establishment of the prestigious Volozhin yeshiva, the Vilna Gaon's influence continued to be felt throughout the 19th century.

By the mid-19th century, Ashkenazic lands were embroiled in the controversies accompanying the challenges of emancipation and the attendant rise of Jewish denominations. Jewish legal scholars began to split into various camps, some allying themselves with the new movements in order to provide them with legitimacy, others offering measured opposition, and yet others offering more extreme opposition, resulting in more stringent halakhic attitudes and positions than had heretofore been expressed. A new era of halakhah was dawning.

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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.