Halakhic Texts 101

Print this page Print this page

From its earliest days, Judaism viewed the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) as the rule book for Jewish ritual and civic behavior. But the Tanakh often communicates laws in very general terms, and so there emerged a system of legal interpretation and application, which came to be known as halakhah--from the Hebrew word for "walking" or "path."

In the late second century Rabbi Judah Ha-Nasi and his rabbinic colleagues began to record and organize this "Oral Torah." Over the next four- to five- hundred years the rabbis created the classical sources for halakhah: the Mishnah, Midrash Halakhah, Tosefta, and Talmud.

By the late sixth or early seventh century CE, the final redaction of the Babylonian Talmud was complete. After this--and until today--halakhic texts continued to be produced to explicate and apply the law.

The first period of halakhic productivity after the close of the Talmud was the geonic period. The geonim were leaders of Babylonian and North African Jewry. Jewish communities looked towards the geonim for authoritative teachings on halakhic matters, and the geonim responded by producing halakhic texts in many distinctive genres. The most famous halakhic texts of the geonim are their responsa (many of which were found in the Cairo genizah), Sefer ha-She'iltot by Aha of Shabha, Halakhot Pesukot by Yehudai Gaon, and Halakhot Gedolot by Simeon Kayyara.

JPS TanakhBy the beginning of the 11th century, the spiritual center of world Jewry had shifted away from Babylonia and towards communities spread throughout North Africa and Europe. These communities asserted their independence from the ancient geonic centers, ushering in a new period of halakhic creativity: the Middle Ages.

The Middle Ages were characterized by numerous attempts to codify Jewish law. Two are most noteworthy. In the 12th century, Maimonides composed the first true halakhic code, his monumental Mishneh Torah. This work was revolutionary in the way it presented the laws in a totally new format and without providing the biblical and rabbinic sources for its decisions. A few centuries later, after fleeing Spain in 1492, Joseph Caro composed the Shulhan Arukh. This work, together with Moshe Isserles' glosses, remains the most important code of Jewish law. For the purposes of categorizing halakhic texts, its publication also marks the end of the medieval period and the beginning of the modern era.

Halakhic texts of the early modern era include commentaries and meta-commentaries to the Shulhan Arukh, as well as numerous responsa. In the 19th century, the rise of the Reform Movement led to the production of new halakhic texts with a distinctly modern flavor. These include responsa and guides to practice such as the Gates of Mitzvah series and the works of Rabbi Solomon Freehof. The Conservative Movement has also produced numerous halakhic texts, including responsa of the Conservative Law Committee and Isaac Klein's popular Guide to Religious Practice. Contemporary Orthodox halakhic texts include the Mishnah Berurah--written as a commentary to the Shulhan Arukh, and responsa by authorities such as Moshe Feinstein and Ovadiah Yosef.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.