On the roof of the Aish center looking down at the Western Wall with Chevra & Davai in 2011

Search This Blog

Monday, December 26, 2011

Dear Beth, How did Jewish law develop from the Torah to what it is today?

Dear Beth,

There are so many laws in Judaism… some of which I can’t find anywhere in the Torah. Besides that, whenever I open a Jewish book, the Rabbis always seem to be arguing about the most trivial things. Where did all this come from? Did the Rabbis just make all this stuff up?

Confused and bewildered

* If you haven’t figured it out by know, this is a fictional letter, but it’s a question that most of us B.T.s go through. Since the last Dear BETH segment was so popular, I decided to do another one. If you have real questions, feel free to email me at AriMiller613@gmail.com (I tried to come up with a more masculine name with the letters B.T.H. – Ba’al Teshuvas Handbook, but I couldn’t think of one.

Dear Confused and bewildered,

Recently I was reminded of a story that a local outreach Rabbi told me. He was giving a class at someone’s home. The participants all started reconnecting to Judaism several years before. I don’t remember the topic that he was discussing, but he made reference to a certain Mishnah. When one of the participants asked “What’s the Mishnah?” it stopped him in his tracks. He never thought to consider that the people in the class didn’t know what the Mishnah was and how Jewish law developed from it’s origins in the Torah to what it is today.

Since we have so many laws to deal with and they span every minute detail of life, some may be under the misconception that Jewish law is a cold and rigid area of Judaism. The fact is that nothing could be further from the truth. Jewish law, more importantly the process for studying and developing Jewish law, is a living, breathing entity all to itself. That doesn’t mean that we can change the fundamental principles to adapt to our current lifestyle whenever the need suits us. It does mean, however, that the formula for dealing with today’s and tomorrows unique questions has already been created.

Unfortunately, the development of Jewish law and an explanation of how we got to where we are is often overlooked in the early years of one’s return to Judaism. With that in mind, I’d like to explore an overview of the development of Jewish law so we can see the major changes that got us to where we are today.

Torah aka the Old Testament aka the five books of Moses, aka Chumash – The Torah was dictated by G-d and written by Moses 2448 years after creation or 1313 BCE. The 10 commandments were first stated on the 7th day of the Hebrew month of Sivan. There is a debate among the Rabbis as to who wrote the last several lines of the Torah which describes Moses’s death. Some say that Moses’s student, Joshua, wrote it after Moses’s death. Others say that Moses wrote it himself, in advance. It would seem that when Moses was on Mount Sinai, he was told everything that happened from creating until that point and wrote the rest down over the 40 year period in the desert until is demise. Before Moses’s death, he passed on the responsibility for teaching the Torah to the people to Joshua. Joshua passed the responsibility to the Elders. The Elders passed the responsibility to the Profits which eventually passed the responsibility to Men of the Great Assembly. What I just summed up in a few sentences took about 1,000 years. During that time, the Torah was mainly transmitted verbally. However, we do have 19 books from some of the Prophets. These 19 combined with the 5 books of Moses make up what we call Tanach.

Mishnah – The Mishnah, which can be a combination of the Hebrew letter Mem (numerical value for 40) and the word Shana (which means years) The Mishneh is the beginning of the oral law. In the second century of the common era, Rabbi Judah the Prince aka Rabbeinu HaKodesh, aka Rebbe convened a gathering of all of the Rabbis of the time. For the previous several hundred years, the Jewish people were under severe oppression by both the Greek and Roman empires. The Rabbis were persecuted mercilessly. Since they were always in hiding and could rarely get together to discuss problems, different opinions arose on how to deal with contemporary issues. Around this time the political environment in Rome changed and restrictions were relaxed against the Jews. Rabbi Judah the Prince saw this as a once in a life time opportunity for all of the Rabbis to get together and discuss what differences what they had learned from their teachers and sort our any differences. Breaking the tradition of not writing down the oral law for mass publications, Rabbi Judah the Prince took notes and organized them on a variety of topics that spanned every facet of Jewish life. This organized series of discussions is known as the Mishneh. He believed that this work ensured that the oral law would never be forgotten. He also believed that his work provide enough information for later Rabbis to figure out what any law was according to Judaism.

Talmud aka Gemara aka Babylonian Talmud aka Bavli – Compiled by the Rabbis at approximately 500 of the common era. Unfortunately, Rabbi Judah the Prince did not anticipate how quickly the knowledge level of the generations would decline. After a few hundred years, it became evident to the Rabbis at the time that they need more then just the Mishnah to be able to preserve Jewish law. At roughly the same time, in the landscape of history, two Talmuds were started independent of each other… one in Jerusalem and one in Babylonia (modern day Iraq). Since the primary Torah scholars were in Babylonia and it was finished later, the Babylonian Talmud took on the primary position for Jewish scholarship. Considering the oppressions of the Jewish people, some confusion arose as to what the law was in different areas of life. The Talmud records the conversations/arguments of the Rabbis as the debate out the law in search of ultimate truth.

Mishneh Torah – Written by Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon aka Maimonides aka Rambam in the 10th century. The Talmud, while still the premiere books for scholars, is somewhat chaotic in its order. If someone wanted to know what the law was about any given thing and didn’t know exactly where it was mentioned in the Talmud, it would be virtually impossible for him to find it. There are rare people who know the entire Talmud by heart, but they’re few and far between. The non-scholar was lost in the tremendous depth and volume of the Talmud when it came to Jewish law. With this in mind, Rambam compiled an orderly series of books codifying all the laws contained in the Talmud. For the first time, someone actually had a book that told them what the Jewish law was most areas of life.

Shulchen Aruch – Written in the early 1500s, the Shulchen Aruch was written by Rabbi Joseph Karo compiling the opinions of the Rambam and other Rabbis. The 4 volumes of the Shulchen Aruch set the stage for what modern Jewish law has become.

Mishneh Berura – Written by Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan aka the Chofetz Chaim in the late 1800s. the Mishneh Berura took all of the commentaries on the Shulchen Aruch and compiled it to one updated series of books. The Mishneh Berura is the most widely accepted work in determining current Jewish law.

Aside from these major works, there have been a plethora of other adaptations and developments throughout are history. The one running theme throughout all of the major works is that they all came to simplify and explain the Jewish law.

Judaism has an unbroken tradition of Jewish law for over 3,000 years with each major work, not changing, but building off of the previous work to bring us to where we are now.


  1. First let me suggest a new name for your Dear "Beth" segment. Dear "Bram" = Dear Blogger Reb' Ari Miller. The name is somewhat unusual, but it is masculine, and I think you'll like it's origin.

    Now on to your most recent post. You presented a nice Mesorah-as-history lesson but never answered your own question.

    Q: "Did the Rabbis just make all this stuff up?"
    A: Yes, and No. A lot of what Orthodox Jews on a daily basis is Rabbinic in origin. Praying three times a day: Rabbinic accept Shema 2x a day. The content of those prayers: Rabbinic accept Shema. Tzitzit and Talit: Rabbinic unless you would normally where a four cornered garment. Muktzah on Shabbat: Rabbinic. Holiday of Chanukah: Rabbinic - you won't even find it in Tanach.

    Some were instituted as far back as Talmudic times, and others are more recent in origin. Some are substitutes for traditions we can't perform because there is no Temple, others are rabbinicly prescribed safeguards to prevent one from accidentally violating a Torah prohibition. Then there's another category of practices that stem from Minhagim (customs) that have taken on the force of law.

    Kippah: Minhag. Waiting X amount of time between meat and dairy: Minhag. Not eating legumes on Passover: Minhag.

    Then there's stuff that doesn't fall into any of the above such as the prohibition for a man to have more than one wife. Not that anyone I know really would want to anyway, but Solomon had a few hundred and needless to say we don't do that anymore.

    The list goes on and on, but don't let our BRAM fool into believing that's all oral tradition transmitted at Sinai.

    I'll leave it to BRAM to explain the source of Rabbinic authority.

  2. Dear AGH,

    As alwways, thank you for your input. For those that don't know, Mr. AGH and I learn together just about every Shabbas morning.

    Since I know that you're a regular, BT Handbook reader, some of your questions comments can be referred back to my article on keeping kosher, but just to recap... here are the catagories of Jewish custom and law listed from the most strict to the most lenient:

    1. Torah Law: G-d said the "though shalt" or the "though shalt not" right in the Torah
    2. Traditional Law: We have a tradition that Moses taught the law orally at Mount Sinai or in the desert.
    3. Rabbinic Law: Decrees from our sages
    4. Customs: Something that the Jewish people took on without being told.
    5. Stringency: Going beyond the letter of the law in service of G-d.

    For our English only speakers out there, when AGH says "minhag" he's referring to a custom.

    Where's your source that waiting between meat and milk is a custom? I was under the belief that it fell under the catagory of Rabbinic law?

    The point of the article is that Jewish law is a building block, one on top of another. In a future article, I'd like to take a verse from the Torah and see how a law develops throughout the major Jewish legal works until present day.

    The authority given by Rabbis to build on top of laws can be found in Deuteronomy, chapter 17, verse 9 commanding us to seek the judges of our day and they should tell us the law. The source for Rabbi's creating all these fences can be fund in Ethics of our Fathers, chapter 1, Mishneh 1.

    On a less serious note, BRAM doesn't sound like a name. Plus I'm trying to avoid using yiddish or hebrew words as much as reasonably possible, so that would leave me with just BAM, which may be copyrighted by Emeril Lagasse.

  3. Hi Ari,

    NOTE: I'm AHG not AGH. (First time I assumed it was a typo but three times you spelled it AGH.)

    I can't quote you a source, but I believe it's will accepted that the amount of time we wait is Minhag. If it wasn't, it would not be so varied - with Dutch Jews waiting 72 minutes, German Jews waiting 3 hours, others waiting into the 6th hour and many a full 6 hours.

    If it was rabbinic law, then at the very least you would have one accepted psak for Ashkenazim in the Mishna Brurah. The absence of that alone strongly suggests it's minhag.

    WRT Rabbinic authority - I was hoping you would say that. :) So, now it's my turn:

    Deuteronomy, chapter 4, verse 2: You shall not add to that which I have commanded you, nor shall you subtract from it.

    Deuteronomy, chapter 5, verse 29: You shall be careful to act as G-d commanded you, you shall not stray to the right or left.

    Please explain how you understand Deuteronomy 17:9 as allowing for an activist judiciary?

  4. You're touching on a very important issue which is Rabbis making sure to clarify the catagory of law when teaching it.

    If one were to add and teach a law and pass it off as a Torah law, then it would indeed be a problem for chapter 4, verse 2. However, if they teach that we don't eat chicken cheese burgers is a prohibition of the Rabbis, acting with their authority as judges, to distance us from the possibillity of eating a meat cheese goat burger consisting of half mother and half child, then there would be no contradiction to that verse.

    Typically, in beginner level classes, Rabbis are sometimes lax about this. In more advanced classes, this is talked about a lot and his an important factor in determining the Jewish law. I would like to invite you to our 7:30am daily Mishneh Berura class and you will see it in action.