Rabbi Shlomo Zacharow

About Rabbi Shlomo Zacharow

Rabbi Shlomo Zacharow received his MA and Rabbinic ordination from the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Shlomo is the mesadder gittin (adjudicator of religious divorce) for the Masorti Movement in Israel and is certified as mashgiah kashrut and shohet l’ofot (ritual slaughterer). In addition, he is on the faculty of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary and mentors Rabbis via Masorti Olami. Previously he served as the Rabbi of Congregation Shevet Achim in Gilo. He teaches Biblical Hebrew, Halakha (Jewish Law) and Pos’kim (The Development of Jewish Law).

Rabbi Shlomo Zacharow

Contemporary Issues In Halakha – Laws Of Family Purity Sources Part 1

טהרת המשפחה

The Laws of Family Purity
Source Sheet I

1)  ויקרא פרק טו

(יט) וְאִשָּׁה כִּי תִהְיֶה זָבָה דָּם יִהְיֶה זֹבָהּ בִּבְשָׂרָהּ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים תִּהְיֶה בְנִדָּתָהּ וְכָל הַנֹּגֵעַ בָּהּ יִטְמָא עַד הָעָרֶב:

(כ) וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר תִּשְׁכַּב עָלָיו בְּנִדָּתָהּ יִטְמָא וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר תֵּשֵׁב עָלָיו יִטְמָא:

(כא) וְכָל הַנֹּגֵעַ בְּמִשְׁכָּבָהּ יְכַבֵּס בְּגָדָיו וְרָחַץ בַּמַּיִם וְטָמֵא עַד הָעָרֶב:

(כב) וְכָל הַנֹּגֵעַ בְּכָל כְּלִי אֲשֶׁר תֵּשֵׁב עָלָיו יְכַבֵּס בְּגָדָיו וְרָחַץ בַּמַּיִם וְטָמֵא עַד הָעָרֶב:

(כג) וְאִם עַל הַמִּשְׁכָּב הוּא אוֹ עַל הַכְּלִי אֲשֶׁר הִוא יֹשֶׁבֶת עָלָיו בְּנָגְעוֹ בוֹ יִטְמָא עַד הָעָרֶב:

(כד) וְאִם שָׁכֹב יִשְׁכַּב אִישׁ אֹתָהּ וּתְהִי נִדָּתָהּ עָלָיו וְטָמֵא שִׁבְעַת יָמִים וְכָל הַמִּשְׁכָּב אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁכַּב עָלָיו יִטְמָא:

1)  Leviticus 15

(19) When a woman has a discharge, her discharge being blood from her body, she shall remain in her impurity seven days; whoever touches her shall be unclean until evening.

(20) Anything that she lies on during her impurity shall be unclean; and anything that she sits on shall be unclean.

(21) Anyone who touches her bedding shall wash his clothes, bathe in water, and remain unclean until evening.

(22) And anyone who touches any object on which she has sat shall wash his clothes, bathe in water, and remain unclean until evening.

(23)  Be it bedding or be it the object on which she has sat, on touching it shall be unclean until evening.

(24) And if a man lies with her, her impurity is communicated to him; he shall be unclean seven days, and any bedding on which he lies shall become unclean.

(כה) וְאִשָּׁה כִּי יָזוּב זוֹב דָּמָהּ יָמִים רַבִּים בְּלֹא עֶת נִדָּתָהּ אוֹ כִי תָזוּב עַל נִדָּתָהּ כָּל יְמֵי זוֹב טֻמְאָתָהּ כִּימֵי נִדָּתָהּ תִּהְיֶה טְמֵאָה הִוא:

(כו) כָּל הַמִּשְׁכָּב אֲשֶׁר תִּשְׁכַּב עָלָיו כָּל יְמֵי זוֹבָהּ כְּמִשְׁכַּב נִדָּתָהּ יִהְיֶה לָּהּ וְכָל הַכְּלִי אֲשֶׁר תֵּשֵׁב עָלָיו טָמֵא יִהְיֶה כְּטֻמְאַת נִדָּתָהּ:

(כז) וְכָל הַנּוֹגֵעַ בָּם יִטְמָא וְכִבֶּס בְּגָדָיו וְרָחַץ בַּמַּיִם וְטָמֵא עַד הָעָרֶב:

(כח) וְאִם טָהֲרָה מִזּוֹבָהּ וְסָפְרָה לָּהּ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים וְאַחַר תִּטְהָר:

(כט) וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי תִּקַּח לָהּ שְׁתֵּי תֹרִים אוֹ שְׁנֵי בְּנֵי יוֹנָה וְהֵבִיאָה אוֹתָם אֶל הַכֹּהֵן אֶל פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד:

(ל) וְעָשָׂה הַכֹּהֵן אֶת הָאֶחָד חַטָּאת וְאֶת הָאֶחָד עֹלָה וְכִפֶּר עָלֶיהָ הַכֹּהֵן לִפְנֵי יְקֹוָק מִזּוֹב טֻמְאָתָהּ:

(25) When a woman has had a discharge of blood for many days, not at the time of her impurity, or when she has a discharge beyond her period of impurity, she shall be unclean, as though at the time of her impurity, as long as her discharge lasts.

(26) Any bedding on which she lies while her discharge lasts shall be for her like bedding during her impurity; and any object on which she sits shall become unclean, as it does during her impurity.

(27)  Whoever touches them shall be unclean; he shall wash his clothes, bathe in water, and remain unclean until evening.

(28) When she becomes clean of her discharge, she shall count off seven days, and after that she shall be clean.

(29) On the eighth day she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, and bring them to the priest at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.

(30) The priest shall offer the one as a sin offering and the other as a burnt offering; and the priest shall make expiation on her behalf, for her unclean discharge, before the Lord.

•Background: The Rabbis learn from the phrase ימים רבים “many days” that verse 25 refers to a זבה גדולה who experiences bleeding for at least 3 days.  If the woman experiences bleeding for less than “many days,” in other words one or two days, she is a זבה קטנה and must wait one day if she bled for one day and two days if she bled for two days.

Questions:  Read chapter 15 in its entirety. Verses 1-18 deal with the Israelite male and verses 19-30 (reproduced above) deal with the Is
raelite female.  What are the two types of situations described regarding the male and what are the two types of situations regarding the female?  How is each person rendered “pure” in each situation and how long does this process take?

ויקרא פרק טו

(לא) וְהִזַּרְתֶּם אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִטֻּמְאָתָם וְלֹא יָמֻתוּ בְּטֻמְאָתָם בְּטַמְּאָם אֶת מִשְׁכָּנִי אֲשֶׁר בְּתוֹכָם:

(לב) זֹאת תּוֹרַת הַזָּב וַאֲשֶׁר תֵּצֵא מִמֶּנּוּ שִׁכְבַת זֶרַע לְטָמְאָה בָהּ:

(לג) וְהַדָּוָה בְּנִדָּתָהּ וְהַזָּב אֶת זוֹבוֹ לַזָּכָר וְלַנְּקֵבָה וּלְאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁכַּב עִם טְמֵאָה:

Leviticus 15

(31) You shall put the Israelites on guard against their uncleanness, lest they die through their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle which is among them.

(32) Such is the ritual concerning him who has a discharge:  concerning him who has an emission of semen and becomes unclean thereby,

(33) and concerning her who is in menstrual infirmity, and concerning anyone, male or female, who has a discharge, and concerning a man who lies with an unclean woman.

2) תלמוד בבלי מסכת שבת דף סד עמוד ב

כדתניא: “והדוה בנדתה” (ויקרא ט”ו:לג), זקנים הראשונים אמרו: שלא תכחול ולא תפקוס ולא תתקשט בבגדי צבעונין, עד שבא רבי עקיבא ולימד: אם כן אתה מגנה על בעלה, ונמצא בעלה מגרשה. אלא מה תלמוד לומר “והדוה בנדתה” – בנדתה תהא עד שתבא במים.

2) Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 64b

As has been taught, “Concerning her who is in menstrual infirmity,” the early elders decreed that she may neither apply eye makeup nor rouge nor adorn herself with colorful clothing, until Rabbi Akiva came and taught:  If so, you will make her repulsive to her husband and her husband will consequently divorce her!  Rather, what does the Torah mean to say “Concerning her who is in menstrual infirmity”?  The she remains in her niddah until she comes in water.

3) רש”י מסכת שבת דף סד עמוד ב

בנדתה – היו דורשין הראשונים כמשמעו, כדבר המנודה ומרחיקה מבעלה.

תהא בנדתה – בטומאתה.

עד שתבא במים – לטבול, ואף על פי שעברו שבעה שלה, ופסק מעיינה.

3) Rashi

In her niddah – the early (elders) expounded according to its literal meani, which is setting apart and distancing from her husband.

In her niddah until – in her tumah (forbid/impure)

Until she comes in water – to immerse, and even though seven days already passed, and her flowing ceased.

Questions:

What does R. Akiva add that we wouldn’t have necessarily understood from the Torah?  How does his understanding of niddah in this context differ from that of the early elders?  How does each side learn their positions?

4)  ויקרא פרק יח

 (יט) וְאֶל אִשָּׁה בְּנִדַּת טֻמְאָתָהּ לֹא תִקְרַב לְגַלּוֹת עֶרְוָתָהּ:

4)  Leviticus 18

(19) Do not come near a woman during her period of uncleanness to uncover her nakedness.

(כט) כִּי כָּל אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה מִכֹּל הַתּוֹעֵבוֹת הָאֵלֶּה וְנִכְרְתוּ הַנְּפָשׁוֹת הָעֹשֹׂת מִקֶּרֶב עַמָּם:

(29)  All who do any of these abhorrent things – such persons shall be cut off from their people.

5)  ויקרא פרק כ:יח

וְאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁכַּב אֶת אִשָּׁה דָּוָה וְגִלָּה אֶת עֶרְוָתָהּ אֶת מְקֹרָהּ הֶעֱרָה וְהִיא גִּלְּתָה אֶת מְקוֹר דָּמֶיהָ וְנִכְרְתוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם מִקֶּרֶב עַמָּם:

5) Leviticus 20:18

If a man lies with a woman in her infirmity and uncovers her nakedness, he has laid bare her flow and she has exposed her blood flow; both of them shall be cut off from among their people.

Questions:  Read chapters 18 and 20 of Leviticus to see how these verses fit into the context.  If Leviticus chapter 15 was about purity, what title would you give to these chapter?  Why do you think the observance of niddah continue after Temple times, whereas the other purity rituals outlined in chapter 15 ceased to exist?

Go to Family Purity Part 2

Laws Of Family Purity – Contemporary Issues In Halakha

Laws Of Family Purity

In the final subject of our course we will examine the laws of family purity, specifically the positions in the Conservative Movement.  We will begin by examining the laws as outlined in the Torah and see how these are shaped through the Rabbinic lenses in the Talmud.

Traditional practice, since Talmudic times, is for a couple to refrain from sexual contact during the period of menstrual bleeding, minimally four or five days, and for seven full clean days thereafter, a period ranging for at least eleven or twelve days, if not longer.  Three different responsa were submitted to the Committee for Jewish Law and Standards in the year 2006.  All were in favor for maintaining the laws of family purity but two called for a shortening of this time period where no sexual contact was allowed.  They addressed additional aspects as well, but in the context of our course we will focus in on the issue of the number of days where man and wife must avoid sexual relations.

The full teshuvot by Rabbis Miriam Berkowitz, Susan Grossman and Avram Reisner may be found on the website of the Rabbinical Assembly.

http://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/law/teshuvot_public.html

Some parts are a bit technical but of course I encourage participants to read them or at least the summaries/conclusions in order to have a more complete understanding and fruitful discussion.

The first source sheet contains basic background material regarding Niddah in general and the second will deal with the crux of the dispute between the different positions.

Source Sheets

Source Sheet Part 1

Source Sheet Part 2

Family Purity Summary

End of Course, Go Back To Descriptions

To Fast or Not to Fast? – Contemporary Issues In Halakha

Contemporary Issues in Halakhah

“To Fast or Not to Fast?”

Rabbi Shlomo Zacharow

Introduction

In this lesson, I would like to examine the history and current relevance of four traditional fast days in Judaism which are in one way or another connected with the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem and the death or exile of the Jewish people living in the land of Israel.  There is one, Tisha B’av (the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av) which is a major fast – from sundown to sundown, and three minor fasts – from sunrise to sunset:  Tzom Gedaliah (the fast of Gedaliah), Asarah b’Tevet (the 10th of Tevet) and Yud-Zion b’Tamuz (the seventeeth of Tamuz).

I will explain the background of each of these four days in a moment, but let me state for the record that there are two more public fasts on the Jewish calendar which we will not be discussing because they have nothing to do with the destruction of Jerusalem.  One is of course the major fast of Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) which happens on the 10th of Tishrei.  Out of all of the fasts, this is the only one commanded in the Torah.  The other fasts, although mentioned in the Bible, were ordained by the Rabbis.  The second one is Ta’anit Esther, the minor fast of Esther, which occurs prior to Purim and is connected with the calamity that threatened the Jewish people in the Persian empire at that time.

There are a number of sad events which occurred throughout history on Tisha B’av, but the primary ones of concern for us are the destruction of Jerusalem and the loss of a Jewish state.  The destruction by the Babylonians in the year 586 BCE put an end to what is referred to as the “First Temple” era which commenced when King Shlomo (Solomon), the son of King David, erected the Temple some four centuries earlier.  Most of the Jewish people were exiled to Babylon.  When the Persians replaced the Babylonians as the major power in the era, Cyrus the emperor declared that the Jews could return to the land of Israel.  Seventy years after the destruction of the first temple the second temple was built.  The “second temple” period lasted until the 9th of Av in the year 70 of the common era, when the temple was destroyed by the Romans.

The Tenth of Tevet and the Fast of Gedaliah are connected with the end of the first Temple era .  The Tenth of Tevet marks the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by Babylonians.  The siege lasted for a year and a half before the walls surrounding Jerusalem were breached and the city and Temple were destroyed.

The Fast of Gedaliah, on the third of Tishrei, the day following Rosh Hashanah, commemorates the slaying of Gedaliah ben Ahikam, whom the Bablyonian ruler Nebukhadnetzar appointed to be governor of Judah to the remnant of Jews who escaped deportation.  Gedaliah’s death was the final blow to any remaining hopes that the Babylonian domination might be alleviated and there may be a return of some Jewish sovereignty.

The Seventeenth of Tamuz is connected with the destruction of the second Temple.  It is the days on which the Romans breached the walls encircling Jerusalem.  Following a period of fighting which lasted three weeks, the Jews were defeated and the Temple was burned.  Not only did the seventeenth of Tamuz become a minor fast day but this whole period, known as the “three weeks” became a mournful time in the Jewish calendar.

As Rabbi Isaac Klein writes in his Guide to Jewish Religious Practice (p.243),  “Without the longing for a return to Israel that was fortressed by these fasts, memories would have grown dim.  Mourning for Jerusalem preserved the Jewish people’s yearning for the restoration of the holy city, strengthened their historical consciousness, and kept alive the bond that tied them to their past.  Thus, Israel’s restoration in our time resulted from the harnessing of energies that had been stored in the Jewish souls for centuries.  As days of national mourning, the four public fasts still serve to recall the calamities that have befallen the Jewish nation, making each generation as it were participate in those misfortunes (Maimonides, Hilkhot Ta’aniyot 5:1).  . . . The banishment from the holy land was [also] understood as divine retribution visited on the children of Israel because of their lack of faith in the teachings of the Torah.  Restoration was promised if the Jewish people would change their ways.  The lessons taught by the four fasts tented further to confirm Israel’s faith in God’s direction of history, and especially in his providential concern with the destiny of the Jewish people.”

The question before us today is now as the Jewish people have returned to the land of Israel, is it still necessary to observe these four fasts?  Are the fasts etched into the stones of history to be observed forever more or does their observance depend on the present state of the Jewish people?

The first question that I wanted to ask myself is, “What was the status of these fast days during the second temple period?”  Meaning, once the Jews (or some Jews) returned to the land of Israel and actually built the second temple, did they continue to observe mourning over the destruction of the first temple?  The first source on the accompanying source sheet, taken from the book of Zekhariah, examines this very question.  Construction of the second temple was underway and a delegation was sent to the prophet Zekhariah to ask him this question.  A prophet speaks words of prophecy which are not always so simple to understand.  We must see how in source number two the Rabbis in the Talmud understood Zekhariah’s response.  The rest of the sources are Rabbis who came after the closing of the Talmud.  We will see how they understood the passage in the Talmud and how it reflected upon the times in which they were living.

The source sheet contains more information and questions for thought and discussion.

Source Sheets

Source Sheet Part 1

Source Sheet Part 2

Go to Next Class – Redemption of Captives

Introduction To Contemporary Issues In Halakha

Contemporary Issues in Halakha

Instructor:  Rabbi Shlomo Zacharow

Course Description:

In this course, we will examine how halakha confronts modernity (and vice-versa) on a number of issues, some of which have riveted the Jewish world over the past year.  Naturally, the particular subjects are of interest, but it will also be enlightening to see how the halakhic process plays out in relation to these topics.

To Fast or not to Fast?  This is the question regarding Tisha b’Av and the three other minor fasts commemorating the destruction of Jerusalem.  Does the return of the Jewish people to Israel and Jerusalem affect in any way how we observe these days?  Is the mournful nature set in stone for eternity?

Pidyon Shevuyim – The Redemption of Captives:  While we know that it is highly worthy in Judaism to save lives and provide the dead with a proper burial, are there no limits?  If paying too high a “price” for captives will only spur the captors to step up their activities in the future, what has been gained?  To what extent does halakha take into consideration the needs of individuals as opposed to the needs of the community as a whole?

Giyyur – Conversion:  Once a Jew always a Jew?  Is conversion final in Judaism or can a Bet Din – a Jewish Court – revoke the conversion at a later date?  Must the convert accept the yoke of all of the mitzvot at the time of conversion?  What happens if it is later discovered that the convert is not leading an observant lifestyle?

Kohen & a Giyyoret (convert) – An Acceptable Union?

Traditionally, it has been forbidden for a Kohen to marry a convert to Judaism.  What is the reason for this and is it still relevant today?  Is our understanding of the respective nature of the kohen and convert the same as in antiquity?

Musical Instruments in the Synagogue:  In the last couple decades we have seen significant growth in musical accompaniment to services on Shabbat and Holidays in a number of synagogues that consider themselves to be bound by halakha.  Often there are a wide array of instruments and sometimes even “rock bands” performing.  Can these developments be justified by Jewish law?

Learning the Texts

The study of the sources requires patient analysis.  The Talmudic sources may be particularly challenging, as the Talmud often expresses itself elliptically, expecting the reader to fill in the gaps in the texts (Centuries later, Rashi stepped into the picture to fill this role).

For all sources, you will be given texts in the original Hebrew/Aramaic along with an English translation.  My translations are often literal, and sometimes they are briefly fleshed out with brief comments, found in brackets, in order to make the text more comprehensible.

For those who are capable, you are strongly encouraged to attempt to study the original material and only afterwards peek at the translation.  Translations can also be a work of art, so I am sure that through your comments, I will also be able to improve upon the initial translations.

Along with the sources, there will be Background points describing the author of the text or the body of work.   Each new source sheet will only provide background on works or Rabbis which have not been explained in previous source sheets.   I also provide Questions for thought and discussion.  Of course, you will come up with your own questions as well.

Study Resources

Although written a century ago, the most useful dictionary for rabbinic studies remains Marcus Jastrow’s Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi and the Midrashic Literature.

Hevruta Study

The traditional Jewish method of studying is in pairs. Talmud especially is a subject where one must continually test if one understands the material. The sages in all generations used this method to hone their ideas. It is a Jewish tradition that when two study together in this manner, God acts as a third partner guiding the students in their search for truth.

Halakha

I would like to provide a general introduction to Halakha (Jewish Law) and the Halakhic process.  Much of the following material that I will write can be found in numerous sources.  I decided not to re-invent the wheel, and I have used the Wikipedia entry on “Halakha” as a base, editing generously.

Halakha is the collective body of Jewish religious law, including biblical law and later talmudic and rabbinic law, as well as customs and traditions. Halakha is often translated as “Jewish Law,” though a more literal translation might be “the path” or “the way of walking.” The word is derived from the Hebrew root that means to go or walk.

Historically, Halakha served many Jewish communities as an enforceable avenue of civil and religious law.  In the modern era, Jewish citizens may be bound to Halakha only by their voluntary consent. Disagreements over Halakha, and over whether Jews should continue to follow Halakha, have played a pivotal role in the emergence of modern streams of Judaism.

The Halakha is often contrasted with the Aggadah, the diverse corpus of rabbinic exegetical, narrative, philosophical, mystical, and other “non-legal” literatures. At the same time, since writers of Halakha may draw upon the aggadic and even mystical literature, there is a dynamic interchange between the genres.

Halakha constitutes the practical application of the mitzvot (“commandments”), in the Torah, (the five books of Moses, the “Written Law”) as developed through discussion and debate in the classical rabbinic literature, especially the Mishnah and the Talmud (the “Oral law“), and as codified in later works such as the Mishneh Torah or Shulhan Arukh.

The Halakha is a comprehensive guide to all aspects of human life, both corporeal and spiritual. Its laws, guidelines, and opinions cover a vast range of situations and principles, in the attempt to realize what is implied by the central Biblical commandment to “be holy as I your God am holy”. They cover what are better ways for a Jew to live, when commandments conflict how one may choose correctly, what is implicit and understood but not stated explicitly in the Bible, and what has been deduced by implication though not visible on the surface.

Because Halakha is developed and applied by various halakhic authorities, rather than one sole “official voice”, different individuals and communities may well have different answers to halakhic questions. Controversies lend rabbinic literature much of its creative and intellectual appeal. With few exceptions, controversies are not settled through authoritative structures because during the age of exile Jews have lacked a single judicial hierarchy or appellate review process for Halakha. Instead, Jews interested in observing Halakha typically choose to follow specific rabbis or affiliate with a mor
e tightly-structured community.

Halakha has been developed and pored over throughout the generations since before 500 BCE, in a constantly expanding collection of religious literature consolidated in the Talmud. First and foremost it forms a body of intricate judicial opinions, legislation, customs, and recommendations, many of them passed down over the centuries, and an assortment of ingrained behaviors, relayed to successive generations from the moment a child begins to speak.

The sources and process of Halakha

The boundaries of Jewish law are determined through the halakhic process, a religious-ethical system of legal reasoning. Rabbis generally base their opinions on the primary sources of Halakha as well as on precedent set by previous rabbinic opinions. The major sources and genre of Halakha consulted include:

  • The foundational Talmudic literature (especially the Mishna and the Babylonian Talmud) with commentaries;
  • The post-Talmudic codificatory literature, such as Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah and the Shulhan Arukh with commentaries;
  • Regulations and other “legislative” enactments promulgated by rabbis and communal bodies:
    • Gezeirah: “preventative legislation” of the Rabbis, intended to prevent violations of the commandments
    • Takkanah: “positive legislation”, practices instituted by the Rabbis not based (directly) on the commandments
  • Minhag: Customs, community practices, and customary law, as well as the exemplary deeds of prominent (or local) rabbis;
  • The she’eloth u-teshuvoth (responsa, literally “questions and answers”) literature.

According to tradition, in antiquity, the Sanhedrin functioned essentially as the Supreme Court and legislature for Judaism, and had the power to administer binding law, including both received law and its own Rabbinic decrees, on all Jews — rulings of the Sanhedrin became Halakha.  Today, the authoritative application of Jewish law is left to the local rabbi, and the local rabbinical courts, with only local applicability.

Generally, contemporary halakhic arguments are effectively, yet unofficially, peer-reviewed.  When a rabbinic posek (“decisor”) proposes a new interpretation of a law, that interpretation may be considered binding for the posek’s questioner or immediate community. Depending on the stature of the posek and the quality of the decision, an interpretation may also be gradually accepted by rabbis and members of similar Jewish communities.

Under this system, there is a tension between the relevance of earlier and later authorities in constraining halakhic interpretation and innovation. On the one hand, there is a principle in Halakha not to overrule a specific law from an earlier era, unless based on an earlier authority. On the other hand, another principle recognizes the responsibility and authority of later authorities, and especially the posek handling a concurrent question. In addition, the Halakha embodies a wide range of principles that permit judicial discretion and deviation.

Notwithstanding the potential for innovation, rabbis and Jewish communities differ greatly on how they make changes in Halakha. Notably, poskim frequently extend the application of a law to new situations, but do not consider such applications as constituting a “change” in Halakha.

 Eras of history important in Jewish law

  • The Tannaim (literally the “repeaters”) are the sages of the Mishnah (70–220)
  • The Amoraim (literally the “sayers”) are the sages of the Gemara (220–500)
  • The Savoraim (literally the “reasoners“) are the classical Persian rabbis (500–600)
  • The Geonim (literally the “prides” or “geniuses”) are the rabbis of Sura and Pumbedita, in Babylonia (650–1250)
  • The Rishonim (literally the “firsts”) are the rabbis of the early medieval period (1050–1550) in Europe and N. Africa preceding the Shulhan Arukh
  • The Aharonim (literally the “lasts”) are the rabbis of 1550 to the present.

Codes of Jewish law

The Torah and the Talmud are not formal codes of law: they are sources of law. There are many formal codes of Jewish law that have developed over the past two thousand years. These codes have influenced, and in turn, have been influenced by, the responsa literature.

The major codes are:

  • The Mishnah, composed by Rabbi Judah the Prince in the beginning of the third century of the common era as a basic outline of the state of the Oral Law in his time. This was the framework upon which the Talmud was based; the Talmud’s dialectic analysis of the content of the Mishna (gemara; completed c. 500) became the basis for all later halakhic decisions and subsequent codes.
  • Codifications by the Geonim of the halakhic material in the Talmud.
  • The Hil’khot of the Rif, Rabbi Isaac Alfasi (1013–1103), summations of the legal material in the Talmud. Alfasi transcribed the Talmud’s halakhic conclusions verbatim, without the surrounding deliberation; he also excludes all Aggadic (non-legal, homiletic) matter. The Hilchot soon superseded the geonic codes, as it contained all the decisions and laws then relevant, and additionally, served as an accessible Talmudic commentary; it has been printed with almost every subsequent edition of the Talmud.
  • The Mishneh Torah (also known as the Yad Ha-Hazzaqah for its 14 volumes; “yad” has a numeric value of 14), by Maimonides (Rambam; 1135–1204). This work encompasses the full range of Talmudic law; it is organized and reformulated in a logical system — in 14 books, 83 sections and 1000 chapters — with each Halakha stated clearly. The Mishneh Torah is very influential to this day, and several later works reproduce passages verbatim.
  • The work of the Rosh, Rabbi Asher ben Yehiel (1250?/1259?–1328), an abstract of the Talmud, concisely stating the final halakhic decision and quoting later authorities, notably Alfasi, Maimonides, and the Tosafists. This work has been printed with almost every subsequent edition of the Talmud.
  • The Arba-ah Turim (The Tur, The Four Columns) by Rabbi Jacob ben Asher (1270–1343, Toledo, Spain), son of the Rosh. This work traces the Halakha from the Torah text and the Talmud through the Rishonim. Ben Asher followed Maimonides’s precedent in arranging his work in a topical order, however, the Tur covers only those areas of Jewish religious law that were in force in the author’s time. The code is divided into four main sections; almost all codes since this time have followed the Tur’s arrangement of material.
  • The Beit Yosef and Shulhan Arukh of Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488–1575). The Beit Yosef is a huge commentary on the Tur in which Rabbi Karo traces the development of each law from the Talmud through later rabbinical literature. The Shulhan Arukh is, in turn, a condensation of the Beit Yosef — stating each ruling simply (liter
    ally translated, Shulhan Arukh means “set table”); this work follows the chapter divisions of the Tur. The Shulhan Arukh, together with its related commentaries, is considered by many to be the most authoritative compilation of halakha.  In this work, Rabbi Karo based his rulings mostly on three authorities — Maimonides (Rambam), Asher ben Yehiel (Rosh), and Isaac Alfasi (Rif).
  • The works of Rabbi Moshe Isserles (“Rema”; Kraków, Poland, 1525 to 1572). Rema noted that the Shulkhan Arukh was based on the Sephardic tradition, and he created a series of glosses to be appended to the text for cases where Sephardi and Ashkenazi customs differed. The glosses are called Ha-mapah, the “Tablecloth” for the “Set Table”. His comments are now incorporated into the body of all printed editions of the Shulhan Arukh, typeset in a different script; today, “Shulhan Arukh” generally refers to the combined work of Karo and Isserles.
  • Works structured directly on the Shulhan Arukh, providing analysis in light of Aharonic material and codes. The Mishnah Berurah of Rabbi Yisroel Meir ha-Kohen, (the “Chofetz Chaim”, Poland, 1838–1933) is a commentary on the “Orah Hayyim” section of the Shulhan Arukh, discussing the application of each Halakha in light of all subsequent Aharonic decisions. It has become the authoritative halakhic guide for much of Ashkenazic Jewry in the postwar period. Kaf Hahayim on Orah Chayim and parts of Yoreh De’ah, by the Sephardi sage Yaakov Chaim Sofer (Baghdad and Jerusalem, 1870–1939) is similar in scope, authority and approach to the Mishnah Berurah.
  • Layman oriented” digests of Halakha. The Kitzur Shulkhan Arukh of Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried (Hungary 1804–1886), based on the very strict Hungarian customs of the 19th century, became immensely popular after its publication due to its simplicity. This work is not binding in the same way as the Mishneh Torah or the Shulhan Arukh. It is still popular in Orthodox Judaism as a framework for study, if not always for practice. Hayei Adam and Hokhmat Adam by Avraham Danzig (Poland, 1748–1820) are similar Ashkenazi works, but are regarded as a more appropriate basis for practice.  The Ben Ish Hai by Yosef Hayim (Baghdad, 1832–1909) is a corresponding Sephardi work.  The twentieth century “A Guide To Jewish Religious Practice” by Rabbi Isaac Klein is written from a Conservative Jewish point of view.

How Halakha is viewed today

Orthodox Judaism hold that halakha is the divine law of the Torah, rabbinical laws, rabbinical decrees and customs combined. Rabbis made many additions and interpretations of Jewish Law, they did so only in accordance with regulations they believe were given to them by Moses on Mount Sinai.

Conservative Judaism holds that halakha is normative and binding, and is developed as a partnership between people and God based on Sinaitic Torah. While there are a wide variety of Conservative views, a common belief is that halakha is, and has always been, an evolving process subject to interpretation by rabbis in every time period.

Reform Judaism and Reconstructionist Judaism both hold that modern views of how the Torah and rabbinic law developed imply that the body of rabbinic Jewish law is no longer seen as binding on Jews today.  In Reform, Halakha represents a personal starting-point, holding that each Jew is obligated to interpret the Torah, Talmud and other Jewish works for themselves.  In Reconstructionism, this interpretation is also done, but the emphasis is more on communal understanding.

Go to First Class – To Fast or Not to Fast?

High Holidays: The Third of Tishrei – For Whom to Fast?

As we rush back to our daily routines following the majestic two day Rosh Hashanah, it is easy to overlook the third day of Tishrei, Tzom Gedaliah, a minor fast.  When the First Temple was destroyed, in 586 BCE, a remnant of Jews was left in the land, and the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar appointed Gedaliah ben Ahikam to rule over them.  Radical segments of the Jewish population viewed him as a Babylonian puppet and collaborator, and a Jew killed him, removing the last vestige of Jewish sovereignty in theland ofIsrael.

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