Halakha - Codes of Jewish Law

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; History of Responsa thus provides an informative complement to the survey below.

The major codes are:

  • The Mishnah, composed by Rabbi Judah the Prince, in 200 CE, 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. An early work, She'iltot ("Questions") by Achai of Shabcha (c. 752), discusses over 190 Mitzvot — exploring and addressing various questions on these. The first legal codex proper, Halakhot Pesukot ("Decided Laws"), by Yehudai Gaon (c. 760), rearranges the Talmud passages in a structure manageable to the layman. (It was written in vernacular Aramaic, and subsequently translated into Hebrew as Hilkhot Riu). Halakhot Gedolot ("Great Law Book"), by R. Simeon Kayyara, published two generations later, contains extensive additional material, mainly from Responsa and Monographs of the Geonim, and is presented in a form that is closer to the original Talmud language and structure. (Probably since it was distributed, also, amongst the newly established Ashkenazi communities.) The She'iltot was influential on both subsequent works.
  • The Hilchot 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 The Hilchot soon superseded the geonic codes, as it contained all the decisions and laws then relevant, and additionally, served as an accessible Talmudic commentary; it has been printed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 HaHazaka 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. It also includes a section on Metaphysics and fundamental beliefs. (Some claim this section draws heavily on Aristotelian science and metaphysics; others suggest that it is within the tradition of Saadia Gaon.) It is the main source of practical Halakha for many Yemenite Jews — mainly Baladi and Dor Daim — as well as for a growing community referred to as talmidei haRambam.
  • The work of the Rosh, Rabbi Asher ben Jehiel (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 superseded Rabbi Alfasi's and has been printed with almost every subsequent edition of the Talmud.
  • The Sefer Mitzvot Gadol (The "SeMaG") of Rabbi Moses ben Jacob of Coucy (first half of the 13th century, Coucy, Northern France). "SeMaG" is organised around the 365 negative and the 248 positive commandments, separately discussing each of them according to the Talmud (in light of the commentaries of Rashi and the Tosafot) and the other codes existent at the time. Sefer Mitzvot Katan ("SeMaK") by Isaac ben Joseph of Corbeil is an abridgement of the SeMaG, including additional practical Halakhah, as well as agaddic and ethical material.
  • "The Mordechai" — by Mordecai ben Hillel, d. Nuremberg 1298 — serves both as a source of analysis, as well of decided law. Mordechai considered about 350 halakhic authorities, and was widely influential, particularly amongst the Ashkenazi and Italian communities. Although organised around the Hilchot of the Rif, it is, in fact, an independent work. It has been printed with every edition of the Talmud since 1482.
  • The Arba'ah Turim (The Tur, The Four Columns) by Rabbi Jacob ben Asher (1270–1343, Toledo, Spain). This work traces the Halakha from the Torah text and the Talmud through the Rishonim, with the Hilchot of Alfasi as its starting point. Ben Asher followed Maimonides's precedent in arranging his work in a topical order, however, the Tur covers only those areas of Jewish 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.
    • Orach Chayim: "The Way of Life" worship and ritual observance in the home and synagogue, through the course of the day, the weekly sabbath and the festival cycle.
    • Yoreh De'ah: "Teach Knowledge" assorted ritual prohibitions, dietary laws and regulations concerning menstrual impurity.
    • Even Ha'ezer: "The Rock of the Helpmate" marriage, divorce and other issues in family law.
    • Choshen Mishpat: "The Breastplate of Judgment" The administration and adjudication of civil law.
  • The Beit Yosef, and the Shulchan Aruch 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 (examining thirty-two authorities, beginning with the Talmud and ending with the works of Rabbi Israel Isserlein). The Shulchan Aruch is, in turn, a condensation of the Beit Yosef — stating each ruling simply (literally translated, Shulchan Aruch means "set table"); this work follows the chapter divisions of the Tur. The Shulchan Aruch, together with its related commentaries, is considered by many to be the most authoritative compilation of halakha since the Talmud. In writing the Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Karo based his rulings on three authorities — Maimonides (Rambam), Asher ben Jehiel (Rosh), and Isaac Alfasi (Rif); he considered the Mordechai in inconclusive cases. Sephardic Jews, generally, refer to the Shulchan Aruch as the basis for their daily practice.
  • The works of Rabbi Moshe Isserles ("Rema"; Kraków, Poland, 1525 to 1572). Rema noted that the Shulchan Aruch was based on the Sephardic tradition, and he created a series of glosses to be appended to the text of the Shulkhan Aruch for cases where Sephardi and Ashkenazi customs differed (based on the works of Yaakov Moelin, Israel Isserlein, and Israel Bruna). The glosses are called Hamapah, the "Tablecloth" for the "Set Table". His comments are now incorporated into the body of all printed editions of the Shulchan Aruch, typeset in a different script; today, "Shulchan Aruch" refers to the combined work of Karo and Isserles. Isserles' Darkhei Moshe is similarly a commentary on the Tur and the Beit Yosef.
  • The Levush Malkhut ("Levush") of Rabbi Mordecai Yoffe (c. 1530-1612). A ten volume work, five discussing Halakha at a level "midway between the two extremes: the lengthy Beit Yosef of Caro on the one hand, and on the other Caro's Shulchan Aruch together with the Mappah of Isserles, which is too brief", that particularly stresses the customs and practices of the Jews of Eastern Europe. The Levush was exceptional among the codes, in that it treated certain Halakhot from a Kabbalistic standpoint.
  • The Shulchan Aruch HaRav of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (c. 1800) was an attempt to recodify the law as it stood at that time — incorporating commentaries on the Shulchan Aruch, and subsequent responsa — and thus stating the decided halakha, as well as the underlying reasoning. The work was written, partly, so that laymen would be able to study Jewish law. Unfortunately, most of the work was lost in a fire prior to publication. It is the basis of practice for Chabad-Lubavitch and other Hasidic groups, and is quoted as authoritative by many subsequent works, Hasidic and non-Hasidic alike.
  • Works structured directly on the Shulchan Aruch, providing analysis in light of Acharonic material and codes. The Mishnah Berurah of Rabbi Yisroel Meir ha-Kohen, (the "Chofetz Chaim", Poland, 1838–1933) is a commentary on the "Orach Chayim" section of the Shulchan Aruch, discussing the application of each Halakha in light of all subsequent Acharonic decisions. It has become the authoritative halakhic guide for much of Orthodox Ashkenazic Jewry in the postwar period. Aruch HaShulchan by Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein (1829–1888) is a scholarly analysis of Halakha through the perspective of the major Rishonim. The work follows the structure of the Tur and the Shulchan Aruch; rules dealing with vows, agriculture, and ritual purity, are discussed in a second work known as Aruch HaShulchan he'Atid. Kaf HaChaim on Orach 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. Yalkut Yosef, by Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, is a voluminous, widely cited and contemporary work of Halakha, based on the rulings of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.
  • "Layman oriented" digests of Halakha. The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 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 Shulchan Aruch. It is still popular in Orthodox Judaism as a framework for study, if not always for practice. Chayei Adam and Chochmat Adam by Avraham Danzig (Poland, 1748–1820) are similar Ashkenazi works, but are regarded as a more appropriate basis for practice. The Ben Ish Chai by Yosef Chaim (Baghdad, 1832–1909) is a corresponding Sephardi work.
  • Temimei Haderech ("A Guide To Jewish Religious Practice") by Rabbi Isaac Klein with contributions from the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly. This scholarly work is based on the previous traditional law codes, but written from a Conservative Jewish point of view. It is not accepted among Orthodox Jews.

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