How Jewish Law Is Made

Halakhah (also spelled halachah) refers to Jewish law. Per its literal translation, “the way,” halachah guides the day-to-day life of a Jew.

The Talmud records rife debate among the sages. The halachah is ultimately decided in favor of one specific tradition. How is this determined? For the most part, the halachah follows the majority, but at the same time, certain sages are considered to be more authoritative in a specific area of law.

After the Talmudic era, great rabbis, most notably Maimonides, wrote works that extracted and anthologized the halachic rulings of the Talmud.

Eventually, these halachic ruling were further refined and consolidated in the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law. Studying this work and its commentaries is known as “learning halachah,” as opposed to learning the Talmud and other (more theoretical) commentaries.

Another important source of halachic rulings are teshuvot, responsa authored by great Torah scholars in response to inquiries from individuals and communities of their era.

As circumstances continue to evolve, it is the task of the halachic scholars to determine how the halachah relates to new questions and situations.

An authoritative halachic ruling is known as a psak halachah, and the highly-regarded, learned rabbi who is trusted to make these decisions is known as a posek (poskim in plural).

It is important to note that poskim do not create halachah, nor are they authorized to change halachah as they see fit. Rather, they are guardians of a body of sacred traditions which they humbly and cautiously convey. At the same time, there is no question that a degree of subjective perspective and even creativity is involved in determining halachah. How do these truths coexist? See Can We Add to the Torah for a detailed exploration.

A Shulchan Aruch printed in Venice, Italy circa 1565. (Photo: Wikimedia)
A Shulchan Aruch printed in Venice, Italy circa 1565. (Photo: Wikimedia)

Some Major Halachic Compendia

This is far from an exhaustive list of important halachic works. Rather, it provides some of the major landmarks on the centuries-long journey of halachah from the completion of the Babylonian Talmud (in the 6th century) to the present.

Mishneh Torah: A 14-volume encyclopedic repository of Jewish law, codified by Rabbi Moses Maimonides (13th Century).

Tur: Divides the practical halachot into four major sections, authored by Rabbi Jacob ben Asher (14th Century).

Shulchan Aruch: The Code of Jewish Law. Consolidates brief rulings following the chapter divisions of the Tur, written by Rabbi Joseph Karo (16th Century).

Mapah: Glosses by Rabbi Moshe Isserles embedded into the text of the Shulchan Aruch, which provide the halachic traditions and rulings of Ashkenazi Jewry (16th Century).

Nossay Keilim: This term (which means “weapon bearers”) refers to the host of commentaries that sprung up surrounding the Code of jewish Law in the decades and centuries following its publication.

Shluchan Aruch Harav: Regarded in Chassidic circles as the final arbiter of halachah, this expansion of the Shulchan Aruch was authored by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of the Chabad movement (18th Century).

Kitzur Shulchan Aruch: Acclaimed for its brevity and clear language, this abridgement of the Code of Jewish Law by Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried has become a staple in classrooms and homes worldwide (19th Century).

Ben Ish Chai: Written by Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad to be studied in tandem with the weekly Torah portion over the course of two years, it incorporates mysticism and homiletics, as well as halachic rulings (19th Century).

Mishnah Berurah: Highly regarded companion to the Shulchan Aruch, written by the Chafetz Chaim, Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan of Radin (20th Century).