Hanging out around Orthodox Jews long enough virtually guarantees that one will hear certain words and phrases. Some of these are Yiddish (the German-Hebrew hybrid that the Eastern European Jews spoke for centuries), some in Aramaic (the ancient Middle Eastern language that the Jews spoke in Mishnaic and Talmudic times), and some in Hebrew. Before long, even newcomers start using these words and phrases in common speech. They become almost contagious. One word that will definitely be heard with surprising frequency is halacha, roughly translated as ‘path’, or ‘trend’, but really meaning ‘custom’, ‘law’, or ‘accepted practice’. Halacha is the nitty-gritty details of the way Jews practice their religion. It is all those zillions of rules, regulations, customs, and habits, which define observant Judaism.
The process of deciding which things make it into halacha and which don’t is long and surprisingly complicated. It ultimately starts with the Chumash, though hardly any actual halachot (plural for halacha) are derived directly from the Good Book. Instead, the real primary source is the Talmud. Through the intricate discussions found in the Talmud on a vast variety of subjects covering the entire scope of Jewish law, it is possible to glean conclusions on how one should actually go about doing it. The problem is that many different rabbis through the centuries have voiced their opinions on many of these subjects, resulting in many different halachic conclusions. The old slogan: ‘Two Jews, three opinions’, came as a result of halachic hairsplitting. In spite of the confusion, most Jews, especially the scholars, thrive on the arguments and the complications. This has become the meat and potatoes of rabbinic Judaism.
Understanding the final halacha from the Talmud became a primary goal of the Sefaradi rabbis of the period of the Rishonim. For the Ashkenazim, to some degree, it was secondary to commentary and elucidation of the text. The primary deciders of halacha (sometimes called halachists, as in the title to this essay), lived between the years 1000 and 1600. Following this period, a second wave of halachists came about whose main goal was to explain the decisions of the first wave and apply those decisions to contemporary situations. For our purposes, we are going to survey the first wave – who they were and what they did.
It began with a North African rabbi named Rav Yitzchak Alfasi (the last name means that he lived in the city of Fez in Morocco), who lived throughout most of the 11th century. He was the first to write down the conclusions of the Talmud according to each rabbinic discussion. This is not as simple as it sounds, being as the conclusions are frequently unclear and often appear to contradict other parts of the Talmud. Rav Yitzchak (commonly known as Rif – try to figure it out yourself) took on this monumental task and set the stage for Sefaradi practice.
Following Rif, the next big name was one that we are already very familiar with, Maimonides, or Rambam, as he is always called in discussions of halacha. Rambam is the primary source in almost any halachic decision owing to the vast scope of his major work in halacha, the Mishna Torah. This work, which we shall hear more about in the section on Rambam, covers the entire spectrum of Jewish law, a feat that has never been matched. It established normative Sefaradi practice and is the basis for all subsequent halachic analysis.
These first two rabbis were both Sefaradi. What were the Ashkenazim doing in the study of halacha? Aside from Talmudic commentary, they had their own rabbis whose focus was Halacha. Chief among these was a German rabbi who was among the last generation of the schools of Tosefot, the successors of Rashi. His name was Rabbenu (our teacher) Asher. He lived during the 13th and 14th centuries, precarious times for the Jews of Europe. He decided to leave Germany when his teacher was kidnapped and held for ransom by a local duke who hoped to get badly needed money from the rabbi-respecting Jewish community. The kidnapped rabbi issued a ruling from his prison that the Jews were forbidden to ransom him, for fear of setting a dangerous precedent. He remained imprisoned in a tower for the last nine years of his life. After he died, his bones were ransomed.
His student, Rabbenu Asher (commonly known as Rosh) fled to Spain, hoping to avoid a similar fate. In Spain he gained the immediate respect of the Sefaradi rabbis and created the first major collaboration between Sefaradi and Ashkenazi traditions. His primary work was his own halachic conclusions and explanations that follow the structure of the Talmud. These are found in almost every printing of the Talmud and form the basis for Ashkenazi practice.
The son of Rosh, Rav Yaakov, wrote a work that was to become the successor to the Mishna Torah as a primary source of halacha. This work is known as the Arba’ah Turim (Four Rows), being as it divided up all of contemporary halacha into four distinct categories. The Tur (the common name for the work) differed from the Mishna Torah in that the latter covered all of halacha, whether or not it pertained to the current situation of Jews, while the former covered only those areas that were still relevant. The Tur was the first major work of Halacha to treat both Ashkenazi and Sefaradi opinions in equal authority. In this regard, it was a groundbreaking text.
The ultimate replacement for the Tur was the book that is probably the best known text in Judaism outside of the Bible and the Talmud. The name of the book is the Shulhan Aruch (Arranged Table – the name, like most of these odd-sounding names, comes from a quote from the Talmudic era). The author of this work was Rav Yosef Karo, a prolific halachist who was exiled from Spain in 1492 at the age of four. After a few decades of living in what is now Turkey, he moved to Tzefat in northern Israel, which is where the Shulhan Aruch was written.
The Shulhan Aruch was noting short of revolutionary. Although it almost invariably follows Rambam and frequently quotes him word-for word, and although it uses the exact same category and contents system as the Tur, it was a work of great innovation. It attempted, and succeeded, at making halacha accessible to the average Jew, not just the rabbinic scholars. It was also one of the first new Jewish texts of Halacha to be printed. Consequently, its popularity spread rapidly and it became accepted as the standard of halacha throughout most the Jewish world almost immediately.
The actual text of the Shulhan Aruch is really two different compendiums. In the bold print are the halachot of Rav Yosef Karo, following Sefaradi practice. Interspersed among these halachot are the italicized words of his contemporary, Rav Moshe Isserles (known as Ramah), a Polish rabbi who wrote an Ashkenazi parallel to the Shulhan Aruch. They were contemporaries, and Rav Isserles, for the sake of unity, requested of Rav Karo that editions of the Shulhan Aruch include the Ashkenazi halachot. Almost all editions of the Shulhan Aruch have been printed this way. Thus the Shulhan Aruch represents the twin halachic traditions of both Sefaradim and Ashkenazim. This, more than anything else, has probably accounted for its tremendous popularity.
Among the most influential of the more recent works of Halacha are the Mishna Brura, by the 19th and 20th century Lithuanian, Rav Yisrael Meir Kagan, which deals with one of the four main categories of the Shulhan Aruch. A Sefaradi parallel to this was called the Kaf Hahaim, by Rav Yaakov Chaim Sofer of Baghdad and Jerusalem. Influential responsa include the Iggrot Moshe by the 20th century Lithuanian/American Rav Moshe Feinstein, a landmark work that attempted to fit halacha into the modern world with its considerable challenges to Jewish life. A Sefaradi parallel to this is encyclopedic Yabia Omer, by Rav Ovadia Yosef of Egypt and Jerusalem. Rav Ovadia died in 2013 and regularly issued halachic rulings into advanced age. Halacha is alive and well in the 21st century.
Attempting to detect the meaning of life in the midst of all these dry and complicated compendiums of halacha is not a simple matter. They tend to focus on practical issues of Jewish life rather than intellectual/spiritual matters or theological questions. Nevertheless, buried within these tomes are jewels for the Jew seeking answers to the ultimate questions. We shall explore three of these jewels in the coming sections. One thing to keep in mind: halacha is the way to go about leading an observant Jewish life. The core of leading such a life is the understanding of why one is doing it.
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