Frequently Asked Questions on Soc.Culture.Jewish
Part 3: Torah and Halachic Authority
[Last Change: $Date: 1996/06/17 19:14:31 $ $Revision: 1.3 $]
[Last Post: Tue Mar 30 11:07:24 US/Pacific 2004]
The FAQ is a collection of documents that is an attempt to answer
questions that are continually asked on the soc.culture.jewish family
of newsgroups. It was written by cooperating laypeople from the
various Judaic movements. You should not make any assumption as to
accuracy and/or authoritativeness of the answers provided herein. In
all cases, it is always best to consult a competent authority--your
local rabbi is a good place to start.
[Got Questions?] Hopefully, the FAQ will provide the answer to your
questions. If it doesn't, please drop Email to
firstname.lastname@example.org. The FAQ maintainer will endeavor to direct
your query to an appropriate individual that can answer it. If you
would like to be part of the group to which the maintainer directs
questions, please drop a note to the FAQ maintainer at
The deceased sages described within are of blessed memory, (assume a
Z"L or ZT"L after their names) and the sages alive today should live
to see long and good days (assume SHLITA). May Hashem grant complete
recovery to the ill. Individual honorifics are omitted.
The FAQ was produced by a committee and is a cooperative work. The
contributors never standardized on transliteration scheme from Hebrew,
Aramaic, Yiddish, or Ladino to English. As a result, the same original
word might appear with a variety of spellings. This is complicated by
the fact that there are regional variations in the pronunciation of
Hebrew. In some places, the common spelling variations are mentioned;
in others--not. We hope that this is not too confusing.
In general, throughout this FAQ, North American (US/Canada) terms are
used to refer to the movements of Judaism. Outside of North American,
Reform is Progressive or Liberal Judaism; Conservative is Masorti or
Neolog, and Orthodoxy is often just "Judaism". Even with this, there
are differences in practice, position, and ritual between US/Canada
Reform and other progressive/liberal movements (such as UK
Progressive/ Liberal), and between US/Canada Conservative and the
conservative/Masorti movement elsewhere. Where appropriate, these
differences will be highlighted.
The goal of the FAQ is to present a balanced view of Judaism; where a
response is applicable to a particular movement only, this will be
noted. Unless otherwise noted or implied by the text, all responses
reflect the traditional viewpoint.
This list should be used in conjunction with the Soc.Culture.Jewish
reading lists. Similar questions can be found in the books
referenced in those lists.
There are also numerous other Jewish FAQs available on the Internet
that are not part of the SCJ FAQ/RL suite. An index to these may be
found at www.scjfaq.org/otherfaqs.html
This FAQ is a volunteer effort. If you wish to support the maintenance
of the FAQ, please see Section 20, Question 99 for more
Reproduction of this posting for commercial use is subject to
restriction. See Part 1 for more details.
This portion of the FAQ contains answers to the following questions:
Section 3. Torah
1. What is the Written Law?
2. What are the books of the Jewish Bible (Tanakh)?
3. Why, in the Tanakh, does G-d have so many Names?
4. Who wrote the Torah?
5. What is the Oral Law?
6. How was the Oral and Written Law passed down to us?
7. What is the Great Assembly (Anshe Knessest HaGedolah)?
8. Who are the Zugot (pairs)?
9. What is the Mishna?
10. What is the relationship between the Mishna and the Torah?
11. What are the Orders of the Mishna?
12. What is the Tosefta?
13. What is the relationship between the Tosefta and the Mishna?
14. What is the Gemara and what is the Talmud?
15. What is the Talmud?
16. What is Talmud Yerushalmi?
17. What is Talmud Bavli?
18. What is Rashi's commentary on the Talmud?
19. What is the Tosafot?
20. Who wrote the Tosafot?
21. What is the relationship of the Tosefta to the Talmuds?
22. What are Baraitot?
23. What are the extra-canonical (minor) tractates?
24. What is a Midrash?
25. What are Halakhic (or Tannaitic) Midrashim?
26. What are the main Halakhic Midrashim?
27. What are the main Exegetical Midrashim?
28. What are the main Homiletic Midrashim?
29. What are the Midrashim on the Five Megillot (aka The So-Called
30. What are some other important Haggadic works?
31. What is the Sefer Yetzirah (The Book of Creation)?
32. What is Sefer haBahir, The Bahir (The Book of Illumination)?
33. What is The Zohar?
34. What are the Major Codes of Jewish Law?
35. What is the Rif (Hilkhot of Rav Alfassi)?
36. What is the Mishneh Torah (Yad Ha-Hazaqah , Sefer Mehoqeq)?
37. What is the Sefer Mitzvot Gadol (The Semag)?
38. What is the Arba'ah Turim (The Tur , The Four Rows)?
39. What is the Shulkhan Arukh?
40. What is the Hamappah of Rabbi Moshe Isserles?
41. What is the Kitzur Shulkhan Arukh?
42. What is the Mishnah Berurah?
43. What Other Codes of Jewish Law Are Used by Non-Orthodox Jewish
44. What is the Meaning of 'All is Futile' from the beginning of
45. What does it mean in the psalm of Habakkuk when it says that
G-d hides His power?
46. What is meant by G-d's throne and the Serphim worshiping him
in Isaiah 6:1-6?
47. Why is G-d referred to in the plural in the book of Genesis?
48. What is the Mekhilta on Deuteronomy?
Section 4. Halachic Authority
1. What is "Halacha"? How is it determined?
2. Traditionally, what are the levels of halacha?
3. Traditionally, what are the different rabbinic eras?
4. How can differing halachic rulings all be considered valid?
5. How does the Conservative movement deal with Halachic
6. What is the difference between two Orthodox rabbis who
disagree and an Orthodox and a Reform who disagree?
7. Who is RAMBAM that is mentioned and what are his 13
8. Who was Rashi?
9. Who was the Ramban?
10. What is Kabbalah and how can I learn about it?
11. Who is allowed to study Kabbalah?
12. Who was Rabbeinu Tam?
13. What are she'elot u'teshuvot?
14. What is the midrash halachah and the midrash agadah?
Subject: Question 3.1: What is the Written Law?
The Written Law consists of the books of the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh.
It should be noted that the term "Bible" is more commonly used by
non-Jews, as are the terms "Old Testament" and "New Testament". The
appropriate term for Jews to use for the Hebrew Bible is "Tanakh".
Tanakh is an acronym for Torah, Nevi'im, and Ketuvim.
The Torah is also known as the Chumash, Pentateuch, or Five Books of
Moses. The word 'Torah' has the following meanings:
1. A scroll made from kosher animal parchment, with the entire text
of the Five Books of Moses written in it by a sofer [ritual
scribe]. This is the most limited definition.
2. More often, this term means the text of the Five Books of Moses,
written in any format, whether Torah scroll, paper back book,
CD-ROM, sky-writing or any other media.
Any printed version of the Torah (with or without commentary) can
be called a Chumash or Pentateuch. However, one never refers to a
Torah Scroll as a Chumash!
3. The term 'Torah' can mean the entire corpus of Jewish law! This
includes the Written and the Oral Law, which includes the Mishna,
the Midrash, the Talmud, and even later day legal commentaries.
This definition of Torah is probably the most common among
Orthodox Jews. Usually you can figure out which definition is
being used by the context.
Subject: Question 3.2: What are the books of the Jewish Bible (Tanakh)?
First, note that the Bible isn't the entire corpus of what we call
"Torah"; in fact, it's the smaller piece. In traditional Jewish
thought, the Torah (in the limited sense) is "merely" lecture notes --
the minimum needed to remember or rebuild the larger body of
knowledge. The non-written part we call Oral Torah (Torah shebi'al
peh). The word Torah in the narrower sense refers to the five books of
Moses, or to a scroll that contains those books. However, this is only
because we believe that the entire Torah -- using the word in its
broadest sense -- is implied by the words of its text. That includes
not only the ideas in the Oral Torah, but also the ideas in the
prophetic and inspired works that compose the rest of the Jewish
Bible. The prophets wrote down their words to increase their impact,
not because these were innovative ideas. Tradition has it that the
text of the Torah can be simultaneously understood on 4 levels: the
simple meaning (p'shat), as mnemonics based on extra or missing
letters, gematria, acrostics, etc... (remez), through scriptural
hermeneutics (d'rash), and on a philosophical and kabbalistic level
(sowd). The acronym of these four levels is "pardeis" (orchard) and is
associated with the concept of Paradise.
Also, note that the word "Bible" is more commonly used by non-Jews, as
are the terms "old testament" and "new testament", although
"scripture" is a synonym used by both Jews and non-Jews. The
appropriate term to use is Tanakh. This word is derived from the
Hebrew letters of the three parts that make it up:
Books of Genesis (B'reishis), Exodus (Sh'mos), Leviticus
(Vayikra), Numbers(Bamidbar), and Deuteronomy (D'varim).
Books of Joshua, Judges, I Samuel, II Samuel, I Kings, II
Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah,
Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habukkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah,
and Malachi. (The last twelve are sometimes grouped together as
"Trei Asar." ["Twelve"])
Books of Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth,
Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel (although not all
that is included in the Christian Canon), Ezra and Nehemiah, I
Chronicles, and II Chronicles.
It should be noted that the breaking of Samuel (Shmuel), Kings
(Melachim), and Chronicles (Divrei hayamim) into two parts is strictly
an artifact of the Christian printers who first issued the books. They
were too big to be issued as single volumes. Because every one
followed these de facto standards, the titles of Volume 1 and Volume 2
were attached to the names. The division of the Tanach into chapters
was also done by medieval Christians, and only later adopted by Jews.
Many Christian Bibles have expanded versions of several of these books
(Esther, Ezra, Daniel, Jeremiah and Chronicles) including extra
material that is not accepted as canonical in Judaism. This extra
material was part of the ancient Greek translation of the Tanakh, but
was never a part of the official Hebrew Tanakh. Jews regard this extra
material as apocryphal. Among Christians, there is a difference of
opinion. Catholics regard this material as canonical, while many
Protestant sects regard this material as Apocrypha. What is and is not
regarded as Apocrypha varies among the many Christian sects. Some of
the most famous Apocryphal stories are closely associated with the
book of Daniel, and indeed are printed as part of that book in some
Christian Bibles. These stories include: Susan and the Elders, The
Song of the Three Children, and Bel and the Dragon.
There are other books mentioned in Torah. For example, Joshua 10:13
refers to a book of "Jasher". Are such books part of the Jewish canon?
No. Do they exist? There are many books on the web that claim to be
such lost books. However, there are many sites (such as
http://answers.org/Bible/jasher-book-of.html that points out that
many of them are hoaxes.
Subject: Question 3.3: Why, in the Tanakh, does G-d have so many Names?
Traditional Jews answer that each name represents a different aspect
of G-d, similar (l'havdil) to the way the U.S. President is known as
"President," "Commander-in-Chief," "Chief Executive," or "Mr.
So-and-so" depending upon the role he's playing at the moment.
("L'havdil" denotes that the writer acknowledges a distinction between
the sacred and the secular.)
Subject: Question 3.4: Who wrote the Torah?
Ah, yet another easy question. :-)
The traditional view is that G-d gave the Jewish people the entire
Torah; hence the Torah is the word of G-d. As described above, the
Torah consists of a written and an oral portion (although much of the
oral portion is now written down). Of the written portion:
* The first five books (Pentateuch, Chumash) were dictated by G-d to
Moses, while Moses was in a conscious and aware state.
* N'viim (the Prophetic writings) were transmitted by G-d to the
prophets by various means (such as by a dream or vision) and
transcribed by the prophet in his (or her) own style and wording.
G-d communicated with all prophets (except Moses) through dreams
or visions. These writings are considered a level "below" that of
Moses. Specific laws are not derived from the Prophets, except
through examples of how a mitzvah was actually performed. There
were many more prophets in the history of Israel than are recorded
in the Neviim. See Section 12.11 "Who were the prophets?"
* K'Tuvim (Sacred Writings) were the result of "Ruach HaKodesh"
(roughly: "Divine Inspiration"), which is one level below
"prophecy". Visions from the writings are more mystical and may be
complete allegory. Unlike prophecy, they do not have to come true.
The Rambam defines a number of different "levels" of prophecy
(based on the method through which the prophet received the
message and the clarity with which he/she received it) and points
out that they do not have to function on the same level at all
times. For example, many people include Daniel among the prophets
while his book is in K'Tuvim. Other examples are King David and
Tehillim or Jeremiah and Eichah (Lamentations).
The Liberal movements hold less with the notion of the Torah being the
actual word of G-d, and more with the notion of the Torah being of
divine inspiration, written in the language and context of its time:
* Conservative. The Conservative movement teaches that the Torah is
not one long quote from G-d, but rather is a human document that
was written in response G-d's revelation of himself to us at Mount
Sinai. Within the Conservative movement are basically two schools
of thought with regards to the content of Revelation:
+ Rabbi Solomon Schechter is a good example of the
traditionalists, who explicitly taught that G-d not only
revealed his existence, but G-d also presented Israel with
specific ideas and commandments, although the form in which
these were given is something beyond what language can
describe. Whether or not 'words' were used to convey ideas is
irrelevant: What is relevant is that meaning was conveyed.
Thus, the text of our Torah is a record of a human response
to the Divine commandments.
+ Rabbi Elliot Dorf is a good example of the modernists, who
explicitly teach that G-d did not reveal specific ideas or
commandments in any propositional form. Rather, G-d revealed
his existence, but did not impart any propositional content
to Moses or the later Prophets. Instead, the Torah is a
literary document that was produced as a result of Israel's
encounter with the Divine. Thus, any laws contained within it
can only be considered as semi-Divine in origin, as they do
not express G-d's will, but rather express our best attempt
at understanding what G-d wants of us.
* Reform. Reform Judaism uses the idea of progressive relevation.
The Torah may be the product of divine inspiration, but it was
written in the language and context of its time, and must be
continually reinterpreted into today's language and context.
* Reconstructionist. Reconstructionist Jews believe that the Torah
was not inspired by G-d in any way and is more the folklore of the
Jewish people, albeit a folklore that is of the greatest
importance. However, they do claim that the traditional mitzvot in
the Oral and Written law are more or less binding, but for reasons
of cultural significance only. It should be noted that some of
today's new Reconstructionist rabbis are publicly questioning this
theology, and our adopting a more traditional stance, although
this trend has not yet made any real inroads among its laity.
Subject: Question 3.5: What is the Oral Law?
The Torah makes it clear that it was being transmitted side by side
with an oral tradition. Many terms and definitions used in the written
law are totally undefined. Many fundamental concepts such as shekhita
(slaughtering of animals in a kosher fashion), divorce and the rights
of the firstborn are all assumed as common knowledge by text, and are
not elaborated. Some specific examples:
* In describing the proper way to slaughter animals for food, the
Torah writes "If the place which G-d your L-rd has chosen to place
His name there will be too far from you, then you shall kill of
your herd and of your flock which G-d Lord has given you, as I
have commanded you." (Deut 12). However, the Torah doesn't record
that earlier commandment anywhere.
* When it comes to divorce -- the bible never discusses the laws
outright, they are assumed in passing in a discussion about when
remarriage would be allowed. (Deut 24:1-4)
* There is a reliance on sages for interpreting the law in Exod
18:36 and in Deut 17:8-3.
Another story related to this: R' Akiva was 40 years old before he
took an interest in Torah study. He joined a class of little children
studying the Hebrew alphabet. On the first day, the teacher taught
that such was an alef, and such was a beis, etc... On the second day,
the teacher went through the alphabet backwards -- starting with tav
and working down to aleph. R' Akiva asked the teacher, "But didn't you
teach it the other way yesterday?" "And how do you know that that was
the right way and not this one?"
There's an alternate version, perhaps of the same story. This one is
told about a non-Jew who came to Shammai and said that he wanted to
convert on condition that he would accept only the Written Law.
Shammai, realizing that the non-Jew was mocking him, chased him away.
The non-Jew then went to Hillel with the same condition. The first
day, Hillel taught him alef, bais, gimel, dalet. The second day, he
began by calling the same characters tav, shin, raish, kuf. The
non-Jew objected, "But didn't you tell me yesterday that these were
alef, bais, gimel, dalet?" Hillel responded, "You see that even the
names and sounds of the letters can only be understood by an oral
teaching. How much more must the Torah itself be understood only
through the Oral Law." The non-Jew then began studying completely and
And an experimental proof: There were numerous movements that tried to
follow the written Torah alone: Baithusians, Saducees, Karaites,
etc... Each, without fail, eventually evolved its own tradition about
how to understand the text. Pure fundamentalism about the verses,
letting each man interpret for his/herself, has yet to provide a
consistant structure. The Torah requires more information than it
gives in the text alone. [Note that even Reform uses traditional
interpretations of the verse; it is not the interpretation of the
verse that is subject to individual choice in Reform, it is whether to
incorporate the practice].
There are a number of examples in the rest of Jewish scriptures that
show consistancy with conclusions contained in the Oral Torah based on
the Pentateuch. In other words, things the prophets assumed about
Jewish law that aren't in the text:
* Zacharia 7:2 and 8:13 refer to the Rabbinically enacted fasts to
commemorate the fall of the first Temple.
* Nechemia 13 notes the Rabbinic prohibition against buying or
selling things on the Sabbath.
* The book of Ruth only works with the Oral Torah that limits the
prohibition of Deut 23:3 to remarrying Moabite men. Otherwise, how
could Boaz marry Ruth -- a Moabite convert. Ruth also relies on
Oral Torah laws on kinsman redeemers and the conversion ritual.
The term "oral law" thus reflects the knowledge about how to fulfill
the laws and regulations of Torah that was transmitted orally, from
generation to generation. The Oral Law can be thought of as a body of
jurisprudence and procedure that accompanies the statutes of the
Written Law. It is believed to have been passed down from the time of
Moses, restored after the first exile by Ezra and Nehemiah, and
finally written down by the academies at Yavne and in the Galilee in
the two generations following the destruction of the Second Temple in
70 CE. It consists of specific interpretations and elaborations of the
Written Law, and some commentary on the principles by which the
Written Law can be expounded.
There are Jews called Karaites, recognized by the state of Israel as
100% Jewish but heretical, who reject the Oral Law, as did the
Sadducees of the time of the Second Temple. One objection to their
`purism' is that they have been forced by practical necessity to
develop interpretations and methods of textual analysis of their
own---you simply cannot have law without jurisprudence. This being the
case, most traditional Jews accept the authority of the Oral Law that
has come down to us as (at the very least) the closest we can come to
Torah from Mount Sinai.
Subject: Question 3.6: How was the Oral and Written Law passed down to us?
The traditional view is the the Written Law was given to Moses at
Sinai, and has remained unchanged since that time. At the same time,
according to the traditional view, the Oral Law was dictated but not
written down, in order to provide clarifications of Torah. To some
extent, this is necessarily the case; the Written Torah mentions some
core laws (e.g., the identities of kosher and non-kosher species,
shechita [slaughtering], the kinds of activities prohibited on
Shabbat, how Yom Kippur is observed, how the shofar is blown, what
t'fillin [phylacteries] are, what is a sukkah, marriage and divorce)
only briefly, without any of the requisite details. In many such
instances, the Oral Torah has special status, and is referred to as
"halakha l'Moshe mi'Sinai" (literally, Law to Moses at Sinai), and has
the same immutable status as the Written Torah itself. Another factor
"forcing" the recognition of the Oral Torah was the need for the basic
halakhic principles of the Written Torah to extend and adapt (within
limits) to societal changes; cultural and social changes demanded
halakhic decisions, and these halakhic decisions had to be transmitted
across generations. Deut 17:8-9 tells the people to "go the the judge
who shall be in those days;" the rabbinic tradition thus explicitly
commands adherence to the Oral Torah and to rabbinic authority.
We do not know much of the early history of the Oral Torah, but much
of it (e.g., the basic structure of the Amidah liturgy, and the basic
principles of halakhic exegesis) is ascribed to the Men of the Great
Assembly (539-332 BCE, the era of the Second Temple and Persian rule).
Subsequent development of the Oral Law took place in the era of the
Zugot ("pairs" of scholars who served as spiritual and intellectual
leaders of the Jewish community under political domination of the
Greeks and Hasmoneans; it was in that period that the Sadducees, who
substantially rejected the authority of the Oral Torah, arose. But the
varieties of modern Judaism derive from the Talmud, in which the
essential principles of rabbinic Judaism were more fully discussed and
developed. If the Oral Torah was indeed given to the Jews at Sinai at
the same time as the Written Torah, how does one explain the talmudic
disputes? There are at least three possibilities, and they are not
mutually exclusive. Perhaps the Oral Torah was transmitted
inaccurately, and the task of the rabbis was to reconstruct it.
Alternatively, the halakhic principles of the Oral Torah were used by
the rabbis to derive new laws, and to apply old laws to novel
situations. The third possibility is that the Oral Law gave the rabbis
the right (perhaps the responsibility) to legislate.
Non-traditional movements have different positions on the origin. Some
hold with the "documentary theory", which has four authors. Some hold
with divine inspiration. Others believe in divine inspiration, written
in the language and context of its time. However, all agree that the
Written and Oral Torah contain eternal truths that apply as well today
as when the documents were committed to parchment, and that study of
both is critical.
Subject: Question 3.7: What is the Great Assembly (Anshe Knessest HaGedolah)?
According to traditional Jewish historiography, this was an assembly
of 120 rabbis that ruled in the period after the time of the prophets
up to the time of the development of rabbinic Judaism in 70 CE. They
bridge a period of about 2 centuries. The tradition teaches that they
redacted the books of Ezekiel, the twelve minor prophets (The Trei
Asar), and the books of Daniel and Esther. They also composed the
Shemonah Esrah, the standing prayer (Amidah) of 18, later 19, prayers
that is still recited by Jews today. They canonized the Tanakh (Hebrew
Bible). Most importantly, they enacted a democratization of Jewish
education, making the Torah the possession of all, instead of just the
Historically, the Great Assembly described in Nehemiah 8-10 was a
public assembly of Jews who returned to Israel after the exile in
Babylonia. In this gathering the leaders and people of Israel
rededicated themselves to the Torah as their inheritance and code of
Subject: Question 3.8: Who are the Zugot (Pairs)?
After the relative calmness of the period of Persian rule, the Greek
occupied Eretz Yisrael. For over a century the land was the
battlefield for warring armies of the Ptolemies and Seleucids. As a
result, the Jewish homeland was politically, economically, and
spiritually torn apart. During these times, Jewish leadership was in
the hands of the Zugot.
The term 'Zugot' refers to the two heads of the Sanhedrin (Great
Assembly). The Sanhedrin was the successor to the Great Assembly, and
it functioned as the legislative body of the Jewish people. At the
head of the Sanhedrin was the Nasi (President) and second to him was
the Av Bet Din (Father of the Assembly). For a period of about two
hundred years, these Zugot were the spiritual guides of Jewish life
and the transmitters of the Oral Law. These Zugot were:
* Yose ben Yoezer of Sereda, Yose ben Yohanan
* Yehoshua ben Perahyah, Mattai (or Nittai) or Arbel
* Yehudah ben Tabbai, Simeon ben Shetah
* Shemayah, Abtalion
* Hillel the Elder, Shammai
Subject: Question 3.9: What is the Mishna?
The Hebrew verb 'shanah' literally means 'to repeat [what one was
taught] and is used to mean 'to learn'. The term 'Mishna' basically
means the entire body of Jewish religious law that was passed down and
developed before 200 CE, when it was finally redacted by Rabbi Yehudah
haNasi (Judah the Prince). He is usually simply referred to as
Prior to the time of Rabbi, all Jewish Law was transmitted orally; It
was expressly forbidden to write and publish the Oral Law, as any
writing would be incomplete and subject to misinterpretation and
abuse. However, after great debate, this restriction was lifted when
it became apparent that it was the only way to insure that the law
could be preserved. To prevent the material from being lost, Rabbi
took up the redaction of the Mishna. He did not do this at his own
discretion, but rather examined the tradition all the way back to the
Great Assembly. Some of tractates preceded him; these he merely
During this time period (around 200 CE) the Mishna, as such, was never
published. Instead the main study of Jewish law was conducted in
memorized form, except for private letters and notes.
The Mishna consists of six orders (sedarim). This explains the
traditional name for the Talmud as 'Shas'. 'Shas' is simply an
abbreviation of shishah sedarim, six orders'. Each of the six orders
contains between 7 and 12 tractates, called 'masekhot'. Each masekhot
is divided into smaller units called 'mishnayot'.
Subject: Question 3.10: What is the relationship between the Mishna and the
The Mishna contains the detailed instructions necessary for following
the rules that were merely outlined in the Torah.
Which is a subset of which? Consider that although the basic laws of
Judaism were revealed/developed simultaneously, only the basic mitzvot
(without instructions on how to fulfill them) were originally written
down. Although the Mishna was written centuries later, they are both
of equal stature. However, because the Mishna includes most the laws
of the Torah--and presents additional information--one could say that
for practical purposes the Torah is a subset of the Mishna. Note that
the Mishna does not quite cover all the laws in the Torah. Omissions
include the laws of Mezuzot and the Priestly benedictions.
When one gets to the Talmud, one sees that the Mishna is a subset of
the Talmud, as the Talmud includes practically all of the Mishna as
well as additional information.
Subject: Question 3.11: What are the Orders of the Mishna?
The orders of the Mishna are as follows:
1. First Order: Zeraim (Seeds). 11 tractates. This order deals with
agricultural laws and prayers
2. Second Order: Mo'ed (Festival Days). 12 tractates. This order
pertains to the laws of the Sabbath and the Festivals.
3. Third Order: Nashim (Women). 7 tractates. This order concerns
marriage and divorce.
4. Fourth Order: Neziqin (Damages). 10 tractates. This order deals
with civil and criminal law.
5. Fifth Order: Qodashim (Holy Things). 11 tractates. This order
involves sacrificial rites, the Temple, and the dietary laws.
6. Sixth order: Toharot (Purity). 12 tractates. This order pertains
to ritual and the laws of ritual purity (including family purity.)
Subject: Question 3.12: What is the Tosefta?
The Mishna is basic compilation of the Oral Law, and was written down
around 200 CE. However there is another compilation of Oral Law from
that time period--the Tosefta. Rashi (in his commentary on BT
Sanhedrin 33a) writes that the Mishna was redacted by Rabbi Judah
Ha-Nasi in consultation with members of the Academy, while the Tosefta
was edited by Rabbis Hiyya and Oshaiah on their own. This gave the
Tosefta less authority than the Mishna; today, the Tosefta is treated
a supplement to the Mishna.
The word 'tosefta' means 'supplement'. The Tosefta is a Halakhic work
which corresponds in structure almost exactly to the Mishna, with the
same divisions for sedarim (orders) and masekhot (tractates). It is
mainly written is Mishnaic Hebrew, with a few Aramaic sentences. The
actual writing is called the Tosefot or Tosefos, depending on your
Tosefot was produced by a school of French Rabbis of the 12th century.
Their thoughts were combined into a commentary on the Babylonian
Tosefot is found on the outside of each page (on the left of the left
page, or the right part of the right one) wrapped around the text.
Rashi, who was father and grandfather of a number of the Tosafists
appears on the inside, nearer the binding.
The thrust of the commentary is to resolve the meaning of the page
both when internally difficult and they were dissatisfied with Rashi's
understanding, or when there are difficulties understanding the text
in light of what is written elsewhere in the Talmud. (Rashi doesn't
directly refer to the latter kind of problem.)
Professors Agus and Ta-Shma argue that Tosafot set out to explain
Ashkenazic practice in light of the Talmud. The Babylonian Talmud had
gained exceptance as /the/ snapshot of the Oral Law. However,
Ashkenazic rulings and customs had until then been justified based on
other sources as well, the halachic medrashic texts, the Jerusalem
Talmud, etc... This is because of the number of Ashkenazic Jews who
came from Israel (via Italy), not Babylon. Now that the Babylonian
Talmud gained prominance, addressing questions of how ideas found in
Ashkenaz fit that greater picture became more urgent. They do not
overtly refer to this mission, but many of their answers do end up
providing such explanations.
Also, at the time, the Tosefists were one of two schools of thought.
There were also the Chassidei Ashkenaz, who were a pietist movement
that had a greater focus on going beyond the letter of the law. There
was much friction between the Tosefits and the Chassidim, much like
what happened with the current Chassidic movement, when it was founded
in the late 18th century.
Subject: Question 3.13: What is the relationship between the Tosefta and the
The Tosefta was written shortly after the Mishna was redacted, and
seems to act as a supplement to it. It extensively quotes most of the
Mishna. The Tosefta offers author's names for laws that are anonymous
in the Mishna; It augments the Mishna with additional glosses and
Additionally, it functions as a commentary on unquoted Mishnaic
material; It offers additional haggadic and midrashic material, and it
sometimes contradicts the Mishna in deciding Halakha, or in declaring
in whose name a law was given.
Subject: Question 3.14: What is the Gemara and what is the Talmud?
The term 'gemara' means addition; The gemara is an addition to the
Mishna. Interestingly, although there is only one Mishna, there are
two gemaras, each developed by many rabbis over a few centuries. One
gemara was developed in Israel, and is called the Yerushalmi; the
other was developed in Babylonia, and is called the Bavli. You never
find the gemara printed by itself. It is always printed along with the
When you have the Babylonian gemara and the Mishna printed together,
it is called Talmud Bavli (The Babylonian Talmud).
When you have the Israeli gemara and the Mishna printed together, it
is called Talmud Yerushalmi (or the Jerusalem Talmud, or the
Palestinian Talmud, or the Talmud of the Land of Israel.)
Keep in mind that the gemaras do not stick closely to the text, but
offer a huge amount of additional material which is only loosely
connected to the Mishna. They supplement the Mishna with haggadic
materials and biblical expositions, and are a source for history and
Subject: Question 3.15: What is the Talmud?
The word 'talmud' literally means 'study'. The Talmud is sometimes
referred to as the Shas. Shas is a shortened form of the term 'Shisha
Sedarim (six orders), a reference to the six orders of the Mishna.
There are two distinct works known as Talmud: the Yerushalmi
(Jerusalem or Palestinian) Talmud, and the Bavli (Babylonian Talmud).
However, the Babylonian Talmud has greater popularity and authority,
so the generic term 'Talmud' almost always refers to the Babylonian
Talmud. The generic 'gemara' thus refers to the gemara of the
Babylonian Talmud. References to the Jerusalem Talmud are explicitly
Traditionally, the Talmud is the supreme sourcebook of Law, as it
takes the rules listed in the Torah and describes how to apply them to
different circumstances. Although technically not a legal code (other
works were created for that purpose), it is the ultimate source
material that is used to decide all matters of Halakha (Jewish law).
Traditional rabbis study the Talmud in depth; however, they use the
actual Talmud very rarely, preferring to accept opinions in later law
codes as binding. Study of Talmud for its own sake is considered a
Conservative rabbis also consider Halakha as binding, but do not
always accept the most recent and stringent opinions in the latest law
codes as absolutely binding; As such they use the Talmud in the same
way that rabbis of past eras used to use it. This is theoretically
still an option in the Orthodox community, but in practice is used
Reform and Reconstructionist Jews do not teach Talmud in their Hebrew
schools, but do teach it in their rabbinical seminaries. This material
is used as part of the research into the application of Torah law, but
the research also includes study of the larger context of the time,
and the parallels to other co-existant societies.
A citation "Check the gemara, Yevamos 12b" means tractate Yevamos,
folio 12, reverse side of the folio as per the organization of the
Vilna edition of the Babylonian Talmud. Similarly, Chullin 5a would be
the obverse side of the fifth folio of tractate Chullin. "Daf Yomi" is
a program in which the participants study both sides of a folio of the
Babylonian Talmud every day of the year. It takes about 7.5 years to
complete the cycle.
After the closing of the Talmud, there has been considerable further
development of the Law in the areas of practical application, but
always in a tone that reveres the stated views of the Talmudic rabbis
as being on a higher plane than those of our modern scholars, who are
free to interpret but not to contradict. A sharp distinction is always
drawn between Torah Law (meaning law that derives directly from
prohibitions in the Written or Oral Torah) and Rabbinic Law (meaning
law that the Talmudic rabbis adopted as a `fence' to protect us from
unwarily transgressing Torah Law), and different standards are used to
judge cases of doubt in matters of Torah Law than of Rabbinic. Often,
a false distinction is made by uninformed posters between `Torah'
(meaning Written) Law and Oral Law---in traditional Judaism, the two
stand together in distinction to Rabbinic Law. Example: the Written
Law says `an eye for an eye'. The Oral Law says (and historical
documents from the Second Temple era confirm) that this was _never_
intended literally, but rather means `measured and just (monetary)
compensation for damages inflicted'. The Rabbinic Law upholds this
principle, but might still command a man to forego the monetary
damages in certain cases so as not to even come close to transgressing
some other Torah prohibition, such as exacting interest on a debt, or
causing baseless hatred. The first two are Torah, the last is not. But
all are binding on Jews worldwide. (Note: A still lower level of
`law', called minhag, or `custom', is post-Talmudic and usually has
force only within particular communities.)
Subject: Question 3.16: What is Talmud Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud)?
The Talmud Yerushalmi, also known as the Jerusalem Talmud (JT), the
Palestinian Talmud, Talmud Eretz Yisrael (Talmud of the Land of
Israel) and Gemara de Eretz Yisrael, is the Mishna plus the Yerushalmi
gemara. It is interesting to note that the JT that we have today is
missing a huge amount of material. There is only commentary for the
first four orders of the Mishna; The rest has been lost to history.
The JT gemara is also missing for tractates Avot and Eduyot, parts of
Toharot and other sections as well. Despite extensive scholarship, it
still is unclear why this material was not included in the final
redaction of the JT.
Rabbi Yohanan bar Nappaha was the main redactor of the JT. It was
redacted around 500 to 550 CE. Additionally, the name 'Jerusalem
Talmud' is a misnomer; it was most likely written in Northern Israel,
In general, whenever the JT contradicts the Babylonian Talmud (BT),
the law follows the BT. Only on matters where BT is silent or unclear
does the authority of the JT prevail.
The absence of numerous Mishna tractates and chapters, the numerous
self contradictions, as well as other internal evidence, suggests that
the JT was not in fact redacted in the proper sense of the word, but
rather was a hasty collection of material. Many scholars believe that
the reason for the ultimate acceptance of the BT rather than the JT
had a lot to do with the power struggles between the two Jewish
communities. Thus it can be argued that the poor preservation of the
JT may be a result of its rejection rather than its cause.
Subject: Question 3.17: What is Talmud Bavli (Babylonian Talmud)?
The Talmud Bavli (BT) is the Mishna plus the Babylonian gemara. It is
much more complete than the Talmud Yerushalmi (JT), and the redaction
is much more careful and precise. Still, it is by no means complete.
The gemara only exists for 37 out of the 63 tractates of the Mishna.
Why did these tractates remain without gemara in the BT? The
traditional answer is that the laws of Zeraim and Toharot (except
Niddah) had no practical relevance:
* The agricultural laws were tied only to the land of Israel. In the
diaspora these laws simply were of no use.
* The purity laws (except for family purity) were no longer
applicable, because there was no longer a Temple and sacrificial
One might think then that there would be no BT gemara on Qodashim...
but there is. This is probably because the study of the sacrificial
regulations is generally thought of as being on par with actually
In the usual printed editions, the BT comprises the full Mishna, the
37 gemaras, and the extra-canonical (minor) tractates. Typically, this
comprises 5,894 pages, and is much more extensive than the JT.
The overall character of BT is encyclopedic. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
states in The Essential Talmud (Basic Books, Inc., New York, 1976):
The Talmud is the repository of thousands of years of Jewish
wisdom. And the Oral Law, which is as ancient and significant as
the Written Law (Torah), finds expression therein. It is a
conglomerate of law, legend, and philosophy, a blend of unique
logic and shrewd pragmatism, of history and science, anecdote and
Subject: Question 3.18: What is Rashi's Commentary on the Talmud?
Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac (or: Shlomo Yitzhaki) is known by the acronym
"Rashi". Rashi lived from 1040 to 1105 in Troyes, France.
[In the www.scjfaq.org version, there is a picture of a Talmud Page to
Illustrate This] In the Talmud, Rashi's Commentary is always situated
towards the middle of the opened book display; i.e. on the side of the
page closest to the binding. The semi-cursive font in which the
commentaries are printed is often referred to as "Rashi script." This
does not mean that Rashi himself used such a script, only that the
printers standardly employ it for commentaries. And Rashi's were the
commentaries par excellence to both the Bible and the Talmud. Rashi's
Commentary, which covers almost the whole of the Babylonian Talmud,
has been printed in every version of the Talmud since the first
Rashi's commentary provides a full and adequate explanation of the
words, and of the logical structure of each Talmudic passage. Unlike
some other commentaries, Rashi does not paraphrase or exclude any part
of the text, but carefully elucidates the whole of the text. Rashi
also exerted a decisive influence on establishing the correct text of
the Talmud. He compared different manuscripts and determined the
readings that should be preferred.
Rashi's commentary does not exist for every tractate of the Babylonian
Talmud, and a few of the printed commentaries attributed to him were
composed by others. In some instances, the text indicates that Rashi
died before completing the tractate, and that it was completed by a
student. This is true of the tractate Makkot, the concluding portions
of which were composed by his son-in-law Rabbi Judah ben Nathan. It is
also true of tractate Bava Batra finished (in a much wordier and
detailed style) by his grandson, Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam), one
of the prominent contributors to the Tosafot. It is probably a sign of
the success of Rashi's achievement that no subsequent scholar, until
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz in the late 20th century, tried to compose
another comprehensive explanatory commentary.
Subject: Question 3.19: What is the Tosafot?
The Tosafot are commentary on the Talmud by various Rabbis shortly
after the time of Rashi; Many of these rabbis were descendants of
The word "Tosafot" translates as "additions" or "supplements." This
means that their authors and editors saw their work as supplements to
Rashi's basic commentary. Some have seen the Tosafot as an addition to
the Talmud itself. It carries on the Talmud's own methods of
dialectical argument and debate. The Tosafot are printed on the outer
margin of the page; i.e., when looking at an opened book you will see
the Tosafot in the columns closest to the edges of the pages, farthest
from the binding. They appear in Rashi script, with the headings of
each discussion in large square letters. The Tosafot that have been
printed in the standard Talmud editions are merely an accidental
selection from a vast literature that circulated in manuscript. Some
of the other Tosafot compendia have been published as separate works.
Subject: Question 3.20: Who wrote the Tosafot?
The Tosafot were composed by many scholars in different schools
throughout the 12th and 13th centuries. They probably originated as
students' notes of the discussions that took place in the Talmudic
academy [=Yeshivah]. As students moved from one yeshivah to another
they would assemble personal lists of the Tosafot of their various
teachers. Some of the most prominent contributors to the Tosafot were:
Rabbi Jacob ben Meir (Rabbenu Tam). 1100 - 1171.
Rashi's grandson, lived in the French town of Ramerupt.
Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (The Rashbam). 1080 - 1158.
A grandson of Rashi's and the brother of Rabbenu Tam. In
addition to his contributions to the Tosafot, he composed a
famous commentary to the Torah that is distinguished by its
scholarly objectivity in restricting itself to the plain,
contextual meaning of the text without imposing the traditional
Rabbi Isaac of Dampierre (The Ri).
A nephew of Rabbenu Tam and the Rashbam, he lived in France
during the 12th century; One of the most prolific of the
Rabbi Samson [ben Abraham] of Sens.
He lived in France during the latter 12th and early 13th
centuries, and eventually moved to Jerusalem. He was the most
important disciple of Rabbi Isaac of Dampierre. In addition to
his Tosafot he composed a commentary to the two orders of the
Mishnah for which there is no Babylonian Talmud.
Rabbi Meir [ben Barukh] of Rothenburg. 1225 - 1293.
Rabbi Meir made important contributions to Jewish civil law,
and his many students diligently collected his customs,
responsa and rulings, often comparing them with the material in
the important Spanish codes of Jewish law.
Unlike the explanatory commentaries, such as Rashi's, the Tosafot do
not attempt to provide a full elucidation of the Talmud text. Rather
they focus on particular issues in the Talmud or in Rashi's commentary
which they explore in depth. They often propose alternative readings
or interpretations to the ones presented by Rashi.
Subject: Question 3.21: What is the relationship of the Tosefta to the
Both Talmud Bavli and Talmud Yerushalmi mostly ignore the Tosefta. The
Babylonian and the Jerusalem gemaras to the Mishna usually proceed
independently of material contained in the Tosefta.
The only explicit quotation of the Tosefta in the Talmuds is in
Masekhot Yoma, 70A. However, many baraitot (authoritative legal
material that was not redacted as part of the Mishna) quoted in the
gemara correspond very closely to teachings in the Tosefta, agreeing
in substance but differing in wording.
Many rabbis in the gemara discuss a problem that seems already to have
been solved in the Tosefta. The question is, are they unfamiliar with
the Tosefta, or was the Tosefta considered non-authoritative, or were
they simply unable to recall the Tosefta?
The complete Hebrew text of the Tosefta is appended to the backs of
Hebrew versions of the Talmud. An English translation by Jacob Neusner
is available. There are also translations of complete Tosefta chapters
available in different scholarly works.
Subject: Question 3.22: What are Baraitot?
Any authoritative legal material that was not redacted as part of the
Mishna is known as Baraitot. Often the Gemara (main part of the
Talmud) will quote a legal source outside the Mishna; This is a
quoting of a baraita. Everything in the Tosefta is Baraita by
definition, although there is much material that is considered Baraita
that is from outside the Tosefta. The word 'baraita' means 'external
Subject: Question 3.23: What are the extra-canonical (minor) tractates?
At the end of the Order Neziqin of BT, one finds a number of minor
1. Avot de Rabbi Nathan. This is found in two versions, one with 41
chapters, another has 48.
2. Soferim. There is a BT version of this, as well as a JT version.
3. Eyvel Rabbati. This tractate about laws and customs pertaining to
dying and mourning is sometimes euphemistically called 'Semakhot'
(rejoicing) by Rashi and others.
4. Kalah. Discusses engagement, marriage and sex.
5. Derekh Eretz Rabbah. This phrase literally means 'The Ways of the
World', but is taken to mean deportment, manners and behavior.
6. Derekh Eretz Zutta. Addresses to scholars, it is a collection of
maxims urging self examination and modesty.
7. Pereq haShalom.
8. Sefer Torah. Regulations about writing Torah scrolls.
12. Avadim. Slaves, or more accurately, indentured servants.
13. Gerim. Converts to Judaism.
14. Kutim. Samaritans.
Subject: Question 3.24: What is a Midrash?
Dr. Jacob Neusner explains that the word 'Midrash' is based on a
Hebrew word meaning 'interpretation' or 'exegesis'. He shows that the
term 'Midrash' has three main usages:
1. The term 'Midrash' can refer to a particular way of reading and
interpreting a biblical verse. Thus we may say that the ancient
rabbis provided Midrash to Scripture. This does not mean that any
interpretation of scripture is automatically true rabbinical
Midrash. In fact, most of what people call 'Modern Midrash' has
nothing to do with the classical modes of literary exegesis that
guided the rabbis. Commentary and Midrash are two different
things! In order to get a good idea of what classical rabbinic
Midrash really is, one has to actually study it; No two or three
sentence definition can accurately define the structure of
2. The term 'Midrash' can refer to a book - a compilation of
Midrashic teachings. Thus one can say that "Genesis Rabbah" is a
book that is a compilation of Midrash readings on the book of
3. The term 'Midrash' can refer to a particular verse and its
interpretation. Thus one can say that "The Midrash on the verse
Genesis 1:1 says that...[and some Midrashic interpretation of the
verse would go here].
Dr. Charles T. Davis (Appalachian Statue University, Philosophy and
Religion Department, NC) has prepared a summary of the definition
and features of Midrash, based on Rabbi Burton Visotzky's "Reading the
Bible". This summary says that once a canon (i.e., approved scriptural
text) is closed, the problem facing the community is the problem of
"searching out" the canon. Midrash is a method of reading the Bible as
an Eternal text, and is the result of applying a set of hermeneutical
principles evolved by the community to guide one in reading the canon,
in order to focus one's reading. The ultimate goal of midrash is to
"search out" the fullness of what was spoken by the Divine Voice.
In developing midrash, there are two schools of thought on how to
handle the language of Torah. One is that the language is the language
of human discourse, and is subject to the same redundancies and
occasional verbiage that we all encounter in desultory conversation.
The other view holds that since Scripture is the Word of G@d, no word
is superfluous. Every repetition, every apparent mistake, every
peculiar feature of arrangement or order has meaning.
Midrash minimizes the authority of the wording of the text as
communication, normal language. It places the focus on the reader and
the personal struggle of the reader to reach an acceptable moral
application of the text. While it is always governed by the wording of
the text, it allows for the reader to project his or her inner
struggle into the text. This allows for some very powerful and moving
interpretations which, to the ordinary user of language, seem to have
very little connection with the text. The great weakness of this
method is that it always threatens to replace the text with an
outpouring of personal reflection. At its best it requires the
presence of mystical insight not given to all readers.
Additional reading on Midrash may be found in the Midrash Reading
Subject: Question 3.25: What are Halakhic (or Tannaitic) Midrashim?
These are exegetical midrashim on the books of Exodus, Leviticus
and Deuteronomy, primarily legal. They establish the Tanakh (Hebrew
bible) as the source of Halakha.
Subject: Question 3.26: What are the main Halakhic Midrashim?
Mekhilta. The Mekhilta is an important commentary on Exodus. It is
essential to note that there are two separate versions of this midrash
collection. One is "Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael" and the other is
"Mekhilta de Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai". The former is the one that most
Jews use today, but the latter is the text that was used by many
medieval Jewish authorities. While the latter (ben Yohai) text was
popularly circulated in manuscript form from the 11th to 16th
centuries, it was lost for all practical purposes until it was
rediscovered and printed in the 19th century.
* Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael. This is a halakhic commentary on
Exodus, concentrating on the legal sections, from Exodus 12 to 35.
It derives halakha from Biblical verses. This midrash collection
was redacted into its final form around the 3rd or 4th century CE;
its contents indicate that its sources are some of the oldest
midrashim, dating back possibly to the time of Rabbi Akiva. The
midrash on Exodus that was known to the Amoraim is not the same as
our current mekhilta; their version was only the core of what
later grew into the present form.
* Mekhilta de Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai. Based on the same core
material as Mekhlita de Rabbi Ishmael, it followed a second route
of commentary and editing, and eventually emerged as a distinct
work. The Mekhlita de Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai is an exegetical
midrash on Exodus 3 to 35, and is very roughly dated to near the
4th century CE.
Sifra. A comprehensive halakhic commentary on Vayikra (Leviticus),
which works through all of Leviticus verse by verse. References in the
Talmud to the Sifra are ambiguous; It is uncertain whether the texts
mentioned in the Talmud are to an earlier version of our Sifra, or to
the sources that the Sifra also drew upon. However, we do know that
the references to the Sifra from the time of the Geonim and after are
to the text that is extant today. The core of this text developed in
the mid-3rd century as a critique and commentary of the Mishnah,
although subsequent additions and editing went on for some time
* Sifre Numbers. A mainly halakhic midrash on Bamidbar (Numbers). It
also includes a long haggadic piece in sections 78-106. References
in the Talmud, and in the later Geonic literature, indicate that
the original core of Sifre was on Numbers, Exodus and Deuteronomy.
However, transmission of the text was imperfect, and by the middle
ages, only the commentary on Numbers and Deuteronomy remained. The
core material was redacted around the middle of the 3rd century.
* Sifre Zutta (The small Sifre). A Halakhic commentary on Bamidbar
(Numbers). The text of this midrash is only partially preserved in
medieval works, while other portions were discovered by Solomon
Schecter in his research in the famed Cairo Geniza. It seems to be
older than most other midrash, coming from the early 3rd century.
Terminology alert: Maimonides refers to this work as Mekhlita (de
rabbi Ishamel) in his Sefer Ha'Mitzvot.
* Sifre Deuteronomy. An exegetical and halakhic midrash on
Deuteronomy. Redacted near the late 3rd century.
Midrash Tannaim (also known as Mekhilta on Deuteronomy). This was a
Halakhic midrash on Deuteronomy, of which only fragments exist today.
Only portions of it can be reconstructed from quotes in other extant
works, including Genizah fragments.
Subject: Question 3.27: What are the main Exegetical Midrashim?
* Genesis Rabbah (Bereshit Rabbah). A midrash on Genesis, it offers
explanations of words and sentences and haggadic interpretations
and expositions, many of which are only loosely tied to the text.
It is often interlaced with maxims and parables. Its redactor drew
upon earlier rabbinic sources, including the Mishna, Tosefta, the
halakhic midrashim the Targums. Genesis Rabbah also apparently
drew upon a version of Talmud Yerushalmi that resembles, yet was
not identical to, the text that survived to present times. It was
redacted sometime in the early 5th century.
* Lamentations Rabbah (Eichah Rabbah). An exegetical midrash on
Eichah (Lamentations). It contains verse by verse expositions,
simple lexical explanations and also many parables and stories. It
contains many stories about the destruction of the Temple, the
crises under Trajan and Hadrian, and the Bar Kokhba revolt. It
draws upon the Mishna, Tosefta, Mekhilta, Sifra and Sifre.
Lamentations Rabbah has been transmitted in two versions. One
edition is represented by the 1st printed edition, 1519 Pesaro;
the other is the Buber edition, based on manuscript J.I.4 from the
Biblioteca Casanata in Rome. This latter version (i.e. Buber) is
quoted by the Shulkhan Aurkh, as well as medieval Jewish
authorities. It was probably redacted sometime in the 5th century.
Subject: Question 3.28: What are the main Homiletic Midrashim?
Leviticus Rabbah (Vayikra Rabbah)
This consists of 36 homilies on Leviticus, and was redacted
sometime between 400 and 500 CE.
Pesiqta de Rab Kahana (Verses of Rabbi Kahana)
For a long time this work was only known by separate
quotations, although recent scholarship has reconstructed the
content and structure by piecing together more recently
discovered manuscripts and fragments from the Cairo Genizah.
This book is a homiletic midrash for the readings on the
festivals and Sabbaths. The material contained within it was
probably written between 500 and 700 CE.
A collection of sermons for the festivals and Sabbaths. It may
have been written sometime in the 6th or 7th century, but a
more accurate dating still is impossible.
A homiletic midrash on the whole Torah. It probably was
redacted around 400 CE.
Devarim (Deuteronomy) Rabbah
Consists of 27 self contained homilies that relate to
Deuteronomy. Its core material was written before 400 CE, but
later material was added until its redaction around 800 CE.
Shmot (Exodus) Rabbah
The first part is an exegetical midrash on Exodus, while the
second part is a homiletic midrash. It was redacted sometime
before the 12th century, although it contains much older
Bamidbar (Numbers) Rabbah
A haggadic and homiletic midrash on Numbers. Although its final
form was reached around the 12th century, most of the material
is probably from the 8th century.
Subject: Question 3.29: What are the Midrashim on the Five Megillot (aka The
As noted in Section 3.27, Lamentations Rabbah is exegetical
midrash on Eichah (Lamentations). It contains verse by verse
expositions, simple lexical explanations and also many parables
and stories. It contains many stories about the destruction of
the Temple, the crises under Trajan and Hadrian, and the Bar
Kokhba revolt. It draws upon the Mishna, Tosefta, Mekhilta,
Sifra and Sifre.
Midrash Shir haShirim (Song of Songs Rabbah)
An allegorical interpretation of 'Song of Songs'. Written
sometime between the 3rd and 6th century.
Exposition of the book of Ruth, redacted around 500.
Midrash Kohelet (Ecclesiastes Rabbah)
An exposition of the book of Ecclesiastes, written in the 8th
Midrash Ester (Haggadat Megillah)
An exposition of the book of Ester, written around 500 CE.
Subject: Question 3.30: What are some other important Haggadic works?
A list from the time of the Second Temple describing 36 days on
which fasting is not permitted because of the joyous events
that occurred on those days. The main text is from the 1st
century, while the commentary is post-Talmudic.
Seder Olam Rabbah (Seder Olam)
Traditionally written by Tannaitic Rabbi Yose ben Halafta. It
covers topics from the Creation to the construction of the
Seder Olam Zutta
This book draws up a list of 89 generations from Abraham to the
exile, and then to the Talmudic period. Not written before the
Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer (Baraita de Rabbi Eliezer)
Contains 54 chapters on the life of Rabbi Eliezer, and most of
the Torah. It is nor a midrash in the real sense of the word,
but is more a coherent biblical story. Dates from the 8th
A history of the Jews from the fall of Babylonia to the
destruction of the Second Temple. Written in 953 CE by an
anonymous author in Southern Italy, based on many historical
records, but mainly the works of the Roman Jew, Josephus.
Sefer haYashar (Toldot Adam)
"The Book of The Upright" presents a view of history from Adam
and Eve to the Exodus from Egypt. Written sometime between the
12th and 16th centuries.
Mesilas Yesharim is a guide to character improvement written by
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato (a/k/a the Ramchal, after his
initials). He lived in the 18th cent, born in Italy but
spending most of his life in Amsterdam. Professionally, he was
a gem cutter.
The Ramchal bases the structure of Mesilas Yesharim on a
progression of personality traits listed by the tanna (mishnaic
era rabbi) Rabbi Pinchas ben Ya'ir (quoted in Tr. Avodah Zarah
20a). For each trait, he has one chapter defining the trait,
sometimes he has a second defining subcategories of it, and
finally advice for how to acquire it. The Ramchal starts with
Watchfulness, and makes his way to aquiring Holiness. A
complete translation can be found at:
Subject: Question 3.31: What is the Sefer Yetzirah (The Book of Creation)?
The best translation and commentary on this is by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan.
"Sefer Yetzirah", published by Jacob Aronson. It includes the complete
Hebrew text of all versions of this book, a clear commentary with
generous commentary and explanation, and in depth discussions of many
areas of Kabbalah with clear and lucid explanations and diagrams. From
The Sefer Yetzirah is without question the oldest and most
mysterious of all Kabbalistic texts. The first commentaries on this
book were written in the 10th century, and the text itself is
quoted as early as the sixth century. So ancient is this book that
its origins are no longer accessible to historians.
Careful study indicates that it is a meditative text with magical
overtones. Talmudic traditions indicate that it could be used to
create living creatures, including the Golem! The Sefer Yetzirah is
a small and concise book, only 1300 words long in the short version
and 2500 words long in the long version. The first chapter
discusses the Sefirot; The second chapter is a discussion of the
letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and the 231 gates; Chapters three
to five discuss the divisions of the letters in relation to
The text was deliberately written in a fashion so that it would be
meaningless to those who read it without an extensive background in
the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and Midrash. To guide the novice, Rabbi
Kaplan takes great care to introduce the necessary knowledge to the
reader, making it accessible for the very first time to English
speakers without a Kabbalistic background.
Subject: Question 3.32: What is Sefer haBahir, The Bahir (The Book of
The Bahir is one of the oldest and most important of all Kabbalistic
texts. Until the publication of the Zohar, the Bahir was the most
influential source of Kabbalistic teachings. It is quoted in virtually
every major Kabbalistic work and is cited numerous times by the Ramban
in his commentary on the Torah. It is also paraphrased and quoted many
times in the Zohar.
The name 'Bahir' literally means 'brilliant' or 'Illumination', and is
derived from the first verse quoted in the text of the Bahir "And now
they do not see the light, it is brilliant [bahir] in the skies",
which itself is a quote from the book of Job (37:21).
This book is also called "The Midrash of Rabbi Nehuniah ben haKana".
Although the Bahir is a fairly small book, 12,000 words in all, it was
very highly esteemed. It was first published in Provence in 1176. Most
Kabbalists ascribe authorship to Rabbi Nehuniah ben haKana, a Talmudic
sage of the first century.
One of the most important concepts revealed in it is that of the ten
Sefirot. Also discussed are the opening verses of Genesis and their
true meaning; The mystical aspects of the Hebrew alphabet; A
discussion of Gilgul [reincarnation]; The 32 paths of Wisdom, and the
Tzimtum, among other topics.
Subject: Question 3.33: What is The Zohar?
The Zohar [radiance] is the greatest classic of Jewish mysticism. It
is a mystical commentary on the Torah, written in Aramaic, and is
purported to be the teachings of the 2nd century Palestinian Rabbi
Shimon ben Yohai. Legend relates that during a time of Roman
persecution, Rabbi Shimon hid in a cave for 13 years, studying Torah
with his son; During this time he is said to have been inspired by G@d
to write the Zohar. However, there is no real mention of this book in
any Jewish literature until the 13th century.
In the 13th century, a Spanish Jew by the name of Moshe de Leon
claimed to discover the text of the Zohar, and the text was
subsequently published and distributed throughout the Jewish world.
However, there is a school of thought (based on the writings of
historian Gershom Scholem) that de Leon himself was the most likely
author of the Zohar. Among other things, Scholem noticed the Zohar's
frequent errors in Aramaic grammar and its highly suspicious traces of
Spanish words and sentence patterns. This is still highly disputed by
most (but not all) Orthodox Jews.
Whoever the author is, the content of the book is not fraudulent. It
definitely is based on older works, and it was a common practice to
ascribe the authorship of a document to an ancient rabbi in order to
give the document more weight.
The Zohar contains and elaborates upon much of the material found in
'Sefer Yetzirah' and 'Sefer Bahir', and without question is the
Kabbalistic work par excellance.
Subject: Question 3.34: What are the Major Codes of Jewish Law?
* The Rif (Hilkhot of Rav Alfassi). Author: Yitchak Alfassi
* Mishneh Torah (Yad Ha-Hazaqah). Author: Maimonides
* Sefer Mitzvot Gadol. Author: Moses ben Jacob
* Arba'ah Turim (The Tur). Author: Jacob ben Asher
* Shulkhan Arukh. Author: Joseph Karo
* Kitzur Shulkhan Arukh. Author: Shlomo Ganzfried
* Mishnah Berurah. Author: R'Israel Meir Kagan
Subject: Question 3.35: What is the Rif (Hilchos of Rav Alfassi)?
R. Yitchak Alfassi lived from 1013 to 1103. Early on he established a
yeshiva in Fez, Morocco, but was forced to flee to Spain in 1088, and
eventually established a yeshiva in Lucena that became the primary
Torah center for Spain.
His major work, entitled Hilchos of Rav Alfassi, is more commonly
referred to as the Rif, and is a summation of all the halakhic
material in the Talmud. The Rif only quotes that portion of Talmudic
dialogue that is pertinent today, omitting all halachot that are no
longer relevant after the destruction of the Second Temple, such as
the sacrificial service.
Subject: Question 3.36: What is the Mishneh Torah (Yad Ha-Hazaqah , Sefer
Moses Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, usually referred to in
Hebrew by the acronym "Rambam") was one of the towering figures in
medieval intellectual and religious life. In addition to his law code,
he excelled in the fields of philosophy, science, medicine, exegesis
and communal leadership. Though born in Spain, in his youth his family
fled religious persecution, settling in Egypt. Maimonides' literary
output includes: a work on philosophical logic; an Arabic commentary
to the Mishnah; an enumeration of the 613 precepts of the Torah; the
Mishneh Torah law code; the Arabic philosophical treatise The Guide of
the Perplexed; and many letters and responsa addressed to various
Maimonides lived from 1138 to 1204. He spent ten full years compiling
the Mishneh Torah, which he continued to revise throughout his
lifetime. The term "Mishneh Torah" means "The Second Law" and is the
name used in the Bible itself to designate the book of Deuteronomy,
which is a kind summary or review of the rest of the Torah.
Maimonides's Mishneh Torah was intended to be a summary of the entire
body of Jewish religious law.
The Mishneh Torah is sometimes referred to as the Yad Ha-Hazaqah, "the
mighty arm." This is a play on the numerological value of the Hebrew
word for arm, "yad," which is 14, equal to the number of volumes in
this code. Maimonides actually referred to the book as "Sefer Mehoqeq"
("The Book of Legislation"), a title which is rarely employed.
The Mishneh Torah is composed in Rabbinic Hebrew, after the style of
the Mishnah. It is divided up into fourteen general sections (similar
to the "orders" of the Mishnah), each of which is further subdivided
into books (like tractates), and then into numbered chapters and laws.
Some of the distinctive features of the Mishneh Torah are the
* It encompasses the full range of Jewish law, as formulated for all
ages and places. Most other Jewish law codes confined themselves
to laws that were in force in their own times and lands, thereby
excluding rules that apply only in the Land of Israel, under an
independent Jewish kingdom, or that could not be observed
following the destruction of the Temple.
* It completely reorganizes and reformulates the laws in a clear and
logical system. Earlier codes had followed the Talmud's sometimes
haphazard arrangement with only very few attempts to improve on
* It presents the normative rulings without any discussion or
explanation of how the decisions were reached.
* It contains a section on systematic philosophical theology,
derived largely from Aristotelian science and metaphysics, which
it regards as the most important component of Jewish law. Most
other Jewish codes avoided mixing creed and religious law; and
Maimonides' interpretation of Jewish religion in terms of Greek
ideas aroused much opposition.
An online version of Mishneh Torah, according to the Yemenite
manuscripts, may be found at http://www.mechon-mamre.org/i/0.htm.
Immanuel O'Levy's translation of the Rambam's entire Sefer Mada (Book
of Knowledge) can be found on Jon Baker's web site at
Subject: Question 3.37: What is the Sefer Mitzvot Gadol (The Semag)?
This title translates as "The Great Book of Commandments" and was
written by Rabbi Moses ben Jacob of Coucy'. Rabbi ben Jacob lived in
the first half of the 13th century, Coucy, France.
This work--usually designated by its acronym, the Semag--classifies
Jewish law according to the traditional enumeration of 613
commandments. The work is divided into two sections. The first deals
with the 365 negative precepts of the Torah, and the second with the
248 positive precepts. References to the Semag are by Section
(Positive or Negative) and Commandment Number within each section.
Subject: Question 3.38: What is the Arba'ah Turim (The Tur, The Four Rows)?
The Arba'ah Turim was written by Rabbi Jacob ben Asher. He is also
sometimes known as The Tur (after the title of his most famous work)
or as "Ba'al Ha'Turim [Master of the Turim]. He lived from 1270 to
1343, in Toledo, Spain.
Unlike Maimonides' Mishneh Torah, the Arba'ah Turim covers only those
areas of Jewish religious law that were in force in the author's time;
it was written to be a halachic guide to those halachot relevent to
people living outside of Israel in a time where there is no Temple.
The Mishneh Torah was designed to be a recapitulation of everything of
the Oral Torah a common man ought to learn, including all of halachah
and much of aggadah (non-halachic teachings). The Mishneh Torah is
therefore wider in scope. Rabbi Jacob did not deal with criminal law,
let alone with the sacrifices or the Zera'im (agricultural precepts
that could be observed only in the Holy Land.)
In the Tur, the code is divided into four main topics, each of which
is divided into a sequence of numbered paragraphs. This roughly
follows the Mishnah, which has six orders: Zera'im (Seeds;
agricultural laws); Mo'ed (holidays); Nashim (Women and marriage);
Neziqim (tort and fisal laws); Qodshim (sacred things; sacrifices,
kosher, and other such topics); Taharos (ritual purity). Not all of
these are within the Tur's scope: in fact, for some order, only a
small part apply: only a small part of Zera'im, the bit about
blessings and the Shema (Tr Berachot), and only a small part of
Taharos. If you fold these into the adjacent orders, you have the
origin of the Four Turim. The four "rows" are:
1. Orah Hayyim - "The Path of Life". This section deals with worship
and ritual observance in the home and synagogue, through the
course of the day, the weekly sabbath and the festival cycle.
2. Yoreh De'ah - "Teach Knowledge". This section deals with assorted
ritual prohibitions, especially dietary laws and regulations
concerning menstrual impurity.
3. Even Ha-'Ezer - "The Rock of the Helpmate". This section deals
with marriage, divorce and other issues in family law.
4. Hoshen Mishpat - "The Breastplate of Judgment". This section deals
with the administration and adjudication of civil law.
Within each Tur, the topics are broken down into subtopics, which are
then broken down into sections (simanim) and laws (se'ifim). The
structure down to the simanim is copied by the Shulchan Aruch and
therefore played a great role in how halachic study is organized.
Another departure from Maimonides' precedent was the fact that the Tur
did not limit itself to recording the normative positions, but
compared the various opinions on any disputed point. The influence of
the Arba'ah Turim is thus perceptible in its integration of the
Franco-German and Spanish legal traditions, as well as in its fourfold
structure, which was later adopted by Rabbi Joseph Caro's Shulkhan
Arukh, and remains the most widely used structure for the organization
of law codes and responsa.
Subject: Question 3.39: What is the Shulkhan Arukh?
Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488 - 1575) made his greatest contribution to
Jewish law by spending twenty years compiling an enormous halakhic
work, the Beit Yosef. The Beit Yosef is a huge commentary on the Tur
in which he clarifies the opinions of authorities who lived after the
time of Rabbi Yaakov.
However, a work was needed that would let a student determine Jewish
law without having to wade through all of the voluminous and complex
literature of the Talmud, the law codes and their commentaries.
Rabbi Karo set out to solve this problem, and finally wrote The
Shulkhan Arukh (literally, The Set Table) as a concise collection of
the law brought in his larger work, the Beis Yosef. In writing the
Shulkhan Arukh, Rabbi Yosef followed the chapter divisions of the Tur,
although he innovated by breaking each section up into separate
paragraphs for each law.
Subject: Question 3.40: What is the Hamappah of Rabbi Moshe Isserles?
Rabbi Moshe Isserles, also known as the Rama, lived in Cracow from
1525 to 1572. He noted that the Shulkhan Arukh was based almost
entirely on Sephardic tradition, and thus set out to create a series
of glosses to be appended to the text of the Shulkhan Arukh for all
instances where Sephardi and Ashkenazi customs differed.
The short comments of the Rama are incorporated into the body of the
Shulkhan Arukh and are printed in Rashi script. He referred to his
comments as a 'mappah', which means tablecloth [for the set table].
Subject: Question 3.41: What is the Kitzur Shulkhan Arukh?
This is a short, concise digest of halachah compiled by Rabbi Shlomo
Ganzfried (Hungary 1804 to 1886). He intended his work for mostly
uneducated laymen, and therefore did not cite sources for his rulings
nor did he include any laws that were not useful in the daily life of
the average Jew. This book 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 Shulkhan Arukh. Note that in
Israel in most religious public schools, Bnei Akiva Yeshivot and
Ulpanot they have ceased to use the Kitzur and are using the Kitzur
Makor Chaim by Rabbi Haim David Halevy. Rabbi HaLevy was born around
1926, and is the Chief Rabbi of Tel-Aviv Yaffo. His works include:
* Beyn Yisrael La'Amim. Between Israel and the nations
* Dat U'Medina. Religion and Statehood
* Mafteychot HaZohar Ve'ra'ayonotav. Indexes to the Zohar and its
* Makor Hayim (Fountain of Life) (5 vol.). The books contain both
the Halachot from Orach Haim plus an introduction to each chapter
that contains the joint Halach/Agadah roots: Agadah, Mussar,
Mahshavah etc., of each halacha.
* Assey L'cha Rav (9 parts). A collection of responsa that includes
modern questions such as Life after Death, Meditation, Martial
Arts, and other questions and answers. All answers are presented
clearly and the answers are intended for experts and layman alike.
Both Sephardi and Ashkenazi sides of the issues are presented.
* Kizur Shulchan Aruch. Similar to the Ginzberg kizzur except that
it contains both Sephardi and Ashkenazi minhag where relevant.
* Makor Chaim L'bat Yisrael. A concise edition of the halachot
relevant especially to women. Includes an introduction to each
chapter that gives the joint Halacha/Agada (see above) roots.
Brings both Sephardi and Ahskenazi minhag where relevant.
Subject: Question 3.42: What is the Mishnah Berurah?
This is a commentary on the Shulkhan Arukh by Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan,
better known as The Chofetz Chaim. (Poland, 1838 to 1933). Although he
never held a formal position as a rabbi, hundreds of students flocked
to his home in Radin. Eventually a yeshiva was established that Rabbi
Meir supported. The Mishnah Berurah has become the authoritative
halakhic guide for some segments of Ashkenazic Jewry. However, it is
not accepted as an authoritative code by other segments, including
many Chassidim and some Litvaks.
Subject: Question 3.43: What Other Codes of Jewish Law Are Used by Non-
Orthodox Jewish Movements?
The current guide to Jewish Law as understood by the Conservative
movement was written by Rabbi Isaac Klein in the 1970s. His "Guide to
Jewish Law" is a comprehensive guide book to the Conservative
understanding of Jewish law based upon the previous law codes,
including the Mishneh Torah, The Tur, The Shulkhan Arukh, and the
Mishneh Berurah. The book also includes the decisions of the
Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly and the Committee on
Jewish Laws and Standards. The goal of Rabbi Klein's work was to
reflect the collective understanding of Halakha by the Conservative
Although not a formal guide to Jewish Law, the Central Conference of
American Rabbis has published "Gates of Mitzvah" and "Gates of the
Seasons" as guidance on mitzvot that are critical to the life of a
Reform Jew. More information may be found in the Reform Reading
Subject: Question 3.44: What is the Meaning of 'All is Futile' from the
beginning of Ecclesiastes?
The orginal Hebrew word (hevel) which you translate as "futile" is
better translated to mean "absurd". Hevel is also the word for
"vapour" or "mist", so King Solomon's point is that things of this
temporal world are as short-lived and thin as vapour, and hence
absurd. He means to contrast them to spiritual things that are
immortal and holy, as well as more substantial and real. Interestingly
enough, we take spiritual things to be vapourous and insubstantial,
and worldly things to be substantial and more real. But King Solomon's
point is that the opposite is true. As such, the word does nothing to
suggest "futility" whatsoever; instead, it speaks to a true and bold
hope based on faith in things spiritual-- most especially G-d
Subject: Question 3.45: What does it mean in the psalm of Habakkuk when it
says that G-d hides His power?
The concept of G-d hiding Himself, has a long tradition in Jewish
thought. Basically, the idea revolves around the difference between
obvious acts of G-d (i.e., things that violate the rules of nature)
and subtle acts of G-d (things that are directed by G-d, but follow
all the rules of nature).
As examples, consider the Jews saved from Egypt with the sea being
split, and compare it to the way the Jews are saved from the Persian
empire in the story of Esther. Jewish commentaries point out that
G-d's name does not appear in the book of Esther, and yet it is
presented as a miraculous event. The Talmud points to Deuteronomy
31:18 as a general description of this phenomena. There, G-d says "I
will hide my face".
With that as a background, the verse in Habakuk can be understood in a
number of ways. Rashi--one of the foremost jewish biblical
scholars--sees the verse as referring to the change that took place
with the revelation at Sinai, for until that time, G-d was hidden from
Subject: Question 3.46: What is meant by G-d's throne and the Serphim
worshiping him in Isaiah 6:1-6?
The "Merkavah" (Divine "Chariot") visions of Isaiah and Ezekiel are
difficult to understand; in fact, it is hard to believe that any
non-prophet can honestly claim to understand them. That said, we can
eek out odds and ends that have more obvious meanings.
A prophet experiences something of the underlying reality, of heaven.
Being a person, his mind naturally maps these experiences into
visions. Metaphors. Much the way the rest of us map ideas into dreams.
Man relates to G-d in many ways, among them as a subject to a King.
Therefore, when a prophet sees a vision about G-d, it is quite logical
that he would see a throne. A large imposing throne that captures the
attention of the viewer, since the prophet obviously can't form a
vision that represents G-d Himself. So you'll notice that in the
vision, He never ends up "looking at" the Occupant. The commentaries
relate that the "Throne" is on a chariot because G-d was preparing to
join Israel in their exile. Which is why in that verse in Kings,
Micaiah described a "Throne" but no chariot. The exile wasn't yet
The three kinds of angel described in Ezekiel's more elaborate
description of the vision can be understood in the following manner
(among others): The ofanim (wheels) are the archetype machines. They
represent the spiritual forces behind man-made things. The chayos are
named for undomesticated animals, which in turn are called
"chayah"--living thing; life for its own sake. The contrast to ofanim
is stark. Chayos are the spiritual forces behind nature. They come
together and praise G-d, lifting themselves to the level of the
seraphim. Saraph is to burn. Fire, the least tangible of things, the
universal representation of the spiritual. Man, by proper utilization
of the artificial and natural, can elevate them until they too sing
the glory of G-d no less than do the obviously spiritual.
Holy, holy, holy is the G-d of Hosts. Holiness means being set aside
for a purpose. Usually we speak of "kadosh le-"; that is, the item
being santified to something. G-d Himself is as separate from
everything else as possible, and works entirely toward His own Goal.
These hosts of forces are what are embodied as angels "to His left and
to His right".
"G-d of Hosts" refers to the G-d who is Master of all the forces
throughout existance. The Targum, a 1st century CE commentary and
Aramaic translation renders the verse: Holy in heaven (the
"there-ness") on high, the abode of his Presence Holy on earth, the
work of His Might, Holy for ever, until the ends of time G-d of Hosts,
the whole universe is filled with His dear Emanation.
Subject: Question 3.47: Why is G-d referred to in the plural in the book of
The plural (for example, in Genesis 1:26) has been the source of
wonder for most of the commenators. The following are some of the
* G-d wanted to teach a personality trait to man. Therefore, even
though He didn't require their input into the decision, G-d turned
to the angels and asked them if they would participate. This act
of respect thereby became a fundamental feature of human
* There are more than one Hebrew nouns that end in "-im" that are
not plural. For example, Mayim (water) and Chayyim (Life). The
same is true of Elohim. Sometimes the "-im" ending is used to
connote power, not plurality. Whatever the grammatical origin of
this word, it is used in the Hebrew Bible as a *singular* noun.
* Some scholars view the use of Elohim as a plural that expresses an
abstract idea (e.g., zekunim, "old age"; neurim, "time of youth"),
so that Elohim would really mean "the Divinity."
* It might come from historical usage in the language at the time.
It may be derived from Canaanite usage, and the early Israelites
would have taken over elohim as a singular noun just as they made
their own the rest of the Canaanite language. In the
Tell-el-Amarna Letters Pharaoh is often addressed as "my gods
[ilaniya] the sun-god." In the ancient Near East of the second
half of the second millennium B.C.E. there was a certain trend
toward quasi-monotheism, and any god could be given the attributes
of any other god, so that an individual god could be addressed as
elohai, "my gods" or adonai, "my lords." The early Israelites felt
no inconsistency in referring to their sole God in these terms.
Subject: Question 3.48: What is the Mekhilta on Deuteronomy?
Medrashim are compilations of tannaitic material organized as a
commentary on the Torah. There are two sorts: medrashei halakhah
(halachic medrashim) record tannaitic discussion of the halachos
raised by the verses, and medrashei aggadah are the discussions of
everything else: theology, philosophy, ethics, the human condition,
etc. (Medrashei aggadah are usually composed using stories and
metaphore, and gave the word "medrash" a second meaning of stories
that embellish those in the text or are about figures known to the
There is also a Mekhilta deRabbi Shim'on bar Yochai, but that is
rarely referred to, and therefore people would call it by the full
name. It's not "the Mekhilta". This other Mekhilta is sometimes called
Mekhilta deVei Rabbi Aqiva (the Mekhilta of the house/school of Rabbi
Aqiva) as the identification of the school of the author is more sure
than the who in that school actually wrote it.
This split is quite relevent as Rabbi Yishma'el and Rabbi Aqiva had
very different theories about how the rules of derashah, of
associating halakhos with the text by hermeneutic rules, work.
Therefore their medrashei halakhah reflect such differences.
The two series of medrashei halakhah are:
* R' Aqiva's school:
+ Mekhilta deRabbi Shim'on bar Yochai (on Exodus)
+ Sifra (on Leviticus: a/k/a Sifra deVei Rav, Toras Kohanim
+ Sifrei Zuta ("the small sifrei" on Numbers)
+ Sifrei (Deuteronomy)
* R' Yishma'el's school:
+ Mekhilta (a/k/a Mekhilta deRabbi Yeshima'el, on Exodus)
+ Sifrei (Numbers)
+ Mekhilta Devarim (the Mekhilta on Deuteronomy)
The traditional publication of the medrashei halakhah includes four
books, mixing the two schools: Mekhilta, Sifra, Sifrei (on Numbers)
and Sifrei (on Deuteronomy). In fact, the two Sifrei's often get
published as a single volume, despite the differnce in style that
makes their different origin obvious.
A more complete publication would have all seven books, traditionally
published in the order: Mekhilta, Mehilta deR' Shim'on bar Yochai,
Sifra, Sifrei (Numbers), Sifrei Zuta, Sifrei (Deut), Mekhilta Devarim.
The word "mekhilta" is Aramaic, and means "measure" or "rule". The
words "sifra" and "sifrei" are conjugations of the root /spr/, meaning
"book" or "writing a book". Sometimes the word "sifrei" is used to
refer to all 4 books.
After Rabbi Yehudah haNasi compiled the Mishnah, organizing halakhah
by topic rather than verse, the notion of composing medrashei halakhah
fell out of use.
Subject: Question 4.1: What is "Halacha?" How is it determined?
Halacha means "Way" or "Path". Halacha is the application of the Law
(Torah) to everyday living.
The traditional viewpoint is that Halacha should be decided by those
who are most knowledgable in all aspects of Jewish law. Since the
Halacha of each generation is decided by its greatest Torah scholars,
and the Torah doesn't change, there is usually little change in the
Halacha from one generation to the next. The development of Halacha is
most evident when new situations arise for which rulings must be made,
such as the destruction of the Temple, the development of electricity,
and the increasing complexity of modern food processing technology.
Since the non-traditional viewpoint is that the the Torah itself was
written by people, both the interpretation of the Law and its
application are re-evaluated in each generation, using the
interpretations of the past to serve primarily as non-binding guidance
in how to continue this process.
Both viewpoints encourages all Jews to study halacha, and apply it to
their daily lives in order that they be brought closer to G-d.
Subject: Question 4.2: Traditionally, what are the levels of halacha?
1. Minhag. Custom. Custom, although not really part of Halachah, can
change. Minhag is any act that the masses, on their own, accept.
Any minhag that is against actual Halachah, is called a minhag
ta'os, a mistaken minhag. Any that is based on a misunderstanding
is a minhag shtus, a foolish custom. These two should not be
followed. Any nearly universal minhag is called a Minhag Yisroel,
and has most of the stringencies of law. (Yarmulka, and Ma'ariv
services are two examples of a Minhag Yisroel.)
2. Din dirabanan. A rabbinic law. These are set up by the rabbinate,
instead of the masses, in order to preserve the spirit of the law.
For example, Purim and Chanukah. There are 7 new commandments that
are entirely rabbinic, bringing the famous total of 613 mitzvot up
3. Gezeira dirabanan. A rabbinic "fence". These are enacted to
prevent a common cause for breaking the act of the law. For
example, one may not place food directly on a fire before Shabbat
in order to keep it heated during Shabbat. This is a fence around
the law against cooking on Shabbat. To prevent the gezeira from
being violated, a metal cover, called a blech in Yiddish, is
placed on the stove top before Shabbat with the flame (turned to a
low setting) under one section and the pot with food placed on the
blech. This blech serves as a fence, allowing heating of the food
without any danger of violating the law. Note that a "gezeira
dirabanan" becomes binding only if it is accepted by the
4. P'sak. A rabbinic ruling. This ruling addresses a the questionable
area of some law or custom. A p'sak can only be over ruled by
another body which is both larger in number, and greater in
"chochmah". (The ability to know how to use the facts. Not more
knowledgeable book-wise, but more steeped in the Torah
The distinction between the second and third categories is subtle. In
order to be a Din (or Issur, or Melachah) Dirabanan, the prohibited
action must be similar in purpose to the permitted one. A gezeira does
not even require an action. In the example I gave, it was inaction,
leaving the pot where it is, that is prohibited. The category includes
things that are similar in means to the prohibited act, and will
therefore cause confusion about what is and what isn't okay; and
things which will allow people to be caught up in habit, and forget
about the prohibition. Only a gezeira may defy an actual Divine law
(although a p'sak will often define one), and even so only under
specific circumstances. All of the following must be satisfied:
* The law being protected is more stringent than the one being
violated. This determination isn't easy.
* The law is being violated only through inaction. No one is being
told to actively violate G-d's commandment.
* The law being violated will still be applicable in most
situations. It still must exist in some form.
On the other hand, a gezeira is less powerful than a normal rabbinic
law in that they can not be compounded. One may not make a "fence" for
the express purpose of protecting another "fence". A law is considered
accepted if it becomes common practice. Any din or gezeira which does
not get accepted by the masses in the short run, does not become
binding in the long run. Similarly, there are rules for p'sak, but
they are violated if the masses choose to follows some other rabbinic
body's p'sak. Notice, however, that this is only in the short run.
Once a law is accepted, it may only be overruled by p'sak. It cannot
just fade into non-practice.
Subject: Question 4.3: Traditionally, what are the different rabbinic eras?
For traditional Torah scholars, the end of each era is marked by a
book that gets accepted by the masses as authoritative. This seals the
acts of that era as a whole as accepted, authoritative p'sak.
Therefore, any ruling by those who live after this era must be
supported by an opinion of that era.
The first such book (and the first written book of the Oral law) is
the Mishna. There are other compilations of the Tanaitic material,
the Braisos (Baraitot), the Tosefta, and Midrashai Halakha
(Mekhilta, Sifra, and Sifre), but it is the Mishna that marks the end
of the Tanaitic era (70-200 CE). It was the Mishna that was accepted
by the people.
The second is the Babylonian Talmud. The Jerusalem Talmud is
less authoritative because it was developed for a shorter time than
the Babylonian Talmud. The Talmud marks the end of the Amoraic era
The next era was the period of the Sabora'im (500-650CE). At this
time, the Jewish sages in Persia who were the rabbinic leaders of
their time. They contributed much to the finishing of Talmud
Bavli; Jews in this area continued to live in a relatively stable
environment. In contrast, Jews at this time in Israel were living
under the oppressive rule of the Byzantines.
There is a Ga'onic era in Jewish history (650-1250CE), but not in
Jewish law, since there is no book that was accepted as the end of
that era. At this time, Jews were living in Southern Europe and Asia
Minor under the often intolerant rule of Christian Kings and clerics.
Most Jews lived in the Muslim Arab realm (Israel, North Africa,
Babylonia). Despite periods of persecution, Jewish communal and
cultural life flowered in this period. The universally recognized
centers of Jewish life were in Sura and Pumbeditha (Babylonia); The
heads of these law schools were the Geonim, who were consulted on
matters of law by Jews throughout the world.
The next such book(s) is the Shulchan Aruch (by R' Caro), the
authoritative Sephardic resource, and the Mappah (Ramah), which
has the Ashkenazic rulings when different (Note that both are in the
same book; see the general reading list). This delineated the period
of the Rishonim (The First Ones) (1250-1550CE). A Rishon may argue
with another Rishon, or with a Ga'on (since there is no Halachic
concept of the Gaonic era), but can only argue with an Amora if he has
another Amora in his support. He cannot use a Tana that was rejected
by the Amora'im as support, since that would be overruling a p'sak of
someone greater in chochmah.
Most Jews in the period of the Rishonim lived in the Mediterranean
basin or in Western Europe under feudal systems. With the decline of
both the Muslim and Jewish centers of power in Iraq, there was no
single place in the world which was a recognized center for deciding
matters of Jewish law and practice. Consequently, the rabbis
recognized the need for writing commentaries on the Torah and Talmud
and for writing law codes that would allow Jews anywhere in the world
to be able to continue living in the Jewish tradition.
Anyone after the Shulchan Aruch is called an Acharon (The Last Ones)
(1550CE to present). An Acharon can only disagree with a Rishon when
he is taking the position of another Rishon. There are strict rules
Liberal Jews tend to justify halachic change by ascribing greater
authority to present generations (or even to individuals) than to past
generations of sages.
Subject: Question 4.4: How can differing halachic rulings all be considered
When both parties agree upon the underlying requirements. For example,
rabbis would agree that one may only eat a kosher animal that was
slaughtered properly. But they might differ as to the particulars of
what constitutes proper kosher slaughtering.
Subject: Question 4.5: How does the Conservative movement deal with Halachic
Conservative Jews view the laws and customs from the various law
codes, such as the Mishneh Torah and Shulkhan Arukh, as the basis for
binding Jewish law, and allow for law to be modified by today's
halakhic authorities. While accepting the dictates of the movement's
Rabbinical Assembly as normative, Conservative Jews also accept that
rulings of Orthodox and Traditional (i.e., Union for Traditional
Judaism) rabbis are legitimate halakhic positions.
Jewish law and custom, as followed traditionally, is preserved by
Conservative Judaism as much as possible. Changes are not made for
their own sake, but rather to deal with an urgent, acute problem, with
a preference for lenient ruling over strict ones. This approach is
based Talmud Bavli, which states "The strength of a lenient ruling is
greater" [Talmud Bavli, Berakhot, 60a]
Before giving a halakhic ruling, Conservative Judaism studies the
subject in a historic and scientific fashion to determine if the law
came from the Torah, the Talmudic sages, the early rabbis (Geonim and
Rishonim) or the later rabbis (Acharonim). This is because there is
generally more readiness to change a new law or something which is
only a custom.
Note that Conservative Judaism does not view the Shulkhan Arukh as the
ultimate authority in matters of Jewish law and custom.
The central halakhic authority in Conservative Judaism is the
Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS), which was founded by the
Rabbinical Assembly (RA) in the 1920s. It is composed of 25 rabbis,
who are voting members, and five laypeople, who do not vote, but
participate fully in deliberations. When any six members vote in favor
of a position, that position becomes a validated position of the
committee, thus there is the possibility that any issue can generate
from one to four official positions.
Unanimous decisions become the official position of the Conservative
movement. When more than one position is validated, each
congregational rabbi functions as the mara de-atra (local rabbinic
authority), adopting for their congregation the position he or she
considers most compelling. In the overwhelming majority of cases,
Conservative rabbis choose among the law committee's validated
positions. On rare occasions, an individual rabbi may ignore the
committee and act in accordance with his or her own convictions
regarding what is halakhically correct.
CJLS decisions are not absolutely enforceable on rabbis, except
regarding 'standards'. A standard requires an 80% vote of the full
membership of the CJLS and a majority vote by the plenum of the
Rabbinical Assembly. Willful violations have led to resignations or
expulsions from membership of the Rabbinical Assembly (RA). At
present, there are four standards:
1. A complete prohibition on rabbis and cantors to officiate in any
way at intermarriages.
2. A complete prohibition against officiating at the remarriage of a
Jew whose previous marriage has not been halakhically terminated,
whether by a halakhic divorce [get], hafka'at Kiddushin [annulment
of the marriage], or death.
3. A complete prohibition against taking any action that would
intimate that native Jewishness can be confirmed in any way but
4. A complete prohibition against supervising a conversion to Judaism
that does not include circumcision for males, and immersion in a
mikveh for both males and females.
The Rabbinical Assembly of Israel (Israeli arm of the RA) has its own
decision making body, the Va'ad Halacha. Responsa by both the CJLS and
the Va'ad Halacha are equally valid. Due to different social
circumstances, the CJLS and the Va'ad do not always come up with the
same teshuva. In such a case a rabbi is free to decide which responsa
to use. In addition, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
(USCJ) maintains its own list of binding standards for all synagogues
associated with the movement. Among other things, these standards
mandate observance of the Sabbath and the laws of Kashrut.
Subject: Question 4.6: What is the difference between two Orthodox rabbis who
disagree and an Orthodox and a Reform who disagree?
How could two people have two different, logically developed opinions
on any issue? :-)
In answering this, there are two important points to keep in mind:
* Most decisions are not simply bilateral yes/no decisions
* Valid interpretations according to traditional hermeneutics that
differ in particulars of a particular place/time can survive
concurrently (cf. any modern legal system)
The Orthodox rabbis would both say that their halachic rulings are in
line with the tradition of Torah learning, all the way from Sinai, and
that their difference is in details. The Reform rabbi, however, might
derive a ruling from other sources of morality, such as secular
ethical notions of equality.
Reform Rabbi Walter Jacob writes, in Contemporary American Reform
Responsa that "Our path in America is clear and our halakhic stance is
akin to the pluralism of the past from the days of Hillel and Shammai
in the first century through the entire rabbinic period to our own
time." Orthodox rabbis would counter that the schools of Hillel and
Shammai differed on the particulars of halacha (with the understanding
being that the multiplicity of debate was a byproduct of a disucssion
of students, not disciples, resulting in flaws of transmission). Thus,
the Orthodox scholars believe there was no disagreement over first
principles, while Orthodox and Reform differ significantly on major
principles, such as Torah being from G-d, and the authority of
individuals to decide halacha for themselves.
Subject: Question 4.7: Who is RAMBAM that is mentioned & what are his 13
Moses Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, usually referred to in
Hebrew by the acronym "Rambam") was one of the towering figures in
medieval intellectual and religious life. In addition to his law code,
he excelled in the fields of philosophy, science, medicine, exegesis
and communal leadership. Though born in Spain, in his youth his family
fled religious persecution, settling in Egypt. Maimonides' literary
output includes: a work on philosophical logic; an Arabic commentary
to the Mishnah; an enumeration of the 613 precepts of the Torah; the
Mishneh Torah law code; the Arabic philosophical treatise The Guide of
the Perplexed; and many letters and responsa addressed to various
One of the Rambam's legacies is what has been come to be called the
"13 principles of faith". These are not related to any particular
observance; rather, they are intended to map out the borders between
Judaism and other belief systems (such as Christianity and Islam). Why
is this necessary? There are certain laws that apply to our
relationships with "apikursim" (from the Greek "epicurean"), minim
(heretics), kofrim (deniers) and mumarim (non observant). The first
three are defined by belief, so Maimonides wanted to outline the
borders between acceptable belief systems, and people in these three
classes. According to Maimonides (see Laws of Repentence 3:6-9), these
people, while members of the Jewish nation, aren't believers in
Judaism. This has halachic import, such as whether they can be counted
toward a quorum (minyan) for prayer; whether one can share their wine,
etc. It also has metaphysical import: believers in Judaism (including
non-Jews who observe the Noachide covenant) are guaranteed a world to
come; these people are not. A min (a term also used in the Talmud to
refer to early Christians) is one who diverges on the basics of
theology: polytheists, deists, atheists, those who believe one should
worship G-d via demigods (middle-men), and those who say that god has
a body. [According to the Rambam's Guide, the latter is a form of
polytheism. He sees it as just a verbal difference between talking
about one god who has parts and one pantheon of multiple gods.] The
word apikoreis is the Aramaic for Epicurean, as in "eat, drink and be
merry for tomorrow we may die" and "nothing exists but atoms and the
void". Looking at Maimonides' code, he defines "apikoreis" as one who
holds any of the following:
1. There is no prophecy
2. Moses' didn't have a special kind of prophecy (since it was Moses
who actually conveyed the rules of behavior, both ours and
3. G-d doesn't know what people do.
Note that these are related to whether G-d's existance imposes
requirements on human behavior (which is why the word relates to
Epicurus). Kofrim are those who deny the divine origin of even a
single verse of the Torah, or deny the origin of the Oral Torah, and
those who say that some part of the Torah was later superceded. So, in
summary: the wrong view of G-d makes one a min, the wrong view of how
G-d relates to human behavior makes one an apikoreis, and disbelieving
part of the Torah makes one a kofeir. Maimonides took these rules and
to compose his 13 articles. So, the point of the articles is to give a
rational basis to believing that Jewish observance was actually given
to us by G-d.
The RAMBAM's 13 principles, as expressed in the Artscroll Siddur
(pages 178-180) are as follows:
1. G-d's Existence
2. G-d is a complete and total unity
3. G-d is not physical
4. G-d is eternal and the First Source
5. Prayers should be directed to G-d
6. G-d communicates with man
7. Moses' prophecy is unique
8. The entire Torah is G-d-given
9. The Torah is unchangeable
10. G-d knows man's thoughts and deeds
11. Reward and punishment
12. The Messiah will come
13. The dead will live again
Some other places to find a more detailed statement of the principles
are as follows:
* The original, from Maimonides' commentary on the Mishnah:
* The Ani Ma'amin liturgical version (shorter):
* The Yigdal liturgical poem (even shorter, and might compromise
precision in the langauge for poetry):
It would take volumes to explain what these mean, but a good
"catechism" of Jewish beliefs is the Handbook of Jewish Thought by R'
See Also: Section 3.36. Torah: What is the Mishneh Torah (Yad
Ha-Hazaqah , Sefer Mehoqeq)?
Subject: Question 4.8: Who was Rashi?
Rabbi Shlomo Ben Yitzchak, 1040-1105. Usually called Rabbi Shlomo
Yitzchaki. He was the author of a massive commentary on almost all of
Tanach and most of the Talmud. His fame rests not only on the content
of his explanations but on their style that remains clear and concise
throughout. His commentary has become the most comprehensive and
popular in existence and provided the basis for most subsequent
studies of the Tanach, Talmud, and Jewish Law.
His commentary on Chumash, first printed in 1465, was the first dated
Hebrew book, and appears in a special script now know as "Rashi
script". His commentaries are considered the standard work without
which it is impossible to understand the Talmud.
See also: Section 3.18. Torah: What is Rashi's commentary on the
Subject: Question 4.9: Who was the Ramban?
Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachmon, Nachmanides, 1194-1270. He wrote a commentary
on Torah and halachah, and more than 50 other lucid and logical works.
He participated in a disputation (theological argument with the
Catholic Church) in Barcelona in 1263; although he won, he was forced
to flee Spain, and as a result all future disputations forbade the
Jewish participants to answer frankly. At age 72 he settled in
Jerusalem, reorganized the Jewish community, and moved to Acco to
become head its Jewish community.
Subject: Question 4.10: What is Kabbalah and how can I learn about it?
It's important to differentiate between the popular notion of Kabbalah
and the concept within traditional Judaism. In the popular culture,
Kabbalah is perceived as a form of magic or the occult, studied for
selfish personal gain. This misinformed idea resulted from those who
adapted Jewish ideas out of the context of Jewish belief and practice,
warping it away from its foundations to their own purposes. These
include medieval Christian mystics, neo-pagan groups, and contemporary
"new age" movements.
Within Judaism, though, Kabbalah is the part of Torah that addresses
the process of creation ("Ma'aseh B'raisheet") and the relationship
that G-d maintains with creation ("Ma'aseh Merkavah"). As such it is
the Torah's inner aspect. Some traditions say that some of the key
texts go as far back as the Patriarch Abraham.
Parts of Kabbalah, such as the Zohar and Rabbi Moshe Cordovero's
"Pardes Rimonim," are accessible, but difficult to understand without
a firm grounding in the more basic Jewish sources and an informed
teacher. Other parts remain hidden and unavailable to the public.
Parts have been committed to print, but others remain as closely held,
orally transmitted tradition.
The most accessible, traditionally accurate books for English language
study of the topic are Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan's "Innerspace, Introduction
to Kabbalah, Meditation and Prophecy" (Moznaim Publishing, Brooklyn
NY), "Meditation and Kabbalah," "Kabbalah and the Bible" (Samuel
Weiser and Sons, New York), and "Jewish Meditation" (Schocken, New
York). Lubavitcher Chassidim recommend directed study of the Tanya.
(Kehot Publications, New York)
Additional information may be found in the Mysticism Reading List.
Subject: Question 4.11: Who is allowed to study Kabbalah?
The Kabbalah deals with sensitive topics and the knowledge it offers
has been warped, even within the Jewish community. This resulted in
severe disruption of the Eastern European Jewish community (for
example, the false messiah Shabbtai Tzvi and the Frankists). As a
result, the non-Chassidic sages placed a ban on the study of three
basic texts until the age of 30, until the age of 40 for general
study, and in all cases until one has studied the more basic Jewish
sources (Tanakh, Talmud, Halacha) in depth. However, in Sephardic and
Chassidic communities, some basic texts are studied even by young
Subject: Question 4.12: Who was Rabbeinu Tam?
Rabbeinu Tam (12th cent) is one of the better known Tosafists, and a
grandson of Rashi. His real name was Rabbi Yaakov ben Meir. Yaakov
(Jacob) was called in Genesis an "ish tam", a whole/perfect man.
In halachic rulings, the Tosafists usually defended Ashkenazi norms,
trying to find its basis in the Talmudic texts. Rabbeinu Tam was an
exception. Two rulings of his are better known, they serve as an
illustration. In both, Rabbeinu Tam disagrees with the opinion of his
The first was on placement of the mezuzah. Rashi ruled that proper
placement is that the parchment be placed vertically. Rabbeinu Tam
sided with a horizontal placement. Today, Ashkenazim try to fulfil
both opinions by hanging the mezuzah on an angle. Sepharadim follow
the opinion attributed to Rashi, which is also born out by the
majority of archeological findings. (But they do so because it's the
opinion of Maimonides and the Shulchan Aruch.)
The better known one was about the proper order of chapters that are
placed in tefillin. We follow the opinion of Rashi. However, many
Chassidim also wear "Rabbeinu Tam tefillin" (as they are commonly
called) afterwards to fulfil his opinion. Some Sephardic kabbalists do
as well; while a rare few wear both forms simultaneously!
His style of Talmud study was more typical of the Tosafists. They
tried to understand the Talmud holistically, typically asking how one
discussion ought to be understood given a discussion in another part
of the Talmud.
Subject: Question 4.13: What are she'elot u'teshuvot?
"She'eilot" are questions, "teshuvot" are answers. The "u-" prefix
means "and". "She'eilot uteshuvot", literally "questions and answers",
are responsa. In real yeshiva jargon one would say "shu"t" (pronounced
like the word "shoot"), using only the acronym. They're a form of
halachic writing written in answer to questions mailed the decisor,
although sometimes the question is self-posed. What's nice about shu"t
is that the typical format is to provide the reasoning that lead to
the conclusion. As opposed to codes, which simply state conclusions.
Subject: Question 4.14: What is the midrash halachah and the midrash agadah?
Medrash is the material associated with the text of the Torah that
isn't in the text itself. These can be halachic thoughts or aggadic
(non-halachah) ones. The medrashei halachah predate the mishnah, and
were the original attempt to record the Oral Torah, and come from the
generations right before the Mishnah. There were two schools of
medrashei halachah, Rabbi Yishma'el's and Rabbi Akiva's. They had
different basic assumptions about the text, and different means of
associating rulings to the text.
Medrashei Aggadah are generally later recordings, such as Medrash
Rabba (the greater medrash; volumes are named "Bereishis Rabba", "Ruth
Rabba", and the like) or Yalqut Shim'oni (Simeon's Selections).
However, the material in the compilation dates back to the mishnaic
era. These are sometimes similar in form to medrashei halachah,
deriving things hermeneutically from the text. They are also sometimes
written in the form of parables. This is so as to balance the need of
recording the Oral Torah during traumatic shifts of exile with the
need of keeping the Oral Torah oral. Because so much of medrash is in
the form of parables, people loosely use the word "medrash" to refer
to aggadic (non-halachic, ie philosophical and ethical) material from
the Talmud(s) told in this manner.
(Note: "Midrash" is proper Aramaic grammar. "Medrash" is proper
Yiddish and yeshiva jargon.)
Subject: How do I obtain copies of the FAQ?
There are a number of different ways to obtain copies of the FAQ:
* WWW. If you are reading this on Usenet, and would like to see an
online, hyperlinked version, go visit http://www.scjfaq.org/.
This is the "web" version of the FAQ; the version posted to Usenet
is generated from the web version. Note that the www.scjfaq.org
version is a copy of the actual master version; if you want to
access the master, visit http://master.scjfaq.org/.
* Email. Scjfaq.org also provides an autoretriever that allows one
to obtain a copy of the FAQ by return Email. To use the
autoretriever, you send a retrieval request to
email@example.com with the request in the body of the
message. A more reliable way to retrieve these files is through
the FAQ autoretriever
(http://www.mljewish.org/bin/autoresp.cgi). For the FAQ, the
request has the form:
send faq partname
For the reading list, the request has the form:
send rl partname
"Partname" is replaced by the name of the part, as shown in the
general index. The following is a short summary of the mapping to
partnames for the FAQ:
+ 01-FAQ-intro: Section 1: Network and Newsgroup
+ 02-Who-We-Are: Section 2: Who We Are
+ 03-Torah-Halacha: Sections 3, 4: Torah; Halachic
+ 04-Observance: Sections 5, 6, 7, 8:
Jewish Holidays; Jewish Dietary Law and Kashrut; Sabbath and
Holiday Observance; Woman and Marriage
+ 05-Worship: Sections 9, 10, 11: Jewish
Worship; Conversion, Intermarriage, and "Who is a Jew?";
Miscellaneous Practice Questions
+ 06-Jewish-Thought: Section 12: Jewish Thought
+ 07-Jews-As-Nation: Section 13: Jews as a Nation
+ 08-Israel: Section 14: Jews and Israel
+ 09-Antisemitism: Sections 15, 16, 17: Churban
Europa (The Holocaust); Antisemitism and Rumors about Jews;
+ 10-Reform: Section 18: Reform/Progressive Judaism
+ 11-Miscellaneous: Sections 19, 20: Miscellaneous;
References and Getting Connected
+ 12-Kids: Section 21: Jewish Childrearing Related
+ mail-order: Mail Order Judaica
The following is a short summary of the mapping of partnames for
the Reading Lists:
+ general: Introduction and General. Includes book sources,
starting points for beginners, starting points for non-Jewish
readers, General Judaism, General Jewish Thought, General
Jewish History, Contemporary Judaism, Noachide Laws, Torah
and Torah Commentary, Talmud and Talmudic Commentary,
Mishnah, Midrash, Halachic Codes, Becoming An Observant Jew,
Women and Judaism, and Science and Judaism.
+ traditional: Traditional Liturgy, Practice, Lifestyle,
Holidays. Includes Traditional Liturgy; Traditional
Philosophy and Ethics; Prayer; Traditional Practice; The
Household; Life, Death, and In-Between; and The Cycle Of
+ mysticism: Kabbalah, Mysticism, and Messianism. Includes
Academic and Religious treatments of Kabbalah, Sprituality,
and the Jewish notion of the Messiah.
+ reform: Reform/Progressive Judaism
+ conservative: Conservative Judaism
+ reconstructionist: Reconstructionist Judaism
+ humanistic: Humanistic Judaism (Society for Humanistic
+ chasidism: Chassidism. Includes general information on
historical chassidism, as well as specific information on
Lubavitch (Chabad), Satmar, Breslaw (Breslov), and other
+ zionism: Zionism. Includes Zionism and The Development Of
Israel, The Founders, Zionistic Movements, and Judaism in
+ antisemitism: Antisemitism. Includes sections on
Antisemitism, What Led to The Holocaust, Medieval Oppression,
Antisemitism Today (Including Dealing with Hate Groups),
Judaism and Christianity, and Judaism, Freemasonry and other
+ intermarriage: Intermarriage. Includes sections on "So
You're Considering Intermarriage?", The Traditional
Viewpoint, Conversion, and Coping With Life As An
+ childrens: Books for Jewish Children. Includes sections
on Birth and Naming, Raising a Child, Family Guidebooks,
Upsheren, Bar/Bat Mitzvah, Confirmation, Holiday Books for
Children, Liturgy for Children, Bible and Torah for Children,
Jewish History for Children, Jewish Theology for Children,
Israel, Learning Hebrew, and Jewish Stories.
Alternatively, you may send a message to
firstname.lastname@example.org with the following line in the body
of the message:
Where (portionname) is replaced by the appropriate subdirectory
and filenames; for example, to get the first part of the reading
list, one would say:
* Anonymous FTP: All portions of the FAQ and of the reading lists
are archived on rtfm.mit.edu and are available for anonymous
FTP from the pub/usenet/news.answers/judaism/FAQ directory (URL
Similarly, the parts of the reading lists are stored in the
pub/usenet/news.answers/judaism/reading-lists directory (URL:
ts). Note that the archived versions of the FAQ and reading lists
are the posted versions; that is, they are each one large ASCII
Subject: Who Wrote the FAQ?
The original version of the Frequently Asked Questions was developed
by a committee consisting of Mike Allen, Jerry Altzman, Rabbi Charles
Arian, Jacob Baltuch (Past Chair), Joseph Berry, Warren Burstein,
Stewart Clamen, Daniel Faigin, Avi Feldblum, Rabbi Yaakov Feldman,
Itzhak "Jeff" Finger, Gedaliah Friedenberg, Yechezkal Gutfreund, Art
Kamlet, Joe Kansun, CAPT Kaye David, Alan Lustiger, Hillel Markowitz,
Len Moskowitz, Colin Naturman, Aliza Panitz, Eliot Shimoff, Mark
Steinberger, Steven Weintraub, Matthew Wiener, and headed by Robert
Levene. The organization and structuring of the lists for posting
purposes was done by Daniel Faigin, who is currently maintaining
the lists. Other contributors include Aaron Biterman, A. Engler
Anderson, Ken Arromdee, Seymour Axelrod, Jonathan Baker, Josh Backon,
Micha Berger, Steven M. Bergson, Eli Birnbaum, Shoshana L. Boublil,
Kevin Brook, J. Burton, Harvey Cohen, Todd J.Dicker, Michael Dinowitz,
Rabbi Jim Egolf, Sean Engelson, Mike Fessler, Menachem Glickman,
Amitai Halevi, Walter Hellman, Per Hollander, Miriam Jerris, Robert D.
Kaiser, Yosef Kazen, Rabbi Jay Lapidus, Mier Lehrer, Heather Luntz,
David Maddison, Arnaldo Mandel, Ilana Manspeizer, Seth Ness, Chris
Newport, Daniel Nomy, Jennifer Paquette, Andrew Poe, Alan Pfeffer,
Jason Pyeron, Adam Reed, Seth Rosenthall, JudithSeid@aol.com, David
Sheen, Rabbi John Sherwood, Michael Sidlofsky, Michael Slifkin, Frank
Smith, Michael Snider, Rabbi Arnold Steibel, Andy Tannenbaum,
email@example.com, Meredith Warshaw, Bill Wadlinger, Arel Weisberg,
Dorothy Werner, and Art Werschulz, and the
soc.culture.jewish.parenting board. Some material has been derived
from other sources on the Internet, such as
http://www.jewishwebsite.com/, http://www.jewfaq.org/, and
http://www.menorah.org/. Comments and corrections are welcome;
please address them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
A special thank you... Special thanks for her patience and
understanding go to my wife, Karen, who put up with me hiding at the
computer for the two months it took to complete the July/August 2000
remodel of the entire soc.culture.jewish FAQ and Reading Lists. If you
think the effort was worth it, drop her a note c/o
Please mail additions or corrections to me at email@example.com.
End of SCJ FAQ Part 3 (Torah and Halachic Authority) Digest
[ Usenet FAQs | Web FAQs | Documents | RFC Index ]
Send corrections/additions to the FAQ Maintainer:
SCJ FAQ Maintainer <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Last Update August 08 2012 @ 06:19 AM