Jewish Books of Laws

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

After the chronological end of the Bible, Jews continued to produce books throughout that second stage of Jewish history which we referred to as the Second Temple Period. Many of these books, almost all of them, are expansions and elaboration of the Bible. We must remember that everything flows out of the Bible. If you are going to sit down in the post-biblical period and write a book, you can justify writing that book by maintaining that it is really an extension of the Bible.

Some of these books dealt with the events of their day. For instance, the Book of Maccabees, which talks about clashes between Hellenistic rulers in Judea and Jews. Almost all the books that were produced in the final centuries B.C.E. and the first century C.E., however, did not become canonized in the Jewish canon.

As a result, they were basically lost to Judaism and would have gone totally lost have they not being preserved by the Christian Church. This is true particularly for the writings of the renowned Jewish historian of the Second Temple Period, Josephus, known as Josephus Flavius. It is also true of the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria. Their works were not preserved by the Jewish community. The Church preserved them, in each case for a different reason. For instance, Josephus was preserved because he describes the first century in Roman Judea. He talks about Pontius Pilate, he mentions Jesus himself. This literature, otherwise, was lost to the Jewish community and it was never part of the Jewish curriculum.

The Oral Torah

After the Bible, the second major corpus of Jewish literature was produced by the formulators of what we referred to as Rabbinic Judaism. That is to say, those sages rabbis who in the post-temple period tried to revitalize a Judaism that had to survive without a temple. Their corpus attained a sanctity within the Jewish canon that is not much smaller than the Bible itself. The two are actually considered alongside one another. The Bible is referred to very often as the “written Torah”, and works of the rabbis as the “oral Torah”, because they were preserved in an oral manner for many hundreds of years.

The Rabbinic corpus contains two major literary components. One continues to follow the Bible. This genera is known as Midrash. This word means to search for, but it is an examination of the biblical text, primarily the Torah. It is sort of a commentary, but not quite a commentary. Some of the books of Midrash indeed do address scripture, but others use the Bible to go to more thmatic or topical discussions. The scripture is very often a point of departure for a much broader homiletical presentation.

We can say that this is an enhancement of the Bible. It is an attempt at addressing issues of their time using the Bible as a vehicle. Midrash contains almost every type of popular literary genera that we know: fables, parables and much more.

The second component is of a legal nature. It doesn’t follow the path of the Bible, but rather it is arranged according to topics. The central legal text of Rabbinic Judaism is a book known as Mishnah, a word which means to repeat. It has six sections that cover all aspects of Jewish religion.

The topics of these six sections are:

  • Laws of agriculture
  • Laws of Sabbath and festivals
  • Marriage laws
  • Civil laws
  • Laws pertaining to the temple
  • Issues with ritual purity.

The Talmud

The Mishnah was completed in the early 3rd century of the Common Era. It became the basis for all subsequent Rabbinic legislation. In particular, the Mishnah became the basis for two works that set out for the next three hundred years to discuss the Mishnah, the Talmuds. To call them commentaries to the Mishnah would be very misleading.

We should remember that by the third, fourth and fifth centuries there were two major centers of Jewish life, one still in the land of Judea and other East of the Euphrates River in what Jews called Babylonia, we would refer to it as Irak today. Each of these centers had major Rabbinic centers discussing the Talmud. Ultimately, one of these discussions, known as the Babylonian Talmud, would assume a preferred status, and it would become the widely used basis for legislation.

Although the Talmud would serve as the basis for Jewish law, it is anything but a law manual or a legal code. It is really the embodiment of three hundred years of learning. Following the thematic format of the Mishnah, it has an associated nature to it that gives the reader a sense of actually sitting on some sort of academic framework and being witnessing a free willing and sometimes heated discussion of a group of intellectuals.

For hundred of years, this Talmud was used as the basis for formulating systematic legal texts. It is not a code, so people try to make it into a code. This system was actually employed by that renowned scholar of the 12th century, Maimonides, who took the Talmud, removed all the names of the rabbis of any particular discussion, and projected their opinions as an universally recognized law. Maimonides wasn’t the only one to produce such a code. Each person did it in a different fashion. Over centuries, many such compilations appeared.

The most famous of these is one known as the Shulchan Aruch. In Hebrew, this means “set table”. It was compiled by a rabbi in Galilee, his name is Joseph Karo, in the 16th century. Basically it took all the traditions and divided it into four sections. The four sections are:

  • Daily life: prayer, holidays, Sabbath, etc.
  • Dietary Laws
  • Laws of marriage
  • Civil Law

In a sense, the appearance of this Shulchan Aruch, marked the turning point in Jewish life. It is almost the literary demarcation between the Middle Ages and early Modernity. Everything afterwards had to be based on the Shulchan Aruch.