Yosef Karo and the Shulchan Arukh


Here is a mark of the importance of a man. All Jewish legal scholars pre-dating Yosef Karo (died 1522, Safed) are collectively known as Rishonim – the ones who came first. All Jewish legal scholars post-dating Karo are referred to as Achronim – the ones who came after. Karo himself is known as HaMechaber – The Author – and his greatest work, the Shulchan Arukh (literally the Set Table) is the fulcrum about which any investigation into Jewish law pivots.

Karo was born in Spain in 1488, expelled as a four year old and expelled again as the Jews fled the Inquisition in Portugal in 1496 – two expulsions before the age of eight. As the Mishneh, some 1200 years earlier, can be seen as the attempt to codify oral Torah before it is lost in exile, so too the Shulchan Arukh can be understood as a response to expulsion – Karo is driven to write down, distil and secure a future for Halachah in the face of an existential threat. That said the work itself betrays none of the emotion expulsion must have generated within its author. It’s cool, collected and committed to speaking from within the established norms for Halachic discourse.

Before commencing work on the Shulchan Arukh, Karo demonstrated his bona fides with two great commentaries. The first of these, the Kesef Mishneh, is a commentary on the Mishneh Torah (subject of another of these essays). Here Karo explains exactly how the Rambam’s bald statements of law connect to the sprawling Talmudic compendium. The second, the Bet Yosef, runs alongside the Tur, a fourteenth century work. Here Karo demonstrates an encyclopaedic awareness of every legal thinker in a fifteen hundred year legal tradition. Karo’s methodology is also designed to ensure acceptance and play down his own subjective contribution; where there is a difference in opinion, Karo states, he will consider three earlier authorities and state the position of the majority as normative. If Rambam felt no compulsion in recasting vast reams of Jewish law, Karo’s work is far less subjective.

The difference between Karo the man and Karo the author is startlingly revealed in a strange work, the Maggid Meisharim, a dream-diary published only after Karo’s death. Here the great scholar reveals the content of night-time visitations from an angelic ‘Maggid.’ In one extraordinary encounter, recorded by his student (and author of the Lecha Dodi, Shlomo Alkabetz), Karo’s Maggid possesses the legal master on the eve of Shavuot, urging him to stay firm in his resolve and study not only Jewish law, but Kabbalistic works also. As rational as his scholarship reads, his personal spiritual life fuses both legal and mystical inclinations. In this Karo takes his place in a recognisable group of great legal scholars who have also been committed to mystical scholarship. At least until the flourishing of contemporary Hassidism, mystical spirituality and halachic rigour were never considered in opposition.

Karo was a Sepharadi. The three scholars to whom he turned in case of debate were two ‘pure’ Sephardim; Alfasi and Rambam, and an Ashkenaz born scholar, the Rosh, who ended his life in Spain. The work has a Sephardi approach which concerned the greatest Ashkenaz scholar of the time, Moshe Isserlis, known as the Rema (died 1572, Krakow). Isserlis responded by writing emendations clarifying how and where Ashkenaz approaches to Jewish law differed to the approach Karo set out. The touching piece about these emendations is that Isserlis attached them to the various sections of the Shulchan Arukh. Even as he disagreed with Karo’s statement – as definitive for Ashkenaz – he strengthened the work’s authoritative status. It’s a humility evident even in Isserlis’ choice of title; Karo called his work the Set Table, Isserlis titled his ‘Mappah’ – table cloth. Many of the emendations are touchingly revealing of their origins. Let me give one prosaic example; the Talmud states the correct order of putting on sandals, and Karo records this (right foot first). Isserlis records how to alter this on the assumption of a resident of Poland, namely that a person would be wearing socks and not only open sandals (right sock, left sock, left shoe, right shoe – begin and end with the right hand side). But the difference between the works is more than, for example, merely noting that Ashkenaz avoid Kitniot on Pesach.

Many of Isserlis’ emendations open with the phrase ‘the custom in our lands…’ Isserlis attitude towards the nature of Jewish law differs from Karo. If Karo’s articulations are phrased as if they were handed down pure and whole from the heavens, The sense arising from the emendations is of a body of committed Jews whose changing circumstances through time and space shape Jewish law. Of course Isserlis is a master of Talmudic approaches, but his presumption seems to be that Halachah lives inside Jews, rather than arrives from the heavens. This makes the study of Shulchan Arukh and Mappah a delight; Karo is lofty and definitive, but Isserlis is grounded and, somehow, more responsive to human reality. For example, in explaining how to perform the search for Hametz on the eve of Pesach Karo states the correct blessing to be said and Isserlis adds the ‘custom in our lands’ of hiding some small pieces of bread so the blessing isn’t said in vain. It just feels more human, more part of the unfolding of a tradition through the millennia. It’s a tradition open to all of us and I can recommend no better way to feel a part of it than spending some time learning at the Conservative Yeshivah, in Jerusalem.


Commentary on the Talmud

Commentary is at the heart of an engagement with the central text of Rabbinic Judaism. Talmud is Oral Torah, designed to make sense only in the context of discussion. Talmud continually demands knowledge beyond its text; without commentary how is one to make sense of a passage such as ‘There are two kinds of carrying out on Shabbat which are four inside and two which are four outside’ (the opening of Talmud Shabbat)?

Commentary is simultaneously the glue and the engine of Rabbinic Judaism, drawing in its participants, binding students to teachers and one generation to generations past and propelling itself forward. Nowhere is this more obvious than on the classic printed page of Talmud (a format propagated by the Christian printer David Bomberg in his 1525 first printed edition). In the middle of the Talmudic page lie the Mishnah and its first commentary – the Gemarah. Along a column on the inside of the page, in smaller and markedly different script, is the commentary of Rashi (France d. 1105). On the outside of the page lies Tosafot (including Rashi’s grandson and followers). Along the base another commentary, with yet others tucked into various corners and margins. No longer on the page itself, but taking up at least as many pages at the back of the Tractate are other commentaries and along alongside the seventeen volumes of the Talmud, the Rabbinic bookshelf is weighed down with scores of other commentaries from around the world and across time.

There are, of course, as many different types of commentary as there are commentators, but there are themes, let me share four.

All discussion of Jewish commentary begins with Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, Rashi. His Talmud commentary was the first tour through the entire Talmud, line by line, elucidating the Talmud at the point at which is it being studied. It’s brief – most comments run to around 10 or 15 words – and modest. One has the sense that (mostly) Rashi wants his commentary to disappear behind the Talmudic text itself. Rashi forces neither his brilliance nor his creativity upon the reader, he just explains the text at hand. His achievement is unmatched until contemporary times where the commentary of Adin Steinsaltz takes its place in very exalted company. The new Artscroll commentary is similar, and a similarly massive effort – but one of a team. Steinsaltz and Artscroll also merit special mention for the efforts to make the Talmud accessible to the beginner student, even the student with no Aramaic or even Hebrew skill, even via app. These are commentaries designed to open up the Talmud for a student who couldn’t understand the text without such assistance.

Another, entirely distinct, school of Talmudic commentary seeks to determine how open-ended Talmudic debates can be resolved into clear Halachic ruling. Seeking to understand such practical outcomes one turns to the Rif (born Algeria, died Fez 1103) and the Rosh (born German, died Toledo 1327). Other commentaries, such as Josef Karo’s Cesef Mishnah (born Toldeo, died Sefad 1575), connect the Talmud to Rambam’s legal code, the Mishneh Torah.

A third school of commentary is casuistic, known as pilpul, a school founded on the approach taken by the masters of the Tosafot. Rashi’s ultimately modest commentary could not be more different than that of his grandson and colleagues. Tosafistic scholars almost tumble over one another to demonstrate creative brilliance, first in perceiving problems – usually entirely unnoticed until presented by Tosafot for the sole purpose of being solved – then solving these problems with yet more bravura demonstrations of knowledge. Casuist commentaries are both driven by and depend upon a notion that the entire Talmud must be understood as a single corpus with every apparent contradiction in a 2,700 folio work which emerged over 500 years capable of being rendered into a single flawless whole. This insistence on holistic perfection is almost theological in its intensity, elevating human discourse to the level of Divine perfection. To a Masorti eye there is self-awareness; these great Medieval scholars know they are engaging in a game designed to sharpen minds. But, in the defence and deference showed to these commentaries within ultra-orthodoxy, such ascribed perfection can feel almost idolatrous. Personally I have limited appetite for casuistry for the sake of casuistry, but that’s far from a purely non-Orthodox position. The extremes of pilpu are condemned even by paragons of orthodoxy. The Maharal (Prague d. 1609) thought ‘learning carpentry or sharpening the mind by playing chess’ better uses for one’s time.

A Masorti scholar of the Talmud would be more inclined to turn to contemporary critical commentary. Professor David Weiss Halivni focusses on the construction of a Talmudic passage over time often demonstrating how an understanding of historical factors can grant insights a blinkered insistence on the Talmud’s singular perfection obscure. Professor Shamma Friedman’s great contribution is collating and organising thousands of early manuscripts, some predating the, now, canonical first edition by a millennia. Occasionally this manuscript work can demonstrate, for example, that Rambam had a different version of a passage than we now have – resolving the need to explain how Rambam understood a Talmudic passage that he didn’t have access to. Cherished by many in modern orthodoxy, these academic commentaries, usually by Professors who gained doctorates at the Masorti affiliated Jewish Theological Seminary, are deemed dangerous within extreme orthodoxy – as if accepting the critical study of Talmud could be a harbinger for permitting a similarly critical approach to the written Bible itself. Commentary can be threatening, especially if one elevates uncovering historical reality above dogma. That’s a very Masorti truth.

Mishneh Torah

Rabbi Moses, son of Maimon – known by the acronym RaMBaM or in Greek patronymic style as Maimonides – is the dominant figure of post-talmudic Rabbinic Judaism. Born 1135 in Cordoba he fled Spain and eventually settled in Furstat, Egypt, where he worked as physician to the Sultan while serving as leader of Egyptian – and indeed world – Jewry. He wrote three master works; a commentary on the Mishnah, the Mishneh Torah – the first significant codification of Jewish law – and The Guide to the Perplexed – a philosophical work designed to celebrate an intellectual Jewish theology in a language recognisable by students of philosophy.


On the one hand Rambam claimed the Mishneh Torah was a primer, suitable for the uninitiated, but he also claimed his opus was the most important Rabbinic work since Yehudah Ha-Nasi edited the Mishneh, some thousand years earlier. Even the name, Mishneh Torah – literally Second to the Torah – suggests confidence, bordering on arrogance. Maimonides adopts the Rabbinic name for the Book of Deuteronomy (Second Nomos, or Second Law) for his own creation. He also imposes a brand new order on the entirety of Jewish law; rejecting the structure of the Talmud and starting – as made sense to a philosopher such as himself – with Aristotelian philosophical underpinnings, a radical original choice for a people who had spent over a thousand years largely opposing Hellenism. The familiar dialogic, nature of Talmud discussion also disappears, as does almost every ‘footnote’ or explanation. Laws are stated, baldly, with maximum precision and concision – not that the connection between the clear utterance and the complex Talmudic underpinning is always obvious, and there are reams of commentaries and meta-commentaries designed to make or disparage the connection between Talmudic passage and Maimonedian fiat.

Other criticism of the work focused on what seemed to be a disparaging attitude taken towards other traditional commentaries. Some accused Rambam of advocating replacing the study of Talmud with the study of his work (a criticism rejected by Rambam, but not entirely satisfactorily). Rambam’s feelings about the Rabbis of his own day – and even the great leaders of generations prior – can be seen in many of his letters, some of which have emerged in the Cairo Geniza, discovered in the very Synagogue he served. In one letter, to a beloved student, he suggests, ‘Study nothing apart from the laws of the Rif [an earlier commentary of the Talmud] and compare them to the Mishneh Torah, if there is a contradiction know the examination of the Talmud brought it about, but if you waste your time on [other] commentaries and interpretations of debates, you will accomplish little.’

Of course even the most passive of explicators never simply explain, without imposing at least a little of their own predispositions on their explanations, but Rambam goes far beyond such conservativism. As well as setting Judaism up as a unified coherent system (not something either Bible or Talmud ever seemed much concerned to do), Rambam subtly recasts, or simply ignores, numerous statements of Jewish law appearing in the Talmud, seemingly owing to his own sense of what Jewish faith and practice MUST stand for, even if earlier attempts to present Judaism were based on radically different assumptions. Rambam rejects anthropomorphism, so the Talmudic statement ‘one who sheds tears for a worthy man, God counts them up in his treasure house,’ is recast, ‘one who sheds tears for a worthy man, is rewarded for this by God.’ Rambam isn’t given to hyperbole so the Talmudic statement ‘a scholar on whose garment is found a stain deserves a death,’ is recast, ‘it is forbidden for a scholar to have a stain on their garment.’ Rambam isn’t given to superstition so the Talmudic statement that people shouldn’t ‘go out at night on Wednesday or Saturday because the Queen of the Demons and 180,000 destroying angels go forth [on these nights],’ is simply ignored. The scholar of contemporary orthodoxy, Marc B. Shapiro, lists pages of examples of this recasting of Judaism, conveniently overlooked by ultra-orthodox Rabbinic leaders who, nowadays, ascribe canonical perfection to this work once burnt on account of its heresy. Certainly there is something very non-ultra-orthodox in Rambam’s embrace of the latest academic discoveries in fields such a astrology and medicine, an interest that he allows to present Judaism in such a way that it fits in with the best claims of contemporary non-Jewish thought. Rambam was a hungry for knowledge from wherever it may be found, how he would have reacted to the claims of evolution, palaeontology and astral physics or even Biblical archaeology and criticism, is one of the great hypothetical questions in Jewish history.

In many ways Maimonides is doing we would later recognise as Reform – freeing Judaism of ancient taints no longer believable in his contemporary age. But the changes he articulates aren’t articulated as reformations. Rather Rambam claims his Judaism is the same Judaism as Moses or Yehudah HaLevi even as his practice is different, evolved – that him sound like a good Masorti Jew. Meanwhile contemporary modern orthodox readers of the Mishneh Torah scoff at the notion that Rambam, if he were alive today, could be anything other than a leader of Modern Orthodoxy. Every denomination claims the Mishneh Torah as its own – testament in itself to the power of the work and its author. If you want to make your own decision the good news is the Hebrew is simple, it’s a book that makes an easy study companion, say over the course of some time spent at the Conservative Yeshivah.


Gemarah & Talmud

The Talmud is the ultimate compilation of the Oral Torah – the Torah She’Baal Peh. There are actually two compilations bearing the name, though only the Babylonian – or Bavli – is commonly studied. Over 6,200 folio pages the Bavli debates those aspects of the Mishnah – the earliest collection of Rabbinic teaching dating to roughly 200CE – that remain practicable after the destruction of the Second Temple. These later debates are called Gemarah – literally completion – they are made up of teachings from the time of the Mishnah (know as Tannaitic sources) and later teachings drawn from the following 300 years (known as Amoraic sources). The anonymous editorial voice elegantly shaping this debate is called the Stam.


A Mishnah might state a person acting in a certain way was guilty of breaking a particular law. The Gemarah would juxtapose that claim with another Tannaitic text, possibly even another Mishnah, suggesting the opposite. The Amoraic strata will distinguish the seemingly identical cases so each outcome can stand unchallenged for a different situation. Or perhaps a named rabbi would make a certain claim in an opening Mishnah, but the Gemarah would juxtapose that claim with another claim, made by the same Rabbi, which seems to take the opposite view. Or perhaps a Biblical verse might be cited as evidence of a certain practice, but the way the verse is understood in one context gives rise to a different interpretive challenge, perhaps on a different Biblical verse. Often solving the problem found in one Mishnah is interlaced with a working-out of related possible contradictions in three or four other regards. And usually, by the time the Sugya concludes, half a dozen other examples of practice have been hauled into the discussion, picked over and arranged carefully alongside every other element of Rabbinic practice.


Hillel and Shamai are recorded, in a Mishnah, arguing about the correct way to say the Shema. Shamai argues that the evening recitation should be said prostrate and the morning standing, as the Shema itself states ‘when you lie down and when you rise up.’ Hillel counters that these verses refer only to the times when the Shema should be said, the evening and the morning. If that’s the case, challenges the Gemarah, why didn’t the verse simply say ‘in the evening and in the morning’? En route to justifying the precise Biblical language, the Gemarah discusses the obligations of the night of marriage, whether a person tasked with performing a certain obligation has to perform other obligations, the impact of mental torment on obligations to perform Mitzvot and the importance, quite literally, of standing up for a position one believes in, even if only so those looking on won’t assume you believe in sitting down.


The study of Talmud is a training in the art of seeing nuance existing between different moments, people and situations. It is ambivalent in the strict sense of pulling in two opposite directions simultaneously. On the one hand there is a quest for unity; solving challenges and easing contradictions. On the other hand there is delight taken in difference and contrariness. Reish Lakish may take a different view from Rabbi Yochanan in a Mishnah and, ten pages later, their disagreement still stands, even as umpteen other possible contradictions have been solved. The Talmud isn’t reductionist – all paths do not converge. If the project of Hellenistic rhetoric is the quest towards a single platonic ideal, Talmudic rhetoric seeks principled multiplicity. If Masorti practice varies between and even within its constituent Synagogues that’s not ‘unrabbinic.’ It’s not that every response is ‘OK,’ but rather there is a sense that singularity is not a human goal. ‘For three years there was an argument between the Houses of Hillel and Shammai, [eventually] a divine voice announced, “these and these are the words of the living God.”’Actually this is an unusual moment in the Talmud, God, by and large does not feature. The Talmud is a project predicated on this being a world left to humans to puzzle and muddle through. Perhaps the most commonly told story in the Talmud features Rabbi Eliezer enlisting God’s help in an argument, God speaking out in favour of Rabbi Eliezer, and Rabbi Eliezer still losing. God is thrown out of the study hall and responds with a phrase correctly (if rarely) translated as, ‘My children have outlasted me.’ The counter-intuitive, but impeccably talmudic, idea is that Judaism can survive for longer and in better shape by detaching itself from seeking blind obeisance to a mystical divinity and holding instead to the uneven gifts of mortal enquiry.


This, perhaps, explains the ways in which the Talmud encodes its own evolution. If the Rabbinic project lives in the human – as opposed to the Divine realm – it needs to allow for its own development – and it does. ‘This is the time to overturn the Torah,’ ‘Times have changed, nature has changed, ‘Rabbi X fixed [a previous legal principle] for the sake of a healing in the world,’ are just some of the technical terms that introduce development in Rabbinic thought and practice. More conservative scholars argue these developments were only ever peripheral and are not suitable for contemporary use (or abuse). More liberal scholars argue these tools exist precisely to allow continued evolution in ways as radical as the far-reaching impact of earliest Rabbinic endeavour. Perhaps the greatest irony in all study of the Gemarah is this – a word that translates as ‘conclusion,’ is used to refer to a series of debates still hotly contested some 1500 years after their supposed ‘conclusion.’ The quest for holiness goes on. The question for Masorti Jews is, are we prepared to put in the hard work to understand and join in this quest?

Mishnah (aka Mishna)

This is the second in a series of short guides to Jewish law. An introductory essay, and future articles can be read at https://alephguidetojudaism.wordpress.com/.

The Mishnah is the first codification of the Oral Torah – Torah SheBaal Peh. It’s a work in six Sedarim – or orders – covering agricultural laws, the passage of sacred time, issues around marriage, civil responsibilities, sacrificial matters and laws of ritual purity. Altogether the Mishnah contains 63 tractates or Masechtot. Each is further divided into Prakim – chapters – and individual Mishnayot. Perhaps a third of the sayings of the Mishnah are taught in the name of specific Rabbinic leaders from the first two centuries of the Common Era (known as Tannaim). The rest are anonymous – sometimes referred to as Stam. The opening Mishnah in Masechet Succah, for example, teaches;

A succah taller than 20 cubits is invalid. But Rabbi Yehudah allows it. And one smaller than 10 handbreadths, or without three walls or where the sunlight is greater than the shade is invalid.

Traditional Rabbinic scholars claim that revelation on Sinai contained both a written and an oral component. Rambam, in his introduction to the Mishnah, offers a beguiling proof of the ever-present nature of the oral law. The written Torah commands taking the ‘fruit of the beautiful tree’ as one of the species used at Succot. No Jew has ever doubted that this is a reference to an etrog. However the etrog tree is simply not beautiful. The only possibility, argued Rambam, for the universal acceptance of the etrog is an oral tradition as old as Sinai specifying the tree concerned. Certainly many Biblical verses presume interpretations that aren’t explicitly part of the written Torah, but a Masorti position would distinguish between the claims we now call Oral Torah and those implicit assumptions, often lost in the midsts of time, or only excavated by modern critical Biblical scholars.

The Mishnah is clearly not a commentary on the written Torah. For a start it comes in six orders, as opposed to the five books of the Torah (as the Seder song rehearses). Moreover the Mishnah appears staggeringly uninterested in the Written Torah; so rarely citing verses to prove its claims that later commentators are frequently driven to ask ‘what verse does that come from?’ There is, in this, a boldness and a sense of freedom. The first centuries of the Common Era – spanning the destruction of the Temple and dawn of Diasporic Jewish existence – meant Jews could not simply perpetuate patterns of previous generations, but rather than simply mourn and fold in on itself, Rabbinic Judaism contains much that is forward-looking. The written Torah calls for stubborn and rebellious children to be stoned, but the Mishnah goes to work on what seems a command to commit infanticide. The verse is restricted to to apply only to sons, not daughters, and then the Mishnah excludes true minors – who would be unaccountable for their actions – and adult children, who after all aren’t children at all, and so on until the verse can no longer be applied to anyone. The written Torah is being deliberately and actively recast.

Extreme orthodox commentators argue these Mishnayot express the same intent as the Biblical verses – insisting both written Torah and Mishnah articulate the same single perfect unity – but that seems a claim driven more by dogma than evidence. Instead, from a Masorti perspective, the Mishnah records the evolving understanding of what Judaism has to be as it encounters new worlds and new challenges. But while it certainly reads like a document of its time, it isn’t rejecting its past. Not only do Temple rituals and purity laws (no longer practised in a post-Temple Jewish world) receive copious attention, but the Mishnah continually turns to Temple traditions to articulate post-Temple Jewish values and practice. This is the opening line of Mishnah Brachot;

When does one recite the evening Shema? From the time the Priests come in to eat their Trumah.

No-one ate Trumah (a foodstuff only ritually pure Priests could consume) after the destruction of the Temple, but as Rabbinic Judaism moves on from Temple times, it grounds itself in its Masorah – tradition. The Mishnah looks back as it looks forward – how very Masorti.

The Mishnah is also not a rule book. For one thing it contains a good number of ‘Aggadic’ – non-legal – elements (Hillel’s dictum, ‘If I am not for me, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? if not now, when?’ is taking from the Mishnah.) Also the Mishnah contains too many diverse opinions to be used as a clear source of what to do when. The argument between Rabbi Yehudah and the Stam about the maximum height of a succah is typical. The significance of diverse opinions in the Mishnah has been hotly debated for over 1500 years, but to Masorti eyes, the foundation of Rabbinic Judaism is a document that celebrates pluralism and cares about diversity. To study Mishnah – and it’s greatest commentary the Gemarah – is a training in understanding how contradictory claims, practices and even world-views can get along all in one diverse Jewish community. It’s a sensitivity that can be felt even when the Mishnah speaks in a single voice, as in the dispute presented in the first Mishnah of Masechet, Baba Metzia.

Two are holding onto a tallit. One says, ‘I found it and it’s all mine.’ The other says, ‘I found it and it’s all mine.’

The solution to this seemingly intractable problem is wonderfully elegant, it’s the sort of thing that makes studying Mishnah such an important part of understanding the Jewish story. I recommend it – which allows me to end this guide with a plug for study at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem.


Halachah, law, is the sister of Aggadah, lore. It is, in the words of C. N. Bialik, Israel’s national poet, the skeleton which holds the space for our Jewish soul to inhabit. Without rhythms, rituals and boundaries less tangible markers of Jewish belief such as feeling, ethics and spirituality would, it is argued, slip away like so much sand. There is wisdom in that claim. As a Rabbi I’m always wary of the oft-articulated sentence, ‘I feel Jewish, but …’ and then follows some variation on the notion, ‘… I don’t have much to do with Halachah.’

Actually law is a poor translation of Halachah, etymologically the word is connected to the verb ‘to go.’ Halachah is the way we go, as Jews. There is Halachah about how to put on shoes, how to use the toilet, what to do after a disturbing dream and so on. If the great Gospel critique of Judaism is that God only cares about what comes out of our mouth (our speech) and not what goes into our mouth (Kashrut), the Halachic response is – how could there be anything about which God does not care! The all-embracing nature of Halachah is a training in an embodied philosophy that everything counts. Not only does the Halachic person observe Halachah, but through this practice we become observant. We come to notice that which could otherwise drift by. Has the sun set yet, is that a bug in that lettuce, what should my relationship be with that poor person I might easily just step around?

Some elements of Halachah find explicit grounding in the written Torah. Blessing after a meal, for example, is commanded in a verse which makes its way into the Grace After Meals –v’achalta v’savata u’vrachta – ‘when you have eaten and are full, you shall bless.’ Some elements of Halachah have remarkably little grounding in Biblical verses. The protection of Shabbat is one of the Ten Commandments, but the wealth of detail we recognise as traditional modes of Shabbat observance is all but absent from the Pentateuch. There is no Biblical verse that commands lighting Shabbat candles for example. The Rabbis consider Shabbat a mountain of Halachah hanging by a Biblical hair. And some practices have no Biblical basis at all, or to be more exact, some practices require great ingenuity on behalf of the Rabbis of the Talmud to find any kind of Biblical connection or asmachata.

No Jewish practice escapes rooting in a Biblical verse that ultimately connects it, and its observers, directly back to Sinai. And no Biblical verse makes it into Halachah without being extensively worked over by the Rabbinic hermeneutic endeavour. ‘Do not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk,’ is hardly honoured in its literal sense, and the verse that demands the stoning of a ‘stubborn and rebellious child,’ once the Rabbis of the Talmud have exempted, limited, stretched and tugged, ends up having no practical murderous consequence at all. There is a dance between torah sh’bichtav– the written Torah (usually understood as the Pentateuch)–and the oral Torah –torah sh’baal peh –the sense of what Halachah must be almost regardless of what any Biblical text directly mandates. It’s not a competition – it’s not that one is more and one less important – the aim is unity. At some point everything has to fit. While on the face of the Talmudic page the challenges of apparent contradiction are often highly technical – how can Rabbi X say one thing on one page of the Talmud while stating something different in an apparently identical situation many pages later? – the underlying appeal to unity is, ultimately, theological, as I will argue below.

To understand the way a Mishnah (2nd century) creates a category, which the Gemarah (6th century) justifies, which Maimonides (12thcentury) encodes as a law, but in a way Rabbi Joseph Caro (17th century) reworks, all to arrive at a direct contemporary practical application – perhaps at the very cutting edge of 21st Century technology – is to become a link in the unfolding chain of tradition which is Rabbinic Judaism. That’s why every Masorti Jew should spend time at the Conservative Yeshiva; learning Halachah is less about the accumulation of facts and more about becoming an insider into a heritage which is our own. End of commercial break.

Halachah is pulled in two different directions. On the one hand it is pulled into real life, today. The psak– direct response to a practical situation – is the point at which all theorising and complexity needs to be resolved into a ‘yes’ or ‘no;’ Is this chicken Kosher? Can a woman be called to read from the Torah? Should Israel engage in dialogue with leaders of Hamas? To continue to be applicable, and worthy of application, Halachah needs to (and does) encode within itself an openness and a dynamism – who can tell what challenges tomorrow brings?
On the other hand, Halachah is drawn back into the mists of time. Ultimately every contemporary application of psak – whether gene therapy or hemlines – is about God caring and God revealing; making God’s care known to the people – us – who walk the path of Halachah. It’s a mysterious connection which can’t be directly pinned down – one can’t gaze directly even at the sun – but the connection, the Rabbinic Jew claims, nonetheless exists. The appeal to unity, which so motivates the Talmud, is only secondarily about solving complexities within Rabbinic hermeneutic – the human realm. Ultimately it is about the unity of God – understood as the place (in Hebrew HaMakom) where human perceptions of brokenness, paradox and confusion are solved into peace, grace and justice. Indeed HaMakom is precisely the term the Talmud uses to refer to God. Ultimately Halachah, no less than Aggadah, is about faith and a particularly Jewish vision of spirituality.

Who and What Am I

I (Jeremy Gordon) am a Masorti Rabbi serving New London Synagogue in England.

This blog will host thousand word intros to aspects of Jewish life and thought – ‘Aleph’ is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, but slightly re-voweled it can be pronounced Eleph – meaning thousand.

I blog more regularly at


Tweet @rabbijeremy

And you can find out more about New London at http://www.newlondon.org.uk

Thousand word intros to aspects of Jewish Life and Thought – Viewed from a Masorti Perspective

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