Tradition: Adapt or Adopt?

Hearts On Fire

Halakha in the Talmud is not easy to use. This raises some questions:
What prevented the Savoraim from indexing the halakha?
Was this any more difficult than any other editorial task – especially with an entire academy of students to assist?

Talmud is deliberately obtuse. Without this feature? The Talmud is merely scholastic without this feature: its significant intellectual creativities (for there is ore than one) become irrelevant. The Talmudic commentaries are each an intellectual creativity of a different sort, but all are written much later than the Talmudic period. The disadvantage of Talmudic commentaries is they are uselful for scholars only.

The primary Talmudic commentaries of Rashi and Tosafot treat not merely the halakha but the entire Talmud. To obtain the iqar of the halakha required tremendous mastery of a huge literature – which did not account for the later decisions of competent Jewish judges. The solution was to compile various books of halakhot. This became necessary especially after the decline and eventual dissolution of the Gaonate in Bavel.

The posqim of the 11th century on are called Rishonim. From the 16th century on they are called Aharonim. The 500 year period beteween was one of intense mystical exploration. At times there was no firm bundary between halakha and Qabbala; it was left up to the individual poseq to decide which sources were authoritative. In general, most posqim considered halakha a separate discipline. We’ll begin to learn something of the Qabbala and its adherents here, but first let us learn something of the posqim and study what they accomplished.

Books of Halakhot

Talmudic digests are the first major, independent halakhic works. The primary digest is Rif in the mid 11th century. The Rif, Rabbi Yitzchaq Al-Fasi, provides a synopsis of the Talmudic problem, and includes what agada is relevant to the halakha; the book is called Talmud Qatan (Concise Talmud) as well as by its formal title of Sefer Ha’Halakh (The Book of Halakha). Rif also undertakes to decide contemporary issues of law. His attempts were controversial and he was both attacked and defended.

Talmudic digests pose a question: Can a dayan base decisions on the digest without resort to the Talmud? According to a leading poseq, Ibn Mahgish, this is preferable – resorting to Talmud means that error is more likely, since the Talmudic method can be cumbersome to any but experts.

A book of halakhot is an essential work in its own right and should be consulted as such. The single greatest achievement in this field was by Rambam (Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon): Mishneh Torah (MT). Rambam sorted the huge amount of halakha available by the the 12th century according to the tractates of the Talmud. Rambam provided an extensive outline of his method but did not cite his sources. This was a controversial decision. Even scholars who admired the brilliance of MT strongly criticised the ommission of works cited. Most vocal of these was Rabad (Avraham Ben-David) and Rosh (R Asher Ben-Yehiel).

Other works continued to forge links with the Talmud. The Sefer Mitzvot Gadol (“Smag”) and Sefer Mitzvot Qatan (“Smaq”) were used as talmudic texts after the Pope banned Talmud study in 13th century Europe. Both became essential halakic compendia but no work of this type was user-friendly and decisive. In the 14th century the halakhic contributions from France, Germany and Spain needed to be considered. The first useful code was compiled by Yaqov Ben-Asher, Rosh’s son. He called it Arba Turim. We’ll learn of it in the next unit.