's Kashrut Class - Sources of Law

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Lesson II - Sources of Law

II. Sources of Law

There are 4 major sources of law in the Jewish religion

  1. Torah - This is the original writing of the law, and from which all laws are based.

  2. Oral Law - Tradition states that at the time of the Torah, an Oral Law was delivered at the same time - but not written down. Tradition also states that each Oral Law can find a base in the written law. The term Torah actually refers to both the written and oral portions of the law, and Orthodox and Conservative Jews considered both oral and written law as one. Oral Law was later written down by the Rabbis and forms the Mishna portion of the Talmud.

  3. Rabbinic Law - The Pirkot Avot says one should "build a fence" around the law. One of the many interpretations of this statement is that we should formulate rules which help us avoid violating the law. The early Rabbi's did this, formulating laws to prevent violation of core law. Much of the law we practice today is of rabbinic origin.

    Rabbinic Law begins with the Gamara portions of the Talmud, and continues past the closing of the Talmud. The active tradition of rabbinic courts formulating law died out soon after the Talmud . Later Rabbi's created Rabbinic Law through responsa and letters on particular issues, legal codas (like Rambam 's Mishneh Torah and Karo's Shulchan Aruch) and herems (like R. Gershom's prohibition of polygamy and divorce against the woman's will around 1000 C.E.)

  4. Tradition - The Torah defines the Jewish people as a holy corpus. As such our practices and traditions themselves become holy. Long standing practices can then take on the power of law. Traditional practices may or may not be based on a law.

A good measure of how these affect practice is seen in the eating of milk and meat. The Torah prohibits cooking of a kid in its mother's milk. The Oral Law expands this to mean any mammal meat can not be mixed with milk. Rabbinic Law widens this loop still further, forbidding milk with bird meat in order to avoid confusion. Tradition dictates how long one must wait before one can have milk after eating meat.

The Orthodox believe that all four of the levels are strongly binding. They believe that Torah and Oral Law are divinely given and are immutable. Rabbinic Law is a gift of the sages, and that we neither have the wisdom or knowledge (or in many cases a greater court) to add or change it. Similarly, traditional law can not be changed without a competent rabbinic court. They do recognize a hierarchy in the law. For example when given a choice to violate a rabbinic or an oral injunction, it is better to violate the rabbinic one.

The Conservatives also believe that Torah and Oral Law is divine, and thus binding. Rabbinic Law and tradition are not considered as binding, but must be considered and understood before being amended. To perform this function the Conservative organization has set up the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) which defines and revises Rabbinic Law and tradition.

The Reform believe that none of these laws are binding. However since these practices are part of Judaism, they options for observance by the modern Jew.

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Last updated on Aug 1, 1999 at 10:01 PM

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copyright 1999 - Steven Ross Weintraub