History of Jewish Law Part 1

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The Jewish Law was given to the Jewish People as part of the encounter on Mt. Sinai. After the Jews accepted upon themselves to observe God's laws for all generations, the law was taught by Moses to the people during their forty year journey through the wilderness. This law, called Torah,a and Melanie was recorded for future generations in two modes, the Written Torah and the Oral Torah.

The Written Torah[edit | edit source]

The Written Law, which became the first five books of the Jewish Bible, tells the story of the creation of the world and its history through the story of the Tower of Babylon. It then records the history of the Jewish people from its inception through their enslavement in Egypt. It then tells the story of Moses from his birth through the liberation of the Jews from Egypt, and his leading them to Mt. Sinai. The Torah then tells the history of the Jews during their forty years in the wilderness until they reached the border of the land of Canaan. It then concludes with Moses' final speeches to the Jews, and with his death at the age of 120.

There are many other aspects of the written Torah besides history. Interspersed throughout its narrative are the commands which God gave to the Jewish People. Traditionally there are 613 commands (called Mitzvas in the Hebrew Western dialect and Mitzvot in the Israeli and Eastern dialects), consisting of 248 requirements and 365 prohibitions.

The Oral Torah[edit | edit source]

The Oral Law contained a method of applying the written Torah's guidance to everyday situations. It contained clarifications and extensions of the written Torah, guidance for dispute resolution, guidance for examining witnesses, and other court procedures. It established a system of courts: local, district, tribal, appellate, and a supreme court called the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin also had certain legislative and executive powers. Besides their power to try the king for wrongdoing and to refuse their consent to wars of agression, they had the right to set up a system of law to meet the needs of the time called Rabbinic Law.

Students of the Oral Law were required to memorize the entire corpus of the law. Those who did not do so were called Ahmay HaAretz (pesants) and were assumed to be lax in some of the more complex areas of law such as taxation (titheing). This system (a written Torsh and a memorized oral Torah) lasted over a thousand years. During this time, if two people disagreed as to what was the correct decision, they would bring their difference to the local court. If they did not know, the case would go to the district court. If they did not know, the case would wend its way through the appellate system. It sometimes happened that the case reached all the way up to the Sanhedrin. If they did not know, they would argue the case among themselves until a clear decision was reached. Their decision was publicised, and became another clause in the Oral Law.

The Writing of the Oral Law[edit | edit source]

The first unresolvable conflict in the Jewish Oral Law was brought to the Sanhedrin at the end of the Bsbylonian exile. It was a disagreement concerning one detail of Temple practice, and neither side could command a substantial majority. It was brought up many times, but it was never resolved. Over time there were more unresolvable disagreements, but never many until the Greek persecutions. The Greeks passed laws stating that owning a Jewish bible, offering sacrifices to the Jewish God, or circumcising a child were punishable by death. The Maccabees led a successful revolt against the Greeks, but the eight years of warfare played havoc with the educational system. It was even worse under the Romans who made Torah study a capital offense.

Rabbi Akiva was afraid that the oral law would be lost forever. He started a special court which took testimony under oath as to exactly what the oral law said. Where there was a difference of opinion, both sides were recorded. The records of this court were finally arranged by Rabbi Judah the Exilarch (Rebbi Yehuda Hanasi also known as Rebhe). Some of the material was considered to be commentary on the Torah rather than law. These were combined with other material (called Aggadah) and were redacted as Midrash. Most of the remainder of the court records were sorted by subject and codified and became the Mishna. Where there was a difference of opinion in the court record, Rebbe usually wrote only the majority opinion in the Mishna. If he felt that in future times the minority opinion might prevail, he would bring down in the Mishna the minority opinion and state who held which opinion. Finally, he took the remainder of the material and fashioned it into a supplement to the Mishna called Tosefta.