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Have you ever wondered when we learn Halachot, we find that according to such and such opinion its this but the other says the exact opposite but because another one said such and such the halacha is such and such? Why are there so many opinions in one halachic matter? Who is this Rambam that upon discussing almost every halacha, his name pops up? What is the shulchan aruch and why is he so important? And so forth..

Today we will try our best to make the matter clear at least for myself and anyone who wishes to understand what Halakha really is so that henceforth, upon learning halacha, we will be able to really taste the sweetness of Torah.

The Avot in the first mishna tells us the chain of the passing down of the oral tradition, Moshe received Torah from sinai, and passed on to yehoshua, to the elders and so forth.

All the halachot we learn today have their roots either in the 5 books of Moses which we know as the chumash or in the Oral tradition which fundamentally is brought down in the Talmud as we shall explain.

In the beginning, Halakha was taught directly to Moses, our teacher and was passed down mouth to mouth to yehoshua and so forth until the time of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi who was the president of the nation of Israel at that time approximately 2000 years ago.

And then the Romans came and decided to uproot the learning of Torah in the nation of Israel by prohibiting Torah lectures. And so stood up, Rabbi Yehuda haNasi along with a few of his colleagues and wrote down the oral tradition and ordered them calling it the Mishna.

The great teachers of the generation of the Mishnah are known as the Tannaim. They constitute famous names such as Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Meir Baal Hanes and so forth.

After the writing mishna, because of the degradation of understanding, the mishna turned out to be a closed book because of its difficulty in understanding. Hence, some 150 - 200 years later,Ravina and Rav Ashi, two great scholars wrote down the Gemara which explains and the Mishna both Legally and on a non legal exegistic basis. Together, they came to be known as the Talmud.

The Talmud is ordered into six orders known as the Sedarim or seder in singular. Each seder consists of some volumes of the gemara known as the Masechtot or a masechet in singular.

The Talmud has two editions, the first one written in the Holy land, named the Jerusalem talmud or the Talmud Yerushalmi. The second is written in Babylon known as the Babylonian talmud or the Talmud Bavli. The Talmud Bavli being the later, has many more additions and thus is considered a basic reference for almost every halacha.

The great teachers of the generation of the talmud are known as the Amorayim. Some of them are, Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, Rabbi Yochanan, Rabbi Yehuda, Rava, Rabba and so forth.

Tradition has it that every name mentioned in the Talmud has the ability to resurrect the dead due to their extreme holiness and knowledge in the holy works.

During the time of the tannaim, an outstanding sage, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai revealed the hidden exegesis of the Torah which is known as the Kabbalah by teaching the book of Zohar which was put into writing by his student Rabbi Abba. This is the source of all esoteric teachings and laws.

When a halacha is ruled in the halachic works, we will frequently see that at the beginning of almost every topic the writer brings the words of the talmud saying, “In masechet….”. As this is the primary source for all halachot, no later posek has the power to refute the words of the sages in the talmud.

This is the rule for all ages, that no later halachic authority has the authority to rule against the ruling of earlier generations unless he has someone else of the former generation to rely upon that agrees with him.

After the time of the Amoraim, skipping a few generations, around the timespan of before 1600 until about 900 years ago was the age of the Geonim. Gaon means genius. They taught Talmud and decided on issues on which no ruling had been rendered during the period of the Talmud. Some of them were, Rav Hai Gaon, Rav Saadia Gaon, Rav Achai Gaon.

After them, came the age of the Rishonim which went on until 500 years ago. They have a very large significance in Halacha. As said before, no later rabbi has the authority to go against a Rishon unless he has whom to rely upon from the time of the rishonim itself.

One of the very famous Halachic authorities from the time of the Rishonim is the Rambam, Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon. He was the first halachic authority that laid down all the halachic rulings excluding the arguments and responses in a very ordered format which came to be known as the Mishneh Torah. Up until Torah, the Yemenite jews follow most of the traditions and halachic rulings laid down by the Rambam. He was a true giant in all areas of knowledge both biblical and secular. The Shulchan Aruch which is the main authority in later generations consider the Rambam as one of the three pillars of halacha along with the Rif - Rabbi Yitzchak Alfasi and the Rosh - Rabbeinu Asher as will be explained further.

Other halachic authorities during his time were Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra, Rashi - Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki the most famous and basic commentator in the Torah, writings and scriptures and the Talmud, The Ramban - Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Rabbeinu Bachya Ibn Pequda who authored the classic work of Chovot halevavot - the duties of the heart, he is not to be confused with Rabbeinu Bachya ben Asher who is the great commentator of the Torah and also a Rishon, The Tur - Rabbeinu Yaacov ben Asher and so forth.

A very important principle upon learning halacha is that one must not forget that the difference in opinion of various authorities is not because the Torah is not true. However, after the destruction of the second Beit hamikdash - May it be built speedily in our days, our people went to exile and since then, the authorities ruled according to what was heard from their teachers and so on which in many cases are not similar to other authorities. First of all, we must have in mind that the main laws of the Torah are unchanged, for eg. no authority has the authority to rule that pigs are eligible to be eaten unless under extreme circumstances. The main differences come about generally only upon the secondary part of the halacha, which is to beautify a mitzvah, or pious acts etc but the primary law remains the same.

Secondly, The Torah says in Parashat shoftim, writes not to turn away from their words to the right or to the left, meaning, Rashi explains, even if they say right is left and left is right, one must accept it as the word of G-d. Hashem gave them the authority to rule and decide upon the matters of Halacha.

We shall continue next week…

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