Review: Innovation in Jewish Law

Innovation in Jewish Law

Innovation in Jewish Law

by Israel Drazin

Michael Broyde demonstrates that Jewish law changes over time either through finding new interpretations of the wording of the original law, the requirements of new technologies, or alterations in social or economic conditions demand new rules. These are the same factors effecting changes in American constitutional law. Broyde offers a case study to prove his point, the recitation of the prayer Havineinu, a word meaning “grant us.”

According to an old tradition, there was a large group of scholars called Men of the Great Assembly, headed by the biblical Ezra in the fourth or fifth century BCE, who functioned as political and religious leaders of the Jewish community for either a short period or some centuries. There is no proof that such an institution existed since there is no mention of it in biblical and post-biblical literature until well into the Common Era. The issue of the existence of the Assembly is discussed in a scholarly manner by the historian Sidney B. Hoenig in his Sanhedrin.

Broyde cites the tradition that the prayer shemoneh esreh was developed by the Men of The Great Assembly as the first non-biblical prayer. It comprised eighteen prayers, each a paragraph long, such as requests for health, forgiveness for misdeeds, restoration of the land of Israel, and hope for the messiah. When Jews were persecuted and mistreated, a nineteenth prayer was added during the early years of the first millennium for the removal of the persecutions, but the prayer continued to be called shemoneh esreh, which means “eighteen,” or amidah, which means “standing,” since the prayer is recited upright.

However, the shemoneh esreh is rather long, taking up about a half dozen pages in the modern printed prayer books, no prayer books existed in ancient times, and the prayer needed to be memorized. Prayer leaders recited the prayers aloud in congregations so that those Jews who could not memorize it could follow and join in with his recitation, but Jews could not attend congregations every day. Additionally, workers or travelers lacked sufficient leisure to recite the entire prayer and sometimes people had emergencies, such as sickness, and were unable to say it. As a result, during the first and second centuries of the common era, a short version of the shemoneh esreh was developed, which summarized the dozen and a half prayers into a short paragraph of about a half dozen lines. Thus the prayer was developed and then changed because of social conditions. But there were different social conditions in the future, as well as different understandings of the original requirement, and innovations in technologies that affected the prayer.

There was a reading or construction problem: when did the innovators of the prayer allow it to be said? Broyde points out, by offering the views of about a dozen rabbis, that the three rabbis whose opinions are mentioned in a third century Mishnah that first mentioned Havineinu offered three different statements as to when the condensed version may be said. How should their views be read? Where they saying the same thing, but addressing different situations? Or, were they differing with one another? Complicating the matter is that later rabbis and codifiers offered different views of what they understood the three to say. As if this were not enough, still later rabbis differed in how they understood these later rabbis.

Additionally, when the practice arose to add to the shemoneh esreh prayers for rain during the winter and a prayer for ending the Sabbath on Saturday night, which were not in Havineinu, could the condensed version that lacked these prayers be said?

Besides the social changes and the problem of construction of the rule’s meaning, Broyde discusses technological changes such as the invention of the printing press and how this affected the law. He also notes that Havineinu is no longer said by most Jews with the exception of Israeli armed forces, who must be alert constantly. Broyde discusses this as well. Why is Havineinu no longer used? Should we encourage its use again? Is this due to the current conservative veltgeist that encourages strict observances?

From The Jewish Eye

The original article may be found here.


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