Changing Jewish law the halachic way

by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Most of the scholarly materials reviewed in this column are academic works. Using sociological, anthropological and psychological insights, their authors analyze an aspect of Judaism – for example Jewish law, history, holiday customs, etc. – from an objective viewpoint. The approach used in these studies is identical to that used in studies of other religious and ethnic groups: scholars examine a religion or culture by placing it in historical context. However, a different way to study Judaism – one more commonly found in yeshivot and Orthodox synagogues – is to work from inside the halachic (legal) system, not only to learn abstractly about Jewish law, but to incorporate the discoveries into religious practice. In his “Innovation in Jewish Law: A Case Study of Chiddush in Havineinu,” Michael J. Broyde focuses on one particular prayer to explore how changes in Jewish law occur.

The prayer that Broyde examines is the Havineinu, an abridged version of the Amidah (also known as the Shemonah Esreh or the Tefillah), the central prayer of the Jewish prayer service. Once commonly recited by those in dangerous situations or who were unable to focus on their prayer, it has fallen into disuse, except by soldiers in the Israeli army. Broyde looks at the development of the laws concerning

Havineinu from talmudic through contemporary times. He believes that the change in usage of the prayer comes from a process known as chiddush (innovation), which allows

for a “re-analysis of the sources.” This re-analysis is driven by three factors: abstract study, which allow scholars to reevaluate prior rabbinic opinions and reinterpret laws; the development of technology, which changes the way people live their lives; and the need to adjust to different social and economic conditions over the ages.

Broyde carefully analyzes texts in the original Hebrew or Aramaic, while also providing English translations. What is fascinating about the material is the way that commentators look at the same source, yet arrive at very different opinions. For example, in the Babylonian Talmud, the sage Abaye places a curse on anyone who recites Havineinu instead of the complete Amidah. Yet, Broyde notes that while Rashi

says, “Abaye’s opinion can be understood as stern disapproval of the recitation of Havineinu, if not a complete rejection of it altogether,” other medieval commentary, known as tosafot, suggests that Abaye places a curse only on those who recited Havineinu “inappropriately,” not on everyone who does so.

The general consensus of sages in past centuries is that people were allowed to recite Havineinu, except for particular times when its usage was restricted. One reason for permitting its recitation is that people were more familiar with the shorter prayer, which allowed them to pray with the appropriate kavanah (with the proper mindset). However, when printed prayer books began to appear, the situation began to change. People became more familiar with the Amidah since now they could read the prayer, rather than having to recite it by heart. In contemporary times, fewer people are faced with dangerous situations that might cost them their lives if they took the time to recite the complete Amidah. However, an exception has been made in Israel with Havineinu being taught to religious soldiers in the Israeli army so they know when they can and can’t recite the prayer.

Broyde is careful to note his belief that the differing practices throughout the centuries have not changed the “substance of the law.” Instead, he sees the law’s evolution as “a result of incremental innovation caused by the interplay of changing realities.” Since halachic text includes minority opinions, this change occurs when rabbis revisit the discussions, “honestly analyzing and interpreting the sources, and perhaps revising a dormant line of thinking in the tradition – an opinion or opinions that may once again prove relevant.”

“Innovation in Jewish Law” does a wonderful job clearly explaining the commentaries and showing the development of the laws and opinions concerning the recitation of Havineinu. Those unfamiliar with this type of study will have difficulty absorbing the material, particularly when juggling the names and opinions of the many scholars discussed. However, Broyde also includes helpful charts that outline where particular commentators agree and disagree about the law. “Innovation in Jewish Law” is a great introduction to the internal process through which Jewish law evolves.

From The Reporter Group.

The original article may be found here.

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