Innovation in Jewish Law review

by Pinchas Roth

Many battles have been fought over the question of how Jewish law changes, if at all. The issues are usually fraught and the discussion is highly emotional and explosive. Publicists and historians use them as grist for their mills, but the legal scholar is left frustrated by the lack of dispassionate thought about the underlying issues. Michael Broyde, a professor of law and also an important Halakhic decisor, chose an innocuous aspect of Jewish law, and used it as a case study to investigate the general question of how innovation occurs in halakhah. His analysis focuses on Havinenu, an abridged version of the daily prayer described in the Mishnah and the Talmud. Today, this prayer is virtually unknown and almost universally unused, and Broyde asks why that is. Discussing this example allows him to demonstrate his general claim, that halakhah changes over time through the intensive process of learning, interpretation and re-interpretation. New interpretation – chiddush – is the vehicle for organic change.

This slim volume follows the history of interpretation of the talmudic sources methodically and carefully. It provides a rare opportunity to watch the thought process of a halakhist as he progresses from the primary sources, navigating the various and conflicting interpretations by medieval and early modern commentators, to practical conclusions about the present day. Most of the book consists of textual analysis of sources presented in Hebrew and in English translation, and the author makes an effort to explain these sources in an accessible way. Not light reading, but an opportunity for readers without a very strong background in Jewish law to study a topic in depth.

The original article may be found here in the AJL Newsletter.

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