Laws of Religion
These summaries are based on key source texts of Jewish law: The Torah (the five Biblical “Books of Moses”), Maimonides’ code of Jewish law (the Mishneh Torah) and the Shulchan Aruch of Joseph Caro.
The following paragraph summarizes the description by Moses Maimonides of the origin of the Torah, the Talmud and the Mishneh Torah.
The core teachings of Judaism were given by God to Moses. The Torah (the first five books of the Bible, often called the “Books of Moses,” namely, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) or Written Law was put into writing by Moses and transmitted through the generations in written form. The Oral Law, a detailed explanation of the Torah, was transmitted only verbally from Moses down through many generations until its teachings were finally written down in the Babylonian Talmud and other works. Since the Talmud and other written works on the Oral Law contain many arguments, which include both correct and incorrect statements, Maimonides codified the conclusions concerning what the Oral Law actually requires in his Mishneh Torah. His purpose was to enable one to understand Jewish Law by reading only the Torah and the Mishneh Torah, without having to refer to any intermediate texts.
We have applied Maimonides’ principle here, summarizing Jewish Law according to what the Torah, the Mishneh Torah and the Shulchan Aruch say on various topics. We have not included the Talmud as one of the sources of our summaries since, as Maimonides says in his writing summarized in the paragraph above, the Talmud is a record of the varying points of view of different scholars on many aspects of Jewish law. In many cases, a reader cannot determine from the Talmud which of the conflicting points of view expressed were, in the end, accepted as the law by the rabbis. Thus, it is not possible to learn what Jewish law is by reading the Talmud. Only people trained in the oral traditions of rabbinic scholarship know which points of view expressed in the Talmud were accepted as Jewish law and which were rejected.
The most comprehensive written codification of Jewish law is the Mishneh Torah, in which Moses Maimonides recorded what the Jewish law actually is, based on the rabbinic tradition as he learned it from his teachers. Maimonides wrote the Mishneh Torah in the second half of the 12th century and it is now available in two independent English translations.
Besides the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides, the other major codification of Jewish law is the Shulchan Aruch, written by Joseph Caro in the 16th century. (Note that all of the dates on this site are expressed using the common Western calendar and correspond to “A.D.”) Caro’s work represents his Sephardic background and printed copies of the Shulchan Aruch always include the comments of Moses Isserles, which are written from an Ashkenazi perspective. Our summaries note the comments of Moses Isserles, as appropriate. The Shulchan Aruch, including the comments of Isserles, is considered to be the most definitive codification of Jewish law, though it is often not as detailed and explanatory as the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides. Our summaries of the Shulchan Aruch are based on the Sefaria English translation, which is not yet complete.
We have tried to cite most or all of the Torah passages directly relevant to each topic discussed on this site. However, the Mishneh Torah and the Shulchan Aruch are extremely detailed and offer numerous examples and explanations on many fine points of Jewish law. As a result, we have here summarized only a very small fraction of what the Mishneh Torah and the Shulchan Aruch say about any particular topic.
It is important to note that the codes of Jewish Law often distinguish laws that derive directly from the Torah from those that were promulgated by the Scribes or Sages (those who transmitted and elucidated the Oral Law from Biblical times until the completion of the writing of the Talmud). Occasionally Maimonides also injects into the Mishneh Torah his own opinions on a point of law, making clear that it is his personal viewpoint.
In general, each topical section in our review of Jewish law is divided into two parts. The first summarizes what is said about the topic in the Torah or, rarely, in another portion of the Old Testament (Hebrew Scriptures). The second part under each topic summarizes some of what Maimonides says in the Mishneh Torah concerning the topic. The sections on “Women and Men in Judaism” have a third part, which is based on the Shulchan Aruch.
We have prepared these summaries solely from English translations. It is our hope that they will provide a gateway into some of the central literature of the laws of Judaism for the interested English-speaking reader.
The Mishneh Torah of Maimonides has been translated into English twice. The Moznaim Publishing Corporation has published an English translation by Rabbi Eliyahu Touger. The full text of the Moznaim/Touger translation of the Mishneh Torah is posted online here. The Yale University Press Judaica Series translation of the Mishneh Torah has been published for books 2-14, but not yet for book 1, The Book of Knowledge.
Translations by Moses Hyamson of Book 2 of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah (The Book of Love or The Book of Adoration) as well as Book 1 have been published by Feldheim Publishers Ltd. Also, the translation of Book 1 by Immanuel M. O’Levy, lacking only Maimonides’ Introduction, is posted on the Internet here and here.
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Abbreviations used in footnotes:
MT: The Mishneh Torah of Maimonides (Code of Maimonides). The names of the specific books and treatises within each book are given according to the Yale University Press translation and also the Moznaim/Touger Hebrew transliterations to facilitate locating the texts posted here.
F: indicates page numbers in the Feldheim Publishers, Ltd., translation of Book 1 of the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides, the Book of Knowledge.
M: indicates page numbers in the relevant volume of the Moznaim Publishing Corporation’s Touger translation. (Some of the books of Mishneh Torah are published in several volumes by Moznaim, so the Moznaim volume numbers do not correspond to the Book numbers of Maimonides’ work.)
Y: indicates page numbers in the translation of the Yale University Press Judaica Series.