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To what extent do books on Halachah have authority? I was taught that the Gemara was "closed" and may no longer be challenged in terms of its Halachic authority. To what extent is this authority binding, and when can it be overruled (if at all)?

In the same vein, I would like answers to the question pertaining to the Halachic authority of the Geonim, Rishonim and Aḥaronim.

Finally, does this authority carry over to modern books? If I have a book on Kashruth that cites the Mishnah Berurah and/or Shulḥan 'Aruch and maybe a couple of other sources that "have authority", does that mean I have to follow what this book says? Is there no room to find another opinion?

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Could you give some examples of where an later source challenges an earlier source without basing themselves on another earlier source? –  yoel Sep 27 '11 at 18:25
    
@yoel That's not really my question, but, for example: in the RI"F's day it (apparently) wasn't seen as rude to rule in favor of one opinion over the other without explanation, but of course by the RaMBa"M's time it clearly was not acceptable (in the eyes of his contemporaries; although he apparently thought it was) for him to rule without citation of prior authorities. Later we have the Tur and Shulḥan 'Aruch doing something similar. Again, that's not really my question. I'm more interested in the nature, scope, permanence and especially the source of the authority. –  Seth J Sep 27 '11 at 19:21
    
This is a massive question, and you should be aware that the attitudes you reference, to a large extent, only came into existence with the invention of Orthodoxy - not with the publication of the Shulchan Arukh. What you are asking is likely to be answered from the perspective of hashkafa. There are plenty of examples of both rishonim and acharonim impugning earlier authorities, and effectively siding with the mishna, the tosefta or the yerushalmi over the bavli and other rishonim. –  Shimon bM Feb 8 '13 at 11:45
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3 Answers

Rabbi Michael Berger deals with this issue at length in his book, Rabbinic Authority : The Authority of the Talmudic Sages. I highly recommend that you acquire it and read the eighth chapter, titled "The Authority of Texts."

You can find his book on Amazon or in a library.

(I may provide a fuller answer at a later point.)

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Shmuel, can you summarize any of his primary points? –  Seth J Dec 8 '11 at 14:52
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It's been a coupla years since I've read it. I'll try to get back you you, though. –  Shmuel L Dec 8 '11 at 20:52
    
@ShmuelL you got anything? –  Hacham Gabriel Dec 23 '11 at 0:06
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The Rambam (cited in tom smith's answer) explains that after the Talmud Bavli was written, the Jews became dispersed and could not learn like before and forgot many things. Therefore, the Talmud became the accepted final word from when Torah was clearer. However, no other written work carries the same authority as the Mishnah and Talmud did. This may be because once Torah sheBal Peh was allowed to be written, forgetting Torah became a less major issue, so the previous generations did not have as big an 'advantage' over later ones.

Thus, the rishonim generally did not accept the words of the Geonim as binding (see comment). However, the Rishonim eventually became accepted as authoritative by the achronim. This may be due partially to the traditions the Rishonim had, but also because if no one raised any objections for a few hundred years, it must be pretty solid. In addition, things eventually become accepted for their precedent, just as a secular court's rulings are usually accepted by a later court. The achronim have not yet achieved the status of the rishonim, but few poskim will argue alone against a major achron. However, R' Moshe Feinstein discusses how he rules based on his own reasoning and sometimes will argue on major achronim, because that is the way of the Torah.

No one considers any modern book as authoritative. Just because something is written, that does not make it true. However, the shulchan aruch was accepted by the Jewish people, so no current authority would go against it on his own, though there are cases where the "nosei kelim" argue with its rulings.

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"No one considers any modern book as authoritative." I really hope you mean to say a modern book written by some random Joe Shmoe. After all if the Posek Hadar writes a "modern book" I think it's safe to assume that it can be relied upon with the same weight as being from his own mouth. So in general, a modern book is as good as its author (which is true of "olden" books too) –  yydl May 1 '12 at 21:25
    
@yydl, even Gedolim have detractors, or at the very least opposition on various rulings. Take R' Eliyashiv's ban on Shabbos elevators a few years ago. I remember a quote in a newspaper of a Hasidic woman who said, "he's not my rabbi, so I don't have to follow him." –  Seth J May 2 '12 at 2:47
    
I meant authoritative as in binding. If you ask a rabbi for psak you will need to follow it, but seeing something in a book is not the same thing. It is still possible to ask another rabbi what the halacha is. –  Ariel K May 2 '12 at 16:09
    
I see. By the way, this came up because you answer was quoted in the discussion on this answer. –  yydl May 2 '12 at 21:06
    
@SethJ Indeed. But getting back to my book -- at the end of the day it still is a source. Whether someone visiting this site has to follow it is up to him/her. –  yydl May 2 '12 at 21:08
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The Gemarah is binding on all Jews because that was the last work that was accepted by all Jews as binding. Since then, as Jews spread around the world,

individuals, the remnants whom God called, would gather in each city and country, occupy themselves in Torah study, and [devote themselves] to understanding the texts of the Sages and learning the path of judgment from them.

Every court that was established after the conclusion of the Talmud, regardless of the country in which it was established, issued decrees, enacted ordinances, and established customs for the people of that country - or those of several countries. These practices, however, were not accepted throughout the Jewish people, because of the distance between [their different] settlements and the disruption of communication [between them].

So after the writing of the Gemara, there was no more "final" work binding on all Jewry. However, within individual communities there were works whose rulings were considered final.

In the Gemara there is a contradiction between a Mishna and a Braisa. The Mishna says that if a judge made an incorrect ruling and then realized that he made a mistake, the ruling is reversed and the winner must pay back the money to the loser. However, the Braisa says that the winner keeps the money but the judge must pay from his own pocket. The Gemara says several resolutions, and one of them is that the mishna is referring to a mistake in a "dvar mishna" (a rule mentioned in the Mishna) while the Braisa is referring to a mistake "bshikul hadaas" (in a judgement call). The Gemara goes on to say that one who made a mistake in a ruling of Rav Chiya and Rav Oshiya, Rav and Shmuel, and Rav Sheishes and Rav Asi (all of whom were sages from the time of the Gemarah and not the Mishna) also is considered as to making a mistake in a "dvar mishna". The Gemarah goes on to ask "What is a mistake in 'Shikul Hadaas'?" and the Gemarah answers "If there is an argument between two Tanayim or two Amorayim and the argument ("Sugya") seems to go in favor of one of them and the judge ruled like the other".

So the Gemara defines two types of mistakes: "A mistake in a judgement call" which means that since the opinion like whom the judge ruled was not completely rejected, the loser can tell the judge "I hold like that opinion, and Hamotzei Mchaveiro Alav Haraya ('Bring proof that I am wrong and I will return the money')". Since that opinion is technically a legitimate opinion the winner doesn't have to give back the money.

However, the second type of mistake, a "mistake against a mishna" is not a legitimate ruling. It is a complete mistake without any foundation and the winner must give back the money. This type of mistake is not just when a judge ruled against a mishna, but when he ruled like a Tanna whose opinion was rejected from Halacha (like Beis Shammai).

As mentioned above, since the sealing of the Gemara, no later authority has the right to argue on it or add anything to it. Moreover, in the time of the Rishonim, the words of the Gaonim were considered as binding as a "dvar mishna".

Generally what comes out of all of this is that:

  1. One cannot disagree with the Gemarah
  2. One can argue on a Gaon, though only with very strong proof, and if one ruled against one without proog, he is not considered to have made a psak din.
  3. One has to lchatchila rule according to the traditions in his community. In some communities (Yemenites), the poskim generally rule like the Rambam. Other(Sfardim) rule (generally) like the Shulchan Aruch of the Beis Yosef. Others (Ashkenazi) rule (in general) like the Rama. Some communities (like Chabad), rule like the Shulchan Aruch Harav. Some (the Yeshivishe velt, as well as most of the "chareidi" circles) rule like the Mishna Brura.

This is another reason why being a posek is more than just learning the materials.

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Few rishonim considered the Geonim binding. The Rambam originally followed many of their rulings in his perush haMishnayos, but became much more independent in his Mishneh Torah. Tosafos often argues with them, though often just doesn't deal witrh them at all. The Raavad was an exception who considered the Geonim binding. –  Ariel K Oct 3 '11 at 3:03
    
@ArielK Although there are a few places where the Shach (it's in Choshen Mishpat, I can't remember where) says that Rishonim don't have an authority to argue on Gaonim, unless they have clear proofs because the explanations of the Gaonim are "divrei Kabbalah" from the times of the gemarah. –  Shmuel Brin Oct 3 '11 at 4:04
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Reasonable enough, but the fact is that the rishonim frequently argue with the Geonim. –  Ariel K Oct 3 '11 at 14:08
    
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