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If one looks into the Geonic codes and teshuvoth, they will find a simpler Judaism which is close to the Gemara. Every area of halakha is simpler and presents itself as functioning within human approximation to a high degree.

Everything from sh'hitta to basar b'halav to the nosah for tefiloth has gotten increasingly more difficult and complex over the centuries since those early times. More principles of p'siqa and halakhic reasoning have been added to what was communicated by Hazal. And all of this is in addition to the elevation to the level of law the various customs of Jewish locales throughout the world.

If one looks into the teshuvoth of the Geonim or the Ri"f, one will find that the grand majority of teshuvoth dealt with questions of marriage, divorce, inheritance, dine mamonoth, etc. More complex questions of Hilkhoth Shabath or Tefilath HaSsibur were also addressed, but the daily avoda of Jewish life was understood more-or-less simply and even the simplest Jew with a modest Tora education was trusted to make decisions in his daily life with regard to kashruth, berakhoth, tefila, and other areas of "Orah Hayim." In our current times, however, one can look into the Mishna B'rura and get practically nowhere.

It seems that all of this development has only served to alienate Jews and increase the gap between the "learned" and the "simple" - making halakha an exercise in constantly asking the "priestly class" of those trained in yeshivoth for nearly every point of Jewish law.

I do not intend IN ANY WAY fatally criticize Judaism. I only mean to ask an honest question about the state of Judaism today. I also do not intend to belittle the need for Tora study or to approach complex areas of law (such as financial law, marriage and divorce, etc.) with undue simplicity. Rather, I am wondering what we gain through making constant additions.

My question is: Is there ever a place for Judaism to undergo a [halakhic] reform?

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No one in Bavel had to ask how much matza to eat. They just did what they'd always been doing. I think you underestimate the fact that the Jews then had much more information affecting their lives than just the text of the Talmud. That sort of mimetic tradition is what diminishes over the hardships of time, giving rise to discussions about the details. –  Double AA Dec 15 '13 at 4:53
No one in Bavel asked how much massa to eat because for them a k'zayith was 3-5 grams and they did not a have a hawa mina to think otherwise. Later, we see this discussed because people became unsure of what an olive actually was or what its size was. So, now we have l'humra 60 gram [fictitious] "olives." What I am asking about is much more than just clarifying details, rather we have seen major innovations and safeqoth that no one had until 2-3 centuries ago - as if no one understood the Gemara until they studied it in Europe? Or how about the complete reversal of sh'hitta on Yom Tov? ... –  Maimonist Dec 15 '13 at 5:16
...The halakha is that since the majority of sh'hittoth result in kasheroth it is permitted to shecht on YT, but now - so says the Hafess Hayim z"l - since there has been so much innovation since the times of the Gemara one should NOT schecht on YT since most of them - by these new rules - result in t'refoth! And this is BEFORE modern animal farming which results in almost universal problems of sirahoth!! Things are becoming "asur" that used to be mutar....at an alarming rate. Should this continue? Kol tuv. –  Maimonist Dec 15 '13 at 5:19
See the Orchot Tzaddikim (Sefer HaMidot) in the middle of Gate 27 (Shaar HaTorah) - hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=38360&pgnum=160 - For a description of how a decrease of knowledge of the primary sources led to confusion, resulting in the need to address questions that didn't need to be asked prior. –  Menachem Dec 15 '13 at 5:20
I'm confused as to the question. The first part is a rant that either 1. we're Am Haaretzim 2. Too many questions have back and forth discussions in Poskim 3. We have too many new cases which never appeared in the Gemara. The bottom line asks a fairly broad question "Is there ever a place for Judaism to undergo a [halakhic] reform?" What kind of reform? Would you like to put everything since the Gemara in Shaimos? Would you like to popularize a Yalkut Yosef like Sefer among the masses? What's the question? –  Shmuel Brin Dec 16 '13 at 21:14
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closed as unclear what you're asking by Shmuel Brin, Isaac Moses, HodofHod, Double AA Dec 17 '13 at 1:48

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2 Answers

Source: Introduction of the Rambam

All the Sages who arose after the conclusion of the Talmud and comprehended its [wisdom] and whose prowess gained them a reputation are called the Geonim. All these Geonim that arose in Eretz Yisrael, Babylonia, Spain, and France taught the approach of the Talmud, revealing its hidden secrets and explaining its points, since [the Talmud's] manner of expression is very deep. Furthermore, it is composed in Aramaic, with a mixture of other tongues. This language was understood by the people of Babylonia in the era when the Talmud was composed. However, in other places, and even in Babylonia in the era of the Geonim, a person cannot understand this language unless he has studied it.

The inhabitants of each city would ask many questions of each Gaon who lived in their age, to explain the difficult matters that existed in the Talmud. They would reply to them according to their wisdom. The people who had asked the questions would collect the replies and make texts from them, so that they could consider them in depth. Also, the Geonim of each generation composed texts to explain the Talmud. Some of the them explained only certain halachot. Others explained selected chapters that had created difficulty in their age. Still others explained entire tractates and orders. Also, [the Geonim] composed [texts recording] the decisions of Torah law regarding what is permitted and what is forbidden, when one is liable and when one is free of liability, with regard to subjects that were necessary at the time, so that they would be accessible to the grasp of a person who could not comprehend the depths of the Talmud. This is the work of God, which was performed by all the Geonim of Israel from the completion of the Talmud until the present date, 1108 years after the destruction of the Temple, 4937 years after the creation of the world.

At this time, we have been beset by additional difficulties, everyone feels [financial] pressure, the wisdom of our Sages has become lost, and the comprehension of our men of understanding has become hidden. Therefore, those explanations, laws, and replies which the Geonim composed and considered to be fully explained material have become difficult to grasp in our age, and only a select few comprehend these matters in the proper way.

Needless to say, [there is confusion] with regard to the Talmud itself - both the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds - the Sifra, the Sifre, and the Tosefta, for they require a breadth of knowledge, a spirit of wisdom, and much time, for appreciating the proper path regarding what is permitted and forbidden, and the other laws of the Torah.

In other words, the Gemara (the one sefer that is binding on all Jews) is too confusing, so the Gaonim wrote commentaries, which themselves became to confusing, which resulted in Rishonim, which themselves became too confusing, which resulted in Acharonim....

And so on.

In other words, because the Gemara was written so long ago, we can't learn it (and rule from it straight), so we had Rishonim, and Acharonim, and Poskim.

Each of them learns the Gemara differently, and many have different traditions of Psak. Therefore, to Paskin properly, one must learn so many seforim.

The only way to solve the problem, would be to reconvene the Sanhedrin (assuming it's even possible before Moshiach's times) and make a vote.

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@ShmuelBrin ??? Why? The Rambam is written in either clear organized Hebrew or clear organized Arabic. –  Double AA Dec 16 '13 at 18:41
@avi Not to mention how we have way more access to a) commentaries on the Talmud throughout the centuries, and b) understanding of the various cultural milieux the writers of the Talmud found themselves in. –  Double AA Dec 16 '13 at 18:47
@avi. The Rambam seems very clear here that he means that people could not understand the "depths" and the "hidden secrets" etc., due to a lack of "breadth of knowledge, a spirit of wisdom, and much time." Language difficulties are only addressed in the first paragraph, regarding the Gemara's Aramaic. –  HodofHod Dec 16 '13 at 18:48
You are mixing things. Regardless, the main issue is a lack of basic reading comprehension due to hardships and the inability to study. Not temporal distance. –  avi Dec 16 '13 at 19:04
AFAICT this post doesn't answer the question, per my first comment above. I don't see why anyone has upvoted it. –  Double AA Dec 16 '13 at 19:30
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To answer your question:

My question is: Is there ever a place for Judaism to undergo a [halakhic] reform?


We know of many different Halakhic reforms through the ages.

Traditionally, we give these eras of halakhic reforms titles.

  1. The first known reform, was done by Ezra. (lasted about 300 years)
  2. Then there was the era of the Hashmonaim. (lasted about 100 years)
  3. Then there was the era of the Zugot (lasted about 200 years)
  4. Then there was the era of the Tanaim (lasted about 200 years)
  5. Then the Amoraim (lasted about 250 years)
  6. Then the Sevorim (lasted about 150 years)
  7. Then the Gaonim (lasted about 450 years)
  8. Then the Rishonim (lasted about 400 years)
  9. Then the Achronim. (has so far lasted about 500 years)

If you need me to expand on what major reforms happened during each of the Eras, I can do so, but I think that is beyond the scope of the question.

As you have noticed, we are about ready for a new halachic reform.

I have noticed in my own facebook feed, that there are many different groups of Jews who follow halacha, who, in their own ways, are all calling for these reforms. By facebook I do not mean random people, but rather the voices of rabbis such as R. Sacks, R. Cordozo, R Wein, R. Bar-hayim, R.Riskin, R. Slifkin and others.

Even though we have not given a new name to the era of the past 200-300 years, we have in fact gone through numerous halachic reforms. The first, obvious halachic reform, was the formation of the various Chasidic sects. Then there was the "We are not Reform Jews", reforms about 100 years after that. Today, we live with many different forms of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch and of course the Mishna Berura.

The important thing about all these reforms however are twofold.

  1. They were not made by proclamations of Reform. Rather they were made by changes in halacha that resulted from a response to the world evironment. The recorded change of halacha, in hindsight, can be seen as reforms.
  2. They were done with a respect and desire to stick to the words of the earlier authories, such as Chazal or before Chazal, the prophets, as best they could. And were not intending to deviate on purpose.
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The funniest reform to me has always been the "we are not reform"-reform. –  Double AA Dec 16 '13 at 18:47
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