What are the sources for the Jewish law or "Halacha"? Is there any priority among these sources? In common practice, when a law is described, is the citation given form the main sources or derived codified books? (Please consider explaining any Jewish/Hebrew terms.)

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    I think you might need to narrow this question down a little :) The answers to what you asked fill volumes of literature. Perhaps get rid of the second and third questions (the short answer to both of them is "yes" anyway) and ask people if they have any links to more detailed online information as regards the first and the fourth.
    – Shimon bM
    Commented Jul 17, 2012 at 10:31
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    As @Shimon said, this is several questions. Please stick to one. You can ask the others separately.
    – Seth J
    Commented Jul 17, 2012 at 12:42
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    Gulshan, thank you for editing per the above comments. Consider asking a separate question if you still would like something clarified.
    – Double AA
    Commented Jul 17, 2012 at 15:51
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    @DoubleAA Welcome. I shall ask the removed part separately. But now I would like to have more elaborated answer of the remaining portion.
    – Gulshan
    Commented Jul 17, 2012 at 15:54
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    @AdamMosheh Thank you for asking. Actually I prefer the answer of ba. Because answer of DovF was more accurate for the previous version of this question. But ba got significantly lesser votes. I do not have any prior knowledge about this subject. So, I became confused. Now I am going to mark ba's one as answer.
    – Gulshan
    Commented Jul 23, 2012 at 3:02

1 Answer 1


G-d gave all the laws to Moses, and he passed it on to his students orally until the time of R' Yehudah, who wrote everything down in the mishnah in a concise way (Gitin 60a). We accept everything written there, since it came from G-d Himself. However, by that time, disputes had already risen over things that had to do with logic (which we are expected to apply to other cases when relevant), but not over the tradition itself (Tosafos Yom Tov, Avos 1:4). At around the same time, baraysos (laws not included in the mishnah) were written by contemporaries of R' Yehudah (e.g. Tosefta by R' Chiya). (See also this.)

R' Yehudah had three students, Rav, Shmuel, and R' Yochanan (Introduction to Mishneh Torah). Rav and Shmuel moved to Babylonia, and are therefore major authorities in the Talmud Bavli, while R' Yochanan moved to Israel, and became an authority for the Talmud Yerushalmi (these are both commentaries on the mishnah). However, they didn't actually write these Talmuds, but rather their students did. It turned out that the Yerushalmi was completed before the Bavli. Therefore, we assume that the ones who put everything in the Bavli saw everything in the Yerushalmi, so if the Bavli disagrees, we assume the Bavli disagrees even though it saw the Yerushalmi, so it must have had a good reason for disagreeing. However, if the Yerushalmi is not in doubt and the Bavli is in doubt, we follow the Yerushalmi. This is the explanation that I heard. See also Sdei Chemed Klalei HaPoskim 2:1.

Also, there was the Zohar, written by R' Shimon bar Yochai, but we follow the Bavli over Zohar (Mishnah Brurah 25:42 in the name of the Kneses HaGedolah; see also these sources). We also follow Yerushalmi over Zohar (see this answer). We follow Tosefta over Yerushalmi as well (see Sdei Chemed Klalei HaPoskim 2:5; the Pri Chadash quoted there disagrees). There were other works (e.g. Sifra, Sifri, etc.), but I won't cover them all.

Afterwards, disputes arose in the intent of those Talmuds themselves. There rose up many works of law in order to clarify which opinions in the Talmuds we follow, etc. There were many works (e.g. Bahag), but the Rif's commentary was the first most accepted original work to explain the law. After him rose the Rambam, who most of the time followed the Rif (Migdal Oz in many places). The Rosh also wrote a commentary. These three works were the ones that formed the basis for most of the laws of the Tur (the son of the Rosh).

The two people who wrote the first commentary on the Tur were the Beis Yosef (R' Yosef Karo) and the Darkei Moshe (R' Moshe Isserless), who explained (and sometimes disputed) the decisions of the Tur. But after all their comments, it ended up being that it took a lot of work to find the practical halachah. Therefore, the Beis Yosef wrote the Shulchan Aruch ("set table"), arranged like the order of the Tur, which only contained the practical halachah, its source being the corresponding chapter in the Tur, from which anyone could see how the law developed.

After the Shulchan Aruch, new commentaries came up to explain it and dispute it, so now the most common work to find the halachah is the Shulchan Aruch and its commentaries.

(As a side note, these commentaries which disputed their predecessors didn't dispute the authority of the Talmuds; they either found a case in the Talmuds which they brought as proof against a different case, or made rulings based on logic.)

  • Rav Yochanan moved to Israel?
    – Double AA
    Commented Jul 17, 2012 at 21:26
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    It might have been more accurate to say he stayed in Israel. However, I didn't find a source that said that he was already there, so I used the more simple wording.
    – b a
    Commented Jul 17, 2012 at 21:53
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    I didn't see on Gittin 60A where it says that R' Yehudah "wrote everything down in the mishnah in a concise way"
    – Menachem
    Commented Jul 19, 2012 at 20:42
  • HaRambam in his Introduction to Mishneh Torah writes: "[...] Rabbenu Hakadosh [...] composed a single text that would be available to everyone, so that it could be studied quickly and would not be forgotten. Throughout his entire life, he and his court taught the Mishnah to the masses." (source)
    – Lee
    Commented Jul 9, 2013 at 3:11

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