Torah Knowledge For Non-Jews Vol. 1

3. Interpreting the Torah

3.2. Interpreting the Torah III

Rabbinic Authority

Experts in the above texts have been given authority to decide issues.  This is found in numerous places in the Torah text itself (i.e. Ex. 18:20, Deuteronomy 16:18 and 17:8–13).  Not only this, but they have also been given the authority to make decrees to safeguard the laws of the Torah.  Their authority is also hierarchical.

Deciding Halakhah (Actual Practice)

The system of deciding religious practice, Halakhah, is part and parcel of Torah.  The system of Halakhah exists to preserve the Mesorah and to fill in gaps when they occur.  The majority of rabbis are not trained in deciding matters of Halakhah.  Those who are capable are known as poskim (decisors, or singular posek) or Dayanim (judges – singular Dayan).  A posek or Dayan must:

  • Be fluent in the hierarchies of Torah authority and rules of derivation and interpretation,
  • Have a complete mastery of the source materials,
  • Possess sufficient scholarship to understand how a decision in one area will affect the “homeostasis” of the entire halakhic system,
  • Thoroughly understand the boundaries of Mesorah and evaluate decisions in its context.

The structure of rabbinic authority in exile is a meritocracy.  he greater and more accomplished a scholar, the greater the authority he holds.  No scholar today, however, can overrule an accepted decision from an authority in an earlier era of Torah scholarship.

Eras of Torah Scholarship and Authority

Since the destruction of the Temple and worldwide dispersion of the Torah community, there has been a constant global effort to unify and preserve Torah observance in exile.  The Torah world has gone through many stages in accomplishing that goal.

The Gaonim - (The Respected or Eminent Ones) 700 to 1000 CE

From about the 7th until the 11th century (when the Jewish community began to spread beyond the Middle East, settling in Spain, Africa, France, and Germany) the exile communities corresponded frequently with the Gaonim, the leaders of the remaining academies of Torah study in the Middle East.  The Gaonim answered questions and compiled guidelines for them on prayer and holiday observances...

The Rishonim - (The Early Scholars) 1000 to 1500 CE

The Jewish community eventually abandoned the Middle East as the centers of scholarship shifted to Spain, Germany, and France.  The scholars in these countries established their own schools and produced producing extensive, foundational commentaries on the Talmud and the Torah.  They were known as the Rishonim.

Koviim - (The Establishers) 1500 to 1680 CE

The Koviim sought to collect and systematize all of the scholarship produced in the diaspora to produce a unified form of Torah observance in the exile. Their work  is the basis of all Jewish practice today.  The most important of the Koviim is Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488 – 1575).  He literally collected, studied, compiled, and systematized every known piece of Torah thought produced since the exile.  His magnum opus was the Shulchan Aruch, the Set Table - a complete statement of Jewish practice in exile.  It is a massive work based upon the thought of thousands of Torah scholars working for over 1000 years.  It is the basis of all Jewish practice today.

The Acharonim - (The Later Scholars) 1680 to 2013?

With the Shulchan Aruch’s acceptance, the rabbinic world now had a launch pad – a universal foundation – from which to work.  There was a sudden boom in all areas of Torah scholarship.  The generations of scholars following the Koviim are known as the Acharonim.

With the death of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in 2013, many believe that we are entering a new era in Jewish scholarship.  The nature of this era has yet to be defined.

For a deeper and more comprehensive study we encourage you to take the 'Noahide Laws & Life Cycle Course' taught by the Talmudic University of Florida or the Home/Study course 'Noahide Laws & Life Cycle Course'.