Dear Daat Emet,
For quite some time I have not asked any questions, for the simple reason that during my army service I am not often home.
I have been told that the Talmud and the Mishnah are not material from which one can study halachot, that they are a series of arguments in which each person has a different opinion.
I wanted to know where religious people “get” their laws.
Thanks in advance,
The Talmud is a legalistic (Halachic) text which obligates today’s Orthodox public.
This is what Maimonides wrote in his introduction to the Yad HaChazakah: “All the words in the Babylonian Talmud obligate all Jews to follow them. Each city and each state is forced to uphold all the customs followed by the Sages of the Gemara, to obey their ordinances and to follow their decrees, since all the words of the Gemara have been agreed to by all Jews.” If so, why have so many books of Halacha been written? Because the Talmud — which is actually a record of debates, sophistry, Halachic decisions, tales, and legends — is written in a confused, unsystematic manner containing internal contradictions, and this makes it difficult for the ordinary person to derive Halachic conclusions. That is why Nachmanides and other authors of Halachic works after him took it upon themselves to place the legal decisions (the halachot) before the religious Jewish public in a clear and systematic way: categorized in chapters, sections, and paragraphs. This is what Maimonides wrote (in his introduction to Yad HaChazakah) about his reasons for writing a Halachic work:
In this time, excessive troubles are upon us, it is a time of stress. We have lost the wisdom of our sages and the understanding of their acumen is hidden [this is Maimonides’ euphemism for the lack of order and consistency in the Talmud]…which requires broad knowledge and a wise soul and great amounts of time. Then we could know what the correct path is on matters of prohibitions and permissions and the rest of the laws of the Torah. That is why I, Moses the son of Maimon the Spaniard, have girded my loins and have placed my trust in the Rock, blessed be He. I have perused all the books and have seen fit to compile words which clarify what is taken from each of them about prohibitions and permissions, impure and pure, and the other laws of the Torah. All this is done in clear, concise language so that the Oral Torah will be organized and known to all with no questions or dissolution, so that one will not say this and the other that. Things will be clear, close, and correct, based on the words which are clear from all the compositions and interpretations from the days of our holy rabbi [Rabbi Judah the Nasi] to now. The laws will now be obvious to all, from great to small, each and every commandment and all the decrees enacted by the sages and the prophets. A man will need no other book of Jewish law; this book will be an anthology of the entire Oral Torah with the decrees, customs, and ordinances which were enacted from the days of our teacher Moses until the writing of the Gemara, as well as what the sages wrote as interpretation in the books they wrote after the Gemara was finalized. Therefore I have called this book Mishneh Torah, for a person should first read the Written and the Oral Law and then read this. [Mishneh Torah, by Maimonides]
Additionally, the Talmud, which was written in the first centuries CE, mainly deals with the political, social, and economic situation of the times. But as is the way of the world, changes happen, and the sages of later times must rule about new matters which were not decided upon in the Talmud. That is why books of Halacha are written in each generation, to meet the needs of those times.
Finally, you should pay heed to the way contemporary sages have ignored the biggest change in the Jewish world over the past two thousand years, the establishment of the State of Israel as a national home for the Jewish people, most of whom have changed their Jewish religious outlook and have now accepted upon themselves the values of the enlightened world and reject the values of religion. Religious arbiters of our time are silent in the face of this, the most substantial change, and have decided to stick their heads in the sand, as though life in exile continues. In their minds the change is geographic alone: The Jewish community left Buczacz and went to Bnei Brak. They were under the rule of the Christian Tzarist government and are now under the rule of the democratic Jewish government.