“Halakhah: The Rabbinic Idea of Law” by Chaim Saiman— Thinking Legalese


Saiman, Chaim. “Halakhah: The Rabbinic Idea of Law”, Princeton University Press, 2018.

Thinking Legalese

Amos Lassen

The rabbis of the Talmud transformed everything into a legal question and Jewish law into a way of thinking and talking about everything, Chaim Saiman shows us how they did this. The word “halakhah” is usually translated to mean Jewish law but in reality

It is not what is usually thought of as law. The rabbinic legal system has rarely used political power to enforce its many rules, nor has halakhah ever been the law of any state. Even more idiosyncratically, the Talmudic rabbis claim that the study of halakhah is a holy endeavor that brings a person closer to God and no country can say this about its law code.

Chaim Saiman traces how generations of rabbis have used concepts that began as Talmudic disputation to do the work that other societies assign not only to philosophy, political theory, theology, and ethics but also to art, drama, and literature. In the world of halakhah “everything is law, law is also everything, and even laws that serve no practical purpose can, when properly studied, provide surprising insights into timeless questions about the very nature of human existence.”

We can question what it means for legal analysis to connect humans to God and wonder if spiritual teachings remain meaningful and at the same time rigidly codified. Is it possible for a modern state to be governed by such law? Saiman takes us across two millennia of perspectives showing how halakhah is not just “law” but an entire way of thinking, being, and knowing.

This is a fresh and original exposition of the unique nature of halakhah as a legal system that gives us both a larger picture of what halakhah is and readings of its diverse genres and periods. “The study of Jewish law is not only a guide to life but an ongoing encounter with the divine.” Chaim Saiman gives us a new understanding of halakhah that “takes as axiomatic its seamless integration of regulatory and expressive modalities into a discourse that not only conveys legal norms but also shapes thought, communicates social and religious values, and explores enduring human questions.”.

We start with a concise introduction that provokes the experienced halakhist to go into deep thought and self-reflection on the meaning and development of the halakhic system. Saiman gives us “an academically sophisticated introduction to Jewish law as a historical and lived practice and proposes an original and even surprising thesis about the nature of rabbinic legal discourse that it is less about governance of conduct and more about the exploration of religious values and ideals.”

This is both an introductory text and a collection of ideas, formulations, interpretations, and perspectives that stimulate and enrich Jewish scholars and lay people.

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