'The modern study of Halakhah'

Daniel Sperber, Professor of Jewish Studies, Talmud Department, Bar Ilan University

Mon 15 - Thurs 18 March 2011, 5.15pm daily, including a community lecture Sun 21 March

Venue: Arts Building, University of Manchester, (Building 24 on Campus Map)


1. Mon 15 March: 'The Structure of Halakhah (Law): the concepts of de'orayta (rules of biblical status),derabbanan (rules of rabbinic status) and minhag (custom)'

The opening lecture defines these three basic categories of the halakhah, indicating their problematic elements.  The traditional descending hierarchy (de-orayta, derabbanan, minhag) of this tripartite structure of the halakhah is by no means clear.  These ambiguities have at times serious practical implications, and examples will be given to demonstrate this phenomenon.


2. Tues 16 March: 'The Changing Nature of minhagand the Tendency to Increasing Strictness'

In talmudic times, minhag was clearly distinguished from halakhah and definitely possessed a lower order of authority.  However, through the Geonim,Rishonim and up to the Aharonim we see an increase in the authority of minhag such that eventually it equals halakhah derabbanan and even deorayta.  We shall examine the halakhic methodology whereby this process takes place, and suggest socio-historical reasons for it.


3. Wed 17 March: 'The Strange Concept of aminhag which "went away"'

This lecture will exemplify the growth ofminhag by showing how the attitude towards kitniyot(legumes on Passover) developed in Ashkenazi communities and grew progressively more stringent, until it bore no relationship to its possible sources.


4. Thurs 18 March: 'The Sociology of ContemporaryPsak (religious legal ruling) and its Deficiencies'

In earlier times, halakhists confronted by new socio-economic challenges sought out and found creative solutions within the parameters of normative halakhah.  However, starting in the early 19th century, a radical change came about, and Rabbis were loath to make any sort of innovation.  We shall examine the various factors contributing to this development. 


Community Lecture Sun 21 March, Roscoe Building, University of Manchester at 4.15pm: 'The Modern Study of the Halakhah: Yeshivah and Academy'

In this lecture, we shall try to demonstrate how the critical analysis of rabbinic sources is absolutely essential for the halakhic decision-maker, and how lack of such discipline can lead to blatant errors in psak.


Professor Daniel Sperber teaches as the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Bar-Ilan University; Committee on National Religious Education, Ministry of Education, State of Israel; winner of the 1997 Israel Prize. Prof. Sperber's areas of expertise include Classical philology; History of Jewish customs; Jewish art history; Jewish Education; Talmudic studies. His recent publications include: Sperber, D. The City in Roman Palestine. New York, Oxford University Press, 2001; Sperber, D. Nautica in Talmudic Palestine. Mediterranean History Review, vol. 15, 2001; Sperber, D. Why Jews Do What They Do? New Jersey, 1999; Sperber, D. Minhagei Yisrael. Jerusalem, 1998; Sperber, D. On the Bathhouse. In: Katzoff, R. (ed.) Classical Studies in Honor of David Sohlberg, p. 353-366. Ramat Gan, Bar-Ilan University Press, 1996.