The United States Supreme Court decides whether laws conform or do not conform to the U.S. Constitution. Similarly, the ancient sages decided and interpreted halacha, Jewish law, based on the written Torah and the Oral Law, Mesora, as passed down from generation to generation.

Traditionally, the hermeneutics (the art, theory and practice of interpretation) of Jewish law are governed by the 13 Rules recorded by Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha in the second century C.E. Rabbi Ishmael’s rules were based on an earlier framework of seven rules created by Hillel.

The 13 Rules are a critical tool in Talmudic study, but can appear quite complicated to those unfamiliar with the Talmud. Here are some examples of the rules:

Kal Va’chomer, literally “lenient and strict,” A rule from a lenient case may be inferred and applied in a strict case: If it is forbidden to pluck an apple from a tree on festivals (although one may cook in order to eat), surely such plucking is forbidden on the Sabbath (when one may not cook at all). In secular legal jargon, this argument is known as a fortiori.

K’lal U’prat, literally “general and specific.” When a general statement is followed by a more specific statement, the law applies only to the specific: When the Torah says regarding sacrifices: “From the animals, from the cattle and sheep/goat” (Leviticus 1:2) the sacrificial law being discussed here implies that only cattle and sheep/goat, and not undomesticated animals, may be used for a sacrifice.

Davar Ha’lamaid May’in’yano, contextual clarification. The prohibition against stealing, found in the Ten Commandments, is listed between the commandments prohibiting murder and adultery, both capital offenses. Since theft is not normally a capital offense, the sages understood that the statement “You shall not steal” was the prohibition of kidnaping, not general theft.

*Examples taken from commentary in the Artscroll Siddur.

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