Before one can understand the interaction of kabbalah and halacha, one must understand how the larger halachic process works. Generally, our halacha is determined by the Oral Torah, comprised of the two Talmuds, and the various Midrashim. The Rishonim and Achronim tell us that there is also a specific order of preference among the Oral Torah. For example, the sefer Yad Malachi (written approximately 300 years ago) quotes from earlier sources that as a general rule we follow the Talmud above all other sources, and that the Babylonian Talmud overrides the Jerusalem Talmud. The Jerusalem Talmud, though, would override the Tosefta as well as the Midrash. How kabbalah, then, fits into all of this will be discussed later.
Due to the exile and the unique way in which Chazal’s words are written, it is unclear to us how to correctly understand the Talmud’s various conclusions. This has lead to the many commentators adding their explanations. These commentators are divided into two major post-Talmudic categories: one called the Rishonim and one called the Achronim. The actual timeline for demarcation is unclear, but suffice to say that sometime between the secular year 1400 and 1500 was the transition period from the former to the latter. The basic operating principle is that the Rishonim explain the Talmud, and the Achronim explain the Rishonim. However, as is well observed by the Talmudic student, this is by no means a fully accurate description. We regularly find the Achronim arguing with the Rishonim. So what exactly does the delineation between these two groups accomplish?
The truth is that some form of delineation between the status of scholars existed even in Talmudic times. We find in the classic literature that later Amoraim did not generally argue with earlier Amoraim. Even according to the viewpoint that Amoraim were allowed to argue with the earlier Tannaim (something which is disputed by the Rishonim and Achronim) the policy was certainly to refrain as much as possible from doing so. This concept also held forth in the times of the Rishonim, where many later Rishonim did not argue with earlier ones. Later, with the onset of the Achronim, the policy of arguing with those who were called Rishonim was also up to debate. Some Achronim would argue with Rishonim, while others would not. There are even great Achronim who would not argue on great earlier Achronim. Others would argue with hesitation, while still others would argue with seemingly no reservation whatsoever.
The basic conclusion then is that the delineation points are used by later authorities as a guide for how to react to the earlier opinion. Once someone is classified as a Rishon, someone who has either classified himself as an Acharon (or has been so classified) will hesitate to argue with a Rishon, or refrain from doing so entirely. The reasoning behind this is simply the basic concept of humility. The Rabbinic authorities who believe in the Talmudic concept of generational decent (that later generations are not as great as earlier ones) look back in time and realize the great difference in level of scholarship. These great sages recognize that the earlier sages were far superior in scholarship and therefore respond to their disagreements with the earlier sages in a correspondingly humble manner.
Surely, all sages no matter their classification independently learn the various primary sources, but more recent sages will consult with earlier authorities and, only after analyzing the opinions therein relative to the greatness of said earlier authority, will evaluate their own personal opinion in light of that.
While some raised on the modern Western concept of complete independence without automatic regard for earlier opinions might find this process of halacha difficult to relate to, for anyone to properly understand how a posek comes to his halachic decision, one must internalize these points and values. Only then can one understand the Rabbi’s hesitation to make innovations in halacha, or even simply to argue with whomever they might so choose. In true Rabbinic circles the above is not considered insulting nor degrading to the current Rabbis. On the contrary, the Rabbis applaud this attitude and only trust others who display this deference.
Now that we understand the halachic process somewhat, we can begin to try and understand how this will relate to kabbalah, and how it can or should influence halacha. We will try and explain this more in the following installment.