How do rabbis decide halachah? To a large degree, it depends on what they were taught. But how do the greatest scholars of a generation make their way through the bookshelves full of different views? The answer lies in the introductions to the classical works on halachah, in which the leading lights explain their methods.
In a unique volume, Rabbi Moshe Walter, rav of the Woodside Synagogue Ahavas Torah in Silver Spring, Maryland, offers readers a glimpse behind the curtain. He explains the different methods used to arrive at a halachic decision, dividing the field into two approaches. Some, like the Vilna Gaon, follow the primary texts as they understand them. Others, like the Beit Yosef, rely heavily on precedent and follow the majority of select authorities. Interestingly, Rabbi Walter quotes Rabbi Shlomo Heiman in the name of Rav Chaim Soloveitchik as instructing a rabbi to do both: follow the primary texts but make sure that takes you to the established precedent.
The second section of this book is more about who may answer halachic questions. Who has authority in which situations? Rabbi Walter compiles the laws guiding a questioner in asking a halachic question and of a rabbi in answering it.
The English discussion is supplemented with key Hebrew texts, including introductions to important halachic codes. This book will not teach you how to be a posek, a halachic authority; you will need a few decades of intensive study for that. It will, however, provide you with fascinating insight into the often opaque process of halachic decision making.
Rabbi Gil Student is book editor of Jewish Action.