Semiotic theory provides a powerful set of tools for analyzing rabbinic legal reasoning. Following Saussure's distinction between the two axes of a sign's meaning, value and signification, I posit that any casuistic law acquires meaning from two distinct elements of legal discourse. The first element is analogical reasoning, that is, the comparison between casuistic laws, which is the type of sense construction implicitly reflected in the organization of the tannaitic law codes. Semiotics establishes that legal analogy is not merely a tool for adjudication but rather the essential means of constituting a cohesive discourse out of distinct legal formulations.

The second element is rationalization. Scholars have traditionally conceived of legal rationales as logical antecedents or historical motivations for laws; I demonstrate that these do not reflect the way rationales are invoked within rabbinic law. Rather, based on Peirce's conception of meaning as "the translation of a sign into another system of signs," rationalization is best conceived of as the association of a law with a statement from outside the network of casuistic laws. What confers legitimacy on a given rationale is its position within a conventionally accepted mode of halakhic argumentation.

I use this model to account for the fact that legal rationales tend to play a relatively peripheral role in the construction of rabbinic legal discourse. Semiotics establishes that a broader legal discourse, wherein casuistic laws are explained through various types of rationales, is possible only because the network of casuistic laws constitutes a self-sufficient cultural construct.


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