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For traditional Torah scholars, the end of each era is marked by a book that gets accepted by the masses as authoritative. This seals the acts of that era as a whole as accepted, authoritative p'sak. Therefore, any ruling by those who live after this era must be supported by an opinion of that era.
The first such book (and the first written book of the Oral law) is the Mishna. There are other compilations of the Tanaitic material, the Braisos (Baraitot), the Tosefta, and Midrashai Halakha (Mekhilta, Sifra, and Sifre), but it is the Mishna that marks the end of the Tanaitic era (70-200 CE). It was the Mishna that was accepted by the people.
The second is the Babylonian Talmud. The Jerusalem Talmud is less authoritative because it was developed for a shorter time than the Babylonian Talmud. The Talmud marks the end of the Amoraic era (220-500 CE).
The next era was the period of the Sabora'im (500-650CE). At this time, the Jewish sages in Persia who were the rabbinic leaders of their time. They contributed much to the finishing of Talmud Bavli; Jews in this area continued to live in a relatively stable environment. In contrast, Jews at this time in Israel were living under the oppressive rule of the Byzantines.
There is a Ga'onic era in Jewish history (650-1250CE), but not in Jewish law, since there is no book that was accepted as the end of that era. At this time, Jews were living in Southern Europe and Asia Minor under the often intolerant rule of Christian Kings and clerics. Most Jews lived in the Muslim Arab realm (Israel, North Africa, Babylonia). Despite periods of persecution, Jewish communal and cultural life flowered in this period. The universally recognized centers of Jewish life were in Sura and Pumbeditha (Babylonia); The heads of these law schools were the Geonim, who were consulted on matters of law by Jews throughout the world.
The next such book(s) is the Shulchan Aruch (by R' Caro), the authoritative Sephardic resource, and the Mappah (Ramah), which has the Ashkenazic rulings when different (Note that both are in the same book; see the general reading list). This delineated the period of the Rishonim (The First Ones) (1250-1550CE). A Rishon may argue with another Rishon, or with a Ga'on (since there is no Halachic concept of the Gaonic era), but can only argue with an Amora if he has another Amora in his support. He cannot use a Tana that was rejected by the Amora'im as support, since that would be overruling a p'sak of someone greater in chochmah.
Most Jews in the period of the Rishonim lived in the Mediterranean basin or in Western Europe under feudal systems. With the decline of both the Muslim and Jewish centers of power in Iraq, there was no single place in the world which was a recognized center for deciding matters of Jewish law and practice. Consequently, the rabbis recognized the need for writing commentaries on the Torah and Talmud and for writing law codes that would allow Jews anywhere in the world to be able to continue living in the Jewish tradition.
Note that the term "Rishonim" just evolved. "Rishonim" means "first ones". It appears that people after the cultural break talked about the earlier generations using that word, attributing to those generations greater knowledge and thus authority so often, that a word was originally used as just a word became a title. In the later generations of the amoraim too, "rishonim" meant the earllier amora'im. As Rav Zeira said: "If the rishonim were like angels, we are like people. And if they were like people, then we are like donkeys." (Shabbos 112b).
Anyone after the Shulchan Aruch is called an Acharon (The Last Ones) (1550CE to present). An Acharon can only disagree with a Rishon when he is taking the position of another Rishon. There are strict rules for change.
Liberal Jews tend to justify halachic change by ascribing greater authority to present generations (or even to individuals) than to past generations of sages.
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Daniel P. Faigin <email@example.com>