Institutions are the various forms in which the social life of a people finds expression. Some it will take for granted as a matter of custom; others it will adopt of its own choice; and yet others will be imposed upon it by an authority. Individuals are subject to the nation's institutions, but the institutions themselves exist, ultimately, for the sake of the society whose welfare they promote, whether the society be small as a family, or large as a state or religious community. Again, the institutions of a society will vary with time and place, and will depend, to some extent, on natural conditions such as geography and climate, but their distinguishing characteristic is that they all proceed, in the end, from the human will.
The institutions of a people with a long past are therefore closely bound up not only with the territory in which it has lived but with history. They will be made to suit that people, and will bear the mark of its psychology, of its ideas on man, the world and God. Like its literature, its art, its science and religion, its institutions too are an element in, and an expression of, its civilization. In order to understand and describe these ancient witnesses to the life of a people, the historian has to take into account all the traces of the past. Clearly, written documents have pride of place, but the things which survive, even the humblest remains of man's labour, cannot be passed over. Everything is grist which will enable us to reconstruct the conditions and the setting of the people's social life.
Because of these various relations with other sciences, the institutions of Israel have usually been studied as part of a larger whole. Long treatises have been devoted to them in the classic historical works, the Geschichte des Volkes Israel byRudolf Kittel, and especially in Schürer Geschichte des jüdischen Volkes for the last period of the Old Testament. Conversely, the recent studies by J. Pirenne on Les Institutions des Hébreux follow the historical development. Formerly, institutions were treated under the heading of Antiquitates Hebraicae, but nowadays they are associated with archaeology, and are thus presented by I. Benziger in Hebräische Archäologie, 3rd edition, 1927, by F. Nötscher in Biblische Altertumskunde, 1940, and by A. G. Barrois in Manuel d'Archéologie Biblique, I, 1939; II, 1953. Ample space is devoted to them in histories of civilization, such as A. Bertholet, Kulturgeschichte Israels, 1919, and J. Pedersen, Israel, its Life and Culture, I-II, 1926; III-IV, 1940.