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Halakha

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Halakha (halakhah, halacha, halachah הלכה) is a Hebrew word, commonly used to refer to the collective corpus of Jewish law, custom and tradition regulating all aspects of behaviour. Halakhah derives from the Hebrew הלך, halach, going; thus a literal translation does not yield "law", rather "the way to go." Halakha constitutes the practical application of the commandments in the Torah, (the five books of Moses, the Written Law) as developed through discussion and debate in the classical rabbinic literature, especially the Mishnah and the Talmud (the Oral law).

Table of contents
1 The scope of Halakha
2 The laws of the Torah
3 The Halakhic process
4 How Halakha is viewed today
5 Codes of Jewish law
6 See also
7 External links

The scope of Halakha

The Halakha dictates everything the traditional Jew does from the moment he or she wakes up to the moment they go to sleep. It includes codes of behavior applicable to virtually every imaginable circumstance (and many hypothetical ones), see for example the topics covered in the Mishna Torah. The Halakha has been pored over and developed throughout the generations in a constantly expanding collection of religious literature based on the Talmud. The Halakha is first and foremost a legislative body of intricate laws, combined with customs, many of them passed down over the centuries, and an assortment of ingrained behaviors, relayed to successive generations from the moment a child begins to speak. It is also the subject of intense study in yeshivas; see Torah study.

The laws of the Torah

Broadly, the Halakha comprises the practical application of the commandments in the Torah, as developed in subsequent rabbinic literature; see The Mitzvot and Jewish Law. According to the Talmud (Tractate Makot), there are 613 mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah; In Hebrew these are known as the Taryag mitzvot תרי"ג מצוות. There are 248 positive mitzvot and 365 negative mitzvot given in the Torah, supplemented by seven mitzvot legislated by the rabbis of antiquity; see Rabbinical commandments. One list of the 613 mitzvot can be found here.

Categories of law

Judaism divides the laws into two basic categories:
  1. Laws in relation to God, and
  2. Laws about relations with other people.
Violations of the latter are considered to be more severe, as one must obtain forgiveness both from the offended person and from God.

Laws are also divided into positive and negative commands, which are treated differently in terms of Divine and human punishment. Positive commands add to your balance, violation of negative commands detracts from it. One thus wants to do as many positive commands as possible, and violate as few negative commands as possible, so as to improve one's standing with God.

Sins: Violations of Jewish law

Judaism regards the violation of the commandments, the mitzvot, to be a sin. The term sin is theologically loaded, as it means different things to Jews and Christians. In Christianity a sin is a crime committed against God, for which one will suffer (tremendous) divine punishment, unless one repents. Judaism has a wider definition of the term sin, and also uses it to include violations of Jewish law that are not necessarily a lapse in morality. Further, Judaism holds it as given that all people sin at various points in their lives, and hold that God always tempers justice with mercy. (See, for example Laws of Repentance from Rambam's Mishneh Torah.)

The generic Hebrew word for any kind of sin is aveira. Based on the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) Judaism describes three levels of sin.

Judaism holds that no human being is perfect, and all people have sinned many times. However a state of sin does not condemn a person to damnation; only one or two truly grievous sins lead to anything approaching the Christian hot hell.

In earlier days, when Jews had a functioning court system, courts were empowered to administer physical punishments for various violations, upon conviction by far stricter standards of evidence than are acceptable in American courts: corporal punishment, incarceration, excommunication. Since the fall of the Temple, executions have been forbidden. Since the fall of the autonomous Jewish communities of Europe, the other punishments have also fallen by the wayside. Today, then, one's accounts are reckoned solely by God.

Gentiles and Jewish law

All denominations of Jews hold that gentiles are not obligated to follow Halakha; only Jews are obligated do so. Judaism has always held that gentiles are obligated only to follow the seven Noahide Laws; these are laws that the oral law derives from the covenant God made with Noah after the flood, which apply to all descendants of Noah, i.e. all of mankind. The Noahide laws are derived in the Talmud (Tractate Sanhedrin 57a), and are listed here:

  1. Murder is forbidden.
  2. Theft is forbidden.
  3. Sexual immorality is forbidden.
  4. Eating the flesh of a living animal is forbidden.
  5. Belief in, and/or prayer to idols is forbidden.
  6. Blaspheming against God is forbidden.
  7. Society must establish a system of legal justice to administer these laws.

The Halakhic process

The boundaries of Jewish law are determined through the halakhic process; the halakhic process is a religious-ethical system of legal precedents. In this system, one may re-interpret or change the law through a formal argument. These arguments are effectively, yet unofficially, peer-reviewed. When a rabbi proposes a new interpretation of a law, that interpretation is not normative for the Jewish community until it becomes accepted by other committed and observant members in the community. New legal precedents are based on the standard codes of Jewish law, and the
responsa literature. The Hebrew term for the responsa is '"Sheelot U-Teshuvot"', literally "Questions and Answers".

There is no formal peer-review process for the entire Jewish community in general, since the Jewish community has no one central body that speaks for all of Judaism. However, within certain Jewish communities formal organized bodies exist: Each sect of Orthodox Hasidic Judaism has their own rebbe, who is their ultimate decisor of Jewish law. Within Modern Orthodox Judaism, there is no one committee or leader, but Modern Orthodox rabbis generally agree with the views set by consensus by the leaders of the Rabbinical Council of America. Within Conservative Judaism, the Rabbinical Assembly has an official Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.

In antiquity, the Sanhedrin functioned essentially as the Supreme Court and legislature for Judaism, and had the power to create and administer binding law on all Jews - rulings of the Sanhedrin became Halakha; see Oral law. That court ceased to function in its full mode in AD 40. Today, application of Jewish law is left to the local rabbi, and the local rabbinical courts, with only local applicability.

Eras of history important in Jewish law

See Rabbinic literature

Generally speaking, a rabbi in any one period of time does not overrule specific laws from earlier eras of Jewish history, unless one can find another rabbi from that era whose ruling can be used to support his view.

The thirteen rules by which Jewish law was derived

During the time of the Mishnah, the oral law was said to be derived from the written Torah by virtue of one or more of the following methods ("Introduction to Sifra" by Rabbi Yishma'el):

  1. A fortiori: We find a similar law in a more lenient case; how more so should that law apply to our stricter case!
  2. Gezera Shava, similarity in phrase: We find a similar law in a verse containing a similar phrase to one in our verse. This method can only be used by oral tradition.
  3. Binyan Av, either by one or two Scriptures: We find a similar law in another case, why shouldn't we assume that the same law applies here? Now the argument may go against this inference, finding some law which applies to that case but not to ours. This type of refutation is valid only if the inference was from one Scripture, not if it was from two Scriptures.
  4. Klal Ufrat, a generality and a particularity: If we find a phrase signifying a particularity following that of a generality, the particularity particularises the generality and we only take that particular case into account.
  5. Prat Ukhlal, a particularity and a generality: If the order is first the particularity and then the generality, we add from the generality upon the particularity, even to a broad extent.
  6. Klal Ufrat Ukhlal, a generality, a particularity and a generality: If there is a particularity inserted between two generalities, we only add cases similar to the particularity.
  7. A generality that requires a particularity, and a particularity that requires a generality:
  8. Every thing that was within the general rule and was excluded from the rule to teach us a rule, we don't consider this rule as pertaining only to this excluded case, but to the entire general case.
  9. Anything that was included in a general rule, and was excluded to be susceptible to one rule that is according to its subject, it is only excluded to be treated more leniently but not more strictly.
  10. Anything that was included in a general rule and was excluded to be susceptible to one rule that is not according to its subject, it is excluded to be treated both more leniently and more strictly.
  11. Anything that was included in a general rule and was excluded to be treated by a new rule, we cannot restore it to its general rule unless Scripture restores it explicitly.
  12. A matter that is inferred from its context, and a matter that is inferred from its ending.
  13. The resolution of two Scriptures that contradict each other [must wait] until a third Scripture arrives and resolves their apparent contradiction.

How Halakha is viewed today

See also The Talmud in modern-day Judaism


Orthodox Judaism holds that the words of the Torah (Pentateuch) were indeed dictated by God to Moses in almost precisely the way that they exist in the Torah today. The laws contained in the Written Torah were given along with detailed explanations as how to apply and interpret them, the Oral Law. The religious laws that Jews know today are thus directly derived from Sinai. As such, one must be extremely conservative changing or adapting Jewish law. Orthodox Judaism holds that, given Jewish law's Divine origin, no underlying principle may be compromised in accounting for changing political, social or economic conditions; in this sense, "creativity" and development in Jewish law is limited. See Orthodox beliefs about Jewish law and tradition.

Conservative Judaism holds that the current text of the Torah is a composite that was redacted together from earlier sources. Conservative Jews hold that it is possible to believe that God is real and that prophets like Moses really were inspired by God. However, whatever records and traditions relating to such events were apparently transmitted in various forms for many centuries. This says nothing about whether the Torah is based on God or not, and so this idea not a theological threat. Therefore Conservative Judaism teaches that one should make use of literary and historical analysis to understand how these texts developed, and to help them understand how they may applied in our own day. Conservative Jews view the laws and customs from the various law codes as the basis for normative Jewish law. Solomon Schechter writes "however great the literary value of a code may be, it does not invest it with infallibility, nor does it exempt it from the student or the Rabbi who makes use of it from the duty of examining each paragraph on its own merits, and subjecting it to the same rules of interpretation that were always applied to Tradition". [Solomon Schechter].

Reform Judaism and Reconstructionist Judaism both hold that modern views of how the Torah and rabbinic law developed imply that the body of rabbinic Jewish law is no longer normative (seen as binding) on Jews today. Therefore Jews are not expected or taught to follow most of halakha. Those in the traditionalist wing of these movements hold that each Jew is obligated to interpret the Torah, Talmud and other Jewish works for themselves, and this interpretation will create separate commandments for each person. Those in the neo-traditional wing of Reform include Rabbis Eugene Borowitz and Gunther Plaut.

Those in liberal and classical wing of Reform believe that in this day and era most Jewish religious rituals are no longer necessary, and many hold that following most Jewish laws are actually counter-productive. They propose that Judaism has entered a phase of ethical monotheism, and that the laws of Judaism are only remnants of an earlier stage of religious evolution, and should not be followed. This is considered heretical not only by Orthodoxy, but by Conservative Judaism, and perhaps by some in the traditional wing of Reform.

Flexibility within the Halakha

Throughout history, halakha had been a remarkably flexible system, despite its internal rigidity, addressing issues on the basis of circumstance and precedent. For instance, rulings regarding modern technology have been incorporated into the ever-expanding halakhah. New rulings guide the observant about the proper use of electricity on the Sabbath and holidays within the parameters of halakhah. (Many scholarly tomes have been published and are constantly being reviewed ensuring the maximum co-ordination between electrical appliances and technology with the needs of the religiously observant Jew, with a great range of opinions.) Often, as to the applicability of the law in any given situation, the proviso is: "Consult your local Orthdox rabbi or posek, (rabbinical authority)."

Modern critics, however, charge that with the rise of movements that challenge the "Divine" authority of halachah, traditional Jews have greater reluctance to change, not only the laws themselves but also other customs and habits.

Codes of Jewish law

The Torah and the Talmud are not formal codes of law; they are sources of law. There are many formal codes of Jewish law that have developed over the past few thousand years. The major codes are:

See also

External links