FAQ: What is Halakha?

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FAQ: What is Halakha?

FAQ: What is Halakha?

by Ariel ben-Lyman HaNaviy

[T]he question has been asked, “Where does Halakha come from?”  Well, we all know that Torah comes from Heaven (recorded by human agents, but inspired by the Ruach HaKodesh).  God speaks and we must contextualize his instructions so that they fit with each passing generation.  All the while, the challenge is to maintain the truth of each word, sorting out descriptive commands from prescriptive commands.  Thus, Halakha has been labeled the “humanization of the Word of God” if you will.  God’s Words are perfect; man’s handling of God’s Word is understandably imperfect.  Thus, Halakha is ultimately imperfect as well.  Nevertheless, HaShem sees fit to entrust to imperfect humans the difficult task of establishing his Word in and throughout the earth.  In a way, because the Torah is very “general” in many places, the Halakha is a necessity to safeguard against anarchy (wholesale rebellion against authority) or legalism (the strict adherence to authority, without regard to personal relationship or need).*

The Laws of the Torah

Broadly, the Halakha comprises the practical application of the commandments (each one known as a mitzvah) in the Torah, as developed in subsequent rabbinic literature. According to the Talmud (Tractate Makot), there are 613 mitzvot (“commandments”) in the Torah; in Hebrew these are known as the Taryag mitzvot.  There are 248 positive mitzvot and 365 negative mitzvot given in the Torah, supplemented by seven mitzvot legislated by the rabbis of antiquity.

Categories of law

Judaism divides the laws into two basic categories:

  • Laws in relation to God (bein adam le-Makom), and
  • Laws about relations with other people (bein adam le-chavero).

Violations of the latter are considered to be more severe, as one must obtain forgiveness both from the offended person and from God.

Rabbinic authorities divide Halakha between laws that are interpreted as revealed (Biblical) commandments and those designated as rabbinic in origin. This division between revealed and rabbinic commandments may influence the importance of a rule, its enforcement and the nature of its ongoing interpretation.

Commandments (mitzvot) are divided into positive and negative commands, which are treated differently in terms of Divine and human punishment. Positive commands [are said] bring one closer to God, while violations of negative ones create a distance. In striving to “be holy” as God is holy, one attempts so far as possible to live in accordance with Gods wishes for humanity, striving to more completely live with each of these with every moment of ones life.

A further division is made between chukim (“decrees”) — laws without obvious explanation, such as kashrut, the dietary laws), mishpatim (“judgments”) — laws with obvious social implications and eduyot — “testimonies” or “commemorations”, such as the Shabbat and holidays). Through the ages, various rabbinical authorities have classified the commandments in various other ways.

The name Halakha derives from the Hebrew halach meaning “going” or the “[correct] way”; thus a literal translation does not yield “law,” rather “the way to go.” The term Halakha may refer to a single rule, to the literary corpus of rabbinic legal texts, as well as to the overall system of religious law.

The Halakha is often contrasted with the Aggadah, the diverse corpus of rabbinic exegetical, narrative, philosophical and other “non-legal” literatures. At the same time, since writers of Halakha may draw upon the aggada literature, there is a dynamic interchange between the two genres.

Halakha constitutes the practical application of the hundreds of the mitzvot (“commandments”) (singular: mitzvah) 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”) and codified in the Shulkhan Arukh (the Jewish “Code of Law”.)

The Scope of Halakha

The Halakha is a comprehensive guide to numerous aspects of human life, corporeal and spiritual. Its laws, guidelines, and opinions cover a vast range of situations and principles, in the attempt to comprehend what is implied by the repeated commandment to “be holy as I your God am holy” of the Torah. They cover what are better ways for a Jew to live, when commandments conflict how one may choose righteously, what is implicit and understood but not stated explicitly, and what has been deduced by implication though not visible on the surface.

Halakha is shaped and contested by a variety of rabbis (and other Jews), rather than one sole “official voice,” so different individuals and communities may well have different answers to Halakhic questions. Controversies lend rabbinic literature much of its creative and intellectual appeal. With few exceptions, controversies are not settled through authoritative structures because Judaism lacks a single judicial hierarchy or appellate review process for Halakha. Instead, Jews interested in observing Halakha may choose to follow specific rabbis or affiliate with a more tightly-structured community.

Halakha has been developed and pored over throughout the generations since before 500 BCE, in a constantly expanding collection of religious literature consolidated in the Talmud. First and foremost it forms a body of intricate judicial opinions, legislation, customs, and recommendations, 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.

As a practical matter, early modern rabbis interpreted Halakha so as to recognize the jurisdiction and enforceability of state law for Jewish citizens. As a result, Jews today need not feel restricted to traditional Halakha for much of their commercial, civil and (especially) criminal law.

Historically, Halakha served many Jewish communities as an enforceable avenue of civil and religious law. In the modern era, Jewish citizens may be bound to Halakhah only by their voluntary consent. In Israel, though, certain areas of Israeli family and personal status law are governed by rabbinic interpretations of Halakha. Reflecting the diversity of Jewish communities, somewhat different approaches to Halakha are found among Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, and Sefardi Jews. Among Ashkenazi Jews, disagreements over Halakha have played a pivotal role in the emergence of Orthodox, Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist streams of Judaism.

* With acknowledged assistance from Wikipedia

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