Halakhah: Jewish Law
Halakhah is a set of Jewish rules and practices
It affects every aspect of life
It adds religious significance to everyday activities
Halakhah comes from the Torah, the rabbis, and custom
What is Halakhah?
Judaism is not just a set of beliefs about
G-d, man and the universe. Judaism is a
comprehensive way of life, filled with rules and practices that affect every
aspect of life: what you do when you wake up in the morning, what you can and
cannot eat, what you can and cannot wear, how to
groom yourself, how to conduct business, who you can
marry, how to observe the
Shabbat, and perhaps most important, how to
treat G-d, other people, and
animals. This set of rules and practices is
known as halakhah.
The word "halakhah" is usually translated as "Jewish Law," although a more
literal (and more appropriate) translation might be "the path that one walks."
The word is derived from the Hebrew root
Hei-Lamed-Kaf, meaning to go, to walk or to travel.
Some non-Jews and non-observant Jews criticize this legalistic aspect of
traditional Judaism, saying that it reduces the religion to a set of rituals
devoid of spirituality. While there are certainly some Jews who observe
halakhah in this way, that is not the intention of halakhah, and it is not even
the correct way to observe halakhah.
On the contrary, when properly observed, halakhah increases the spirituality in
a person's life, because it turns the most trivial, mundane acts, such as
eating and getting dressed, into acts of religious significance. When people
write to me and ask how to increase their spirituality or the influence of
their religion in their lives, the only answer I can think of is: observe more
halakhah. Keep kosher or light
Shabbat candles, pray
after meals or once or twice a day. When
you do these things, you are constantly reminded of your relationship with the
Divine, and it becomes an integral part of your entire existence.
Are these laws sometimes inconvenient? Yes, of course. But if someone you care
about -- your parent, your child, your spouse -- asked you to do something
inconvenient or unpleasant, something you didn't feel like doing, you would do
it, wouldn't you? It is a very shallow and meaningless kind of love if you
aren't willing to do something inconvenient for the one you love. How much more
so should we be willing to perform some occasionally inconvenient tasks that
were set before us by our Creator, who assigned those tasks to us for our own good?
Sources of Halakhah
Halakhah comes from three sources: from the Torah,
from laws instituted by the rabbis and from
long-standing customs. Halakhah from any of these sources can be referred to as
a mitzvah (commandment; plural: mitzvot). The word "mitzvah" is also commonly
used in a casual way to refer to any good deed. Because of this imprecise
usage, sophisticated halakhic discussions are careful to identify mitzvot as
being mitzvot d'oraita (an Aramaic word meaning "from
the Torah") or mitzvot d'rabbanan (Aramaic for "from
the rabbis"). A mitzvah that arises from custom is referred to as a minhag.
Mitzvot from all three of these sources are binding, though there are
differences in the way they are applied (see below).
Mitzvot D'Oraita: Commandments from the Torah
At the heart of halakhah is the unchangeable 613
mitzvot (commandments) that G-d gave to the
Jewish people in the
Torah (the first five books of the Bible).
Some of the mitzvot d'oraita are clear, explicit commands in the text of the
Torah (thou shalt not murder; you shall write words of Torah on the
doorposts of your house), others are more
implicit (the mitzvah to recite grace after meals,
which is inferred from "and you will eat and be satisfied and bless the L-rd
your G-d"), and some can only be ascertained by deductive reasoning (that a man
shall not commit incest with his daughter, which is deduced from the
commandment not to commit incest with his daughter's daughter).
Some of the mitzvot overlap; for example, there is a commandment to rest on
Shabbat and a separate commandment not to do
work on Shabbat.
there is not 100% agreement on the precise list of the 613 (there are
differences in the way some lists divide related or overlapping mitzvot), there
is complete agreement that there are 613 mitzvot. This number is significant:
it is the numeric value of the word Torah (Tav =
400 + Vav = 6 + Reish = 200 + Hei = 5), plus 2 for the two mitzvot whose
existence precedes the Torah: I am the L-rd, your G-d and You shall have no
other gods before Me. (Talmud Makkot 23b). The
613 are often referred to as the taryag mitzvot, because the standard way of
writing the number 613 in Hebrew is Tav (400) Reish (200) Yod (10) Gimel (3).
The most accepted list of the 613 mitzvot is
Rambam's list in his Mishneh Torah. In the
introduction to the first book of the Mishneh Torah, Rambam lists all of the
mitzvot, then proceeds to divide them up into subject matter categories. See
List of the 613 Mitzvot.
is also complete agreement that these 613 mitzvot can be subdivided into 248
"positive" mitzvot and 365 "negative" mitzvot. Positive mitzvot are
commandments to do something, such as the commandment to honor your mother and
father. In Hebrew, these are called mitzvot aseh (commandments to do). Negative
mitzvot are commandments not to do something, such as the
commandment not to murder. In Hebrew, these are called mitzvot lo ta'aseh
(commandments not to do). The Talmud explains
that these numbers have significance: there are 365 days in the solar year, and
248 bones of the human male body (Makkot 23b). (Note: the Hebrew term
translated as "bones" includes some additional body parts, which explains the
discrepancy from modern medicine's count of 206 bones). Ancient sources also
indicate that there are 365 sinews in the body, and a significant 248-day cycle
of the moon, so both numbers have both anatomical and astronomical
Many of these 613 mitzvot cannot be observed at this time for various reasons.
For example, a large portion of the laws relate to
sacrifices and offerings, which can only be
made in the Temple, and which does not exist
today. Some of the laws relate to the theocratic state of
Israel, its king, its supreme court, and its
system of justice, and cannot be observed because the theocratic state of
Israel does not exist today. In addition, some laws do not apply to all people
or places. Agricultural laws only apply within the
state of Israel, and certain laws only apply to
kohanim or Levites.
The 19th/20th century scholar Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, commonly known as the
Chafetz Chayim, identified 77 positive mitzvot and 194 negative mitzvot which
can be observed outside of Israel today.
Mitzvot D'Rabbanan: Laws Instituted by the Rabbis
In addition to the laws that come directly from
Torah (d'oraita), halakhah includes laws that were
enacted by the rabbis (d'rabbanan). These rabbinic
laws are still referred to as mitzvot (commandments), even though they are not
part of the original 613 mitzvot d'oraita. Mitzvot
d'rabbanan are considered to be as binding as Torah laws, but there are
differences in the way we apply laws that are d'oraita and laws that are
d'rabbanan (see below).
Mitzvot d'rabbanan are commonly divided into three categories: gezeirah,
takkanah and minhag.
gezeirah is a law instituted by the rabbis to
prevent people from accidentally violating a Torah
mitzvah. We commonly speak of a gezeirah as a
"fence" around the Torah. For example, the Torah
commands us not to work on Shabbat, but a
gezeirah commands us not to even handle an implement that you would use to
perform prohibited work (such as a pencil, money, a hammer), because someone
holding the implement might forget that it was Shabbat and perform prohibited
work. The word is derived from the root Gimel-Zayin-Reish, meaning to cut off
or to separate.
takkanah is a rule unrelated to biblical laws that was created by the rabbis
for the public welfare. For example, the practice of public Torah readings
every Monday and Thursday is a takkanah instituted by Ezra. The "mitzvah" to
light candles on Chanukkah, a post-biblical
holiday, is also a takkanah. The word is derived from the Hebrew root
Tav-Qof-Nun, meaning to fix, to remedy or to repair. It is the same root as in
"tikkun olam," repairing the world, or making the world a better place, an
important concept in all branches of Judaism.
Some takkanot vary from community to community or from region to region. For
example, around the year 1000 C.E., a Rabbeinu
Gershom Me'or Ha-Golah instituted a takkanah prohibiting polygyny (multiple
wives), a practice clearly permitted by the Torah and the
Talmud. This takkanah was accepted by
Ashkenazic Jews, who lived in Christian
countries where polygyny was not permitted, but was not accepted by
Sephardic Jews, who lived in Islamic countries
where men were permitted up to four wives.
Minhag is treated as a category of mitzvot d'rabbanan
(from the rabbis), mostly because it is clearly
not d'oraita (from the
Torah), but minhag is generally not the sort of
rule that is created by reasoned decision-making. A minhag is a custom that
developed for worthy religious reasons and has continued long enough to become
a binding religious practice. For example, the
second, extra day of holidays was originally
instituted as a gezeirah, so that people outside of
Israel, not certain of the day of a holiday,
would not accidentally violate the holiday's
mitzvot. After the mathematical calendar was
instituted and there was no doubt about the days, the added second day was not
necessary. The rabbis considered ending the practice at that time, but decided
to continue it as a minhag: the practice of observing an extra day had
developed for worthy religious reasons, and had become customary.
It is important to note that these "customs" are a binding part of halakhah,
just like a mitzvah, a
takkanah or a
The word "minhag" is also used in a looser sense, to indicate a community or an
individual's customary way of doing some religious thing. For example, it may
be the minhag in one synagogue to stand while
reciting a certain prayer, while in another synagogue it is the minhag to sit
during that prayer. It may become an individual's minhag to sit in a certain
location in synagogue, or to walk to synagogue in a certain way, and under
appropriate circumstances these too may become minhag. Even in this looser
sense, these customs can become binding on the individual, it is generally
recommended that a person follow his own personal or community minhag as much
as possible, even when visiting another community, unless that minhag would
cause the other community discomfort or embarrassment..
The Difference Between Torah Law and Rabbinic Law
As we have seen, Jewish law includes both laws that come directly from the
Torah (either expressed, implied or deduced) and
laws that were enacted by the rabbis. In a sense,
however, even laws enacted by the rabbis can be considered derived from the
Torah: the Torah gives certain people the authority to teach and to make
judgments about the law (Deut. 17:11), so these rabbinical laws should not be
casually dismissed as merely the "laws of man" (as opposed to the laws of G-d).
Rabbinical laws are considered to be as binding as Torah laws, but there are
differences in the way we apply laws that are "d'oraita" (from the Torah) and
laws that are "d'rabbanan" (from the rabbis).
The first important difference is a matter of precedence: d'oraita takes
precedence over d'rabbanan. If two d'oraita rules come into conflict in a
particular situation, rules of precedence are applied to determine which rule
is followed; however, if a d'oraita rule comes into conflict with a d'rabbanan
rule, the d'oraita rule (Torah rule) always takes precedence. Do we fast on
Yom Kippur when it falls on
Shabbat? These are both d'oraita, so rules of
precedence must apply. Specific rules take precedence over general rules, so
the specific rules of Yom Kippur fasting takes precedence over the general rule
of Shabbat joy, and yes, we fast on Yom Kippur on Shabbat. However, the other
fasts on the Jewish calendar are d'rabbanan, so the d'oraita rule of Shabbat
joy takes precedence, and other fasts that fall on Shabbat are moved to another
The second important difference is the strictness of observance. If there is
doubt (in Hebrew: safek) in a matter that is d'oraita, we take the strict
position (in Hebrew: machmir) regarding the rule; if there is doubt in a matter
that is d'rabbanan, we take the lenient position (in Hebrew: makil) regarding
the rule. In Hebrew, this rule is stated: safek d'oraita l'humra; safek
d'rabbanan l'kula. This is easier to understand with an example: suppose you
are reading the morning prayers and you can't remember whether you read Bar'khu
and Shema (two important prayers). You are in doubt, safek. The recitation of
Shema in the morning is a mitzvah d'oraita, a biblical commandment (Deut. 6:7),
so you must be machmir, you must go back and recite Shema if you are not sure
whether you did. The recitation of Bar'khu, on the other hand, is a mitzvah
d'rabbanan, a rabbinic law, so you can be makil, you don't have to go back and
recite it if you are not sure. If you are certain that you did not recite
either of them, then you must go back and recite both, there is no doubt so no
basis for leniency.
© Copyright 5756-5771 (1995-2011), Tracey R Rich
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