Encyclopedia > Halakha

  Article Content

Halakha

Halakha, also halakhah, halacha and halachah is a Hebrew word, commonly used to refer to the collective corpus of Jewish law, custom and tradition. It comes from the Hebrew root word for "going". A literal translation does not yield the word "law"; rather it translates as "the way to go."

Halakha is based on the commandments in the Torah (five books of Moses) as viewed through the discussions and debates contained in the classical rabbinic literature, especially the Mishnah and the Talmud. Jews refer tp the Torah as The Written Law, and the Mishnah and Talmud as the oral law.

Unlike secular precedent based systems, halakha is a religious system, whose axiom is that Jewish law represents the will of God. Most Orthodox Jews, hold that halakha represents the actual will of God, either directly, or as closely to directly as possible. If the laws in Jewish law codes are not the word of God per se, they are nonetheless derived from the literal word of God in the Torah, using a set of rules also revealed by God to Moses on Mount Siani, and have been derived with the utmost accuracy and care. In this worldview, one's ancestors are closer to the divine revelation and the later Mishnaic and Talmudic rabbis; as such, the corollary is that one must be extremely conservative changing or adapting Jewish law. This view is found in all branches of Orthodox Judaism, and in the right-wing of Conservative Judaism.

Other religious Jews equally hold that while God is real, for theological reasons they hold that the Torah is not the word of God in a literal sense. However, in this view the Torah is still held as mankind's record of its understanding of God's revelation, and thus still has divine authority. In this view, traditional Jewish law is still seen as binding. Jews who hold by this view generally try to use modern methods of historical study to learn how Jewish law has changed over time, and are more willing to change Jewish law in the present. This view is found within Conservative Judaism, and within the left wing of Orthodoxy.

Eras of Jewish history imporant in Jewish law:

  • The Tannaim are the sages of the Mishna (70 CE-200 CE)

  • The Amoraim are the sages of the Talmud (200 CE - 500 CE)

  • The Savoraim are the classical Persian rabbis (500 CE - 600 CE)

  • The Geonim are the rabbis of Sura and Pumbeditha, in Babylonia (650 CE - 1250 CE)

  • The Rishonim are the rabbis of the early medieval period (1250 CE - 1550 CE)

  • The Acharonim are the rabbis of 1550 to the present.

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.

Table of contents
1 The halakhic process
2 Basic categorization
3 Sins: Violations of Jewish law
4 How Halakha is viewed today
5 Gentiles and Jewish law
6 Halakhic Codes
7 External links

613 mitzvot

According to a midrash, there are supposedly 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. However, in practice there is no one definative list that explicates the 613 laws: Centuries after the idea of 613 laws came into existence various rabbis compiled lists of the 613 laws, yet each list varied slightly. The differences come about because in some places the Torah lists related laws together, so it is difficult to know whether one is dealing with law, which lists several cases, or several separate laws.

One list of the 613 mitzvot can be found here (http://www.jewfaq.org/613.htm).

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.

The thirteen midot by which Halakha 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:

  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 inferrence, finding some law which applies to that case but not to ours. This type of refutation is valid only if the inferrence 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 particalrity 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 genarility, a particualrity 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 exclkuded to be treated by a new rule, we cannot restore it to its general rule unless Scripture restores it expliciltly.
  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.

Basic categorization

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.

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.

In antiquity, there was a body called the Sanhedrin, a Supreme Court and legislature for Judaism, which had the power to create and administer binding law on all Jews. That court ceased to function in its full mode in 40 CE. Today, application of Jewish law is left to the local rabbi, and the local rabbinical courts, with only local applicability.

Sins: Violations of Jewish law

Judaism regards the violation of mitzvot (Hebrew language, "commandments") 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, from which one will suffer a 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 necessarilly 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.

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

  • Pesha - An intentional sin; an action committed in deliberate defiance of God;
  • Ovon - This is a sin of lust or uncontrollable emotion. It is a sin done knowingly, but not done to defy God;
  • Cheit - This is an unintentional 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.

How Halakha is viewed today

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, how to apply and interpret them. Some of the details of this additional transmission have been lost over the millennia and reconstructed in accordance with internally consistent rules. The collective corpus of this non-biblical revelation is called the Oral Law. It is these interpretations that constitute the basis of religious laws that Jews know today.

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.

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. All gentile societies must establish a system of legal justice to administer these laws.

Halakhic Codes

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:

  • The Mishnah, composed by Rabbi Judah the Prince, in 200 CE, as a basic outline of the state of the Oral Law in his time. This was the framework upon which the Talmud was based.

  • The Hilchot[?] of Rav Alfassi (1013-1103), summations of the legal material in the Talmud.

  • The Mishneh Torah[?] (also known as the Yad Ha-Hazaqah), by Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon[?], also referred to by the Hebrew acronym "Rambam"). The 14 volumes in this work encompass the full range of Jewish law, as formulated for all ages and places. It completely reorganizes and reformulates the laws in a logical system. It opens with a section on systematic philosophical theology, derived largely from Aristotelian science and metaphysics, which it regards as the most important component of Jewish law.

  • The Arba'ah Turim[?] (The Tur, The Four Columns) by Rabbi Jacob ben Asher[?]. (1270 to 1343, Toledo, Spain.) The Tur followed Maimonides's precedent in arranging his work in a topical order. However, the Tur covers only those areas of Jewish religious law that were in force in the author's time. The code is divided into four main sections; almost all Jewish codes of law since this time have followed the Tur's arrangement of material.

  • The Beis Yosef, and the Shulkhan Arukh of Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488 - 1575). The Beis Yosef is a huge commentary on the Tur in which Rabbi Karo clarifies the opinions of rabbinic authorities who lived after the time of Rabbi Yaakov. The Shulkhan Arukh is a more concise collection of the Beis Yosef. (Literally translated, Shulkhan Aurkh means "set table".) In writing the Shulkhan Arukh, Rabbi Yosef followed the chapter divisions of the Tur. Sephardic Jews use the Shulkhan Arukh as the basis for their daily practice.

  • Rabbi Moshe Isserles[?] (Cracow, Poland, 1525 to 1572) noted that the Shulkhan Arukh was based on the Sephardic tradition, and he created a series of glosses to be appended to the text of the Shulkhan Arukh for cases where Sephardi and Ashkenazi customs differed. The glosses are called Hamapah, the "Tablecloth" for the "Set Table". His comments are now incorporated into the body of all printed editions of the Shulkhan Arukh; they are printed in a different script.

  • The Shulchan Aruch HaRav of Rabbi Shneiur Zalman of Liadi (c. 1800) was an attempt to recodify the law as it stood at that time; unfortunately, most of the work was lost in a fire prior to publication. It is held in esteem by some Hasidim.

  • The Kitzur Shulkhan Arukh[?] of Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried (Hungary 1804 to 1886). This book became immensely popular after its publication due to its simplicity. This work is not binding in the same way as the Mishneh Torah or the Shulkhan Arukh, and based on the very strict Hungarian customs of the 19th century. It is still popular among Orthodox Judaism, as a framework for study, if not always for practice.

  • The Mishnah Berurah of Rabbi Yisroel Meir ha-Kohen, better known as The Chofetz Chaim. (Poland, 1838 to 1933). The Mishnah Berurah has become the authoritative halakhic guide for much of Orthodox Ashkenazic Jewry in the postwar period, supplanting the more scholarly Aruch haShulchan of Rabbi Yechiel Michel Halevi Epstein.

  • "A Guide To Jewish Religious Practice", by Rabbi Isaac Klein, with contributions from the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly. This work is based on the previous traditional law codes, but written from a Conservative Jewish point of view. It is not accepted among Orthodox Jews.

See also: Judaism -- Responsa -- Law -- Mishpat Ivri

External links



All Wikipedia text is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License

 
  Search Encyclopedia

Search over one million articles, find something about almost anything!
 
 
  
  Featured Article
Gustav Line

... the Gustav Line with the 29th[?] and 90th Panzergrenadier divisions[?] (which had been in Rome). At the time of Operation Shingle (1944), the Gustav Line was commanded by ...