Halakhah: The Laws of Jewish Life

The root of the Hebrew term used to refer to Jewish law, halakhah, means “go” or “walk.” Halakhah, then, is the “way” a Jew is directed to behave in every aspect of life, encompassing civil, criminal, and religious law.

The foundation of Judaism is the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, sometimes referred to as “the Five Books of Moses”). “Torah” means “instruction” or “teaching,” and like all teaching it requires interpretation and application. Jewish tradition teaches that Moses received the Torah from God at Mount Sinai. The Torah is replete with instructions, directives, statutes, laws, and rules. Most are directed to the Israelites, some to all humanity.

Writing and Talking

The words of the Torah constitute what the rabbinic tradition calls the Written Torah. However, beginning around 400 BCE, teachings emerged based in or connected to the Torah, but not literally evident in the text. This body of teaching is known as the Oral Torah, and rabbinic sources claim that it, too, was revealed at Sinai. Halakhah per se begins with this “Oral Torah.”

Some laws in the Torah required procedures for their observance that were not explicit. Sometimes conditions under which Jews were living were so different from earlier periods that the ancient rabbis simply enacted new rules in keeping with the laws of the Torah. This process of developing, interpreting, modifying and enacting rules of conduct is the how halakhah develops. The rabbis of classical talmudic Judaism developed a system of hermeneutic principles by which to interpret the words of the written Torah.

As rabbinic teachings increased, it was necessary to commit them to writing, lest they be forgotten. Around the year 200 CE, the Mishnah, the earliest compendium of Jewish law, appeared. It became the curriculum of rabbinic instruction. In approximately 425 CE, the interpretive traditions of the rabbis of the Land of Israel were compiled, forming the Talmud Yerushalmi (Palestinian Talmud).

Another Talmud, the “Bavli” (Babylonian Talmud), was compiled in the Persian Empire a century later. It presents digests of the various teachings of many generations of rabbis on issues of law and other subjects. Although it frequently fails to specify which cited opinion is authoritative, it nevertheless became the universally accepted arbiter of halakhah and the subject of many extensive commentaries.

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