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 Halakha only by their voluntary consent. Under contemporary Israeli law, however, 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, Sephardi, and Yemenite Jews. Among Ashkenazi Jews, disagreements over Halakha, and over whether Jews should continue to follow Halakha, have played a pivotal role in the emergence of the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist streams of Judaism.
The Halakha is often contrasted with the Aggadah, the diverse corpus of rabbinic exegetical, narrative, philosophical, mystical, and other "non-legal" literatures. At the same time, since writers of Halakha may draw upon the aggadic and even mystical literature, there is a dynamic interchange between the genres.
Halakha constitutes the practical application of the 613 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 as codified in the Mishneh Torah or Shulkhan Arukh (the Jewish "Code of Law".)
The Halakha is a comprehensive guide to all aspects of human life, both corporeal and spiritual. Its laws, guidelines, and opinions cover a vast range of situations and principles, in the attempt to realize what is implied by the central Biblical commandment to "be holy as I your God am holy". They cover what are better ways for a Jew to live, when commandments conflict how one may choose correctly, what is implicit and understood but not stated explicitly in the Bible, and what has been deduced by implication though not visible on the surface.
Because Halakha is developed and applied by various halakhic authorities, rather than one sole "official voice", 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 during the age of exile Jews have lacked a single judicial hierarchy or appellate review process for Halakha. Instead, Jews interested in observing Halakha typically 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; see Torah study.
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; 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.
Classical Rabbinic Judaism has two basic categories of laws:
This division between revealed and rabbinic commandments (mitzvot) may influence the importance of a rule, its enforcement and the nature of its ongoing interpretation. Halakhic authorities may disagree on which laws fall into which categories or the circumstances (if any) under which prior Rabbinic rulings can be re-examined by contemporary rabbis, but all halakhic Jews hold that both categories exist and that the first category is immutable, with exceptions only for life-saving and similar emergency circumstances.
A second classical distinction is between the Written Torah (laws written in the Hebrew Bible, specifically its first five books), and Oral Law, laws believed transmitted orally prior to compilation in texts such as the Mishnah, Talmud, and Rabbinic codes.
Commandments are divided into positive and negative commands, which are treated differently in terms of Divine and human punishment. Positive commandments (of which tradition holds there are 248) require an action to be performed, and thus bring one closer to God. Negative commandments (traditionally 365 in number) forbid a specific action; thus violations create a distance from God. In striving to "be holy" as God is holy, one attempts so far as possible to live in accordance with God's wishes for humanity, striving to more completely live with each of these with every moment of one's 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.
A different approach divides the laws into a different set of categories:
There is a notion in halakha that violations of the latter are more severe, in certain ways, because of the requirement one must obtain forgiveness both from the offended person and from God in the latter case.
As a practical matter, the mitzvot also may be classified in line with how they might be implemented after the destruction of the Temple. Some mitzvot are relevant only in the Land of Israel. Many laws pertaining to holiness and purity can no longer be performed, absent the holy Sanctuary in Jerusalem. Some laws require a kind of beit din (Jewish court) that no longer exists.
Within Talmudic literature, Jewish law is divided into the six orders of the Mishnah, which are categories by proximate subject matter: Zeraim ("Seeds") for agricultural laws and prayer, Moed ("Festival"), for the Sabbath and the Festivals, Nashim ("Women"), dealing primarily with marriage and divorce, Nezikin ("Damages"), for civil and criminal law, Kodashim ("Holy things"), for sacrifices and the dietary laws, and Tohorot ("Purities") for ritual purity. However, Talmudic texts often deal with laws outside these apparent subject categories. As a result, Jewish law came to be categorized in other ways in the post-Talmudic period.
The generic Hebrew word for any kind of sin is aveira ("transgression"). 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; there is always a road of teshuva (repentance, literally: "return"). There are some classes of person for whom this is exceedingly difficult, such as the one who slanders another.
In earlier days, when Jews had a functioning court system (the beth din and the Sanhedrin high court), 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.
The details to these laws are codified from the Talmudic texts in the Mishneh Torah. They can be found mainly in chapter 9 and 10 of Hilkhoth Melakhim u'Milhamothehem in Sefer Shoftim of the Mishneh Torah.
Although not mentioning the Noahide Laws directly by name, the Christian convention of Apostles and elders in Jerusalem mentioned in Acts 15 appears to validate the idea that all gentiles follow the constraints established by the covenant of Noah. Supporting this idea, the list of constraints to be applied to the gentiles that are converted to Christianity, verse 15:20, is similar to the Noahide laws.
In antiquity, the Sanhedrin functioned essentially as the Supreme Court and legislature for Judaism, and had the power to administer binding law, including both received law and its own Rabbinic decrees, on all Jews — rulings of the Sanhedrin became Halakha; see Oral law. That court ceased to function in its full mode in CE 40. Today, the authoritative application of Jewish law is left to the local rabbi, and the local rabbinical courts, with only local applicability. In branches of Judaism that follow halakha, lay individuals make numerous ad-hoc decisions, but are regarded as not having authority to decide definitively.
Since the days of the Sanhedrin, however, no body or authority has been generally regarded as having the authority to create universally recognized precedents. As a result, Halakha has developed in a somewhat different fashion from Anglo-American legal systems with a Supreme Court able to provide universally accepted precedents. Generally, contemporary halakhic arguments are effectively, yet unofficially, peer-reviewed. When a rabbinic posek ("decisor") proposes a new interpretation of a law, that interpretation may be considered binding for the posek's questioner or immediate community. Depending on the stature of the posek and the quality of the decision, an interpretation may also be gradually accepted by rabbis and members of similar Jewish communities.
Under this system, there is a tension between the relevance of earlier and later authorities in constraining halakhic interpretation and innovation. On the one hand, there is a principle in Halakha not to overrule a specific law from an earlier era, unless based on an earlier authority. On the other hand, another principle recognizes the responsibility and authority of later authorities, and especially the posek handling a concurrent question. In addition, the Halakha embodies a wide range of principles that permit judicial discretion and deviation (Ben-Menahem). Generally speaking, a rabbi in any one period will not overrule specific laws from an earlier era, unless supported by a relevant earlier precedent; see list below. There are important exceptions to this principle, which empower the posek (decisor) or beth din (court) responsible for a given opinion.
Notwithstanding the potential for innovation, rabbis and Jewish communities differ greatly on how they make changes in Halakha. Notably, poskim frequently extend the application of a law to new situations, but do not consider such applications as constituting a "change" in Halakha. For example, many Orthodox rulings concerning electricity are derived from rulings concerning fire, due to its physical similarity with that other form of human-managed energy. In contrast, Conservative Poskim emphasize that electricity is physically and chemically more like turning on a water tap (which is permissible) than lighting a fire (which is not permissible) and therefore permitted its use on Shabbat. Conservative Judaism, in some cases, will also explicitly interpret Halakha to take into account its view of contemporary sociological factors. For instance, most Conservative rabbis extend the application of certain Jewish obligations and permissible activities to women. See below: How Halakha is viewed today.
Within certain Jewish communities, formal organized bodies do exist. 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.
Traditional Jewish law granted the Sages wide legislative powers. Technically, one may discern two powerful legal tools within the halakhic system:
However, in common parlance sometimes people use the general term takkanah to refer either gezeirot or takkanot.
Takkanot, in general, do not affect or restrict observance of Torah mitzvot. However, the Talmud states that in exceptional cases, the Sages had the authority to "uproot matters from the Torah" in certain cases. In Talmudic and classical halakhic literature, this authority refers to the authority to prohibit some things that would otherwise be biblically sanctioned (shev v'al ta'aseh). Rabbis may rule that a Torah mitzvah should not be performed, e.g. blowing the shofar on Shabbat, or blessing the lulav and etrog on Shabbat. These are takkanot are executed out of fear that some might otherwise carry the mentioned items between home and the synagogue, thus inadvertently violating a Sabbath melakha.
Another rare and limited form of takkanah involved overriding Torah prohibitions. In some cases, the Sages allowed the temporary violation a prohibition in order to maintain the Jewish system as a whole. This was part of the basis for Esther's relationship with Ahasuerus. (Sanhedrin)
Compilations of such hermeneutic rules were made in the earliest times. The tannaitic tradition recognizes three such collections, namely:
The last-mentioned rules are contained in an independent baraita, which has been incorporated and preserved only in later works. They are intended for haggadic interpretation; but many of them are valid for the Halakah as well, coinciding with the rules of Hillel and Ishmael.
Neither Hillel, Ishmael, nor Eliezer ben Jose ha-Gelili sought to give a complete enumeration of the rules of interpretation current in his day, but they omitted from their collections many rules that were then followed. They restricted themselves to a compilation of the principal methods of logical deduction, which they called "middot" (measures), although the other rules also were known by that term (comp. Midrash Sifre, Numbers 2 [ed. Friedmann, p. 2a]).
The Talmud itself gives no information concerning the origin of the middot, although the Geonim regarded them as Sinaitic. Modern historians believe that it is decidedly erroneous to consider the middot as traditional from the time of Moses on Sinai.
The middot seem to have been first laid down as abstract rules by the teachers of Hillel, though they were not immediately recognized by all as valid and binding. Different schools interpreted and modified them, restricted or expanded them, in various ways. Akiba and Ishmael and their scholars especially contributed to the development or establishment of these rules. Akiba devoted his attention particularly to the grammatical and exegetical rules, while Ishmael developed the logical. The rules laid down by one school were frequently rejected by another because the principles that guided them in their respective formulations were essentially different. According to Akiba, the divine language of the Torah is distinguished from the speech of men by the fact that in the former no word or sound is superfluous.
Some scholars have observed a similarity between these rabbinic rules of interpretation and the hermeneutics of ancient Hellenistic culture. For example, Saul Lieberman argues that the *names* (e.g. kal vahomer) of Rabbi Ishmael's middot are Hebrew translations of Greek terms, although the methods of those middot are not Greek in origin.
Orthodox Judaism hold "halakha" is the divine law of the Torah (Bible), rabbinical laws, rabbinical decrees and customs combined. Rabbis made many additions and interpretations of Jewish Law, they did so only in accordance with regulations they believe were given to them by Moses on Mount Sinai see Deuteronomy 5:8-13. See Orthodox Judaism, Beliefs about Jewish law and tradition.
Conservative Judaism holds that Halakha is normative and binding, and is developed as a partnership between people and God based on Sinaitic Torah. While there are a wide variety of Conservative views, a common belief is that Halakha is, and has always been, an evolving process subject to interpretation by rabbis in every time period. See Conservative Judaism, Beliefs.
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. Those in the traditionalist wing of these movements believe that the Halakha represents a personal starting-point, holding 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 the liberal and classical wings 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 is 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 need not be followed. This is considered wrong (and heretical) by Orthodox and Conservative Judaism.
Orthodox Jews believe that, halakha is a religious system, whose core represents the revealed will of God. Although Orthodox Judaism acknowledges that rabbis made many additions and interpretations of Jewish Law, they did so only in accordance with regulations they believe were given to them by Moses on Mount Sinai (see Deuteronomy 5:8-13). These regulations were transmitted orally till shortly after the destruction of the second temple. They were then recorded in the Mishnah, and explained in the Talmud and commentaries throughout history, including today. Orthodox Judaism believes that subsequent interpretations have been derived with the utmost accuracy and care. The most widely accepted code of Jewish law is known as the Shulchan Aruch. As such, no rabbi has the right to change Jewish law unless they clearly understand how it coincides with the precepts of the Shulchan Aruch. Later commentaries were accepted by many rabbis as final rule, however, other rabbis may disagree.
Orthodox Judaism has a range of opinion on the circumstances and extent to which change is permissible. Haredi Jews generally hold that even minhagim (customs) must be retained and existing precedents cannot be reconsidered. Modern Orthodox authorities are generally more inclined to permit limited changes in customs, and some reconsideration of precedent. All Orthodox authorities, however, agree that only later Rabbinical interpretations are subject to reconsideration, and hold that core sources of Divine written and oral law, such as the Torah and the Mishnah, cannot be overridden.
A key practical difference between Conservative and Orthodox approaches is that Conservative Judaism holds that its Rabbinical body's powers are not limited to reconsidering later precedents based on earlier sources, but the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) is empowered to override Biblical and Taanitic prohibitions by takkanah (decree) when perceived to be inconsistent with modern requirements and/or views of ethics. The CJLS has used this power on a number of occasions, most famously in the "driving teshuva", which says that if someone is unable to walk to any synagogue on the Sabbath, and their commitment to observance is so loose that not attending synagogue may lead them to drop it altogether, their rabbi may give them a dispensation to drive there and back; and more recently in its decision prohibiting the taking of evidence on Mamzer status on the grounds that implementing such a status is immoral. The CJLS has also held that the Talmudic concept of Kavod HaBriyot permits lifting rabbinic decrees (as distinct from carving narrow exceptions) on grounds of human dignity, and used this principle in a December 2006 opinion lifting all rabbinic prohibitions on homosexual conduct (the opinion held that only male-male anal sex was forbidden by the Bible and that this remained prohibited). Conservative Judaism also made a number of changes to the role of women in Judaism, including counting women in the minyan and ordaining women as rabbis. The latter was accomplished by simple vote on the faculty of the JTS. Orthodox Judaism holds that takkanot (Rabbinical decrees) can only supplement and can never nullify Biblical law, and significant decisions must be accompanied by scholarly responsa analyzing sources.
An example of how different views of the origin of Jewish law inform Conservative approaches to interpreting that law involves the CJLS's acceptance of Rabbi Elie Kaplan Spitz's responsum decreeing the Biblical category of mamzer as "inoperative", in which The CJLS adopted the Responsum's view that of how, in the Conservative view of Halakha, the "morality which we learn through the unfolding narrative of our tradition" informs the application of Mosaic law:
The responsum cited several examples of how, in Spitz's view, the Rabbinic Sages declined to enforce punishments explicitly mandated by Torah law. The examples include the "trial of the accused adulteress (Sotah)", the "Law of the Breaking of the Neck of the Heifer" and the application of the death penalty for the "rebellious child". Spitz argues that the punishment of the Mamzer has been effectively inoperative for nearly two thousand years due to deliberate rabbinic inaction (with a few rule-proving counterexamples, including the 18th century Orthodox rabbi Ismael ha-Kohen of Modena, who decreed that a child should have the word "mamzer" tattoed to his forehead). Further he suggested that the Rabbis have long regarded the punishment declared by the Torah as immoral, and came to the conclusion that no court should agree to hear testimony on "mamzerut". His motion was passed by the CJLS.
The decision represented a watershed for Conservative Judaism because it represented an explicit abrogation of a Biblical injunction on the grounds of contemporary morality, as distinct from exigency. The dissenters, who included Rabbi Joel Roth as well as a partial concurrence by Rabbi Daniel Nevins, argued for reaffirming the classical halakhic framework in which human decrees inform and often limit but never wholly abrogate law believed to be of Divine origin, stating that "we should acknowledge that God's law is beyond our authority to eliminate", but should continue the traditional approach of applying strict evidentiary rules and presumptions that tend to render enforcement unlikely. He also argued that the current framework is moral, both because proving mamzer status sufficiently beyond all doubt is already so difficult that it is rare, and because the mere existence and possibility of mamzerut status, even if rarely enforced, creates an important incentive for divorcing parties to obtain a get (Jewish religious divorce) to avoid the sin of adultery. He cited a responsum by prominent Haredi Orthodox Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef as an example of how the traditional approach works. Rabbi Yosef was faced with the child of a woman who had left a religious marriage without religious divorce and had a child in the second marriage, seemingly an open-and-shut case of Mamzer status. Rabbi Yosef proceeded to systematically discredit the evidence that the former marriage had ever taken place. The Ketubah was mysteriously not found and hence disqualified, and the officiating Rabbi's testimony was never sufficiently corroborated and hence not credible. Rabbi Yosef then found reason to doubt that the new husband was ever the father, finding that because the ex-husband occasionally delivered alimony personally, an ancient presumption (one of many) that any time a husband and wife are alone together the law presumes intercourse has taken place governed the case. He held that Jewish law could not disprove, and hence had to conclude, that the original husband really was the child's father and there was no case of Mamzer status.
The major codes are: