Halakha

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Halakha: also halakhah, halacha and halachah

Halakha is the collective corpus of Jewish law and tradition. It comes from a Hebrew root word meaning "path" or "way". A literal translation of this word would not yield the word "law"; rather halakha literally means "the path that one should follow."

Jews do not hold that all people are obligated to follow halakha; only Jews need to do so.

The Torah and the Talmud are not codes of law; they are sources of law. There are many codes of Jewish law that have developed over the past few thousand years. The major ones include:


(A) The Hilchot of Rav Alfassi (1013-1103), better known as the Arbahah Turim, or just The Tur. This is a summation of the halakhic material in the Talmud.

(B) The Mishneh Torah (Yad Ha-Hazaqah), by Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, sometimes referred to in Hebrew by the acronym "Rambam"). It encompasses the full range of Jewish law, as formulated for all ages and places. It completely reorganizes and reformulates the laws in a clear and 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.

(C) The Sefer Mitzvot Gadol (The Semag) of Rabbi Moses ben Jacob of Coucy (13th century, Coucy, France.)

(D) The Arba'ah Turim (The Tur, The Four Rows) 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:

(i) Orah Hayyim - "The Path of Life" worship and ritual observance in the home and synagogue, through the course of the day, the weekly sabbath and the festival cycle.

(ii) Yoreh De'ah - "Teach Knowledge" assorted ritual prohibitions, dietary laws and regulations concerning menstrual impurity.

(iii) Even Ha-'Ezer ("The Rock of the Helpmate" marriage, divorce and other issues in family law).

(iv) Hoshen Mishpat - "The Breastplate of Judgment" The administration and adjudication of civil law.



(E) 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 he clarifies the opinions of authorities who lived after the time of Rabbi Yaakov. The Shulkhan Arukh (literally, The Set Table) is a more concise collection of the Beis Yosef. 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, 1525 to 1572) noted that the Shulkhan Arukh was based almost entirely on Sephardic tradition, and thus set out to create a series of glosses to be appended to the text of the Shulkhan Arukh for all instances where Sephardi and Ashkenazi customs differed. His comments are now incorporated into the body of the Shulkhan Arukh, and are printed in a different script.

(F) 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 is infamous for presenting the strictest opinions without any justification. It is still popular among the right-wing Orthodox.

(G) 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.

(H) A Guide To Jewish Religious Practice, by Rabbi Isaac Klein, with contributions from the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) of the Rabbinical Assembly. This is a new work based on the previous traditional law codes. It is written from a Conservative Jewish point of view.