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Halakhah

HALAKHAH

The Jewish religious system indicating the "path" that Jews are to follow.

Biblically derived and elaborated upon by oral tradition (especially in the Mishna, from 50 c.e. and Talmud, from 220 c.e.), Halakhah regulates a wide range of personal and communal behavior, from dress codes, dietary rules, and daily religious prayers and rituals to requirements concerning life cycle events, such as marriage and divorce, and the determination of Jewish identity and procedures for conversion. An orderly, topical presentation of the rabbinic tradition appears in Mishne Torah (Repetition of the law) by Maimonides (also known as Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, or Rambam, 11351204). The essential guide for the commandments to be followed in daily life is the Shulkhan Arukh (Prepared table) by Joseph Karo (14881575).

The attitude toward Halakhah is a major determinant affecting Jewish denominationalism. Orthodox Judaism basically accepts Halakhah as an unchanging corpus of law. Minor differences of interpretation are tolerated in accordance with the historical customs that have evolved in local communities. Noteworthy are Ashkenazic and Sephardic customs that inadvertently perpetuate Jewish ethnicity. Conservative Judaism is more flexible in introducing religious change, while the Reform and Reconstructionist movements reject Halakhah as a mandatory system dictating contemporary behavior.

Only a minority of world Jews adheres strictly to Halakhah, with Israel having the highest percentagebetween 20 and 25 percent. But the institutionalization of some aspects of Halakhah in Israel's state rabbinate and in the political sphere (inter alia, defining who is Jewish according to Halakhic standards) affects the entire Israeli population. This has resulted, in Israel, in tension between religiously observant Jews, nonobservant Jews, and persons who are not considered Jews by Halakhah (for example, patrilineal descendants of Jews who are accepted as such by the North American Reform movement, or persons converted to Judaism by non-Orthodox rabbis).

The conflict over the acceptance of Halakhic Judaism as the sole legitimate manifestation of contemporary Judaism and the consequent implications for the acceptance of other denominations' rabbis and religious rulings carries over to world Jewry, in part because of the central role of Israel in world Jewish life.


Bibliography

Heger, Paul. The Pluralistic Halakhah: Legal Innovations in the Late Second Commonwealth and Rabbinic Periods. Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 2003.

Lewittes, Mendell. The Nature and History of Jewish Law. New York: Yeshiva University, 1966.

Schimmel, Harry C. The Oral Law: A Study of the Rabbinic Contribution to the Torah She-be-al-peh. New York; Jerusalem: Feldheim, 1971.

Urbach, Efraim E. Halakhah: Its Sources and Development, translated by Raphael Posner. Ramat Gan, Israel: Massada, 1986.

samuel c. heilman
updated by ephraim tabory

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Halakhah

Halakhah (Heb., from halak, ‘he went’). A particular law or the whole Jewish legal system. The halakhah is traditionally believed to go back in its entirety to Moses. The halakhah is composed of the written law (the six hundred and thirteen commandments of the Pentateuch), the statements handed down by tradition (such as the words of the prophets and the hagiographa (Writings), the oral law (which includes interpretations of the written law), the sayings of the scribes, and established religious custom. Written law is Torah she-bi-khetav, oral law is Torah she-beʾal peh (‘… by mouth’).

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