Halakah is the legalistic content of Jewish tradition as distinguished from haggadah, the nonlegal portion that comprises largely homiletical, ethical, and folkloristic material. The term Halakah, from the Hebrew verb hālak (to walk), means the way to walk, conduct. In the singular it denotes either an individual law or law in the abstract all-inclusive sense; in the plural (Halakot) it refers to collections of laws.
Jewish law begins with the Torah (Pentateuch), upon which the rabbis of Palestine and Babylonia erected a legal superstructure whose main formulation is the talmud. The traditional view is that the Sinaitic revelation of the Written Law was accompanied by an equally authoritative Oral Law, which expanded and clarified its often general statements, and that the rabbis, through interpretation, validated for later generations the sources in the former that authenticated the latter. The modern critical opinion, however, is that, as the Torah became firmly established as the constitution of the Jewish people after the institution of the Second Commonwealth in postexilic times, the rabbis, through interpretation and reinterpretation, fulfilled a need to develop its provisions for a different time and other conditions into specific legislative enactments that would comport with new thinking and new problems, though they generally believed that their understanding of the Biblical text conformed with its original intention.
The efforts of the early rabbinical authorities, the Tannaim, were, after sifting and analysis, compiled (c. a.d. 200) by Rabbi judah ha-nasi into a code, the mishnah. For the next 300 years it became the vehicle of discussion and instruction in the academies of Palestine and Babylonia, where the later sages, the Amoraim, sought to clarify ambiguities and to harmonize Mishnaic statements with other equally authoritative but seemingly contradictory external traditions contained in the Baraitot. The record of these deliberations is the gemarah, which together with the Mishnah forms the Talmud. The Babylonian version of the Talmud is considered more authoritative than the Palestinian one.
Subsequent scholars elucidated the Talmudic tradition through juridical replies to specific questions of law arising from practical cases, and the conclusions form a vast Jewish responsa literature, which continues to the present. But the major achievement was in the area of codification of the Talmud's contents, whose rambling discussions and unindexed material made it as unwieldy for the scholar as it certainly was for the layman. Of the various attempts, the codes of Moses maimonides (the Mishneh Torah of the 12th century) and Joseph caro (the Shulḥan Aruk of the 16th century) were among the most successful, with Caro's work becoming for most traditionalists the authoritative statement of the Halakah.
Bibliography: j. z. lauterbach, The Jewish Encyclopedia, ed. j. singer, 13 v. (New York 1901–06) 8:569–572. h. fuchs, Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, 10 v. (New York 1939–44) 5:172–175. s. bialbocki, Encyclopaedia Judaica: Das Judentum in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 10 v. (Berlin 1928–34) 7:836–848. h. l. strack, Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash, tr. 5th Ger. ed. (Philadelphia 1931). a. cohen, Everyman's Talmud (New York 1949). s. b. freehof, The Responsa Literature (Philadelphia 1955). l. ginzberg, On Jewish Law and Lore (Philadelphia 1955) 77–124, 153–184.