The Rules

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk




     The word “Halacha” is derived from the Hebrew word Lech, meaning to go or to walk. For example, Chapter XII of Genesis (Berayshith) is called “Lech Lechah” because it begins with God telling Abraham to walk out of the country of his birth, (Chaldea) and go to “the land which I will show you.” Abraham then crosses or fords the river Euphrates to reach Israel. The Hebrew word “to ford” is “Ivri” and in its English corruption this becomes Hebrew.

     The Halacha is the sum of all the rules and regulations which govern the lives of “Torah true” Jews. According to Halacha, all forms of human behavior are of a spiritual nature, so that common conduct such as eating, getting dressed, and attending to bathroom needs are all surrounded by blessings, prayers, and recognition of the divine in man.

     Keeping the food laws, keeping Kosher, lighting candles on Friday night to welcome the Sabbath, praying after a meal, and attending daily and weekly synagogue services are all part of living as a halachic person.

     Observers of Halacha say that all these and many additional duties are required by God of the Jewish people.

     The sources of Halacha are, first, the Torah i.e. the Jewish Scriptures. The Torah includes 613 “mitzvahs” or “good deeds.” The Hebrew letters for Torah have the numerical value 613.

     Included are mitzvahs pertaining to the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. It is of course not possible to observe these temple centered mitzvahs. Therefore Hillel taught that observance of Leviticus 19:20 covers all of them at once. “V’ohavto lerayacho komaucho.” The best known “mitzvahs” from the Torah are ‘the ten words,” including “you shall not murder,” “you shall not commit adultery,” and “remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.” Also included are such commands as “write these words on the doorpost of your house,” i. e . “and you shall love the Lord with all your heart and all your soul and all your might and you shall teach them diligently to your children” (Mezuzah). 248 of these Mitzvahs are positive and tell Jews what to do and 365 are negative and prohibit something.

     The Halacha also includes “mitzvahs” imposed by the rabbis. A third  source of Halacha is custom, known in Hebrew as “minhag.”

      Mitzvas imposed by rabbis deal with efforts to place a fence around the Torah so that its laws are not accidentally violated. For example, the rabbis prohibited polygamy or the carrying of money on the Sabbath.

     The third source of Halacha involves customs such as celebrating a Holy Day for two days instead of only one day as required in the Torah. Included are such customs as standing at some prayers during the service.

     There is much more to Halacha than I can deal with here. Why not read “Halachic Man” by Soloveitchik and enjoy learning something. Is there anything more enjoyable than reading a good book?

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including The German Jews in America (2014).

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