Halacha (Hebrew: הלכה ; also Halakhah, Halocho and Halachah), is the currently accepted body of Jewish religious law.
Halacha is based on biblical law (the 613 commandments) and later Mishnaic, Talmudic and rabbinic law as well as customs
and traditions. Halacha guides religious practices and beliefs and "personal" matters such as births,
deaths, marriage and divorce.
During the period of Jewish sovereignty in Judea, laws were made by the Sanhedrin, a body of seventy one lders
gathered for this purpose, and by local courts with twenty three judges. After the fall of the temple, Halacha became primarily the creation of rabbinic Judaism.
Jewish religious law has universal aspects. Whereas Church canon law and
Sha'aria law prescribe only what is
correct for followers of their own religion, Halachic law also considers what commandments are incumbent on all "Noahide"
peoples (peoples who survived the flood). Murder, theft, idolatry, eating of raw meat, blasphemy and sexual misconduct
are forbidden to all peoples, and all people must establish a fair system of justice.
Orthodox Jews believe that the written word of the Old
Testament was immediately modified and explained by oral law that was issued with it. Thus for example, despite the
"lex talionis," which specifies an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, it is believed that the text means that a
fine should be paid for each offence commensurate with the offence, as compensation for the victim, and it is believed
that this was always the law.
There is no central Halachic authority. Nonetheless, most of the various Jewish communities in the Diaspora managed to remain in synchrony regarding changing law over the
millennia for major issues, such as abolition of polygamy. However, disagreements over Halacha are reflected both
within streams of Orthodox Judaism and between the Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist streams of
European and North American Judaism. While there is broad agreement at least among orthodox factions, there are
differences in detail, and each group follows its own laws. In Israel, because the orthodox rabbinate has an official
position insofar as Jews are concerned, its halachic decrees are binding in religious matters.
Since the Jews did not have their own country for two millennia, Halacha has relatively little to say about governance,
Sha'aria law or medieval church law. The
laws that applied to an agricultural iron age civilization remained frozen. They were not applied and did not evolve.
There was no need to regulate the conduct of kings or armies as the Jews had none. The principle of Dina
d'malchuta dina ("the law of the land is law") recognizes non-Jewish laws and non-Jewish legal jurisdiction as
binding on Jewish citizens of a country, provided that they are not contrary to laws of Judaism. This principle, reflected also in the "render unto Caesar that which is
Caesar's" of Christian tradition, made it possible for both Judaism and Christianity to flourish without having control
of the state apparatus, and to adapt themselves to different circumstances. When Christianity returned to this principle
in the reformation, it made possible the modern concept of the secular state.
The restoration of the Jews to Israel created Halachic problems almost from the inception of Jewish settlement.
According to ancient Jewish law, every seventh year is a shmita, a Sabbath for the fields, all of which must lie fallow.
1890 was the first year after the Jewish agricultural pioneers, the Bilu, had settled in the land. The rabbis and
orthodox Jews insisted that they must follow the Shmita law. Had they followed it literally, they would have starved.
That was the first of a series of compromises that made possible the creation of a modern society. However, In Israel, the principle of separation of
church and state is still under threat, and there are constant tensions between the religious establishment and the
needs of the state. The Halachic definition of who is a Jew is different from and narrower than, the legal definition of
who is entitled to Israeli citizenship as a Jew under the law of return. Birth, marriage, divorce and burial of Jews are administered by the rabbinate,
according to the Halacha, causing difficulties for many people and problems for women who cannot get divorces.
Nonetheless, there is still formal separation of church and state, and other religions are recognized and tolerated.
State decisions are not made according to the dictates of Halacha. However, Jewish religious extremists in Israel wish to
force the adoption of Halacha as state law in Israel, parallel to
Islamist ideology. For example, some
rabbis claim that giving up land that is part of the ancient land of Israel in return for peace agreements is forbidden
by Halachic law according to their understanding.
Synonyms and alternate spellings: Halakhah, Halocho and Halachah