HMS 5765-14: Halacha and Aggada: The Two Streams of Jewish Law

Lessons in Memory of my brother Dale Alan Konigsburg

January 3, 2005 – Number 5765-14

Halacha and Aggada: The Two Streams of Jewish Law

Jewish Law is called, “Halacha” which means, “the Way” or “the Path” implying that this is the path one should follow in life. Like any law, it grows over time as people walk on the path and encounter all the different trials and tribulations that life throws our way. Halacha begins with the Torah, the “constitution” of the Jewish people. But the Torah is a difficult law code to follow. It is difficult not because the law is hard, but because the law sometimes seems to incomplete. For example, there are lots of married people in the Torah, but there is no ceremony for getting married. To get divorced, the Torah tells us we need to write a “document of divorce” but it never tells us what it is supposed to say. For this reason, there is a tradition that along with our written Torah, there is an “oral” Torah, an oral Tradition that helps us to understand the requirements of what is written. This oral laws is transmitted by word of mouth for many generations until about the year 200 CE when Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, concerned that people might forget the oral law, writes this law in a book called, the Mishna. The Mishna contains only the result of what the oral law says. It does not contain the case law that explains how it is applied. From 200 to about 600 CE, the Sages recreated the case law in a document called, “Gemara”. Mishna and Gemara together constitute the “Talmud”.
Over the centuries, sages have tried to codify Jewish law to make it more available to ordinary Jews. Rambam called his law code, “Mishna Torah” (Teachings of theTorah) . Rabbi Jacob Alfasi called his code, the “Arbah Turim” (The Four Pillars) after the four sections into which he divided the law. In the sixteenth century, in Safat Israel, Rabbi Joseph Karo wrote a law code called the “Shuchan Aruch” (the Set Table) for a Sepahrdic audiance. At the same time, in Crakaw, Poland, Rabbi Moshe Isserles was writing his own law code for an Ashkenazic audience. Karo finished first and Rabbi Isserles read Karo’s work. He then burned his own work and then added the Ashkenazic differences to Karo’s book. The Shuchan Aruch, to this day, is the first book to have both Ashkenazic and Sephardic practices in one code.
Today there are other law codes that have brought Halacha up to date. The Conservative Movement uses “A Guide for Jewish Religious Practice” by Isaac Klein (often called merely “Klein”) as its basic code with additions by the Law and Standards Committee of the Rabbinical Assembly. The committee works by set rules to offer both majority and minority opinions to Rabbis only to be used in their community to decide matters of Jewish Law. In each community, the local Rabbi is the only one who has the authority to rule on matters of Halacha for that community. It is the members of the community who vote who will serve as their Rabbi.
There is also a whole area of moral opinions that are not part of the Halacha. Judaism recognized early on that there are some rules that do not fit into a law code. One can make a rule against perjury, but a law that forbids “lying” is impossible to write. Telling lies is a moral problem. While Halacha sets limits in communal life, there are times we expect people to live above the limits of the law. In the United States we use stories to help teach these lessons (for example, George Washington and the cherry tree is used to teach the value of honesty). Judaism has collected the sermons and teachings of Rabbis over the course of hundreds of years into a collection of books called “Aggada.” These sermons and stories are used to help people understand that there is more to living than just being within the “letter of the law.”
Together Halacha and Aggada help Jews to know their place in society and in the law. They provide the framework to living not just a moral life, but a holy life. The Halacha helps us to understand our responsibilities to the law, and the Aggada teaches us our responsibilities to each other.

Next week: Who Wrote the Bible

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