Introductions

WHAT IS HALACHA

Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.” Leviticus/Vayikra 19:2
 
Halacha, meaning "The Way To Go" or "Way to Walk," is the Jewish body of laws that guide the lives and actions of Jews in ways to bring people to spiritual closeness to God.  Like the word for the whole body of Jewish law, each rule of how to act is also called a halacha (plural, halachot). The true reason for following halacha is because God commanded us to do so.  We observe halacha to please our Creator and to become spiritually close to Him by doing His will.
 
To fulfill our role as a holy people, we must act in ways in which we imitate God's actions. Examples are visiting people who are sick, welcoming guests, giving charity, refraining from exerting our control over the world on Shabbat, and promoting peace between husband and wife (shalom bayit).

Where Do Halachot Come From?

Although you will find halachot on this site that were born only a few days or a few decades ago, the body of halacha has been around since before creation.  "God looked into the Torah and created the world," says the Zohar, and so we find the Patriarchs followed halacha even before that great law book, the Torah, was given on Mount Sinai four centuries later.
 
Many halachot are specified in the Written Torah (Jewish Bible). These halachot correspond to fuller and more detailed halachot given orally (Oral Torah) to Moses on Mount Sinai to explain the Written Torah that he received at the same time. Many halachot could not be understood from the Written Torah without the Oral Law (for example, what should be written on a mezuza scroll?) and many common practices such as making kiddush or what tefilin should look like are to be found nowhere in the Written Torah.
 
Since the Torah applies to all generations, the Torah specifies that there be wise and learned people to decide how to apply halacha to the situations of the day.  Halachot can be found in sourcebooks such as the MishnaGemara, their commentaries, Kitzur Shulchan AruchMishna Berura, and responsa (questions and answers originally sent by letter and now, occasionally, by email or SMS!) of later rabbis.
 
Sometimes a custom becomes a halacha, sometimes not.  For example, the original halacha for tzitzit was that a Jewish man who wears a four-cornered garment must have tzitziyot on each corner.  The custom, which has become universally accepted and now has the force of halacha, is that Jewish men wear a four-cornered garment in order to be able to fulfill the commandment of wearing tzitziyot.  An example of a custom that did not become a halacha is that some men and boys wear their tzitziyot outside of their shirts and pants.

Levels of Halachot

In halacha, there are three levels of what to follow or observe. They are differentiated on this website by the following terms:
  • “Must”:  Halachot that are generally non-negotiable except in extreme situations;
  • “Should”:  Customs that have been accepted by the entire Jewish world (or major segments of it) and that may be overridden when necessary, sometimes even if not extreme circumstances; and
  • “Non-Binding Custom”:  Customs that are not universally followed and that need not be followed except by people who have the tradition to do so.

AGRICULTURE

All of the Jewish festival holidays had an agricultural element to them.
 
Agricultural laws include Kilayim, Orla, Reishit, Teruma/Ma’aser, Shmita, and Yashan There are also special laws applying to fruit trees. Some of these laws still apply today by Torah law (d’oraita) while others, such as First Fruits (bikurim), only apply when the Jerusalem Temple stands and so are not practiced now.  Others are observed today as “practice” for when the Temple is rebuilt.

ATTIRE

Various types of attire are considered appropriate for men, single women, married women, and children to wear in public.  The standards vary somewhat due to location and era.

BLESSINGS/BRACHOT

We say blessings as thanks to God for the good we receive from Him; this is a form of acknowledging and expressing gratitude (hakarat ha’tov).
Having an appreciation for the physical world and the beauty and goodness in it is a means of relating to God though the Creation. People can maintain a continual awareness of, and relationship with, God by saying blessings:
  • Before and after eating,
  • After waking in the morning,
  • When we have various types of life experiences, and
  • In many other situations.
When saying blessings or prayers, it is generally best to say the words of the blessing or prayer out loud since doing so can help you to concentrate on what is being said. (The main exception is the amida prayer, which is said quietly enough that you can hear yourself but people near you cannot hear what you are saying).
If you find you have made an error in saying a blessing or prayer, you may correct your error without having to repeat any previous parts if you do so within 2.5 seconds of having made the error.
Note Blessings (brachot) and Prayers (tefilot) are in separate sections in this website, even though prayers have blessings within them.
 

BRIT MILA

Avraham was commanded to circumcise himself and all males in his household. From then on, all healthy Jewish males were to be circumcised when they reached 8 days old.
If there is any question about the baby’s health, the circumcision is delayed or, in rare cases, not done at all.
The primary obligation to do the circumcision is on the boy’s father. Since most people are not expert surgeons, the actual cutting is usually done by a highly trained expert, called a mohel, who is appointed by the father. A festive meal is eaten after the circumcision.  A minyan is preferred, but not required, for a brit mila.
 
See also ShabbatBrit Mila
See also KareitBrit Mila

CHARITY/TZEDAKA

The Torah requires everyone to give charity (tzedaka), and even people who are so poor that they receive charity must also give something to charity. The giving of charity engenders consideration for people who have less than we do.

DEATH AND MOURNING

When we hear of a death, we say Baruch Dayan Ha’Emet to acknowledge that even though we are unhappy about a person’s dying, we recognize that it is part of God's operation of the world.
 
There are many stages to the mourning process and various levels of observance based on the closeness of the mourner to the dead person.

HOLIDAYS

Jewish Festivals are listed in the Torah and are of two types:  
1) Three pilgrimage festivals (shalosh regalim): PassoverShavuot, and Sukkot.  These festivals were celebrated in ancient times by "appearing before God"--by bringing offerings to the Tabernacle or Temple.
2) High Holidays:  The Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashana--listed in the Torah as Yom Teru’a) and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur).
Jewish festivals as practiced today are similar in holiness to Shabbat. Jewish holidays that were originally one day are now practiced as follows:
  • Rosh Hashana--2 days.
  • Yom Kippur--1 day.
  • Shavuot--1 day in Eretz Yisrael or 2 days elsewhere.
  • Passover and Sukkot  The two “week-long” Jewish holidays, Passover and Sukkot, have Jewish festival days at the beginning and end of the holiday and intermediary days of lesser holiness, called chol ha’moed.
How to celebrate these holidays is detailed in our Oral Law and halacha books.  
Each holiday contributes its own character to Jewish life (Passover--the theme of freedom; Yom Kippur brings atonement, etc.).  
As with Shabbat, the Jewish festival has candle lighting, kiddush at two meals, and havdala.   We eat our best food and wear our best clothing on Jewish festivals (we eat our next-best food and wear our next-best clothing on Shabbat!). 
The main idea behind eating meals on Jewish festivals is joy (simcha), so you should drink wine and eat meat (only if you enjoy wine and meat).  There is no third meal on Jewish festivals since people used to eat two meals each day (adding a third meal on Shabbat was for enjoyment/oneg).

Any activities or actions permitted on Shabbat are also permitted on the Jewish festivals. Actions that are forbidden on Shabbat at generally also forbidden on Jewish festivals, but there are some leniencies (only if the actions are needed for that festival day).
Examples
  • Lighting from an existing flame,
  • Cooking and baking for the Jewish festival day, and
  • Carrying outside the eruv (hotza’a--transferring objects between domains).

Grama (indirectly causing an action) is permitted on Jewish festivals but not on Shabbat.  

D’oraita Restrictions apply world-wide to:
  • First and seventh days of Passover,
  • First and eighth days of Sukkot,
  • First day of Shavuot,
  • Yom Kippur,
  • First day of Rosh Hashana.
Note The same restrictions apply to all other Jewish festival days but are rabbinical.

In general, women are not required to perform the positive, time-dependent commandments. Women and girls are not required to eat any Jewish festival meals except the Passover seder meal.

HOLY WRITTEN OBJECTS

By surrounding ourselves with reminders of the commandments and with objects for observing the various Jewish rituals, we can be constantly aware of what we should be doing to live our lives as Jews.
There are two categories of items used for mitzvot:
  • Holy items (tashmishei kedusha), such as tefilin and its boxes, Torah books and commentaries, and Torah scrolls and covers
  • Items used for mitzvot (tashmishei mitzva), such as lulav, etrog, and talit/tzitzit.
Disposal
Both tashmishei kedusha and tashmishei mitzva should be disposed of in a respectful manner. Tashmishei kedusha should ideally be buried. Newspapers with Torah or Torah commentary must be double-wrapped and then may be put in the trash, since they contain material that should not be buried with holy writings (only a newspaper’s Torah or Torah commentary contain inherent holiness).
To dispose of tashmishei mitzva, you may wrap in one layer of plastic and throw it in normal garbage.
 

INTERPERSONAL/BEIN ADAM L'CHAVEIRO

Commandments are of two types; those governing:
  • Interpersonal behavior (Bein adam l’chaveiro), which this section presents, and
  • Behavior between people and God, which most of the rest of this website deals with.
 

KOSHER/KASHRUT

The human soul can achieve its goals when the body’s physical desires and abilities are channeled to do good. Since our bodies are meant to serve holy purposes, what goes into them (as food) likewise must be holy. The Torah lists “fitting,” or kosher, foods and food preparation rules that enhance our spiritual nature. Kosher rules help us use the physical items in the world to achieve holiness.
Note Many of the halachot listed here differ from the more-stringent approach of the Star-K, even though RMH is the halachic authority for the Star-K. The halachot listed in PRACTICAL HALACHA are the basic halachot and RMH approves of their use for individuals.
 

PRAYERS

Prayer brings us closer to God.  When we ask for things from God, even though God already knows what we want and need, we get merit (zechut) for the prayer.
Particularly in synagogue, a holy place, we must be always cognizant of God’s presence and take special care to show respect to God in His house. This awareness is likely even more important than memorizing the halachot of prayer: those who speak in synagogue are showing disrespect to God as well as disturbing others and preventing them from praying with concentration (kavana).
The three daily prayer services--shacharit, mincha, and ma’ariv--are related to the three forefathers who instituted them.  They partly take the place of—and are modeled after--the Temple sacrifices.
If you find you have made an error in saying a blessing or prayer, you may correct your error without having to repeat any previous parts if you do so within 2.5 seconds.
Note Prayers (tefilot) are said at set times; blessings (brachot) are said whenever the correct situation occurs for them. Even though prayers contain blessings within them, blessings and prayers are in separate sections in this website.
 

SHABBAT

By ceasing our normal efforts to dominate the physical world, we can appreciate the spiritual aspects of our existence. God stopped His creative activity on Shabbat, and in honoring our special relationship to our Creator, we are commanded to observe Shabbat.
On Shabbat, all observant (shomer Shabbat) Jews receive an extra “soul.”
Zachor and Shamor
Remember (Zachor) the Sabbath day to make it holyExodus/Shmot 20:8
Observe (Shamor) the Sabbath day to make it holyDeuteronomy/Devarim 5:12
Shabbat has two dimensions:
  • Zachor  “Remember,” encompassing positive (“to do”) commandments, and
  • Shamor  “Observe,” encompassing negative (“refrain from”) commandments.
Zachor:  Positive Shabbat Commandments
What Are Positive Shabbat Commandments
Positive Shabbat commandments include:
  • Lighting candles,
  • Making kiddush evening and morning,
  • Eating three Shabbat meals,
  • Making havdala, and
  • Oneg Shabbat.
Note Women, who are normally exempt from positive, time-dependent commandments, must do both positive and negative Shabbat commandments since, according to tradition, God said both words simultaneously. 
This is unlike Jewish festivals, when women are often exempt from positive, time-dependent commandments.
Honoring Shabbat: Special Food and Clothes
Honoring Shabbat includes eating tasty food and wearing nice clothes in this order:
  • Wear your best clothes and eat your best food for Jewish festivals.
  • Wear your next-best clothes and eat your next-best food for Shabbat.
Note This is only relevant if you have enough clothes and food for both. If you can afford excellent clothes and food for both Jewish festivals and Shabbat, do so.
Shamor: Negative Shabbat Commandments
What Are Negative Shabbat Commandments/Melachot
On the Jewish day of rest, we refrain from 39 specific, creative activities (melachot) that had been used to build the Tabernacle in the wilderness. These 39 melachot are listed in the mishna of Shabbat and in later halacha books.
The word melacha is frequently mistranslated as “work,” but work has nothing to do with the Jewish concept of melacha.
Some melachot are physically strenuous (plowing, grinding wheat, skinning an animal) and some are easy to do (drawing, baking). The defining point is whether the activity is one of the 39 creative, value-adding labors. Emptying your pockets before leaving an eruv (so you are not “carrying”) may seem confusing to someone who thinks that resting on Shabbat means refraining only from hard physical labor!
Melacha Prohibitions from the Torah (D’Oraita)
Most Torah (d’oraita) prohibitions of melacha on Shabbat are for cases in which you:
            1) Intend a permanent change.
    Note Often, actions that may be forbidden when they cause permanent change, will be permissible by Torah law if the result is only temporary. Or
            2) Intend or act for a specific purpose.
    Note Random or unintended actions are generally not prohibited by Torah law.
However, actions that are not prohibited by the Torah, may be prohibited by the rabbis.
Melacha: Intentional or By Mistake
            Whether you may benefit from a melacha done on Shabbat depends on intention:
  • A Jew who intentionally does a melacha on Shabbat may never benefit from that melacha.
Note Any other Jew may benefit from that melacha as soon as Shabbat is over.
  • A Jew who does melacha on Shabbat by mistake (shogeg) may benefit from that melacha immediately after Shabbat ends.
Enjoying Shabbat/Oneg Shabbat
The Jewish sages instituted laws to engender a positive Shabbat atmosphere and experience.  Beyond the actual halachot of shamor and zachor, we have a concept of enjoying Shabbat (oneg Shabbat)—of enhancing our experience of Shabbat by doing whatever each person finds to be enjoyable and relaxing--as long as it is neither destructive nor violates the laws of Shabbat. The criteria are subjective. To fulfill the idea of honoring Shabbat, do things you would not do just for yourself if it were not Shabbat.
Meals as Oneg
On Shabbat, we eat better foods and more types of food than we would normally do on weekdays.
The main idea behind meals for Shabbat is enjoyment (oneg; by contrast, the main idea for Jewish festivals is joy--simcha), so on Shabbat you should eat bread and either fish, poultry, or meat (but only if you enjoy them).
In order to have a special appetite for our Shabbat evening meal, we don’t eat a full meal with bread on Friday afternoon.
Special Shabbat Songs (Zmirot)
Special songs (zmirot) are sung at the various Shabbat meals. Some zmirot have an aspect of prayer to them.
Studying Torah
Studying Torah on Shabbat is another way of increasing our spiritual experience. It honors the Shabbat and should bring about enjoyment of Shabbat.
Shabbat and Muktza
For information on Shabbat and muktza, please see section below, Shabbat: Muktza.
Weekday Talk
Weekday Subjects on Shabbat
Don't talk about subjects that are forbidden to do on Shabbat (weekday subjects); for example, don't talk about what you will do after Shabbat is over. There is no prohibition about discussing actions from the past as long as no planning is discussed.

TAHARA/TUM'A

The Torah commands us to be kedoshim (holy, or set apart), requiring purity in what we eat, how we speak, what we wear, and how we behave. Tum’a is spiritual impurity generally resulting from transitions from life to death (even in a small measure; for instance—sleep or cutting nails). Tum’a prevents us from achieving holiness.
Since we do not have a “red heifer” with which to make purifying water solutions, all people are considered to have some level of tum’a today.
Although there are three reasons to ritually wash hands--to add kedusha; to remove tum’a; and to remove dirt--tum’a normally has nothing to do with physical dirt. There are many types and levels of tum’a, with no exact progression. The following guideline is approximately in descending order from most impure to least:
Sources of the Different Levels of Tum’a
  • Dead body (touching or being in same building with a dead body);
  • Carcass of any dead animal not slaughtered by shechita;
  • Sleep
  • Cemetery
  • Possibly a bathroom
  • Your hands’ transferring tum’a to wet food;
  • Your hands’ transferring tum’a to bread;
  • Food from under a bed on which someone slept;
  • Intercourse or seminal emission;
  • Having your beard, hair, or nails cut;
  • Leather shoes;
  • Touching body parts
  • Women during and after menstruation or after childbirth.
Depending on the level of tum’a, purifying may require:
  • Washing your hands by the Three-Times Method.
  • Washing your hands by the One-Time Method.
  • Immersion in a mikva. OR
  • Sprinkling with water that had been treated with ashes from a red heifer (which we do not have now).
Note Wearing a glove does not block your hand from receiving tum’a from urination or defecation. However, wearing a glove does block tum’a from touching your shoes or petting a dog.

WEDDINGS AND MARRIAGE

In Jewish marriage, there is a written document (ketuba), a financial transaction (ring), and physical intimacy.