Halacha — Jewish law — “is a comprehensive way of life that tells us what to do when we wake up in the morning, what you can and can’t wear, what you can eat, and whom you can and can’t marry,” said Rabbi David Bassous.
He said Halacha literally means “path,” and it presents a route of holiness traveled by Jews for centuries. Bassous, religious leader of Congregation Etz Ahaim in Highland Park, spoke before about 100 people Dec. 22 at Congregation Ohav Emeth in Highland Park for the Orthodox Forum of Edison and Highland Park.
“The significance of why we do these things is we are constantly in contact with the divine,” said Bassous, who is also the author of Jewish Law Meets Modern Challenges.
However, even Torah law, given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai, has gaps, which, he explained, are filled in by oral law, codified in the Talmud, the rabbinical commentary.
“It’s impossible to understand the commandments without some sort of commentary,” said Bassous. Even Moses spent 40 days learning not only the law, but also the minhag, the body of customs that would become so powerful they would become part of the law.
“The oral law is interesting stories and parables that give the ethics, not just the legalistic document for the lawyers and rabbis,” said Bassous.
The rabbi said the best-known minhag is probably that of celebrating Jewish holidays for two days outside of Israel, instead of one. The exception is Rosh Hashana, which is also observed for two days in Israel.
“In those days they didn’t have calendars so the rabbis made a rabbinical law that the holiday should be observed two days in case people were unsure of the day,” said Bassous. “Even though we now have calendars, the rabbis said, ‘Let’s keep it two days because it is a very powerful minhag.’”
That power to create new law was given to the rabbis by God “to strengthen Judaism and the mitzvot.”
For instance, Bassous said, while Jews are commanded to observe Shabbat, it was the rabbis who decreed lighting candles to increase its spirituality. He likened breaking Shabbat to “falling off a spiritual cliff” and said the talmudic rabbis regarded their enacting of the laws as a way to “build a fence around the Torah” to protect its intentions.
“It is forbidden to build on Shabbat so the rabbis said you can’t play with a hammer,” said Bassous. “If you find a hammer you might find a nail and start building. What the rabbis are doing is protecting us and keeping us from falling off that spiritual cliff. They are intended to add to Torah, not subtract from Torah.”
Yet Torah law always trumps rabbinical law. Bassous noted that because Jews are supposed to celebrate Shabbat with joy, all fast days falling on it are moved a day — with one exception.
“Yom Kippur is the only fast day that can take place on Shabbat because it is Torah law that it always fall on the evening of the ninth of Tishrei,” said Bassous; other fast days are fixed by rabbinical law.
Even in the modern age, where science and technology have presented rabbis with new challenges, religious leaders have found solutions without breaking down the fence.
For example, doctors in Israeli hospitals working on Shabbat often use iPads — not pen and paper — to acceptably get around the rabbinical — but not the Torah — prohibition of writing on the holiday.
That quality, said Bassous, makes Torah eternally engaging.
“The beauty of Torah is that all put together, it is stories and laws that captivate a person,” said Bassous. “Even a little kid can study Torah and understand it on his level while a rabbi can study it for 50 years and still get something out of it.
“It is user-friendly.”