I have heard the term “halacha” as the Hebrew word for Jewish law. Does the word literally mean Jewish law, because I thought it means “to walk”?
Moe L., Plano
You are right, “halacha” literally means “to walk.” It also is the word the Sages use to refer to Jewish law. The Torah often refers to the fulfillment of God’s commandments as “walking” with His statutes. The fact that our Sages chose precisely that word to describe Jewish law carries a profound message about the nature of Jewish law and our relationship to it.
As we’ve said many times in these columns, the Torah is not a “religion” per se, rather a way of life. Judaism isn’t something you do in a synagogue, rather it’s a system which permeates every aspect of our lives. There are vast volumes of Torah laws, halacha, governing business and legal affairs and every area of public and private life — in addition to the rituals between man and God.
In this way Judaism teaches that wherever one “walks,” that arena can be fused with spirituality and holiness. In the “Shema,” we are exhorted to speak these words, “while sitting in your home, while walking along the way, when you lie down and rise up.”
There is a fascinating teaching which punctuates this idea. The words and letters of the Tablets given to Moses at Sinai were carved all the way through the stone. Naturally, the words should be backward if one would see them from the back of the Tablets. God, however, performed a miracle by which the carved words could be read from either side. Why did God need to perform this miracle? What is the message?
Rabbi S. R. Hirsch explains the message of this miracle was to teach us that a Jew needs to act as a Jew no matter which way he turns. One can’t be a Jew only in the synagogue. Whether in business or with the family, in the kitchen or the bedroom, we have halacha, which tells us how to “walk” and fuse our “walking” with the spirituality unique to our holy Torah.
I once read of an anti-Semite in czarist Russia who approached the local governor, seeking decrees against the Jews because they refuse to conform with society, teaching their people to be different. The governor instructed the man to go to the Jews’ cheder, children’s school, and see what they are teaching their children and to report back to him before deciding upon a decree. When this man spied on the cheder, he found the rebbe teaching his students the proper conduct of modesty in the bathroom and which blessing to recite upon leaving it. He smiled evilly, assured of success in his plot. Upon returning to the governor he exclaimed, “I really have those Jews now!” “What did you see?” asked the governor. “I saw their teacher talking about bathrooms!” “What? They have laws about bathrooms?” asked the governor, “Are you serious?” “Yes,” answered the man, “that’s exactly what he was teaching them!” he answered with a wicked smile. The governor retorted, “if they have laws even governing their conduct in a bathroom, this is truly a holy nation, and we must do what we can to protect them!”
Halacha is that which makes us holy and elevates us from among the other nations of the world!