What is Halakhah (Jewish Law)?
Just as Islam is a way of life for Muslim believers, Judaism is a comprehensive way of life, filled with rules and practices that affect every aspect of Jewish life: what you do when you wake up in the morning, what you can and cannot eat, what you can and cannot wear, how to groom yourself, how to conduct business, who you can marry, how to observe the holidays and Shabbat, and perhaps most important, how to treat God, other people, and animals. This set of rules and practices is known as halakhah.
The word "halakhah" is usually translated as "Jewish Law," although a more literal (and more appropriate) translation might be "the path that one walks." The word is derived from the Hebrew root meaning to go, to walk or to travel.
Some non-Jews and non-observant Jews criticize this legalistic aspect of traditional Judaism, saying that it reduces the religion to a set of rituals devoid of spirituality. But those who observe halakhah have a different view: they believe it increases the spirituality in a person's life, because it turns the most trivial, mundane acts, such as eating and getting dressed, into acts of religious significance. They believe that the prayers and observance of religious rules constantly remind them of their relationship with the Divine, and it becomes an integral part of their existence.
What Jews are (and aren't) allowed to eat
Kashrut is the body of Jewish law dealing with what foods practicing Jews can and cannot eat and how those foods must be prepared and eaten. "Kashrut" comes from the Hebrew root meaning fit, proper or correct. It is the same root as the more commonly known word "kosher," which describes food that meets these standards. The word "kosher" can also be used, and often is used, to describe ritual objects that are made in accordance with Jewish law and are fit for ritual use.
Contrary to popular misconception, rabbis or other religious officials do not "bless" food to make it kosher. There are blessings that observant Jews recite over food before eating it, but these blessings have nothing to do with making the food kosher.
There is no such thing as "kosher-style" food. Kosher is not a style of cooking. French, Moroccan or Indian food can be kosher if they are prepared in accordance with Jewish law.
Of the "beasts of the earth", Jews may eat any animal that has cloven hooves and chews its cud. The Torah specifies that the camel, the rock badger, the hare and the pig are not kosher because each lacks one of these two qualifications. Sheep, cattle, goats and deer, for example, are kosher.
What is tzedekah (Jewish Charity)?
Traditional Jews give at least ten percent of their income to charity. A standard mourner's prayer includes a statement that the mourner will make a donation to charity in memory of the deceased. In many ways, charitable donation has taken the place of animal sacrifice in Jewish life: for Jewish believers, giving to charity is an almost instinctive response to express thanks to God, to ask forgiveness from God, or to request a favor from God. According to Jewish tradition, the spiritual benefit of giving to the poor is so great that a beggar actually does the giver a favor by giving a person the opportunity to perform tzedakah.
"Tzedakah" is the Hebrew word for the acts that we call "charity" in English: giving aid, assistance and money to the poor and needy or to other worthy causes. However, the nature of tzedakah is very different from the idea of charity. The word "charity" suggests benevolence and generosity, a magnanimous act by the wealthy and powerful for the benefit of the poor and needy. The word "tzedakah" is derived from the Hebrew root meaning righteousness, justice or fairness. In Judaism, giving to the poor is not viewed as a generous, magnanimous act; it is simply an act of justice and righteousness, the performance of a duty, giving the poor their due.
Giving to the poor is an obligation in Judaism, a duty that cannot be forsaken even by those who are themselves in need. Some sages have said that tzedakah is the highest of all commandments, equal to all of them combined, and that a person who does not perform tzedakah is equivalent to an idol worshipper. This illustrates the importance of tzedakah in Jewish thought. Tzedakah, alongside teshuvah (repentance) and tefilah (prayer), is one of the three acts that gain forgiveness from sins.
The Sabbath (or Shabbat, as it is called in Hebrew) is one of the best known and least understood of all Jewish observances. Many think of Shabbat as a day filled with stifling restrictions, or as a day of prayer. But to observant Jews, it is a day of great joy eagerly awaited throughout the week, a time when they can set aside all of their weekday concerns and devote themselves to higher pursuits.
Shabbat is the most important ritual observance in Judaism. It is the only ritual observance instituted in the Ten Commandments. It is also the most important special day, even more important than Yom Kippur. Shabbat is primarily a day of rest and spiritual enrichment. The word "Shabbat" comes from the root meaning to cease, to end, or to rest.
In modern societies, we take the five-day work-week so much for granted that we forget what a radical concept a day of rest was in ancient times. The weekly day of rest has no parallel in any other ancient civilization. In ancient times, leisure was for the wealthy and the ruling classes only, never for the serving or laboring classes. In addition, the very idea of rest each week was unimaginable. The Greeks thought Jews were lazy because they insisted on having a "holiday" every seventh day.