Roads on Fire

Imagining A Jew

Torah Sheh’bahl Peh

Torah Shebikhtav distinguishes between imperative (mitzva, Commandment) and narrative (story). A similar distinction applies to Torah Sheh’bahl Peh. Imperative is called halakha. Narrative is called agada and midrash halakha. Does mitzva apply outside of the Holy Land?

If we use the term to identify the imperatives God Gives in Torah, mitzva only applies in the Land. If we use the term to identify the halakha derived from the mitzva, then mitzva applies wherever Jews live. Mitzva is used in both senses. Israel’s religious and political leadership was exiled in the early 6th century BCE, and the First Temple was destroyed. A question arose: Can we worship God outside the Land? Tehila 137 is a tear-stained and graphic polemic which frames the struggle these élite exiles felt:

The exile left its impression in much of the Tenakh (Jewish Scriptures). In Esther and Daniel we see an unusual debate — Does God Exist in exile? We know God was outside the Land:
Yona Hanavi (the prophet Jonah) prophecied to Nineveh.
Éli’ahu Hanavi vanquished the prophets of Baal, who were in the Land but not of it.
We know the Kohanim (the priesthood) had halakha – the sacrifices are recorded in Torah but not how the priest made the offering. But did this tradition apply outside the Land?


Strongly held opinions, feelings, and emotions of élites are in play here. Priests, prophets, royalty and nobles are involved in this discussion. Real passion is involved; they have brought both their agreements and grudges with them into exile:
How things were done is how things are done. No.
The Land is holy, this place is profane! No.
God Dwells here no less. Yes… but can we build a temple? No!

Then how… ?

It was all very tumultuous and confused. The question was asked in Bavel with the exile in the 6th century BCE. It was answered in Bavel 1200 years later, in the 6th century CE. The Talmudic tradition ended 1200 years of effort to make Godliness portable. The Talmudic premise is that there is a single “way” – halakha comes from the Hebrew verb holèkh (to walk). Halakha was not always uniform.

Midrash halakha follows Torah’s structure – it is unsystematic. In Torah, divergence is systematic. Midrash followed Torah’s structure, so halakhot were unsystematic and not easily classified. The mitzvot occur where they occur; there is often some thematic relationship, but within the theme there is often divergence.

The drive for standardisation began with the Mishna and continued in the Gemara.
The classification system of halakha is called Mishna. There are six orders (sederim) of Mishna:
  1. Zéra’im
  2. Naziq’in
  3. Nashim
  4. Qodashim
  5. Moéd
  6. Tohorot

We’ll look at this more in the next section.

Reb Arie

A chaplain, spiritual director, and educator, Arié Chark (“Reb Arie”) is Rector at The Metivta of Ottawa. A strong sense of personal mission has led Reb Arie to convene various civil society projects under the auspices of The Metivta of Ottawa, including the Ottawa Roundtable and the Abrahamic Chaplaincy Board.