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Frequently Asked Questions and Answers

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Question 4.2:
Traditionally, what are the levels of halacha?

Answer:

  1. Minhag. Custom. Custom, although not really part of Halachah, can change. Minhag is any act that the masses, on their own, accept. Any minhag that is against actual Halachah, is called a minhag ta'os, a mistaken minhag. Any that is based on a misunderstanding is a minhag shtus, a foolish custom. These two should not be followed. Any nearly universal minhag is called a Minhag Yisroel, and has most of the stringencies of law. (Yarmulka, and Ma'ariv services are two examples of a Minhag Yisroel.)

  2. Din dirabanan. A rabbinic law. These are set up by the rabbinate, instead of the masses, in order to preserve the spirit of the law. For example, Purim and Chanukah. There are 7 new commandments that are entirely rabbinic, bringing the famous total of 613 mitzvot up to 620.

  3. Gezeira dirabanan. A rabbinic "fence". These are enacted to prevent a common cause for breaking the act of the law. For example, one may not place food directly on a fire before Shabbat in order to keep it heated during Shabbat. This is a fence around the law against cooking on Shabbat. To prevent the gezeira from being violated, a metal cover, called a blech in Yiddish, is placed on the stove top before Shabbat with the flame (turned to a low setting) under one section and the pot with food placed on the blech. This blech serves as a fence, allowing heating of the food without any danger of violating the law. Note that a "gezeira dirabanan" becomes binding only if it is accepted by the community.

  4. P'sak. A rabbinic ruling. This ruling addresses a the questionable area of some law or custom. A p'sak can only be over ruled by another body which is both larger in number, and greater in "chochmah". (The ability to know how to use the facts. Not more knowledgeable book-wise, but more steeped in the Torah weltanschauung.)

The distinction between the second and third categories is subtle. In order to be a Din (or Issur, or Melachah) Dirabanan, the prohibited action must be similar in purpose to the permitted one. A gezeira does not even require an action. In the example I gave, it was inaction, leaving the pot where it is, that is prohibited. The category includes things that are similar in means to the prohibited act, and will therefore cause confusion about what is and what isn't okay; and things which will allow people to be caught up in habit, and forget about the prohibition. Only a gezeira may defy an actual Divine law (although a p'sak will often define one), and even so only under specific circumstances. All of the following must be satisfied:

On the other hand, a gezeira is less powerful than a normal rabbinic law in that they can not be compounded. One may not make a "fence" for the express purpose of protecting another "fence". A law is considered accepted if it becomes common practice. Any din or gezeira which does not get accepted by the masses in the short run, does not become binding in the long run. Similarly, there are rules for p'sak, but they are violated if the masses choose to follows some other rabbinic body's p'sak. Notice, however, that this is only in the short run. Once a law is accepted, it may only be overruled by p'sak. It cannot just fade into non-practice.


The FAQ is a collection of documents that is an attempt to answer questions that are continually asked on the soc.culture.jewish family of newsgroups. It was written by cooperating laypeople from the various Judaic movements. You should not make any assumption as to accuracy and/or authoritativeness of the answers provided herein. In all cases, it is always best to consult a competent authority--your local rabbi is a good place to start.

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