Halakhah comes from the word halakh, which means ‘to go’ – it is the word for ‘way’. Halakhah is normally translated by the word ‘law’ – being anything that pertains to law, to commandments, to instructions; any kind of rules that are normative or prescriptive of your behavior. The Talmud as well as the Mishnah is full of halakhah. These are rulings by rabbis on what is permitted and what is forbidden—it is full of instructions on how you should live, what the commandments mean. The Bible says you shall not work on a Sabbath. What does that mean in practical terms? There are rulings pertaining to this; there is a huge amount of literature in halakhah that deals with that commandment, explaining what it means in specific circumstances. So halakhah is what to do and what not to do in every situation; it is a legal description, a norm that specifies. A better translation than law however is ‘the way’ – halakhah is simply a description of the way to walk, the way to live.
Halakhah is absolutely fundamental to all Judaism – in Jesus’ day as well as today. It deals with all the issues of how to live one’s life—it shapes daily routines, turns your ordinary activity into sanctified activity. It is all the rules of what to obey, what not to do, what to do with respect to Torah. In other words, halakhah teaches you how to follow the Bible, how to follow God’s teachings/instruction/laws. Perhaps an even better description in the Jewish way of thinking is to say halakhah describes the path of life. It deals with all those legal decisions that were made by the sages, guiding a person’s activities and observances. There are halakhot (plural) dealing with how to keep the festivals in your home – how to do this, how to do that; on your personal relationships, on your relationship with God. It is set out in enormous detail—the Talmud is 18 volumes in English of halakhot, as well as some aggadah.
It is also correct to put a h in front of aggadah and say haggadah; they're the same. The reason it is normally left off is because the description or story and procedures (Seder) for keeping the Passover meal is called the haggadah; it has come to mean that specific thing. So the term aggadah is used. Everything within Jewish tradition that cannot be included under the category halakhah is aggadah – it is either one or the other. If it doesn’t fall under the category of legal prescriptions, guidelines, directions, then it is aggadah.
Aggadah is legends, ethical statements, folklore/stories; it is theology, biblical exegesis and interpretation of Scripture, sermons (homiletical material), midrashim, parables—it is just everything, it is a hodgepodge. Why is this important? Because it so happens that in his teaching methods, Jesus was a master at the art of teaching aggadah. He did not spend much of his time (at least as recorded in Scripture) in dealing with halakhah, legal decisions. He spent much more of his time teaching how you should live in terms of your relationship to God and your relationship to one another. In one sense one can describe Jesus’ primary function as ethical—he was trying to get people to live moral right lives. He wanted to draw people close to God, and so he would teach them, he would give sermons and illustrations. He was a masterful parable teller.
Almost one third of all of Jesus’ teachings recorded in the gospels are parables—parables are at the very heart of aggadic literature. In fact, in the collections of aggadah that exist today in many different forms of Jewish literature, there are over 4000 parables. Jesus was not unique for using these stories to teach. Remember, he was not unique in how he dressed, in how he spoke, and even what he spoke, or what he did in terms of healings—he was unique because of who he was. But he was a man operating in this culture in the first century, and so he mastered techniques that were commonly used to teach others, and one of the techniques was parables.
I want to give you a few principles that are absolutely fundamental to correctly understand the parabolic teaching method. I am deriving these principles from an extensive study that Dr. Brad Young did in his years of research in Israel, working towards a Ph.D. at the Hebrew University. His dissertation was on the subject of Jesus’ parables. He studied from Jewish literature trying to understand parables – in the context in which they were given – how parables were understood in the culture of first, so that we can understand how Jesus was using them. Because the fact of the matter is, there is an enormous range of opinion about the meaning of parables; and a lot of it is ill informed.