Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Korbanot and Mitzvot: Defining the Issues.

There are two issues that I would like to address in upcoming posts. The first issue is the problem many Rishonim led by Ramban in this week’s commentary on Vaykra 1: 9 have with Rambam’s position that such a seminal part of Torah, Korbanot, could be just a concession. In fact, anyone learning Rambam in his Halachik writings comes away with the clear notion that all Mitzvot led by Korbanot are a-priori commandments not just concessions.

The second issue that I want to address is whether there is a rationale for a particular Mitzvah and the way it is performed. In other words if there is no intrinsic value to the practice is there any rationale to the particular form of worship that Mitzvot require? I am talking particularly about Mitzvot that do not have an impact on interpersonal or societal interactions.

Some of the things I write about on the topic I am still learning and developing as I go along. All input and help will be appreciated.

In my last post, I explained Rambam’s position on Korbanot in the context of his understanding of Avodah Zara. Ideally, worship of a transcendental God would be restricted to intellectual contemplation with no practical physical outlet. Korbanot are a concession to the human condition and have no intrinsic meaning per se. It is a way of expressing an emotion of devotion and dependence that comes from accepting and apprehending the existence of a revered and omnipotent God. The vehicle chosen was Korbanot because people historically did this as a form of worship to the gods. Instead of prohibiting an idolatrous practice, the Torah chose to allow it but redirect and surround it by strict rules and regulations restricting it into a narrowly defined process. Korbanot then became the paradigm for all Mitzvot. The idea is that Mitzvot have no intrinsic value just like Korbanot. God gets nothing from them nor do they influence any intermediate power because there is none other than God. Mitzvot, especially positive commandments, are merely a concession to the human need for expressing an emotion through practical worship. They are therefore strictly regulated and surrounded by rules and restrictions just like Korbanot.

What is interesting is that precisely because there were rules and regulations set out by the Torah for the Mitzvot, there was a shift and they were no longer seen as concessions. Rules coming from a divine Torah sanctified the Mitzvot and made them into a required a-priori form of worship. They became an obligatory expression of reverence and submission to the Divine command. This shift was also led by Korbanot, the paradigm for all Mitzvot. We already see that in the commentary on the Mishna in Avot I quoted earlier. As Rambam puts it, the world stands on Korbanot; they promote the continuity of the betterment of the world and its orderly existence in the best possible way. Once the Korbanot were regulated but more importantly, once they became a command, they became a-priori worship that the world depends on.

The Mishna Ta’anit 4:2 describes the Halacha of Ma’amadot where each city in Eretz Yisrael sent periodically a representation consisting of Kohanim and Levi’im to the Beit Hamikdash to serve there for a week. Those who remained behind prayed and fasted and as part of the rituals, they read in the Torah the Parsha of creation in Breishit. Rambam explains the reason for that reading as follows:

וקורין במעשה בראשית, כי שלמות המציאות היא העבודה, ואין עבודה אצלינו אלא עם הקרבנות, וכך אמרו אלמלי קרבנות לא נתקימו שמים וארץ

They read the narrative of creation because the perfection of existence is worship. The only worship we have is Korbanot. It is as the rabbis said, if not for Korbanot, heaven and earth could not have continuity.

Can there be a more a-priori obligation? How did this shift from concession to the most important obligation occur? Some of us may be satisfied with the simple answer that once it became a divine commandment it sanctified the Mitzvah. We just do the Mitzvah and thus perform an act of subservience to God. I think that it is a good argument and we can find something along that line in Rambam, as I will show. But I think there is much more to it. I do not think that explains how the continuity of the existence of the world depends on Mitzvot. [1]

I want to end this post by summarizing and defining what we know so far. We know that Mitzvot in general are a concession to our needs as human beings to express in action our devotion to God. Of course, I am not talking about the Mitzvot that deal with societal and interpersonal interaction. Those have obviously great utility just from a social aspect. I am talking about Mitzvot that have nothing to do with our fellow man, those that are acts of pure devotion to God. We also know that there are clearly defined rules on how these Mitzvot are to be performed. There are strict regulations limiting their performance within a very narrow set of rules. Creativity and imagination fueled by emotions is forbidden. All emotions are as if bottled up into a container and encouraged as long as they do not overflow and spill out. We also know that there is a shift where something occurred and moved Mitzvot from a concession to an obligation. They became so important that the existence of the world depends on them. How to understand this shift and the meaning thereof is the issue.

I think that in MN 3:26, the opening chapter of his discussion of Ta’amei Hamitzvot, Rambam begins to address this problem.

To be continued…

[1] I also cannot accept the other argument which reads this literally that God created man so that he should have creatures that serve Him. I can see it as a perspective to be lauded from our point of view but it certainly does not work from God’s. It is almost insulting C”V.


  1. "Mitzvot, especially positive commandments, are merely a concession to the human need for expressing an emotion through practical worship."

    Why then do Noahides have no positive commandments other than maintaining a judicial system?

  2. ben noach,

    That is a very good question and I would have to think much more about it. I am no expert in the halachot that deal with bnei noach.

    My first reaction, and usually it is incorrect, is that the commandments being a concession one needs to accept them in their entirety for the exception to be applicable.

    Judicial system is not a concession as it is a societal necessity.

  3. isn't v'kivshuah a commandment for all human beings to learn about the universe and then take control of it, with the goal being to find G-D and then emulate him.That is why the social laws are so important and are singled out and listed as the seven laws of noah.The same rules were repeated to Moshe when he was told by G-D the thirteen attributes.This was in response to moshe's question how he can know G-D.

  4. >isn't v'kivshuah a commandment for all human beings to learn about the universe and then take control of it, with the goal being to find G-D and then emulate him.

    I think it was already pointed out on this blog in comments that Vekivshua is not listed as a command. I did not react because I agree. It is more an issue of setting a mission that man conquer his environment. It would seem to me to be more the mission to learn the sciences and how the world works from a physical point and take control of it. What you are talking about is totally different and it is Vehalachta Bidrachav. But even there I don't think the social laws are for that purpose. They are rather for maintaining a good society.

    Bnei Noach have the same need to find God but they cannot avail themselves of the tools the Torah gives a Jew. He would have to convert to be able to use it. That explains why Torah is a gift in the words of the Rabbis.

    Like I said I am no expert in the halacha of BN. I hate to discuss something I have not worked out at least studying the sources more carefully.

  5. Of course in Hilchot Melachim u'Milchamoteihem we read:

    We should not prevent a gentile [a noahide, a ben no'ach] who desires to perform one of the Torah's commandments in order to receive merit [or reward], from doing so, [provided] he performs it as required.

    If he brings [an animal] as a burnt offering we should receive it.

    If he [the noahide] gives charity we should accept it from him. . . By contrast, if an idolator [an akkum] gives charity, we should accept it from him and give it to the foreign [the akkum, non-Jewish] poor.

    If anyone is interested in learning more about the Sheva Mitzvot, there is a new Noahide Shulchan Aruch that was just written by Rabbi Moshe Weiner:

  6. Did you see the Narvoni on the Moreh?

    I discussed it in the Mesukim miDevash on parashas Vayiqra.

  7. R. Micha

    Thank you. I had not yet seen the Narboni. I usually leave the meforshim for later after I work through the Rambam myself as far as I can.

    Shabbat Shalom.