ובין החיה, הנאכלת, ובין החיה, אשר לא תיאכל"
“The features that differentiate between animals, beasts, birds, fish and locust that one may eat and those that one may not eat are a Mitzvat Asseh (positive command). [We know this] from the verse, “and you shall differentiate between the clean and unclean animal, between the unclean bird and the clean one, between the edible beast and the inedible one”.”
The Rav Kafieh edition reads as above מצוות עשה הן which at first blush is hard to understand. What does it mean that the features are the mitzvah? Of course, as is common with Rambam, whenever his concepts seemed alien to their readers, especially when hand copying was in vogue, emendations and clarifications were common. These emendations eventually found their way into the text. In the Frankel Edition, we read מצות עשה לידע הסימנין שמבדילין where the Mitzvah is to know these features. Much has been written about this language and most commentators build their explanation on this version. Besides Rav Kafieh, I have not found any that refer us back to Rambam who explains what he means quite succinctly and that in fact confirms the version of the Kafieh edition. In Sefer Hamitzvot Asseh 152, after listing the Mitzvot Asseh that pertain to animals, beasts and locusts, he lists the one pertaining to fish. He then makes the following comment,
והעניין באומרנו שהיא מצוות עשה הוא כמו שהזכרתי לך, שאנו נצטווינו לדון בסימנים אלו ונאמר: זה מותר לאוכלו וזה אינו מותר, כמו שבאר הכתוב ואמר: "והבדלתם בין הבהמה הטהרה לטמאה וגו'" (שם כ, כה) ולא תהא הבדלה אלא בסימנים
“When we said that it is a Mitzvat Asseh it means, as I mentioned, that we were commanded to deliberate in these features and say: This [specific feature found in an animal – DG] one may eat and this one may not [IOW makes it permissible or forbidden – DG]. That is the meaning of the verse “and you shall differentiate between the clean and unclean animal”. The only possible way to differentiate is with features.”
The Mitzvah is the deliberation itself to arrive at a conclusion on the features that help us differentiate between the permissible and the forbidden. Defining and establishing the features, is the Mitzvah. Hence, Rav Kafieh version must be the original one, eliminating many conjectures of the meaning.
The idea that defining the rule itself is so important and the significance of that is emphasized in another related Halacha. In Mitzvat Asseh 150 regarding birds, we read,
הציווי שנצטווינו בסמני העוף,
והוא שרק כמה מינים ממנו יהיו
מותרים. וסימני העוף לא נאמרו מן התורה אלא הושגו בחקירה, כי כאשר אנו מתבוננים בכל
המינים שנתבאר איסורם אחד אחד, מוצאים אנו בהם דברים הכוללים אותם, והם סמני עוף
“The command that we were commanded regarding the features of birds is that only few categories are permitted. The features of birds were not given in the Torah but were attained through inquiry. For as we contemplate all the categories that were forbidden, one by one, we find the common features that apply to all of them. Those are the features of unclean birds.”
While the other groups, animals, beasts, fish and locusts the Torah specifies the features that make them permissible, a limited list of forbidden birds are listed without any explanation. Extrapolation from this limited list is done through inquiry by establishing their common features, using that as a basis to permit or forbid other birds.
I am not sure why establishing criteria and refining those already stated is important. In MN 3:48, Rambam states “The characteristics given in the Law (Lev. xi. and Deut. xiv.) of the permitted animals, viz., chewing the cud and divided hoofs for cattle, and fins and scales for fish, are in themselves neither the cause of the permission when they are present, nor of the prohibition when they are absent; but merely signs by which the recommended species of animals can be discerned from those that are forbidden.” IOW there is nothing intrinsic about these features; they are just tools that we use to identify the permitted and the forbidden. In general, Rambam sees these laws as a way of developing restraint and self-control. That is the thinking behind the negative commandment, the Lo Ta’asseh of “you shall not eat…” What does the positive commandment of “you shall eat…” mean? If restraint is the underlying concept, why is there a commandment to eat? Eating itself cannot be the Mitzvah. Developing the criteria, applying these to specific species is a way of using the restraint in a positive way by immersing oneself in God and His laws. Ascetic behavior alone does no good without replacing the void created with a positive action. Restraint is for the purpose of allowing intellectual growth. Without that, it is incomplete and misses its intended goal.