Friday, September 03, 2010

Are Commandments Arbitrary?

In earlier posts, I showed that the underlying goal of Mitzvot is to keep us focused on God who commanded these Mitzvot. The question that comes to mind though is how is a particular commandment to be understood? Is it arbitrary without any special reason other than to make us aware that God commanded it? Is it possible for example, that just as the Torah commanded us to slaughter an animal from the neck it could have commanded us to do so by hitting the animal with a hammer over the head? After all, since either one method would be coming from God and being restrictive, meaning that there would be only one way permissible to kill an animal, it would remind us of the same thing, His existence, and trigger our mind to think about Him. Or is there a deeper wisdom that not only reminds us of God but also has another practical objective? Is slaughtering from the neck in itself the only correct way of doing it? Was it chosen randomly among other methods?

Let us take the Halacha of Shechita – slaughtering. Rambam when he organized his Mishne Torah he divided it into 14 books, one of which is the Sefer Kedusha – the Book of Holiness. The Book of Holiness comprises three groupings of Halachot – Forbidden Relations, Forbidden Foods and the laws of Shechita – slaughter. The concept of holiness is uniqueness and separation by acting in a way that is different from those who act following their urges and animal instinct. People are holy when they act for other than selfish reasons, which is our natural urging. Holiness is therefore, acting with self-control, setting limits to those natural urges. The areas that we humans need the most control are where our natural appetites are the strongest, namely sex and food. Just by classifying these halachot together - although at first blush they would seem to be quite different - Rambam tells us a little about the specific goal of these Mitzvot; self-control. The method of killing a permitted animal – Shechita – thus falls under the rubric of self-control. The idea is that having allowed us to eat certain animals while forbidding others for the same reason, namely curbing our appetite, these permitted animals cannot be killed any which way. They require that we prepare a specially sharpened instrument and perform the slaughter in very specific ways, setting limits to our urge for instant gratification. The choice of this specific method of killing when other methods could have been used too with their own detailed rules, accomplishing the same goal of setting limits, has an additional purpose; to teach us to be conscious about the pain of others. Slaughtering from the neck is considered one of the most humane methods of killing. There may be others just as humane but one had to be chosen, and it was this one. The final choice of one humane way over another is practical – one that is easily accessible and does not require a lot of technology or extensive preparations – which would be too much of a burden and eventually lead to people not being able to adhere to the rule. The exact method of killing, in our case using a sharpened instrument to cut from the neck below and not from the neck above, is arbitrary. Both methods would have been equally humane and equally accessible but one was chosen arbitrarily. Although arbitrary, it is however, binding and any other method would not allow us to eat the meat. This arbitrary but binding rule again teaches us discipline and makes us aware that a command from God is binding on us even when it appears to be arbitrary.

Since, therefore, the desire of procuring good food necessitates the slaying of animals, the Law enjoins that the death of the animal should be the easiest. It is not allowed to torment the animal by cutting the throat in a clumsy manner, by poleaxing, or by cutting off a limb whilst the animal is alive.” (MN3:48) “This is their dictum in that passage: What does it matter to the Holy one that animals are slaughtered by cutting their neck in front or in back? Say therefore that the commandments were only given in order to purify the people. For it is said: the word of the Lord is purified…. What everyone that is endowed with a sound intellect ought to believe on this subject is what I shall set forth to you: The generalities of the commandments necessarily have a cause and have been given because of a certain utility. Their details are that about which it is said of the commandments that they were given merely for the sake of commanding something. For instance, the killing of animals because of the necessity of having good food is manifestly useful, as we shall make clear. But the prescription that they should be killed through having the upper and not the lower part of their throat cut, and having their esophagus and windpipe severed at one particular place is, like other prescriptions of the same kind, imposed with a view to purifying the people. The same is made clear to you through their example: slaughtered by cutting their neck in front or in the back. I have mentioned this example to you merely because one finds in their text: slaughtering by cutting their neck in front or in back. However, if one studies the truth of the matter, one finds it to be as follows: As necessity occasions the eating of animals, the commandment was intended to bring about the easiest death in an easy manner; for beheading would only be possible with the help of a sword or something similar, whereas a throat can be cut with anything. In order that the death should come about more easily, the condition was imposed that the knife be sharp.” (MN 3:26)

 We see here a multifaceted approach to Mitzvot where the same action has many purposes but mostly to educate and change our way of thinking while also developing our ethical sense and imposing controls and our natural urges.

As is typical of Rambam, the philosophical and Halachik go hand in hand. Rambam’s Sefer Hamitzvot begins laying down fourteen rules on the conditions a commandment must meet to be counted as a mitzvah that make up the traditional 613 Mitzvot that were given to Moshe. The significance and the high level of importance that Rambam assigns to this number is a lengthy discussion which I will leave for another time. What interests us here is the fourth Shoresh or basic rule.
 וכבר טעו בשורש הזה גם כן, עד שמנו "קדושים תהיו" מצווה מכלל מצוות עשה,

ולא ידעו שאומרו "קדושים תהיו" "והתקדשתם והייתם קדושים" הם ציוויים לקיים

כל התורה, כאילו יאמר 'היה קדוש בעשותך כל מה שציוויתיך בו, והיזהר מכל מה

שהזהרתיך ממנו'. ולשון ספרא "קדושים תהיו - פרושים תהיו", רוצה לומר

היבדלו מן הדברים המגונים כולם שהזהרתי אתכם מהם.

Although the Torah seems to be commanding us specifically to be holy, holiness is not counted as a separate Mitzvah. It is a generalized explanation and reason for our keeping Mitzvot in general. Some Mitzvot have as their central focus holiness such as those in sefer Kedusha, but every Mitzvah has a component of holiness in it – namely separation from our natural narcissistic and self-serving urges and tendencies by imposing and demanding self-control. For a Mitzvah to be counted, the specific commandment must be identified as a sub-category within the whole corpus of Mitzvot with its own identifiable teaching and character other than the ones applicable to all Mitzvot. I wonder whether that in itself points to the fact that there must be a rational reason for each commandment and therefore they cannot be arbitrary.

In following posts, I want to understand why the Torah at times is specific and offers a reason for a Mitzvah while at others it does not.


  1. Building on Rambam's point about Kedusha being the end goal of all Mitzvot. The Moadim, are Mikraei Kodesh, they have a kedushat hayom. In tefilla we say Mekadesh Yisrael Vihazmanim. As positive acts, it would seem, that they would have greater claim to being instruments of kedusha, than proper eating and procreating. Yet, we do not see the Moadim in Sefer Kedusha. Why is this?

  2. Kedusha is a stepping stone. Indeed it is extant to a certain extent in many mitzvos especially lo Ta'asseh's as it is teaching to set limits, it is a stepping stone to ruach Hakodesh or proper theology. Theology being a subject that cannot be empirically proven is compromised by our biases which come from our urges. Yamim Tovim are teaching De'ot - creation and Yetziat Mitzraim - which puts them at the next level closer to Ruach Hakodesh. I will be dealing with this issue as I progress.