Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Why Does The Torah Not Explain The Reason For Many Mitzvot?

The end goal of the Torah and the commandments is to turn us into thinking people who know God and understand Him and how He runs the world so that we can emulate Him and His goals and partake in the world by fulfilling our role in its continuity. The Torah proposes a regimen that purports to transform, over time and generations, a family of semi-illiterate slaves of Pharaoh into a nation that will lead humanity in this endeavor. It has to take into account our humanity, our weaknesses and strengths and mold these into disciplined purposeful human beings while at the same time teaching us a perspective on the world that will lead us to finding God and knowing Him. To accomplish this, the Torah is a complex and multifaceted system. It teaches basic as well as advanced theology; it works on our biases and narcissism to create a lawful society that does not waste its energy on day-to day survival and self-defense and at the same time helps us to think objectively.

The general object of the Law is twofold: the well-being of the soul, and the well-being of the body. The well-being of the soul is promoted by correct opinions communicated to the people according to their capacity. … The well-being of the body is established by a proper management of the relations in which we live one to another. This we can attain in two ways: first by removing all violence from our midst: that is to say, that we do not do every one as he pleases, desires, and is able to do; but every one of us does that which contributes towards the common welfare. Secondly, by teaching every one of us such good morals as must produce a good social state. Of these two objects, the one, the well-being of the soul, or the communication of correct opinions, comes undoubtedly first in rank, but the other, the well-being of the body, the government of the state, and the establishment of the best possible relations among men, is anterior in nature and time.” (MN 3:27)

In other words, the second objective, the establishment of a lawful society based on morals and ethics is a stepping-stone towards the ultimate goal of acquiring correct theological opinions.

“It is also the object of the perfect Law to make man reject, despise, and reduce his desires as much as is in his power. He should only give way to them when absolutely necessary. It is well known that it is intemperance in eating, drinking, and sexual intercourse that people mostly rave and indulge in; and these very things counteract the ulterior perfection of man, impede at the same time the development of his first perfection, and generally disturb the social order of the country and the economy of the family. For by following entirely the guidance of lust, in the manner of fools, man loses his intellectual energy, injures his body, and perishes before his natural time; sighs and cares multiply; there is an increase of envy, hatred, and warfare for the purpose of taking what another possesses.” (MN 3:33)

Moral and ethics are not only necessary for the good and lawful functioning of society, they are also necessary to our intellectual development. If all our intellectual energies are directed towards self-gratification, there is no room for intellectual development. Furthermore, our perspective becomes distorted where banal things take on great importance clouding our judgment.

The commandments have to address not only individuals with their great variation of personality and nature but also society as a whole while at the same time stimulating their thinking, both the individual and the collective. A commandment will affect different people differently. It will affect different societies and cultures differently. As humanity advances and as the Jewish people develop, the same Mitzvah may affect them differently than it did other generations. The Torah tells us that the Mitzvot are eternal and will be binding on all generations no matter how developed we are. Indeed, even when the utopian society develops, the Messianic times, no Mitzvah will become obsolete. Obviously, for the commandments to remain relevant at all times, their meaning changes with every person and for every society. Blowing the Shofar may take on a different meaning for someone who lived in medieval times when noisemaking was part of warfare and someone who lives in modern times when such methods are obsolete. It will take on a different meaning for someone who is philosophically inclined and one who is not. It will however affect everyone in his own way and accomplish its underlying purpose which is to make us aware and think about the One who commanded it, again each of us at his level of understanding. Clearly, giving an explicit reason for the commandment would be counterproductive. That is how I understand Rambam at the end of Hilchot Me’ilah –

ו [ח] ראוי לאדם להתבונן במשפטי התורה הקדושה, ולידע סוף עניינם
כפי כוחו. ודבר שלא ימצא לו טעם, ולא ידע לו עילה--אל יהי קל בעיניו; ואל
יהרוס לעלות אל ה', פן יפרוץ בו. ולא תהא מחשבתו בו, כמחשבתו בשאר דברי

A person should contemplate the laws of the Holy Torah and [strive to] understand their ultimate purpose to the best of his ability. When confronted by something [a Mitzvah] that he cannot find a reason for nor a purpose, it should not be made light of and he should not attempt to climb to high levels [make up reasons that are not rational – DG] lest he stray [outside the fence]. He should also not think about them in a way he would about mundane matters. (I will leave the rest without translation).

בוא וראה, כמה החמירה תורה במעילה: ומה אם עצים ואבנים ועפר
ואפר--כיון שנקרא שם אדון העולם עליהם בדברים בלבד, נתקדשו; וכל הנוהג בהן
מנהג חול, מעל בה'--ואפילו היה שוגג, צריך כפרה. קל וחומר למצוות שחקק לנו
הקדוש ברוך הוא--שלא יבעוט אדם בהן, מפני שלא ידע טעמן; ולא יחפה דברים
אשר לא כן על ה', ולא יחשב בהן מחשבתו בדברי החול. הרי נאמר בתורה "ושמרתם
את כל חוקותיי ואת כל משפטיי, ועשיתם אותם" (ויקרא יט,לז; ויקרא כ,כב)--ואמרו
חכמים ליתן שמירה ועשייה, לחוקים כמשפטים: והעשייה ידועה, והיא שיעשה
החוקים; והשמירה, שייזהר בהן ולא ידמה שהן פחותין מן המשפטים. והמשפטים,
הן המצוות שטעמן גלוי, וטובת עשייתן בעולם הזה ידועה, כגון איסור גזל
ושפיכות דמים וכיבוד אב ואם; והחוקים, הן המצוות שאין טעמן ידוע. אמרו
חכמים, חוקים שחקקתי לך, ואין לך רשות להרהר בהן. ויצרו של אדם נוקפו בהן,
ואומות העולם משיבין עליהן--כגון איסור בשר חזיר, ובשר בחלב, ועגלה ערופה,
ופרה אדומה, ושעיר המשתלח.
ז וכמה היה דויד המלך מצטער מן המינים והגויים, שהיו משיבין על
החוקים; וכל זמן שהיו רודפין אותו בתשובות השקר שעורכין לפי קוצר דעת האדם,
היה מוסיף דבקה בתורה, שנאמר "טפלו עליי שקר, זדים; אני, בכל לב אצור פיקודיך" (תהילים קיט,סט),
ונאמר שם בעניין "כל מצוותיך, אמונה; שקר רדפוני, עוזרני" (תהילים קיט,פו).
ח וכל הקרבנות כולן, מכלל החוקים הן. לפיכך אמרו חכמים שאף על
עבודת הקרבנות, העולם עומד--שבעשיית החוקים והמשפטים, זוכין הישרים לחיי
העולם הבא; והקדימה תורה ציווייה על החוקים, שנאמר "ושמרתם את חוקותיי ואת
משפטיי, אשר יעשה אותם האדם וחי בהם" (ויקרא יח,ה).

I wish all my friends and readers a Ketiva Vechatima Tova and a good and meaningful year.


  1. I think the title could be rephrased, "What's so great about 'naaseh venishmah' over 'nishmah venaaseh'?" Why don't we get the reasons before doing?

    And if, as this blog, the Rambam, RSRH, etc... assert, the reason for mitzvos can be reduced to textbook classes, why not study the mitzvos rather than doing them?

    I think the whole point is that they can't. The mitzvah internalizes an attitude and/or a middah. Not just relays a truth we could have otherwise meditated upon.


  2. Micha,
    Man is both body and soul. While ideas can be taught, the body still needs practice and coercion. Also, since the objective is to bind the individual to Hashem, his body also needs binding, no less than the intellect.

  3. Veyadata hayom vehasheivosa el levavekha -- you can know things today, and still require answering them to your heart.

    I don't think one's body needs separate binding to the Almighty. It's a physical object, a tool to be used. Its spiritual state is simply dragged along.

    Last, man is far more than body and soul. The self involves three aspects of the soul, the lowest of which is the nefesh -- where the soul interacts with the fact of living in a mammalian body.

    The neshamah doesn't need binding to G-d -- neshamah shanasta bi tehorah hi -- it's beyond our ability to sully.

    Where all the action happens is there the desires of the nefesh and neshamah collide, where man has conscious thought and free will, the ruach.


  4. דע, שנפש האדם אחת, ויש לה פעולות רבות, חלוקות, יקראו קצת הפעולות ההן, "נפשות".

    beginning of Shemona Perakim.

    Gmar Chatima Tova R. Micha.

  5. Whether you call them different faculties of a single soul or different parts of the soul really makes no difference.

    Paralleling the Rambam's argument against ascribing positive attributes to the Borei.

    In our case, thinking G-dly thoughts and only satisfying our physical desires are very related but different things.

    My opening comment was that Hil' Dei'os and Hil' Yesodei haTorah are different things. I think it's particular to the Rambam to make life more about Yesodei haTorah, making Dei'os a handmaiden, a necessary part of really holding correct thought, than the other way around.

    And learning Dei'os takes practice in addition to contemplation. The main lesson to be learned can't be gotten from books, but needs to be experienced.

    My tangential comment to Eliyahu relates to the notion that Yesodei haTorah are embraced by the Ruach, whereas Dei'os are faculties of the Nefesh. (As these faculties/aspects are defined by R' Saadia Gaon or the Gra.)