Maimonidies Mishpatim

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion





By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley




A.                INTRODUCTION


In his introduction to Sefer Bamidbar, the Netziv identifies the theme of the book as the transition from the generation that leaves Egypt to the generation that enters the Land of Israel 40 years later.  Until our parasha, we read of both the attempt to organize the people into a nation, with God in its center (both literally and figuratively), ready to march towards its ultimate destination, the Land of Israel; and the concurrent setbacks and failures of the people, until the ultimate decree of 40 years of wandering is pronounced.  Korach's futile rebellion against Moshe's leadership and the final consolidation of the position of the Levites in the camp in last week's parasha simply reflect the dying embers of a generation consigned to purposeless drifting.  Our parasha transports us 40 years forward, to the fresh beginning of a generation ready to begin the final ascent to the Holy Land. 


Standing erect as a barrier between the narrative of the generation which leaves Egypt and that of the generation which will enter Israel, we find the laws of para adumma (red cow).  This animal is wholly burnt, and its ashes are used to purify those who come in contact with a corpse from their tuma (impurity) and enter the Mishkan (Tabernacle) or Beit Ha-mikdash (Temple).  The parasha's second verse opens "Zot chukkat ha-torah," which the Sages explain as "This [commandment] is the law of the Torah;" para adumma is the one mitzva — more than any other — that symbolizes the incomprehensibility and enigmatic nature of the commandments:


"This is the chukka (law) of the Torah" – the Satan and the nations ridicule the Jewish people, saying, "What is the meaning of this mitzva?  What sense does it make?"

Therefore, the Torah defines it as a chukka:  "It is an absolute decree from Me, and you have no right to challenge it."

(Rashi, 19:2)


According to this view, the feminine noun "chukka" (plural, chukkot) is specific; like its masculine counterpart, chok (plural, chukkim), this word refers to a "law," a mitzva which defies (easy) explanation.  It contrasts with the term "mishpat" (plural, mishpatim), which refers to a rational, reasonable "statute."  As such, both the Keli Yakar and the Or Ha-chayyim explain "This is the chukka of the Torah, which God has commanded"  - "I command you (Moshe) to tell the Jewish people that this mitzva has no rationale; seek no rational explanation for it."  In this essay, we will examine both those commentators who refrain from explaining this commandment and those who attempt to comprehend its purpose, despite its enigmatic nature.  In doing so, we shall concentrate on the Rambam's distinction between chukkim and mishpatim and how a person should integrate the intellectual search for understanding with the performance of mitzvot.





The hesitancy on interpreting this commandment permeates many of the medieval commentators.  In the Sefer Ha-chinnukh, written for the explicit purpose of providing insights and rationales into the performance of the mitzvot, the author acknowledges his inability to provide even a hint for understanding this enigmatic commandment:


Although I have taken the liberty to write some simple hints about the meaning of the mitzvot up to this point, rationalizing my activity as necessary for the education of my son and his young friends… when it comes to this mitzva, I find my hands weak, and I fear to even open my mouth.  For I have seen how the Sages warn of its profound importance and enigma, and they say that Shelomo understands in his great wisdom the meaning of all the mitzvot — except for this one, about which he said, "I thought myself wise, but it is far from me" (Kohelet 7:23).


The allusion in Sefer Ha-chinnukh to Shelomo's inability to comprehend the purpose of the para adumma is found in the Midrashic literature on our parasha:


"I investigated all this with erudition, I thought myself wise, but it is far from me" (ibid.) — the Torah states that "God granted Shelomo wisdom and understanding, exceedingly great, with a breadth of insight like the sand on the seashore … wiser than any human…" (I Melakhim 5:9-11)  Despite this, Shelomo says, "Other issues I have been able to fathom, but when it comes to para adumma, I analyzed, questioned, investigated – and all that I can say is 'I thought myself wise, but it is far from me.'"

 (Bamidbar Rabba 19:3)


The Talmud (Yoma 14a) explains the paradox that baffles Shelomo: "When sprinkled on the impure, it purifies; but when sprinkled on the pure, it brings impurity… it is to this that Shelomo refers…"


Some commentators prefer to justify Shelomo's (and by extension, our) inability to achieve full comprehension.  The Akedat Yitzchak, for example, suggests that there are four potential approaches to Torah study: (a) oversimplification, (b) intellectual investigation, (c) investigation that corresponds to committed observance, and (d) investigation that borders on heresy.  Students quite often believe themselves prudent when they search for logical explanations for the commandments.  However, the Akedat Yitzchak argues that all the mitzvot ultimately originate in Heaven, into which man's intellect cannot penetrate.  Therefore, man is in danger if he tries to interpret the Torah solely through logic, though he can never fathom the commandment's ultimate purpose.  Unwittingly, he may undermine the entire Torah for himself, thereby moving from being prudent in his investigations to the realm of heresy.  Therefore, God gives us certain commandments which, all thinking people would agree, lack rational explanation.  From these, we understand that we must treat the entire Torah as a Divine decree and perform it without question.  This is the third category, which the Akedat Yitzchak holds as the ideal. 





Despite this hesitancy, commentators have offered many varied interpretations for this commandment (Rashi[1] included).  Opposing the Akedat Yitzchak's view, the Rambam (Maimonides) insists that whenever possible, it is not only proper, but also necessary to attempt to interpret the chukkim:


Although all the chukkim in the Torah are pure decrees, as we have explained… it is proper to contemplate them and assign them explanations as much as possible.  The early sages said that King Shelomo understood the explanations of most of the chukkim in the Torah. 

(Hilkhot Temura 4:13)


From the midrash above, the Rambam derives that one should not desist from intellectual pursuit because of Shelomo's single failure; instead, one should draw encouragement from the remaining successes that Shelomo enjoyed.  However, the Rambam's requirement that we investigate the meaning of all the commandments equally appears to blur the famous distinction we know between chukkim, laws without a known reason, and mishpatim, laws that people consider comprehendible:


The Torah (Vayikra 19:37) states:  "You shall keep all My chukkot and all My mishpatim and perform them."  The Sages (Sifra, Kedoshim 3) point out that we find that the verse equates "keeping" and "performing" for both the chukkim and the mishpatim.  "Performing" is obvious: it means doing the chukkim.  "Keeping" means caring about [the chukkim] and not perceiving them as less important than the mishpatim.

Mishpatim are the commandments with a clear explanation and value evident in the world (i.e., prohibiting theft, honoring parents).  Chukkim are the commandments with explanations that are less clear, about which the Sages state, "It is a decree that I have made for you; you must not challenge it," such as the prohibition against eating meat and milk together… and the commandment of para adumma.

 (Hilkhot Me'ila 8:8)


At first glance, several problems arise from the Rambam's definition of how to categorize the commandments.  If personal understanding is the sole variable that differentiates between chukkim and mishpatim, then we face two immediate difficulties: not only is understanding not something that can be measured in a binary yes/ no manner, but as a linear value (we all recognize cases where we have some, if not full, understanding of an issue); moreover, understanding itself is a highly subjective term.  What is clear to one person is incomprehensible to another: certain commandments may appeal to some, while others will gravitate towards different mitzvot.  Finally, as noted above, the Rambam's definition of a chok above appears to preclude any substantive distinction between the two groups, as we are equally required to investigate and comprehend the rationales for both of them to the best of our ability.[2]


We can suggest a different understanding of the distinction between the two types of commandments based on a subtle reading of the Rambam's words:  regarding chukkim, the Rambam writes, "it is proper to contemplate them and assign them explanations as much as possible."  Regarding mishpatim, however, the Rambam says something else:


It is proper for a person to contemplate the mishpatim of the holy Torah, to attempt to understand the full depths of the issue according to the power of his mind.  If there is something in which he can discover no explanation or which he thinks to be of no purpose, he must not belittle it… or think about it as he would abut something secular.


Mishpatim reflect their purposes precisely because we are able to sense them directly: they are "the commandments with a clear explanation and value evident in the world."  Chukkim, on the other hand, because they are not directly (and consistently) sensible "in the world," need us to assign their explanations.  The more explanations that a person can discover and assign to a given chok, the more sensible it becomes to that individual.  While the Rambam enjoins a person to discover meanings in all commandments, both mishpatim and chukkim, only by the mishpatim does he express concern if a person fails to discover anything of value in them.  As long as he performs the commandments, a person can live happily without appreciating the rationales behind separating milk and meat, forbidding certain mixtures in clothing (sha'atnez) and para adumma.  A person who needs to justify the prohibitions of murder and stealing or the obligations to honor parents deservedly arouses worry.


Despite this, the Rambam never loses sight of the deeper, essentially inscrutable nature of the Chok:


How terribly did King David suffer from people who denigrated the chukkim!  The more that they struggled with him, wielding the kind of spurious arguments that are only made by those with the limited intelligence of the human mind, the more he would strengthen his bond with the Torah, as it states (Tehillim 119:69), "The malicious have smeared me with a lie; yet I will keep your precepts whole-heartedly."

 (Hilkhot Me'ila 8:8)

[1] At the end of 19:22, Rashi writes: "This is its explanation according to its simple meaning and its laws. I have [also] copied an aggadic midrash from the Yesod of Rabbi Moshe Ha-darshan, and this is it…"  An allegorical explanation of the elements of para adumma follows.

[2] Indeed, in Moreh Ha-nvukhim (3:47), the Rambam advances a reason for para adumma itself.  Noting that the Torah itself offers the description that "it is a sin-offering" (19:9), he suggests that the para adumma atones for ritual impurity and makes a person eligible to enter the Beit Ha-mikdash.  It does so in the same manner as the Yom Kippur scapegoat, by transferring man's impurities onto itself (just as the scapegoat assumes the sins of the Jewish people).  Therefore, those who touch it become impure, as it embodies impurity and sin.  (It should be noted that the Rambam admits that he cannot explain the finer details of the commandment, i.e., using hyssop during the ceremony.)