Philosophy, Categorization of Mitzvot, and Rationales for Mitzvot

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau


By Rav Yitzchak Blau


Shiur #08:

Philosophy, Categorization of Mitzvot, and Rationales for Mitzvot



One of R. Hirsch’s most significant contributions to Jewish thought is his intensive effort to find rationales for every aspect of each mitzva.  He outlines the foundation for such a project in The Nineteen Letters and carries out this project in great detail both in Horeb and in his commentary on the Torah.  The Nineteen Letters and Horeb, R. Hirsch’s two early works, both set forth R. Hirsch’s unique and innovative six-part classification of mitzvot.[1]  


            The choice to focus intellectual efforts on analyzing the reasons for mitzvot fits R. Hirsch’s general worldview.  R. Hirsch had little interest in metaphysical speculation about God, favoring more practical kinds of philosophic activity.  “Judaism has no regard for the kind of speculation that does not aspire to contribute to active productive life” (The Nineteen Letters, letter 15, trans. Karin Paretzky, revised by R. Joseph Elias).  In letter 18, he criticizes Rambam for introducing foreign modes of thought into Judaism, rather than analyzing it from within.  For example, according to Rambam, “Knowledge of God was considered an end in itself rather than a means toward the end.”  Clearly, for R. Hirsch, knowledge of God is not the end goal. 


            This practical bent emerges clearly from his analysis of the eighth chapter of Tehillim.[2]  The second verse of that chapter says: “O God, our Lord, how glorious is Your name in all the earth.”  One would expect the subsequent verses to outline in detail God’s grandeur; instead, they turn to a discussion of humanity.  R. Hirsch argues that this psalm reflects a characteristic Jewish truth. 


Knowledge of God is not a metaphysical insight into the existence, essence and metaphysical attributes of God.  The true knowledge of God is the ethical insight into the essence of man, his calling and his task rooted in the concept of God and His relationship to the world.


            Moreover, R. Hirsch contended that any knowledge of divinity is rooted in revelation and that human speculation could tell us very little about God (commentary on Shemot 19:4).  Letter 15 states that “we are warned against misconceiving our intellectual powers and probing into bottomless depths, no matter what glittering constructions and theses such a quest may produce.”  According to R, Hirsch, the eighth psalm mentions “out of the mouths of babes” to teach that the mind of every child is sufficient to understand what we need to know about God.  “The maturest mind of a philosopher knows no more about the essence of God than the simple mind of a child” (cited in I. Grunfeld, page xlii).


            The above idea finds powerful expression in an essay written by R. Hirsch about Shavuot and revelation.[3]  There, he objects to calling Judaism a “religion” or a “theology.”  He rejects the former term because “religion” refers to the inner thoughts of man rather than to outward physical expression.  Other religions are made by man and their external religious acts merely attempt to realize those inner thoughts.  In the case of Judaism, however, God gave us the commandments and we try to understand the divine thought manifest in those commandments.  The commandments constitute the primary essence of Judaism. 


R. Hirsch continues to explain that Judaism is not a “theology” either:


For, whilst theology contains the thoughts of man on God and things Divine, the Torah contains the thoughts of God on man and things human.  There is little said in the Torah which refers directly to God and things Divine; and of the inner essence of the Godhead and the supernatural we find in the Torah nothing at all….  The Torah does not want to tell us how things look in heaven, but how they should look in our hearts and homes (ibid., p.189).


However, R. Hirsch does not call for a moratorium on philosophizing about Judaism.  Rather, the philosophical analysis must focus on God’s message to humanity as communicated via His commandments.  In fact, R. Hirsch laments the fact that, as an overreaction to the wrong kind of philosophizing, some Jews “became opponents of intellectual inquiry in general and of the pursuit of philosophy in particular” (letter 18).  They mistakenly abandoned the attempt to find rationales for the commandments, an endeavor that R. Hirsch enthusiastically endorses.


Some opponents of such speculation erroneously support their position by citing R. Yehuda that we are not “darshinan ta’ama di-Kra” (lit., “We do not expound the reasons of Scripture,” Sanhedrin 21a).  R. Hirsch explains that R.Shimon and R. Yehuda only debated whether we can make halakhic rulings based on our understanding of the rationales for mitzvot, even if those rationales are not explicit in the verses.  However, they both agreed that we can suggest reasons that do not impact on the halakha.  With great erudition, R. Hirsch lists all the places where Chazal themselves offered rationales for various mitzvot (commentary on Devarim 24:7). 


Categories of Mitzvot


R. Hirsch divides the commandments into six categories. 


1)    Torot are doctrines concerning God, the world, humanity and Israel. 

2)    Mishpatim require acting justly toward other humans. 

3)    Chukim demand showing justice toward plants, animals and our own selves. 

4)    Mitzvot consist of the obligation to love all beings. 

5)    Edot are symbolic acts that convey essential truths and lessons. 

6)    Avoda refers to commandments, such as prayer, that address our inner religious life.


            The differences between this classification and earlier attempts are quite striking.  Medieval Jewish thinkers usually distinguished between rational commandments and those we know only through revelation.  Some employed the terms sikhliyot (sekhel = reason) and shimiyot (from lishmo’a, to hear), while others utilized the terms mishpatim and chukim.  For R. Hirsch, all mitzvot share the same kind of rationality.  Note that he abandons the more standard definition of chukim as commandments whose rationale escapes us.  The reason we find mishpatim more intelligible is that, as humans, we understand the feelings of other humans, and realize the need to treat them justly.   If we appreciated the place of plants and animals in God’s created order, we would understand the chukim just as well as we understand mishpatim (see letter 11).


            Conversely, the unaided human intellect could not help us arrive at the details of the mishpatim.  R. Hirsch asks: “Would our reasoning obligate us to differentiate between a guardian of an item who falsely claims that the item was stolen and one who falsely claims that it was lost?”[4]  Thus, the chukim have more rationality than we would imagine, and the mishpatim are not as obvious as we might think.  Regarding both categories, we need to use our human intellect to analyze the halakhic data.


It is also noteworthy that these categories do not create a sharp division between those commandments that concern the Man-God relationship and those that are interpersonal. Rather, Torot incorporate ideas about both God and humanity.  R. Hirsch teaches that all mitzvot share the same goals.  R. Hirsch points out in his Torah commentary that the Torah frequently interweaves chukim and mishpatim in one legal section.  The commandment to love your neighbor as yourself is immediately followed by the prohibitions of kil’ayim (mixing species of plants or animals) and sha’atnez (mixing linen and wool in a fabric).  R. Hirsch explains that “laws that guard the species of the organic world are connected to laws guarding human dignity” (commentary on Vayikra 19:19).


R. Hirsch contends that one can not divorce chukim from morality.  The very first prohibition given to humanity, not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, is a chok that enables moral living because “subjugation to the divine will is the condition for all morality” (commentary on Bereishit 2:16).  Thus, R. Hirsch refused to make clear demarcations between “moral” and “ceremonial” mitzvot.  In addition to the factors enumerated, he was wary of attempts by Reform to champion the former while dropping the latter.


Reasons for Mitzvot


Rambam dedicates chapters 25-49 of the third section of his Guide of the Perplexed (Moreh Nevukhim) to explaining the rationale for almost every mitzva.  The contrast between his method and that of R. Hirsch is quite sharp.  Rambam offers hygienic explanations for certain food prohibitions (Guide 3:48).  He situates other mitzvot in a specific historical context that necessitated combating ancient paganism (Guide 3:29-32).  Interestingly, he views his job as explaining the biblical verses about mitzvot rather than the mitzvot as understood by the Oral Law.  Thus, his discussion of Jewish punishments assumes a literal reading of “an eye for an eye” (Guide 3:41).


R. Hirsch disagrees with all of the above.  In letter 18, he criticizes those who reduce mishpatim to “rules of prudent behavior” and chukim to “rules of health.”  Such explanations fail to ensure the eternal quality of the commandments.  The commandments reflect eternal ideals and not just responses to given historical situations.  God did not command the sacrificial order because, given religious life in the ancient Near East, it was the best way to wean the people away from paganism.  Rather, God had certain ideas, relevant to every generation, that He wanted to convey through the medium of sacrifices.  Additionally, R. Hirsch taught that an authentic Jewish explanation must incorporate the Oral Law.


These two rabbinic luminaries also differed on the question of explaining details.  Rambam said that we should offer a reason for the general mitzva but not for the details.  From his perspective, it is pointless to ask why we bring bullocks and not rams or why we bring three animals rather than two.  Halakha had to pick something (perhaps to give the mitzva act a consistent identity), but the specific choice was arbitrary (Guide 3:26).


To be fair, the fact that Rambam’s examples come from the world of sacrifices might limit their force.  Given his view of the sacrificial order, he would be more likely to see the details of sacrifices as less significant.  Furthermore, we cannot easily determine what constitutes the essential mitzva and what a detail.  Is the fact that circumcision takes place on the eighth day a detail or part and parcel of the essential mitzva?  Rambam himself seems to explain particular details, such as why Pesach and Sukkot last a week while Shavuot is only one day (Guide 3:43).  Despite these difficulties, we can safely say that Rambam did not feel the need to show how each halakhic detail coheres with his explanations.


R. Hirsch points out the irony that Rambam, author of the greatest halakhic code, did not utilize the details of mitzvot in his philosophical speculations.


Nor did the interpretations offered for mitzvot explain them in their totality: he, the great systematic codifier of the practical conclusions of the Talmud, in the last part of his philosophical work advanced interpretations of the mitzvot which shed no light on their practical details, as defined in his code, and which, indeed, are often incompatible with them (letter 18).


            For R. Hirsch, this method lacks methodologically sound scientific principles.  He compares the Torah to the scientific enterprise.  Scientists encounter a world with given facts and suggest theories to explain those facts.  In the same way, Halakha represents our given set of data and we should employ the facts of Halakha to determine the accuracy of our suggested rationales (see the fourth footnote in letter 18).  Paying attention to the details allows our theories to be tested by the facts of the situation.  As we shall see in next week’s shiur, halakhic details influence R. Hirsch’s understanding of many mitzvot.


            As far as I know, no rabbinic thinker incorporated halakhic details into his ta’amei ha-mitzvot (rationales for mitzvot) to the extent that R. Hirsch did.  Yonah Emmanuel (in the article cited in footnote 4 above) attempts to portray all of R. Hirsch’s innovations as firmly rooted in the Ashkenazic rabbinic tradition.  He cites examples where earlier authorities offered reasons for the commandments and related to the halakhic details when doing so.  However, there is a wide gulf between occasionally attempting this and making it a methodological principle that must be employed throughout the Torah.  In that sense, R. Hirsch represents a major innovation.


R. Hirsch also rejects kabbalistic explanations for mitzvot that focus on the commandments’ impact on other metaphysical worlds.  In letter 10, he complains that “man’s inner and outer endeavors came to be interpreted as a mere mechanical, magical, dynamic building of cosmic worlds - thereby often reducing all those activities that were meant to train and give vitality to the spirit to mere preoccupation with amulets.”  In letter 17, he says that “the Edot, duties which are meant to educate us, are well known, but all too often they are seen as thoughtless mechanical practices, or almost as magical charms to ward off physical evils or to construe mystical worlds.”  A focus on commandments as good luck charms or as machinery for moving cosmic gears distracts our attention from the ideas and ideals that they convey to us in this world.


            Next week, we will discuss specific examples of this method, as well as R. Hirsch’s evaluation of someone who performs the mitzvot without delving into the rationales.

[1] Yitzchak Heinemann’s Ta’amei ha-Mitzvot be-Sifrut Yisrael, volume 2 (Jerusalem, 1993), pp. 91-161, and Dayan Dr. Isidor Grunfeld’s Introduction to Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Horeb (London, 1962) laid the groundwork for addressing this topic, and I acknowledge my debt to their efforts.

[2] Collected Writings, volume 4 (New York, 1984), pp. 325-334.

[3] “The Festival of Revelation and the Uniqueness of the Torah,” in Collected Writings, volume 1 (New York, 1984), pp. 183-207.

[4] Cited by Yonah Emmanuel, “Be-Ikkevot Gedolei Yisrael she-be-Ashkenaz, in Ha-Rav S. R. Hirsch: Mishnato ve-Shitato (Jerusalem, 1962), p. 178.