R. Hirsch and the Details of Mitzvot

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau


By Rav Yitzchak Blau



Shiur #09: R. Hirsch and the Details of Mitzvot



In last week’s shiur, we noted that R. Hirsch rejects practical or hygienic explanations for mitzvot, as well as historically contextual explanations.  He is also critical of explanations that ignore the details of mitzvot or the Oral Law’s elucidation of the mitzvot.  In this shiur, we will move from the general overview to concrete examples of his method.


Ta’amei ha-mitzvot (rationales for commandments) play a major role in R. Hirsch’s commentary on the Torah, in his Horeb, and in a long essay he wrote on “Jewish Symbolism” that appears in the third volume of his Collected Writings (Feldheim: New York, 1984).  In that essay, he explains the commandments of brit mila, tzitzit, tefillin and the mishkan.   The difference between R. Hirsch’s and Rambam’s approach emerges quite sharply.


Rambam explains that tefillin and tzitzit belong to a category of commandments that remind us to acknowledge God and to love and revere Him (Guide of the Perplexed 3:44).   He views circumcision as a commandment intended to weaken sexual desire and to provide a bodily marker of Jewish identity (Guide of the Perplexed 3:49).   Questions such as why circumcision must take place during the daytime or why we put on the tefillin shel yad (the tefillin worn on the arm) before the tefillin shel rosh (the tefillin worn on the head) do not interest him in the slightest.  Indeed, as we saw in the last shiur, Rambam writes that we should not search for reasons for the details of mitzvot (Guide of the Perplexed 3:26).


In contrast, R. Hirsch insists that an adequate explanation must work out the details as well.  According to his understanding, the tefillin shel yad represent dedicating our actions to God, while the tefillin shel rosh represent dedicating our thoughts to God.  We lay phylacteries on the hand first to demonstrate that in Judaism, religious actions are more significant than theoretical speculation.  We have already encountered the primacy of practice as an important theme for R. Hirsch.   


In the same vein, seemingly technical details teach important messages.  The four passages in the Torah that mention tefillin comprise the text that is found inside the boxes of the tefillin.  All four passages are in one compartment in the shel yad but in four separate compartments in the shel rosh.  R. Hirsch writes that this indicates that our thoughts incorporate a variety of distinct and important themes but those disparate themes must be united in one purposeful life of Jewish practice.  We place the parchment in batim (literally = houses, the term in halakhic literature for the boxes of the tefillin) because a house symbolizes stability and permanence.   Those batim must be square because while nature can produce round items, only the human being called upon by tefillin is capable of producing square objects.       


The Torah explicitly says that tzitzit remind us to adhere to the commandments.  R. Hirsch points out that humanity adopted garments as a result of the first sin.  Thus, garments appropriately remind us to keep God’s word.  The fringes of the tzitzit unite the white of universalism with the blue of Jewish particularism.  Each fringe has a knotted section and a part that hangs loose to symbolize that the Torah restrains humanity but also allows for human freedom to flourish. 


Circumcision teaches a similar balance.  The act of cutting indicates a restraining of physicality and desire.  However, the peri’a that peels back the membrane symbolizes the ability to release physicality in a positively channeled fashion.  Here, R. Hirsch returns to another of his favorite themes, that Judaism demands the sanctification of the physical and not its nullification.


Daytime represents the time of human activity, creativity, and optimism.  Nighttime symbolizes human passivity, dependence and helplessness.  For R. Hirsch, Judaism emphasizes the former much more than the latter.  Therefore, baby boys must enter the covenant in the daytime.  For the same reason, the entire Temple sacrificial order must take place during the day.  Would we circumcise or offer sacrifices at night, some might understand Judaism to be a religion of cowering man offering homage to the dark powers of the universe.   This explanation coheres with the theme of human optimism we noted in an earlier shiur.


R. Hirsch rejects the possibility that the Torah rules out nighttime circumcision as a practical method of ensuring good lighting for this delicate operation.  He also argues against the idea that we wait for the eighth day to ensure the health of the baby.  As mentioned, R. Hirsch rejected practical explanations for mitzvot. 


The topic of circumcision also shows his use of details to prove the correctness of a given approach.  There is a case in Shabbat (135b) where a non-Jewish maidservant is purchased along with her newborn baby son.  That baby is circumcised on the day of purchase even if he was born that very day.  If the choice of day reflects health concerns, we would never have a case in which circumcision happens earlier than the eighth day.  R. Hirsch explains that the number seven symbolizes the complete world that God made in seven days.  Eight represents the Jewish effort to bring humanity to a higher level of perfection.  Since this theme refers to a specifically Jewish effort, it does not apply to the child of a non-Jewish mother.


R. Hirsch’s commentary on the Torah also employs details to prove the true reasons for mitzvot.  If lending money with interest is an immoral practice that takes advantage of victims, it should be prohibited only for the lender and not for the borrower.  Yet the Oral Law teaches that the borrower also violates a biblical injunction.  Why would the victim of an immoral act also be seen as transgressing?   Furthermore, since immoral practices are prohibited toward our non-Jewish neighbors as well, why would the Torah allow one to take interest from a Gentile?  R. Hirsch understands that lending money with interest is not immoral, since having money for a period of time truly is worth money. The Torah prohibits this act because the lender and borrower should both realize that all money fundamentally belongs to God, and God wants Jews to lend money to their brethren without charging interest (see his commentary on Shemot 22:28, Vayikra 25:36, and Devarim 23:20).


In Vayikra 25, The Torah mentions the prohibition on interest in a section that also outlines the laws of shemita (the injunction against working the land for one out of every seven years, and the command to share freely any crops that grow on their own during that year) and yovel (the fiftieth year, after seven shemita cycles, which has the same laws as shemita).  Those two commandments affirm divine ownership of property and their juxtaposition to the laws of interest support R. Hirsch’s understanding.  Thus, R. Hirsch gives us two methods for making rationales for mitzvot less speculative.  We rely on the details of the commandments to check our theories.  We also can infer something about the rationale from where the Torah chooses to place certain mitzvot.  


The prohibition against mixing milk and meat is distinct from that of other forbidden foods, where the Torah indicates that eating them will sully our soul.  The Torah prohibits even the act of cooking meat and milk together or deriving financial benefit from such a mixture, where a person is obviously not consuming anything problematic.  R. Hirsch suggests that we view the milk and meat prohibition as more related to kil’ayim and sha’atnez, commandments that address the need to respect the divisions in God’s world (commentary Shemot 23:19).


Required amounts can also reveal the essential purpose of mitzvot.  Some of the gifts given to the priestly class by the rest of the nation are clearly meant to support these religious leaders whose tribe did not receive a portion in the Land of Israel.  An example would be the set tithes the Levites give the priests, a tenth of the tenth they received from the Israelites. However, other gifts – such as teruma, the portion of grain every Israelite was commanded to give the priests, and which the priests had to consume in a state of ritual purity, or reishit ha-gez, the first of the wool shearings – have no biblical minimum and could not be intended as practical means of support.  R. Hirsch teaches that each of these mitzvot conveys a symbolic message.  Giving wool shearings to the priests reminds us of our debt to the priests even though they do not contribute to society in a material fashion (commentary Devarim 18:4).  Teruma teaches the priests to lead a sanctified life even in their own homes and not only in the Temple (commentary Vayikra 22:9).


Discrepancies between the details of seemingly parallel mitzvot also prove revealing.  Why does Pesach conclude with an “atzeret on day seven, while Sukkot lasts for seven days and is followed by an independent “atzeret” on day eight?  R. Hirsch explains that atzeret days do not teach new religious messages but rather enable the internalizing of the messages from earlier festival days.  They are a time to stop and take stock of what we have learned.  The seventh day of Pesach helps us deepen our appreciation of Pesach themes.  Shemini Atzeret, on the other hand, is a time to reflect on everything we have learned through the entire calendar of Jewish holidays.  Since Pesach represents the first of the pilgrimage festivals, the end of Sukkot brings the annual holiday cycle to a close.  As this day looks back at every holiday and not just Sukkot, it is a distinct day that takes place after the seven day Sukkot festival (commentary Vaykira 23:36).


R. Hirsch’s analysis of the Sabbath work prohibition (commentary Shemot 35:2) is particularly insightful.  The halakhic definition of work clearly bears no relationship to amount of effort, since writing two letters constitutes prohibited work while carrying a heavy couch around the house does not.  R. Hirsch explains that the Torah prohibits creative labor.  Jews act creatively for six days but on the seventh we withdraw from changing the world around us in recognition of God’s making and owning the world.  Writing two letters changes the natural world, while moving heavy things about does not.


A few forbidden categories pose problems for this theory.  Trapping animals and gathering produce also seem to just move objects around rather than change them.  R. Hirsch explains that both of those categories involve taking an item that was free and bringing it under human control.  Even though no physical change occurs, such acts fly in the face of Shabbat’s basic theme.   On the Sabbath, we admit divine ownership, instead of asserting human control.


Finally, the prohibition against carrying poses a problem.  Moving an item from one’s house to the public thoroughfare does not change the item nor does it assert human ownership.  R. Hirsch says that the interaction between the public and the private symbolizes the social domain.  On Shabbat, we not only affirm divine authority regarding the natural order but also regarding the social arena.  We convey that by refraining from any transportation between individual and communal areas.




The attempt to find meaning in every halakhic detail sometimes can lead to forced and unconvincing explanations.  On the other hand, the alternative idea that a large host of legal minutiae reflect nothing more than the arbitrary need to give mitzvot an identity, seems difficult to accept.  R. Hirsch deserves credit for his attempt to provide rationales for much of the detail.  I find some of his explanations quite convincing.  Furthermore, his usage of the details to check the accuracy of different explanations makes the entire endeavor more precise and scientific.


How crucial is this enterprise? 


R. Hirsch writes that “the commandments of the Torah are law, even if we have not uncovered the cause and interrelationships of even a single one, and our fulfillments of the commandments in no way depends upon the results of our investigation” (The Nineteen Letters, letter 18, footnote 4).  If we just looked at this quote in isolation, we might downplay the importance of suggesting rationales for commandments.  However, other citations alter the picture, including the sentence that follows the previous quote.  “Only the commandments belonging to the category of Edot, which seek to convey insights and to affect the emotions, remain incomplete without adequate investigation.”   Here, R. Hirsch posits that fulfillment of the mitzvot of one of the Torah’s six categories remains incomplete absent investigations of the symbolic reasons for these mitzvot.  When we recall that this category includes tzitzit, tefillin, mila, and all the holidays, the endeavor of finding reasons for mitzvot grows in importance.


Parts of letter 17 in The Nineteen Letters see the absence of appreciation of the reasons for the commandments as one of the causes of the modern spiritual malaise assailing the Jewish community.  ”The outward rites of Judaism may still be familiar but how little is known of their inner meaning.”  “About the duties of the Jew, they teach only their practical application, from handbooks complied for this purpose, but not their meaning and inner spirit.”  Letter 18 speaks of Jews who have “inherited an uncomprehended Judaism … a revered but lifeless mummy which it is afraid to bring back to life.”  R. Hirsch criticizes a Judaism that consists solely of practical guides with no sense of the meaning and spirit of the law.  Technical fulfillment of the law (outside of the Edot) does not depend upon knowledge of the reasons for commandments, but a more vibrant and robust Judaism does.