R. Hirsch and the Details of Mitzvot
MODERN RABBINIC THOUGHT
In last weeks
shiur, we noted that
commandments) play a major role in
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 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.
The Torah explicitly
says that tzitzit remind us to adhere to the commandments.
a similar balance. The act of
cutting indicates a restraining of physicality and desire. However, the peria that peels
back the membrane symbolizes the ability to release physicality in a positively
channeled fashion. Here,
the time of human activity, creativity, and optimism. Nighttime symbolizes human passivity,
dependence and helplessness. For
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.
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
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.
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
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?
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.
prohibition against carrying poses a problem. Moving an item from ones house to the
public thoroughfare does not change the item nor does it assert human
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
How crucial is this enterprise?
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.