Reasons for the Mitzvot (part I)

  • Rav Chaim Navon

Theological Issues In Sefer Bereishit

Yeshivat Har Etzion


By Rav Chaim Navon

The first mitzva given to the Jewish people was the mitzva of circumcision which appears already in the book of Bereishit. The next two lectures shall be devoted to a discussion of the reasons for the mitzvot. In this lecture, we shall examine the reasons for the mitzvot in general, and in the following lecture we shall conclude the discussion and deal also with the reasons for the mitzva of circumcision, the first mitzva given to Avraham, the founding father of the Jewish people.


We shall first discuss the question whether or not the mitzvot do in fact have reasons. What exactly are we asking? In order to properly understand the problem, let us turn to a famous passage from Plato's dialogue, "Euthyphro."

Socrates: Consider this question: Is what is pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved?

Euthyphro: I don't understand what you mean, Socrates.
Socrates: Well, I will try to explain more clearly.

Socrates: And what do you say of piety, Euthyphro: Is not piety, according to your definition, loved by all the gods?
Euthyphro: Yes.

Socrates: Just because it is pious, or for some other reason?
Euthyphro: No, because it is pious.

Socrates: So it is loved because it is pious, not pious because it is loved? (Euthyphro)

Plato raises here a fundamental question: Does a religious world-view leave room for morality and good as independent standards? Plato formulates the problem as follows: Does God desire good because it is good, or is something good because God desires it? In other words, do good and evil exist independently of God, and God chooses that which is good? Or perhaps there is no such thing as independent good, and the term "good" merely represents that which God has arbitrarily chosen.[1] According to the second possibility, there is no inherent difference between the morning prayer service and murder. Neither act is "good" or "evil" in and of itself. The sole difference between them is that God chose the one and not the other, but He could just as well have chosen in the opposite manner. This question leads directly to the issue whether or not the mitzvot have reasons. If good and evil exist independently of God, then the mitzvot may have reasons. But if good and evil have no independent existence, God's commandments are arbitrary, having no rhyme or reason. According to this understanding, "piety is piety," solely because "it is loved by the gods."

The question raised by Plato has no simple answer from a religious perspective. On the one hand, it is difficult to say that good exists independently of God's will, for that in essence would mean that God is subordinate to something outside of Himself. On the other hand, it is no less difficult to assert that good and evil do not exist, and that God charges us with arbitrary commands. Both approaches find expression in Christianity and Islam. My revered teacher, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, once said that it is difficult to find examples of the second approach in the Jewish world.[2] This may, perhaps, be due to the fact that already the book of Bereishit presents us with an unequivocal stand on this issue in the dialogue between Avraham and God regarding Sedom which we shall discuss more fully in one of the later lectures in this series.

One cardinal point stands out in Avraham's exchange with God: Avraham assumes that God acts according to moral criteria. And furthermore, God's moral criteria are understandable to man. The argument might have been made that absolute standards of good and evil do in fact exist, but they are incomprehensible to man. Avraham, however, does not accept such a position. Avraham approaches God with a moral claim: "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?" God does not reject Avraham's contention, but rather He accepts his argument. This appears to be the primary source for the Jewish position that assumes the existence of an absolute moral good that is not determined arbitrarily by God.

An alternative position may be proposed, one that denies the existence of reasons for the mitzvot. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein often cites the Christian author and thinker, C. S. Lewis, who argues that while the commandments as a whole have a reason, it does not necessarily follow that there is a specific rationale for each and every mitzva.[3] There are two possible reasons for the existence of the system of mitzvot: 1) The subjugation of man and deepening of his submission to God (the reason proposed by Lewis himself); 2) The intensification of man's sense of connection to God in all areas of life. God does not act arbitrarily, and these two reasons explain why He instituted the system of mitzvot. Major significance, however, may not be attached to the specific content of each and every mitzva, but only to the system as a whole. God could just as well have ordered us to don tefilin on our feet, for the most important thing is the very fact that we are fulfilling God's will.

According to the classic Jewish position, however, the individual mitzvot have specific reasons. A clear example of the Jewish attitude may be found in the words of Rambam who directly relates to the question regarding the reasons for the mitzvot:

There is a group of human beings who consider it a grievous thing that causes should be given for any law; what would please them most is that the intellect would not find a meaning for the commandments and prohibitions. What compels them to feel thus is a sickness that they find in their souls, a sickness to which they are unable to give utterance and of which they cannot furnish a satisfactory account. For they think that if those laws were useful in this existence and had been given to us for this or that reason, it would be as if they derived from the reflection and the understanding of some intelligent being. If, however, there is a thing for which the intellect could not find any meaning at all and that does not lead to something useful, it undoubtedly derives from God; for the reflection of man would not lead to such a thing. It is as if, according to these people of weak intellects, man were more perfect than his Maker; for man speaks and acts in a manner that leads to some intended end; whereas the deity does not act thus, but commands us to do things that are not useful to us and forbids us to do things that are not harmful to us. But He is far exalted above this; the contrary is the case ... on the basis of its dictum: "For our good always, that He might preserve us alive, as it is this day." And it says: "Which shall hear all these statutes [chukkim] and say: Surely this great community is a wise and understanding people." Thus it states explicitly that even all the statutes [chukkim] will show to all the nations that they have been given with wisdom and understanding. Now if there is a thing for which no reason is known and that does not either procure something useful or ward off something harmful, why should one say of one who believes in it or practices it that he is wise and understanding and of great worth? And why should the religious communities think it a wonder? Rather things are indubitably as we have mentioned: every commandment from among these six hundred and thirteen commandments exists either with a view to communicating a correct opinion, or to putting an end to an unhealthy opinion, or to communicating a rule of justice, or to warding off an injustice, or to endowing men with a noble moral quality, or to warning them against an evil moral quality. (Moreh Nevukhim III, 31)

Rabbenu Sa'adya Gaon argued that there are two classes of mitzvot: those that are required by reason (sikhliyot) and those received through revelation (shim'iyot). The second cconsists of "things neither the approval nor the disapproval of which is decreed by reason, on account of their own character, but in regard to which our Lord has imposed upon us a profusion of commandments and prohibitions in order thereby to increase our reward and happiness." But "nevertheless, one cannot help noting, upon deeper reflection, that they have some partial uses as well as a certain slight justification from the point of view of reason" (Emunot ve-De'ot, III, 1). Rambam, however, disagreed with this distinction, emphasizing that even "chukkim" ("statutes") demonstrate wisdom and understanding.

Earlier, we mentioned the view of C. S. Lewis that a reason exists for the mitzvot as a whole, but not for each particular mitzva. Rambam adopts an intermediate position. He argues that a specific reason exists for every mitzva, but not necessarily for all of the particulars of a given mitzva:

But no cause will ever be found for the fact that one particular sacrifice consists in a lamb and another in a ram and that the number of the victims should be one particular number. Accordingly, in my opinion, all those who occupy themselves with finding causes for something of these particulars are stricken with a prolonged madness. (Moreh Nevukhim III, 26)

If this is the case, why then according to Rambam are the particulars at all necessary? Rambam answers: "In order to refine mankind through them." It is here that the arguments raised by Lewis enter the picture. Elsewhere, in our discussion of the importance of Halakha, we took note of the following two factors: Halakha establishes an awareness of submission to God and anchors the general ideas in practical details, thus ensuring that they become deeply implanted in man's consciousness. The particulars of a mitzva are necessary in order to intensify the mitzva's effect upon our lives, particularly with respect to the first factor ... assimilating the awareness of obligation and submission. For this purpose, it is of no consequence whether, in and of themselves, the particulars are arbitrary.

The approach taken by the Kabbalists is the exact opposite: they maintain that each and every particular of a mitzva has mystical and metaphysical meaning. This approach is taken to the extreme in Rabbi Nachman of Breslov's "Likutei Halakhot," where a mystical-kabbalistic reason is offered for every particular of the mitzva, in total disregard for the halakhic reasoning that led to that particular.

Maharal strongly objected to Rambam's stand on this issue:

And there is certainly no justification for this explanation, for it is about the entire Torah that the verse states: "And what nation is there so great, that has statutes and judgments so righteous as all this Torah" (Devarim 4:8); and it says: "Keep them therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, who shall hear all these statutes [and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people]" (ibid., v. 6). Surely then every matter in the Torah, general rule as well as particular, are all words of wisdom. And it is not as he [Rambam] thought that the particulars have no reason whatsoever, for that would not be a Torah of wisdom. (Tiferet Yisra'el, chap. 7)[4]


We know that seeking out the reasons for the mitzvot was very acceptable to the sages of Israel, starting with Chazal, through the Rishonim, and down to the most recent Acharonim. Rambam explicitly encourages the believer to ponder the reasons for the mitzvot:

It is fitting for man to meditate upon the laws of the holy Torah and to comprehend their full meaning to the extent of his ability. Nevertheless, a law for which he finds no reason and understands no cause should not be trivial in his eyes. (Hilkhot Me'ila 8:8)

We shall later return to the words of Rambam, consider them in their entirety and discuss his reservations. What interests us now is the very assertion that it is fitting for a person to occupy himself in the reasons for the mitzvot. Why is so much importance attached to searching for the reasons of the mitzvot? We can suggest two answers: 1) Occupation with the reasons for the mitzvot can stir up religious enthusiasm and spiritual motivation. This refers primarily to motivation and enthusiasm to observe the very mitzvot whose rationales are being uncovered, but also to excitement with respect to the worship of God in general. The better a person understands the light and the wisdom embodied in the mitzvot, the more his excitement and joy in the Torah and the worship of God will grow. 2) Through the study of the reasons for the mitzvot, we can learn important conceptual principles. By occupying ourselves with the reasons for the mitzvot, we can reach an understanding of God's will and of the basic values to which He is directing us.

We have seen that Rambam encourages the student to search out the reasons for the commandments. Rabbi Yehuda Halevi takes a different approach. After describing the reasons for the mitzvot relating to the Temple, he concludes with the following:

I do not, by any means, assert that the purpose of the service is the order expounded by me. On the contrary, it entails something more secret and elevated. And I say that it is God's Torah. He who innocently accepts it without scrutiny or argument is better off than he who investigates and analyses. He, however, who steps down from the highest level to scrutiny, does well to seek the reasons for these matters that are founded upon Divine wisdom, instead of abandoning them to evil opinions and doubts which lead man to perdition. (Kuzari, II, 26)

Rambam finds religious value in the search for the reasons of the mitzvot, because they can clarify the moral and spiritual foundations of the worship of God and enhance a person's religious commitment and enthusiasm. Rabbi Yehuda Halevi does not accept this approach. According to him, studying the reasons for the mitzvot is only necessary as a prophylactic cure for heresy. He whose faith is unblemished has no need to investigate the reasons for the mitzvot. This is only necessary for the weak in faith who must be reminded why the mitzvot have value and meaning. Rabbi Yehuda Halevi's argument is accompanied by the recognition that it is reasonable to assume that we are incapable of uncovering the true reason for a mitzva. We can, at most, speak of different layers of reasons, only the outermost of which we manage to understand. It is not clear whether the two arguments are connected. Rabbi Yehuda Halevi may be of the opinion that there is no value in searching for the reasons of the mitzvot, because in any event it is impossible to fully understand their rationales.

The fear that we may misunderstand the reasons for God's commandments is a significant concern: if we hope to derive from the mitzvot spiritual and ideological principles, then a mistake can be of great significance. And if we think that there is little chance of hitting upon God's true reasons, then it is surely possible that the entire effort is superfluous and void of meaning. This concern requires us to exercise extreme caution when we try to understand the reasons for the mitzvot. This care should express itself in the method used to derive the reason from the commandment, as well as in the awareness that any rationale that we come up with is merely a conjecture.

Certain statements of Chazal raise doubts whether or not it is advisable to inquire into the reasons for the commandments, because of another concern altogether:

Why were the rationales of the Torah not revealed? For surely regarding two passages where reasons were given, the greatest man in the world stumbled. It is written: "Neither shall he multiply wives to himself, [that his heart not turn away]" (Devarim 17:17). Shlomo said: I will take many [wives], but not turn away. And it is written: "For it came to pass, when Shlomo was old, that his wives turned away his heart" (I Melakhim 11:4). And it is written: "But he shall not multiply horses to himself, [nor cause the people to return to Egypt]" (Devarim 17:16). Shlomo said: I will take many [horses], but not cause [the people]to return. And it is written: "And a chariot went out of Egypt" (I Melakhim 10:29). (Sanhedrin 21a)

Chazal point here to the danger that a person's commitment to a mitzva may be undermined when he learns its rationale. When a person knows the rationale for a mitzva, he tends to regard it as reason for his commitment to observe it. This leads to the practical concern that a person will come to be lenient regarding the mitzva or change it in accordance with his understanding. We see what happened to Shlomo, when he thought that the reason for the mitzva did not apply. He became the classic proof for the extent to which the reason for the mitzva is still valid.

We are dealing here not only with a practical concern, but with a spiritual concern as well. Even if a person does not effect an actual change in his observance of a particular mitzva, his very recognition that he is fulfilling the mitzva not because of his commitment to God, but because he recognizes its value and benefit, involves a great spiritual flaw. The Tur alludes to this concern:

As for the prohibition against shaving the corners of one's beard ... Rambam said about them as well that this is forbidden by Scripture because the idolaters acted in this manner. This, however, is not explicit, and we need not look for a reason for the mitzvot. For they are like royal decrees, even if we do not know their reasons. (Tur, YD 181)

When a person delves into the reasons for the mitzvot, there is grave concern that he will observe the mitzvot only because he identifies with them and feels at ease performing them. It is difficult to say about such a person that he is serving God. The Chatam Sofer clearly identified this concern (after having also explained at length the practical concern about halakhic rulings based on false reasons):

For we observe God's statutes and teachings as statutes without reasons, the Torah being the decree of the King, may His name be blessed. Even if a person observes the entire Torah and all the commandments as he is required, if in his heart he does so for some particular reason, it is not received by God with favor. (Derashot ha-Chatam Sofer, Klausenberg, 1889, I, p. 19b)

A person is required to observe the mitzvot, not because he identifies with them, but because God has commanded him to do so.

How can these two concerns be overcome? Chazal distinguish between two types of mitzvot:

Our Rabbis taught: "You shall keep my judgments" (Vayikra 18:4) – matters that had they not been written should have been written: idolatry, illicit sexual relations, murder, theft, and blasphemy; "and you shall keep my statutes [chukkim]" - matters that Satan argues against [and the nations of the world argue against], such as: eating pig, wearing garments made of a mixture of wool and linen, chalitza, a leper's purification, and the sent-away goat. You might say they are meaningless acts. Therefore the verse states: "I am the Lord" ... I am the Lord who enacted them, you have no right to criticize them. (Yoma 67b)

Part of the Torah - the "statutes" [chukkim] - is very hard and, perhaps, impossible to explain. As we shall see, the Rishonim emphasized that this does not mean that the statutes are void of reason, but only that the reasons for the statutes are beyond our understanding. Chazal have said (Yoma 14a) that even King Shlomo, the wisest of all men, said about the mitzva of the red heifer: "I said I will be wise; but is was far from me" (Kohelet 7:23). The statutes have great educational value; they diminish the concern that learning the rationales of the mitzvot will create a connection between the reason for the mitzva and a person's commitment to observe it. Rav Yehuda Amital was once asked at a seminar for ba'alei teshuva which mitzvot should a newly observant person observe first. Rav Amital answered (following Rashi's comment regarding the mitzvot commanded to Israel at Mara) that the newly observant person should choose one mitzva pertaining to the relationship between man and his fellow, such as honoring one's parents, one mitzva pertaining to the relationship between man and God, such as Shabbat, and one mitzva regarding which there is no presumption whatsoever that we understand the rationale, such as kashrut or family purity. An observant Jew must know from the outset that not every mitzva will he be able to understand.

We have spoken about the danger that exists that a person will observe the mitzvot only because of their reasons. The Gemara also draws our intention to the reverse danger, namely, that a person who has learned the reasons for certain commandments will come to treat lightly those mitzvot whose reasons he does not understand. The concern exists that instead of the "statutes" influencing a person's attitude towards the "judgments," the "judgments" will fashion his attitude towards the "statutes." There is a danger that a person will scorn those mitzvot whose rationales he is unable to uncover. The Gemara finds it necessary to emphasize: "'I am the Lord' - I am the Lord who enacted them, you have no right to criticize them." When a person succeeds in uncovering a satisfying reason for a particular mitzva, the danger exists that he will view the reason as the source of the obligation, and he may even refrain from observing the mitzva in situations where he thinks that the reason does not apply. When, however, he is unsuccessful in finding such a reason, the danger exists that he will scorn the mitzva. Rambam was also aware of this danger. On the one hand, Rambam encourages us to study the reasons for the mitzvot and try to understand them; on the other hand, he is aware of the educational danger of scorning mitzvot whose rationales have not been uncovered, and he struggles with this danger:

It is fitting for man to meditate upon the laws of the holy Torah and to comprehend their full meaning to the extent of his ability. Nevertheless, a law for which he finds no reason and understands no cause should not be trivial in his eyes. Let him not break through to come up against the Lord, lest the Lord break forth upon him (Shemot 19:24). Nor should his thoughts concerning these things be like his thoughts concerning profane matters. Come and consider how strict the Torah was in the law of trespass! Now if sticks and stones and earth and ashes became hallowed by words alone, as soon as the name of the Master of the universe was invoked upon them, and anyone who comported with them as with a profane thing committed trespass and required atonement even if he had acted unwittingly, how much more should man be on guard not to rebel against a commandment decreed for us by the Holy One, blessed be He, only because he does not understand the reason; or to heap words that are not right against the Lord; or to regard the commandments in the manner in which he regards ordinary affairs. Surely it is stated in the Torah: "Therefore shall you keep all My statutes, and all my judgments, and do them" (Vayikra 19:37). The Sages said: To give keeping and doing to the statutes as to the judgments. Doing is known, namely, that he should do the statutes. And keeping – that he be watchful regarding them, and not imagine that they are inferior to the judgments. (Rambam, Hilkhot Me'ila, 8:8)

Let us then summarize the problems and dangers regarding searching out the rationales for the mitzvot: 1) a violation of religious innocence; 2) mistaken understanding of the true reason for the mitzva; 3) disregard of a mitzva when the supposed reason seems not to apply; 4) observance of the mitzvot because of their value and meaning, and not because of the divine command; 5) making light of mitzvot which have no apparent rationale.

We have also seen ways to confront these problems. The bottom line is that many Torah giants have occupied themselves with the rationales for the mitzvot, for it was clear to them that the potential benefits outweigh the possible dangers.


[1] According to the extreme versions of this position, God is subordinate neither to logic, nor to the "truth," and His actions are absolutely .

[2] See, however, the words of the Admor of Pistchena: "Now the nations of the world, even the best of them, think that truth exists independently, and that God commanded the truth because in and of itself it is true...This is in contrast with Israel, who say: You are the God of truth; He, may He blessed, is truth, and there is no truth outside of Him. All the truth in the world is [true] only because so God commanded and willed. Since He, may be blessed, is truth, therefore, this too is truth. One is forbidden to steal because the God of truth so commanded. Because of the command of the true God, this is true as well. But when God commands the opposite – that property declared by a court to be ownerless is ownerless - then that becomes the truth, that this person's property is ownerless. And when God commanded our father, Avraham, to bind up his son Yitzchak [as an offering], then it was the truth to bind him. Had He not said to him afterwards, "Do nothing to him," it would have been the truth to slaughter him. (The Admor of Pistchena, Eish Kodesh, p. 65)

[3] The Problem of Pain, Glasgow, 1981, pp. 88-89.

[4] Compare also to Rabbi Yehuda Halevi's Kuzari, I, 99.

(Translated by David Strauss)