Reasons for the Mitzvot (part II)

  • Rav Chaim Navon
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Theological Issues In Sefer Bereishit

Yeshivat Har Etzion


By Rav Chaim Navon


Having concluded in the previous lecture that the mitzvot do indeed have rationales and that it is fitting for us to discuss them, we face a new question: What type of reasons do the mitzvot have? Theoretically, the reasons could be social, ritual, mystical, psychological, etc. Of course, we cannot discuss here all the different approaches regarding the nature of the reasons for the mitzvot, but we shall try to address a number of pivotal questions. It is also reasonable to distinguish between different kinds of commandments, some having reasons of one type and others having reasons of another type.


We shall cite here in full Ramban's classic discussion regarding the mitzva of setting the mother bird free before taking the eggs or chicks:

"If a bird's nest chance to be before you" (Devarim 22:6). This also is an explanatory commandment of the prohibition, "You shall not kill it [the dam] and its young both in one day" (Vayikra 22:28), because the reason for both [commandments] is that we should not have a cruel heart and be merciless. Or it may be that Scripture does not permit us to destroy a species altogether, although it permits slaughter [for food] within that group. Now, he who kills the dam and the young in one day or takes them when they are free to fly [is regarded] as though he cut off that species.

Now, the Rabbi [Rambam] wrote in More Nevuchim (III, 48) that the reason for the commandment to release the mother bird when taking its nest and the prohibition against killing the dam with its young on one day is in order to admonish us against killing the young within the mother's sight, for animals feel great distress under such circumstances. There is no difference between the distress of man and the distress of animals for their young, since the love of the mother and her tenderness to her offspring are not the result of reasoning or [the faculty of intelligent] speech, but are produced by the faculty of mental images which exists among animals even as it is present in man. [This is the view of Rambam.] But if so, the main prohibition in killing the dam and its young applies only when killing [first] the young and [then] the dam, and the rest is all an extraordinary precaution. It is more correct [to explain them as prohibitions] to prevent us from acting cruelly.

And the Rabbi [Rambam] said further: "Do not contradict me by quoting the saying of the Sages, 'He who says in his prayer: Even to a bird's nest do Your mercies extend' [we silence, for he treats the ordinances of God like expressions of mercy, whereas they are merely decrees]"(Berakhot 33b), for that is one of two opinions, namely the opinion of the Sage who holds that the commandments have no other reason but the will of the Creator. We, however, follow the second opinion that there is a reason for all commandments." And the Rabbi raised a difficulty from a text in Bereishit Rabba [44:1], which reads: "And what difference does it make to the Holy One, blessed be He, whether an animal is slaughtered from the front of the neck or the back? Surely you must say that the commandments were given only for the purpose of refining men through them, as the verse says: 'Every word of God is refined' (Mishlei 30:5)."

Now, this theory, categorically stated by the Rabbi concerning commandments that have a reason, is indeed very clear. There is a reason, benefit, and improvement for man in each of them, aside from the reward by Him who commanded it, blessed be He…

But those Aggadic statements, presenting difficulty to the Rabbi,[1] are in my opinion, intended to express another thought as follows: The benefit from the commandments is not derived by the Holy One himself, exalted be He. Rather, the advantage is to man himself, to withhold from him physical harm or some evil belief, or unseemly trait of character, or to recall the miracles and wonders of the Creator, blessed be He, in order to know the Lord. It is this [which the Rabbis intended when they said] that the commandments were given "for the purpose of refining men," namely, that they might become like refined silver. For he who refines silver does not act without purpose, but to remove therefrom any impurity. So, also, the commandments remove from our hearts all evil beliefs, and inform us of the truth, so that we may remember it at all times… The Rabbis merely meant to say that the benefit is not for His sake, exalted be He, [nor] that He is in need of the light of the candelabrum as one might think, or that He needs the food of the offerings and the odor of the incense as might appear from their simple meanings. Even regarding the memorial He made for His wonderful works, that He commanded us to perform in memory of the Exodus and Creation, the benefit is not for Him, but so that we should know the truth and be meritorious enough to be worthy of his protection, for our utterances and remembrances of His wonders are accounted by Him as things of naught and vanity.

And the Midrash brought proof from [the law regarding] slaughter by cutting the neck in front or in the back, meaning to state that all the benefits are to us and not to the Holy One, blessed be He. For it is impossible to say concerning slaughter that there is more benefit and glory to the Creator, blessed be He, by cutting the neck in front than by cutting it in the back or by stabbing the animal. Rather, all these advantages are to us - to lead us in paths of compassion even during [the process of] slaughtering. And the Rabbis brought another proof: "Or what does it matter to Him if one eats clean things," - that is, foods permissible to the eater - "or eats unclean things," that is, forbidden food, about which the Torah said: "They are unclean to you," implying that [these laws were given to us] so that we might develop a fine soul and be wise men perceptive to the truth…

So too regarding what the Rabbis have stated: "Because he treats the ordinances of God like expressions of mercy, whereas they are merely decrees" (Berakhot 33b). This means that it is not a matter of God's mercy extending to the bird's nest or the dam and its young, for His mercies do not extend so far into animal life as to prevent us from accomplishing our needs with them, for if so, He would have forbidden slaughter altogether.[2] But the reason for the prohibition is to teach us the trait of compassion and that we should not be cruel, for cruelty proliferates in a man's soul as it is known that butchers, those who slaughter large oxen and asses are men of blood; they that slaughter men, are extremely cruel. It is on account of this [cruelty] that the Rabbis have said: "The most seemly among butchers is a partner of Amalek" (Kiddushin 82a).

Thus these commandments with respect to cattle and fowl are not a result of compassion upon them, but they are decrees upon us to guide us and to teach us traits of good character. So too, the Rabbis refer to all commandments of the Torah - positive and negative - as "decrees." (Ramban, Commentary to Devarim 22:6)

Rambam had interpreted a number of midrashic statements as claiming that the mitzvot are arbitrary decrees, having no reasons whatsoever. Ramban rejects this interpretation; one of these midrashim merely means to say that the purpose of the mitzvot is not to benefit God, but rather to improve us, men of flesh and blood.[3] God does not need the mitzvot. Ramban argues this point strongly, adducing many proofs. The idea that God needs the mitzvot is, however, very prominent in Kabbala, especially in the school of the Ari. (Rav Chayyim of Volozhin greatly developed this approach in his book "Nefesh ha-Chayyim"; he, however, placed special emphasis on the educational significance, namely, the responsibility that such an idea places on man.) Anybody who before performing a mitzva recites the "Leshem Yichud" formula ("for the sake of the unity of the Holy One, blessed be He, and His Shekhina") effectively believes that the mitzva is necessary for God. Even Ramban himself alludes that God's resting His Shekhina upon Israel was necessary not only for man, but also for God Himself (Shemot 29:46). This is how the Kabbalist, Rabbi Meir ben Gabbai, expressed himself on this issue:

For this is the ultimate goal of the toil of the perfect servant [of God], and toward it should he turn in all his efforts, and toward it should he direct himself in all his actions. He should strive to [fill] God's need, namely the unity mentioned above, and not his own need. (Rabbi Meir ben Gabbai, Avodat ha-Kodesh, introduction)

Obviously, the proponents of a more rationalistic religious outlook view this as a highly problematic position: it implies that God, as it were, is deficient and needs our help. Those who stress the element of fear in the service of God also have reservations regarding this position, without any connection to rationalism.


In the course of his discussion, Ramban raises another significant question. According to Rambam, the mitzva of setting the mother bird free has a concrete external goal - preventing the mother bird's suffering. Ramban suggests another possible concrete result - preventing the extermination of the species. He concludes, however, that the Torah is not concerned here with the birds; the objective of the mitzva is to enhance our sensitivity - to reduce our cruelty and heighten our compassion. We are dealing here with a fundamental question: are the mitzvot intended to improve the external world around us or the internal psychological world of the individual? Are the mitzvot directed outward or inward? Is the mitzva of charity intended to improve the condition of the poor, or to correct the morals and sensitivity of the rich? It should be noted that the controversy between Rambam and Ramban regarding this point is restricted to the mitzva of setting the mother bird free; there is no general dispute between them on the issue.


There is a fundamental disagreement about those mitzvot which fall into the category of "chukkim" (statutes), namely, mitzvot that are viewed as not being based upon common sense. In this context, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi records a famous analogy:

These conditions which render man fit to receive this Divine influence are not in the scope of human knowledge. It is impossible for him to gauge their quantity or quality, and even if he would know their essence, he would not know their time, place, composition, or manner of preparation. For all this, he needs Divine knowledge, coming fully explained from God Himself … But … such a person offers sacrifices and burns incense according to speculation and conjecture, not knowing the essence of what is needed for that purpose, or how much, in which way, in which place, at what time, by whom, in which manner, and many other details, the enumeration of which would take a very long time.

To what is this akin? To an ignoramus who enters the medicine chamber of a doctor who is known to all for his beneficial medications, at a time when the doctor is out. When he sees crowds of people congregating outside the chamber, seeking cures for their ailments, he begins to dispense medicines out of the vials, knowing nothing about the medications or the appropriate dosages for each person. Thus he kills people with the very medicines that could have cured them. (Kuzari, I, 79)

Rabbi Yehuda Halevi sees the purpose of "chukkim" as directing divine influence in the world. According to him, the world is governed by spiritual laws that parallel the physical laws. The mitzvot are guidelines and principles that suit the spiritual laws that exist in the world.

In contrast, we find in the words of Chazal a different approach to this question:

An idolater asked Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai: "These rites that you perform look like a kind of witchcraft. You bring a heifer, burn it, pound it, and take its ashes. If one of you is defiled by a dead body you sprinkle upon him two or three drops and you say to him: 'You are clean.'" Rabban Yochanan asked him: "Has the demon of madness ever possessed you?" "No," he replied. "Have you ever seen a man possessed by this demon of madness?" "Yes," said he. "And what do you do in such a case?" "We bring roots," he replied, "and make them smoke under him; then we sprinkle water upon the demon and it flees." Rabban Yochanan said to him: "Let your ears hear what you utter with your mouth! Precisely so is this spirit a spirit of uncleanness; as it is written: 'And also I will cause the prophets and the unclean spirit to pass out of the land' (Zekharya 13:2). Water of purification is sprinkled upon the unclean person and the spirit flees."

When the idolater had gone, Rabban Yochanan's disciples said to their master: "Master! You dismissed this man with a flimsy answer; what explanation do you give to us?" Said he to them: "By your life! It is not the dead that defiles nor the water that purifies! The Holy One, blessed be He, merely says: 'I have laid down a statute, I have issued a decree. You are not allowed to transgress my decree.'" As it is written: "This is the statute ('chukkat') of the law" (Bamidbar 19:2). (Bamidbar Rabba 19, 8)

Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai proposes an approach that is entirely different from that of Rabbi Yehuda Halevi. The laws of ritual impurity constitute an area of Halakha that is perhaps best understood using the idea of spiritual laws. Yet even in this area, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai rejects such an understanding. Ritual purity and impurity have no spiritual significance as independent entities. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai does not explain the purpose or reason for the laws of ritual purity and impurity. In light of what we have seen above, there is no need, nor is it even reasonable, to assume that he is arguing that mitzvot have no rationales. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai is telling his disciples that we are dealing here with a halakhic abstraction, which has no direct spiritual parallel ("it is not the dead that defiles nor the water that purifies"), and whose reason is unknown to us. There is a reason - psychological, social, religious, or the like - but we do not know it. There is one set of reasons that Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai rejects, namely, magical reasons, according to which the mitzvot have curative powers that blend in with the spiritual laws of the universe. It is very possible that he rejects such rationales on theological grounds, for they encroach upon God. Judaism shrinks from magic, and commands: "You shall be perfect with the Lord your God" (Devarim 18:13). It would be unreasonable for Judaism to deviate from this position precisely in the area of the mitzvot.

Two additional points are worthy of note. What stands out in the aforementioned story is the fact that Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai's disciples immediately understood that their master's response to the heathen had not been serious. Many people living in our own day would probably be persuaded by his argument, but this only demonstrates how the generations have declined. Similarly, many in our generation would probably relate to Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai's response to his disciples as a mere "dismissal with a flimsy answer." His disciples, however, understood the depth of his answer - limited as it may be - and the shallowness of the detailed response that had been given to the heathen.


Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch argues that the mitzvot are symbols: the particulars of the mitzvot express a symbolic message, informing us of the spiritual and moral values that God wished to bestow upon us. Our study of the mitzvot and their rationales clarifies this symbolic significance for us. Thus, for example, the obligation of wearing the ritual fringes [tzitzit] on four-cornered garments symbolizes, among other things, the blossoms [tzitzim] - the fruits and benefits - to be derived from doing God's will.

Prof. Shalom Rosenberg (Be-ikvot ha-Kuzari, p. 181) notes the problematic nature of this position. Indeed, this is not such a simple proposal, for in the final analysis, according to Rabbi Hirsch, the mitzvot serve merely as a means of transferring speculative information. Moreover, this is not even a particularly effective way of transferring such information, for most of the people who observe the mitzvot are oblivious to their rationales, and most of those who have in fact pondered their reasons have arrived at altogether different conclusions. Prof. Rosenberg argues that Rabbi Hirsch's proposal requires modification. He suggests that the symbolism of the mitzvot should be understood as being directed not only at man's intellect, but at his emotions and sub-conscious as well. The mitzvot impart spiritual and moral values not only through intellectual study, but primarily through their sub-conscious effect on the personality.

According to this interpretation, the rationales for the mitzvot focus on the psychological effect on the individual observer, through symbols that give expression to spiritual values.



In order to understand the conceptual significance of the mitzva of circumcision, let us examine a famous midrash:

The wicked Turnusrufus [once] asked Rabbi Akiva: "Whose deeds are more seemly - those of the Holy One, blessed be He, or those of man?" He said to him: "Those of man are more seemly." The wicked Turnusrufus said to him: "Surely the heavens and the earth - can you do what they do?" Rabbi Akiva said to him: "Don't answer me with something that is above people, over which they have no control, but rather with something that is found among men." He said to him: "Why do you circumcise yourselves?" He said to them: "I knew that eventually you would ask me this, and so I went first and said to you: The deeds of man are more seemly than those of the Holy One, blessed be He. Bring me sheaves and baked goods." He said to him: "These are the handiwork of the Holy One, blessed be He, and these are the handiwork of man. Are these not seemly?" (Midrash Tanchuma, ed. Buber, Tazri'a 7)

The provocative heathen claims that the natural world, the handiwork of God, is complete and perfect, and needs no correction or improvement. With his sharp intuition, Turnusrufus understands the special meaning of circumcision in this context: circumcision symbolizes nature's imperfection and the need to refine and improve it. In the ancient world, circumcision was indeed regarded as a mutilation of man, as an offense committed against his innate natural perfection. It was for this reason that circumcision so disgusted the civilized members of the Hellenistic world. We also know that Chazal vigorously fought against the Hellenizers who would "stretch their foreskin" in order to disguise the fact that they had been circumcised. Modern scholars have also come to the conclusion that the mass conversion to Judaism during the first century before the Common Era came to end, because, among other reasons, the heathens recoiled from circumcision. As was stated above, Turnusrufus saw in circumcision an exemplification, as well as a symbol of his general complaint against Judaism: Why doesn't Judaism accept nature, the handiwork of God, as it is, but instead it ruins it?

How does Rabbi Akiva respond to Turnusrufus's defiant argument? He answers without hesitation: Man's handiwork is more seemly! Just as a loaf of bread, the handiwork of man, is more becoming than the grain growing in the field, so too circumcised man is more becoming than one who is uncircumcised. God created nature with imperfections, and it falls upon man to improve and develop it. Why? The midrash provides us with an answer: "Why is [man] not born circumcised? Because the Holy One, blessed be He, gave Israel the mitzvot only in order to refine them thereby" (ibid.). That is to say, God deliberately designed nature with imperfections, so that we should be able to perfect it.

We must emphasize: we are not required to fight against nature, but to improve it. The difference between the two is the difference between human sacrifice, despised by God and an abomination in His eyes, and circumcision. The removal of the foreskin emancipates man from his subjugation to the indifferent natural world around him; his body is no longer chained to the mold cast for him by nature. He gives up a small part of his body for the sake of God, thus refashioning his body and demonstrating that he is not subject to nature, but to his Creator. The difference between one who is circumcised and one who is not is found not in the foreskin that has been removed, but in the body that remains. Following circumcision, the body is no longer a mere lump of clay; it is now the body of a servant of God, which has been given new form and is no longer bound by the form in which it came into the world.

In this sense, circumcision gives expression to a mighty spiritual message: nature is blemished and imperfect. We are not to accept the events and phenomena of the natural world that surrounds us on the outside, and certainly not the natural inclinations and desires that are found within us. We are not commanded to fight against nature - but we are to perfect it, not accepting it as we find it. Not everything that is natural is also good, and not everything that is good is also natural. Much of nature is chaff.

"I found Israel like grapes in the wilderness; I saw your fathers as the first ripe fruit in the fig tree at her first season" (Hoshea 9:10)… Rabbi Yudin said: Just as a fig has no waste other than its stalk, remove it and the blemish is gone, so too the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Avraham: There is no waste in you other than your foreskin; remove it and the blemish is gone; "Walk before me, and be perfect" (Bereishit 17:1). (Bereishit Rabba 46, 1)


The conceptual significance that we have found in circumcision led Chazal to relate to circumcision as a miniature sacrifice.

Whoever presents his son for circumcision is regarded as if he were a High Priest offering his meal-offering and libation on the altar. (Yalkut Shimoni, 81)

One who undergoes circumcision, giving his foreskin to God, is essentially offering God a sacrifice of sorts. This idea may be connected to one of the laws governing circumcision. A newborn child is circumcised when he is eight days old. Some have suggested that this parallels a similar law in the realm of sacrifices:

Rabbi Yitzchak said: The law governing man and the law governing an animal are the same. The law governing man - "And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised" (Vayikra 12:3), and the law governing an animal - "[Then it shall be seven days under its dam;] and from the eighth day and thenceforth it shall be accepted [for an offering made by fire to the Lord]" (Vayikra 22:27). (Vayikra Rabba 27, 10)

Rabbenu Bachya writes in a similar vein:

Homiletically speaking, the mitzva of circumcision is like a sacrifice. Just as the blood of a sacrifice achieves atonement on the altar, so too the blood of circumcision achieves atonement. For this reason it is a mitzva on the eighth day, for a sacrifice is not fit until the eighth day, as it says: "And from the eighth day and thenceforth it shall be accepted." And just as it says about a sacrifice, "And they shall eat those things with which atonement was made" (Shemot 29:33), for the eating of a sacrifice is for atonement, so Israel celebrates a festive meal on the day of circumcision. It is even greater than a sacrifice, for a sacrifice involves a person's property and circumcision his body … Therefore it is regarded for him as a binding and a sacrifice, as if he had bound himself [as an offering]. As it says: "Those that have made a covenant with me by sacrifice" (Tehilim 50:5). (Rabbenu Bachya, commentary to Bereishit 17:13)


Thus far we have related to circumcision as an act pertaining to the individual. As we all know, however, circumcision does not relate only to the isolated individual; it is the national covenant pertaining to the entire Jewish people. This element is already evident in the earliest command regarding circumcision:

And God said to Avraham, You shall keep my covenant, you, and your seed after you in their generations. This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your seed after you; every manchild among you shall be circumcised. And you shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be a token of the covenant between Me and you. (Bereishit 17:9-11)

There are only two positive precepts whose violation is punishable by karet (excision): the paschal offering and circumcision. These two mitzvot give expression to the national covenant between God and the Jewish people. Therefore, anyone who shirks one of these obligations is liable to karet, one of whose consequences is being cut-off from the Jewish people: "That soul shall be cut off from his people" (regarding circumcision - Bereishit 17:14; regarding the paschal offering - Bamidbar 9:13). When the Israelites entered the Promised Land, they immediately observed the mitzvot of circumcision and the paschal offering, through which they entered into a covenant with God (Yehoshua, chap. 5). We also find a special connection between these two mitzvot, an uncircumcised person being specially forbidden to eat of the paschal offering: "No uncircumcised person shall eat of it" (Shemot 12:48).


Circumcision involves the removal of the foreskin from man's sexual organ. According to the Sages spanning the generations, this is no mere coincidence, but a message for all times. Rambam saw in this point the primary focus of circumcision:

Similarly with regard to circumcision, one of the reasons for it is, in my opinion, the wish to bring about a decrease in sexual intercourse and a weakening of the organ in question, so that this activity be diminished and the organ be in as quiet a state as possible … The bodily pain caused to that member is the real purpose of circumcision. None of the activities necessary for the preservation of the individual is harmed thereby, nor is procreation rendered impossible, but violent desire and lust that goes beyond what is needed are diminished. (More Nevuchim III, 49)

It is possible to develop Rambam's direction of thought, without reaching his conclusion that circumcision weakens the sexual organ. As is well known, there is no medical basis for Rambam's assertion: circumcision does not harm man's member in any way. On the contrary, removing the foreskin is beneficial in that it reduces the likelihood of infection. It may still be argued, however, that there is special significance to the fact that circumcision is performed on man's sexual organ: We already explained earlier that one of the central messages of circumcision is man's capacity to perfect nature by sacrificing a part of himself to God. This sacrifice relates, among other things, to sexual desire, which man is asked to conquer by Divine demand. Circumcision serves as a constant reminder of this obligation.

Earlier, we mentioned Rambam's rationale for the mitzva of circumcision. Rambam brings an additional reason - circumcision serves as a physical sign common to all members of the nation. In his Sefer ha-Mitzvot, Rambam counts the mitzva of circumcision (positive precept 215) among the mitzvot relating to sexual intercourse - procreation, marriage, rejoicing with one's wife during the first year of marriage, levirate marriage, and chalitza. This fits in with what he writes in his More Nevuchim that circumcision is connected to the control of one's sexual desire. In his Mishne Torah, however, Rambam brings the mitzva of circumcision in Sefer Ahava, alongside keri'at shema, tefilin, blessings, and the like. In his introduction to Mishne Torah, Rambam explains why he included circumcision in Sefer Ahava:

Included in this group is circumcision, because this is a sign in our flesh, serving as a constant reminder, even when there are no tefilin, tzitzit, or the like. (Rambam's [third] introduction to his Mishne Torah)

Here Rambam emphasizes the sign of circumcision, and not the sanctification of sexual intercourse. Circumcision involves not only sacrifice and the control of one's natural inclinations, but also a constant reminder of the covenant we made with God by way of that sacrifice. Rambam in his introduction to Mishne Torah emphasizes the sign of circumcision on the personal level. As we have explained, however, circumcision serves not only as a personal sign, but also as a national sign of the Jewish people as a whole. Seforno connects this point to the question why circumcision is performed on man's sexual organ:

Since this covenant is performed on the organ that brings about the eternity of the species, it points to the eternity of the covenant; and since it is performed on the reproductive organ, its sign indicates the continuity of the covenant to the sons. (Seforno, Bereishit 17:13)

We explained earlier how the fact that circumcision is performed on man's sexual organ fits in with the rationale for circumcision on the individual level. Seforno explains that even in relation to the rationale for circumcision on the national level, there is special significance to the fact that circumcision is performed on that organ.


[1] I.e., the midrashim which seem to imply that the mitzvot are arbitrary and lack rationales.

[2] It is not clear whether Ramban understands that animals do not suffer during slaughter or whether he maintains that God is not concerned about their suffering.

[3] The central question is not whether the mitzvot are beneficial to us, but whether they are intended to have an effect upon us.

(Translated by David Strauss)