Shiur #19: The Mitzvot (Part I)

  • Rav Itamar Eldar

     Before we begin our discussion of this topic, let us survey the difficulties that stand before anyone trying to understand the role and significance of the mitzvot.


     The Jewish philosophers of the Middle Ages had to ward off two sharp attacks in their attempts to defend the mitzvot.


     The first is a fundamental question that arises with respect to the entire relationship between man and God, but it is most intense with respect to the Divine commands. How is it possible to say that God, who is holy and transcendent, approaches a material creature of flesh and blood? And not only does He turn to him, He even commands him to do perform certain actions?! I dealt with this issue in the past, and therefore I shall focus on the second question, which is directly connected to the mitzvot.


     The second question relates to the assumption that the material actions of man impact upon the spiritual and the Divine. This question has two parts.


     First, how is it possible to say that a human action is meaningful to an exalted God? Such a claim, argued the philosophers, involves a significant personification of God. The assumption that a physical act leaves a spiritual impression and influences processes that are part of the Divine stratum of reality lowers the realm of the Divine to the level of physical matter.


     This difficulty and its resolution are discussed in the following passage in the midrash:


Rav said: The commandments were only given to refine man through them. For what difference does it make to the Holy One, blessed be He, whether an animal is slaughtered from the throat or from the back of the neck? Surely the commandments were only given to refine man through them. (Bereishit Rabba 44, 1)


     Rav refuses to accept that the manner of an animal's slaughter has any objective importance to God. Hence, the purpose of the mitzvot is to refine man, that is to say, to bring him to accept the yoke and lordship of Heaven - not because of the meaning of the mitzvot, but rather because of the obedience that they demand.[1] This is the accepted understanding of Rav's dictum: "The commandments were only given to refine man through them."[2]


     The Ramban in his commentary to the Torah understood the words of Rav in a different manner:


But in my opinion, these Aggadic statements, presenting difficulty to the Rabbi [Rambam], express the following idea: The benefit from the commandments is not derived by the Holy One, Himself, blessed be He. Rather, the advantage is to man, to prevent him from suffering injury or some evil belief, or unfit character trait, or to recall the miracles and wonders of the Creator, blessed be He, in order to know God. This is what the Rabbis meant [when they said] that the commandments were given "to refine man," namely, that they should become like refined silver. For he who refines silver does not act without purpose, but to remove all impurity from it. So, too, the commandments remove all evil beliefs from our hearts and teach us the truth, so that we may remember it always. (Ramban, commentary to Devarim 22:6)


     The mitzvot, according to the Ramban, are not meant for God's benefit, and He does not delight more in their performance than in their neglect. The mitzvot are directed at man, but not as the Rambam understood the words of Rav – in the sense of bringing him to accept God's authority – but rather in the sense of refining and perfecting man.[3]


     This is the first difficulty regarding the impact of a physical act on the realm of the spirit, but there is another dimension to the problem relating to man himself: How can a physical act influence and perfect the spiritual soul of man?


     In order to deal with this problem, most medieval Jewish philosophers adopted a similar approach, namely, the spiritualization of the mitzvot.


     The religious act in and of itself is devoid of value, but it can educate man and guide him down the right path. The Rambam writes as follows:


Rather, things are indubitably as we have mentioned: every commandment from among these six hundred and thirteen commandments exist 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. Thus, all [the commandments] are bound up with three things: opinions, moral qualities, and political civil actions. (Moreh Nevukhim, III, 31)


     All the mitzvot educate man and bring him to correct beliefs and opinions, a befitting personal and societal life style, and the perfection of his moral character.


     This approach attempts to bridge the gap between a physical act and spiritual influence. It is not the physical act in itself that repairs spiritual failings, but rather the spiritual position out of which this act develops. The idea to which the act alludes is the goal towards which man must strive.


     A danger lies at the door of this approach. As one spiritualizes the mitzvot, one constricts and even cancels altogether the significance of the physical act itself, paving the way for the suggestion that there might be other possible ways to achieve the same spiritual goal.[4]


     The Maharal of Prague understood what brought Jewish philosophers to explain the mitzvot in this manner, but he disagrees with this approach, well-aware of the danger that it involves:


After these things have been explained to you, let us also explain the first question: how does a person acquire success through a Torah act? … The scholars, whom we mentioned above, attribute majesty to the intellect and [argue that] through the rational ideas a person acquires eternity. They turn the good and upright actions into a ladder through which one can reach the rational ideas. But they fell from this ladder. We, the disciples of Moshe Rabbenu, may he rest in peace, have risen and stood erect through God's Torah and mitzvot. What brought them to this was that they found it difficult that a material action should lead to the success of the spiritual soul, and therefore they abandoned the human act, and relied on the intellect. (Tiferet Yisrael, chap. 9)


     The Maharal's solution will be examined later, but there is no doubt that he followed in the footsteps of R. Yehuda Halevi, whose position was different than that of his colleagues, the philosophers.




     As we saw in earlier lectures, man and Israel strive, according to Rihal, to reach the highest level of joining with the Divine influence – prophecy, revelation, and all that follows from them.


     The road to God is comprised of three factors, as the Rihal illustrates through the analogy to a vineyard:


The Rabbi: How about the hill on which you say that the vines thrive so well? If it had not been properly planted and cultivated, it would never produce grapes. Priority belongs, in the first instance, to the people which, as stated before, is the essence and kernel [of the nations]. In the second instance, it would belong to the country, and also to the religious acts connected with it, which I would compare to the cultivation of the vineyard. (II, 12)


     The first condition is the unique essence that was given to the chosen people, the second condition is the location – Eretz Yisrael – and the third condition is the cultivation of the vineyard – performance of the mitzvot. Already with these words, Rihal bestows an important role upon the mitzvot: "The approach to God is only possible through the medium of God's command" (III, 53).


     The goal of the mitzvot, then, is to bring man to the highest level and thus cause the Divine influence to rest upon him.


     As we shall see later, Rihal is unwilling to compromise either with respect to the goal of the mitzvot or with respect to their necessity and their being the only way to achieve their goal. Rihal's declaration of intentions is found already at the beginning of the book with the repetition of the Khazar king's dream, in which the king is told that his intentions are worthy, but his actions are not. This link is connected to Rihal's understanding of the mitzvot, found in the words of the Khazar king at the highpoint of the discussion regarding the mitzvot:


The Khazar king: The theory I had formed, and the opinion of what I saw in my dream you now confirm, viz. that man can only merit Divine influence by acting according to God's commands. Were this not so, most men would attain it, for they all strive to serve God to the best of their understanding, even astrologers, magicians, fire and sun worshippers, dualists etc. (I, 98)


     Already here Rihal tries to remove from the discussion the argument raised above against the approach taken by the medieval philosophers, that when we shift the center of gravity from the act itself to the intention, contents, and meaning of the mitzva, we cancel the value of the act. A person's intentions may be worthy, and his ideas may reach the height of rationality, but all this will not bring him to join with the Divine influence. The Rambam, who sees in the mitzvot a means for perfecting man's outlook, his character traits, and his conduct, must consider the fact that Aristotle was, without a doubt, according to him, on the highest intellectual, moral, and spiritual level, but he nevertheless did not attain prophecy and closeness to God at the level of the prophets of Israel or of those who only merited the holy spirit.[5] According to Rihal, as we shall see below, the road to God passes exclusively through man's actions. These actions, according to Rihal, have value in and of themselves; therefore, without the actions, there can be no spiritual attainments.[6]


     The assumption that the physical act itself, without its spiritualization, can lead, in one way or another, to spiritual attainment, is an assumption that comes under frontal attack from the world of philosophy. Rihal builds layers of defense step by step against this attack.


The Rabbi: Certainly; but the elements, moon, sun and stars have powers such as warming, cooling, moistening, drying, etc., but do not merit that wisdom should be ascribed to them, or be reckoned more than a function. Forming, measuring, producing, however, and all that shows an intention, can only be ascribed to the All-wise and Almighty. There is no harm in calling the power which arranges matter by means of heat and cooling, 'Nature,' but all intelligence must be denied it. So must the faculty of creating the embryo be denied to human beings, because they only aid matter in receiving human form from its wise Creator. You must not deem it improbable that exalted Divine traces should be visible in this material world, when this matter is prepared to receive them. Here are to be found the roots of faith as well as of unbelief. (I, 77)


     Through this analogy, taken from the world of nature, Rihal attempts to prove that "exalted Divine traces should be visible in this material world, when this matter is prepared to receive them." Rihal distinguishes between a technical act, which he calls "a function," and the complex process of "forming, measuring, producing, and all that shows an intention," which Rihal considers "wisdom." The first he attributes to the world of nature, but the second he attributes to its Master. Every action and every creation in the world is comprised of cooperation between the two. Moreover, the world is made in such a manner that without the act of nature that precedes the Divine wisdom, the Divine act is impossible. This outlook, according to Rihal, does not see the work of nature as the high point of creation, but it does see it as a necessary condition:


It is here, as in the formations of nature, which are composed of such minute elements that they defy perception, and if their mutual relation suffered the smallest change, the whole formation would be damaged, that plant or animal, or limb, would be imperfect and non-existing. (I, 99)


     Even the most complex matters that the human mind cannot even comprehend are based on a material, physical actions.


     Another analogy that Rihal makes and that he will harness in the next step that he will take is the analogy of a man and a woman. The act of copulation is an act that sets off a complex and wondrous chain of events that will eventually turn two cells into a human being, the most complex being on earth.


     Can we attribute this process to the man and woman? Are they partners in this process? Certainly not! Divine wisdom, asserts Rihal, is what leads and guides the process step by step, but this wisdom could not be realized without the simple, material, and physical act of copulation performed by the man and the woman. We see, then, that "Divine traces are visible in this material world, when this matter is prepared to receive them."




     Rihal, who struggles so hard to prove the argument that a physical religious act impacts upon spiritual reality, was aware, as were his philosophical colleagues, of the danger that lies at its door. The concern is two-fold:


The Rabbi: These conditions which render man fit to receive this Divine influence do not lie within him. It is impossible for him to gauge their quantity or quality, and even if their essence were known, yet neither their time, place, and connection, nor suitability could be discovered. For this, inspired and detailed instruction is necessary. He who has been thus inspired, and obeys the teaching in every respect with a pure mind, is a believer. Whosoever strives by speculation and deduction to prepare the conditions for the reception of this inspiration, or by divining, as is found in the writings of astrologers, trying to call down supernatural beings, or manufacturing talismans, such a man is an unbeliever. He may bring offerings and burn incense in the name of speculation and conjecture, while he is in reality ignorant of that which he should do, how much, in which way, by what means, in which place, by whom, in which manner, and many other details, the enumeration of which would lead too far. (I, 79)


     Casting everything on man's actions is liable to bring a person to the sin of arrogance, should he assume that it is within his intellectual grasp to determine which actions will bring him to the desired spiritual level.


     According to the pretentious outlook of the philosophers, which tries to explain the entire system through the spiritualization of the mitzvot, we understand the psychological position that demands the right to find the path appropriate for it to reach its objective. In contrast, Rihal's outlook is based on an assumption that nips this motivation in the bud:


Religious ceremonies are, like the work of nature, entirely determined by God, but beyond the power of man. Formations of nature, are, as you can see, composed of accurately measured proportions of the four elements. A trifle renders them perfect and gives them their proper animal or plant form. Every mixture receives the shape beseeming it, but can also lose it through a trifle. The egg may be spoiled by the slight accident of too much heat or cold, or a movement, and become unable to receive the form of a chicken which otherwise the hen achieves by sitting on it three weeks. Who, then, can weigh actions upon which the Divine Influence rest, save God alone? This is the error committed by alchemists and necromancers. The former thought, indeed, that they could weigh the elementary fire on their scales, and produce what they wished, and thus alter the nature of materials, as is done in living beings by natural heat which transforms food into blood, flesh, bone and other organs. They toil to discover a fire of the same kind, but are misled by accidental results of their experiments, not based on calculation, just in the same manner as the discovery was made that from the planting of seed within the womb man arises. When those necromancers heard that the appearance of the Divinity from Adam down to the children of Israel was gained by sacrifices, they thought it was the result of meditation and research; that the prophets were but deeply learned persons who accomplished these wonders by means of calculation. Then they, on their part, were anxious to fix sacrifices to be offered up at certain times and astrological opportunities, accompanied by ceremonies and burning of incense which their calculations prescribed. They even composed astrological books and other matters the mention of which is forbidden. (III, 53)


     Rihal uses the analogy to prove that there is a connection of preparation and result between a simple physical act and the creation of a complex form. Just as man cannot climb beyond the plain of simple physical acts that are called "functions" and imitate the complex act of creation, he cannot determine the way to bring the Divine influence to rest upon him.[7] Man's way of looking at things is empirical, and so he can only learn from experience which action will bring him to the desired level and which will not, and not from rational investigation.


Do not raise the objection that these people are able to produce animals and living beings, as bees from flesh and gnats from wine. These are not the consequences of their calculations and agency, but of experiments. It was found that cohabitation was followed by the birth of a child; man, however, does but plant the seed in the soil prepared to receive and develop it. The calculation of proportions which give the human form belongs exclusively to the Creator. (III, 23)[8]


     The sin of arrogance is one danger arising from casting the entire weight on the religious act itself. There is, however, a second danger, namely, the sin of personification.


When the medieval philosophers chose to shift the focus from the act itself and turn it into a means in the spiritual process that a person undergoes, they were aware of the danger of personification. Placing the emphasis on the act is liable to bring a person to assume that the Divine spiritual process takes place within the act itself.


Like unto the patients duped by the ignoramus, so were men, with few exceptions, before the time of Moses. They were deceived by astrological and physical rules, wandered from law to law, from god to god, or adopted a plurality at the same time. They forgot their guide and master, and regarded their false gods as helping causes, while they are in reality damaging causes, according to their construction and arrangement. Profitable on its own account is the Divine influence, hurtful on its own account the absence thereof.[9] (I, 79)


     Rihal clarifies that casting the entire weight on the act relates exclusively to its being a necessary condition for preparing the ground for the resting of the Divine influence, but the operative element, for better or for worse, is the Divine influence.


     The spiritual step demanded of one who sees that a certain act leads to the Divine influence is to praise and revere Him who commanded man to perform that act, and not to see the act itself as bearing the Divine influence. Once again, this is based on the assumption that man does not understand how the act works, and he therefore cannot assess it, but he is also not permitted to assume that the act itself is what led to the wondrous result.


Beside these, the adepts of magic formulas, having heard that a prophet had been spoken to in this or that manner, or had experienced a miracle, imagined that the words were the cause of the miracle. They therefore endeavored to accomplish a similar feat. The artificial is not like the natural. Religious deeds are, however, like nature. Being ignorant of their designs, one thinks it but play till the results becomes apparent. Then one praises their guide and mover, and professes belief in Him. (III, 53)


     With these words, Rihal tries to hold on to the rope from both ends. On the one hand, he refuses to accept the position that sees the religious act merely as accelerating and impelling the spiritual process that a person must undergo in order to achieve a spiritual level. According to him, the act itself creates a new reality that makes it possible for the person to rise. Intellect and consciousness are pushed to the side of the religious act while the act itself is what drives the process, and not the consciousness that results from it. On the other hand, Rihal warns about the inference that might be drawn through a superficial view that sees the spiritual level in the religious act itself. So we are in fact dealing with a tool and a means.


     Rihal is also afraid that his words are liable to lead to ideas that will equate the Divine influence to inferior matter and see it as being influenced by it. He therefore sharpens this distinction. A specific example that can be used to illustrate his point of view relates to the question of sacrifices.


     The Rambam's position, according to which sacrifices educate a person toward correct cognition and understanding, is well known. In the case of sacrifices, the Rambam went even further and brought the entire system into a historical context related to the culture of offering sacrifices.


At that time, the way of life generally accepted and customary in the whole world and the universal service upon which we were raised consisted in offering various species of living beings in the temples in which images were set up, in worshipping the latter, and in burning incense before them – the pious ones and the ascetics being at that time, as we have explained, the people who were devoted to the service of the temples consecrated to the stars. His wisdom, may He be exalted, and His gracious ruse, which is manifest in regard to all His creatures, did not require that He give us a Law prescribing the rejection, abandonment, and abolition of all these kinds of worship. For one could not then conceive the acceptance of [such a Law], considering the nature of man, which always likes that to which it is accustomed. As that time, this would have been similar to the appearance of a prophet in these times who, calling upon the people to worship God, would say, "God has given you a Law forbidding you to pray to Him, to fast, to call upon Him for help in misfortune. Your worship should consist solely in meditation without any works at all." Therefore He, may He be exalted, suffered the above mentioned kinds of worship to remain, but transferred them from created or imaginary and unreal things to His own name, may He be exalted, commanding us to practice them with regard to Him, may He be exalted. (III, 32)


     The Rambam's motivation in this case is even more evident than with respect to other mitzvot. Rav's question, "For what difference does it make to the Holy One, blessed be He, whether an animal is slaughtered from the throat or from the back of the neck?" cries out here with greater intensity. "The offering of My bread," "a sweet savor to the Lord," are expressions that raise the problem of personification to the extreme. But while running away from one problem, the Rambam creates for himself a different problem, namely the everlasting relevance of a mitzva that is based on a specific historical context.


     The Rambam, in his usual manner, explains the meaning of the mitzva with respect to man's consciousness and he sees the religious act as educating and directing a person to the correct outlook.


     Rihal relates to the issue of sacrifices as well. Consistent with his position, he is not prepared to detract from the force of the religious act in its own right:


The deeper significance of this was to create a well arranged system, upon which the King should rest in an exalted, but not local sense. (II, 26)


     Since he is aware of the danger that is liable to develop from this idea, he clarifies and sharpens what he says with the following analogy:


As a symbol of the Divine Influence, consider the reasoning soul which dwells in the perishable body. If its physical and nobler faculties are properly distributed and arranged, raising it high above the animal world, then it is a worthy dwelling for King Reason, who will guide and direct it, and remain with it as long as the harmony is undisturbed. As soon, however, as this is impaired, he departs from it. A fool may imagine that Reason requires food, drink, and scents, because he sees himself preserved as long as these are forthcoming, but would perish if deprived of them. This is not the case. The Divine influence is beneficent, and desirous of doing good to all. Wherever something is arranged and prepared to receive His guidance, He does not refuse it, nor withhold it, nor hesitate to shed light, wisdom, and inspiration on it. If, however, the order is disturbed, it cannot receive this light, which is, then, lost. The Divine influence is above change or damage. All that is contained in the "order of sacrificial service," its proceedings, offerings, burning of incense, singing, eating, drinking, is to be done in the utmost purity and holiness. It is called: "Service of the Lord," "the bread of your God" (Bamidbar 8:11; Vayikra 21:8), and similar terms which relate to His pleasure in the beautiful harmony prevailing among the people and priesthood. He, so to say, accepts their hospitality and dwells among them in order to show them honor. He, however, is most Holy, and far too exalted to find pleasure in their meat and drink. It is for their own benefit. (ibid.)


     With these words, Rihal rejects the mistaken understanding regarding the relationship between the sacrificial act and the resting of the Shekhina, but, as opposed to the Rambam, he does not propose an alternative. He merely asserts that it is for Israel's benefit, in order to prepare them for the resting of the Shekhina. We are not dealing with an educational process that Israel must undergo, but rather with an act that creates a certain reality that prepares the ground for the resting of the Shekhina.


     Rihal does not know how these things work, but he knows how they do not work. In order to prevent incorrect ideas that lead to personification, he uses the intellect. But he does not use it to try and understand how these matters operate and influence the spiritual realm.


     Using the language of Rav Nachman of Breslav, we can say that removing the intellect from the religious act can raise man to the Divine, but on the other hand it can also cast him down to the bestial, as it is exemplified in idolatry. The intellect is what distinguishes between man and beast, but it is also what distinguishes between the Divine and the human. When man loses his intellect, he can raise the human image within him to the Divine image, but he is also liable to lose his human image to the bestial.


     As we shall see in the coming lectures, Rihal demands of man that he surrender his intellect when fashioning his path toward the Divine. But the intellect itself is what distinguishes man from animal, and man must use it to prevent the lowering of the Divine to the material and to idolatry, which sees matter and human action as constituting the entire picture.


     In the allegory of the ignoramus who goes into a doctor's pharmacy (I, 79), Rihal explains the absurdity of man's attempt to determine the manner and dosage of the actions that are supposed to lead to union with the Divine influence. The mitzvot, asserts Rihal, are the precise dosage needed by man to strengthen and prepare matter to receive the Divine form.


It is not possible for man to determine the relative importance of each, without fearing deterioration in them. (II, 56)


     We are dealing with Divine wisdom that is incomprehensible to human beings. This assertion has two acute ramifications.


     The first, as we saw in this lecture, relates to the absence of any option to find an alternative. The dosage is precise and any deviation from it, to the right or to the left, will impair the chances for completing the course, just as any deviation from the temperature of a chicken's egg will impair the development of the chick inside.


     The second, as we shall see in the next lecture, relates to the reasons for the commandments.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] This position was taken to the extreme among Chasidei Ashkenaz, and particularly by R. Yehuda He-Chasidin Sefer Chasidim. He rejects almost absolutely the objective value of a mitzva and asserts that a mitzva's primary significance lies in the level of difficulty that its observance involves. He argues that one cannot compare a poor person who ransoms a captive to a rich person who fulfills the same mitzva. The mitzvot are meant to afford a person the opportunity to prove his loyalty and devotion to the One who gave them – God.

This idea can be found in Rihal's writings, but it seems to be exceedingly marginal: "Proof of the Divine Influence is not found in well chosen words, in raising the eyebrows, closing the eyes during prayers, contrition, movement, and talk behind which there are no deeds; but a pure mind, illustrated by corresponding actions, which, by their very nature, are difficult to perform, and are yet performed with the utmost zeal and love" (II, 56).

[2] The Rambam understood the words of Rav in the same way (More Nevukhim III, 26), though he does not adopt this view.

[3] With this explanation, the Ramban reconciles the view of Rav with the Rambam's fundamental position; now, according to this explanation, the Rambam does not have to apologize that his position is not like that of Rav.

[4] It should be emphasized that not every spiritualization of the mitzvot gives rise to this danger, for even the view of Rav Yehuda He-Chasid cancels the value of the religious act in itself and asserts that a person's difficulty in performing the mitzva determines its value. But according to this outlook, any attempt to skip over the action or to propose an alternative must be suspected as an expression of the person's weakness to stand up to the difficulty involved in performing the action; therefore, according to Rav Yehuda He-Chasid, searching for an alternative to the religious act is absolutely rejected.

A different type of spiritualization of the religious act is found in the writings of RavS.R.Hirsch. According to him, mitzvot are symbols, the purpose of which is to raise certain desired ideas in a person's consciousness. It is not the act itself that causes the spiritual change, asserts Rav Hirsch, but rather it is the association, the convention, and the connection between the symbol and the idea that raise the person from the physical plain of the act to the spiritual plain of consciousness and cognition (Ha-Mitzvot Ki-Semalim, pp. 1-35).

[5] The Rambam will presumably argue that Aristotle's outlook was imperfect and that his mistakes regarding God were what erected a barrier between him and the highest level of spiritual comprehension.

[6] As we have seen: "In addition to this one might expect the gift of prophecy quite common among philosophers, considering their deeds, their knowledge, their researches after truth, their exertions, and their close connection with all things spiritual, also that wonders, miracles, and extraordinary things would be reported of them. Yet we find that true visions are granted to persons who do not devote themselves to study or to the purification of their souls, whereas the opposite is the case with those who strive after these things" (I, 4).

This is also the way that Rihal understands the sin of "Acher" – Elisha ben Avuya, who "fell into bad ways, because he ascended above human intelligence and said: 'Human actions are but instruments which lead up to spiritual heights. Having reached these I care not for religious ceremonies.' He was corrupt and corrupted others, erred and caused others to err" (III, 65).

[7] One issue that must be given careful thought is Rihal's attitude toward science. Do Rihal's words fit scientific development until our day? Does not modern science investigate complex functions, and with the help of the data that it amasses, does it not little by little acquire for itself the ability to imitate them? Is it ridiculous to think already today that man can and will be able to create a human being without sexual intercourse and without nine months of pregnancy?

[8] Let us note once again that Rihal's words must be tested against modern science. See previous note.

[9] Rihal repeatedly emphasizes the distinction between the forces of nature and the Divine influence: "We do the same with the sky and every other object concerning which we know that it is set in motion by the Divine will exclusively, and not by any accident or desire of man or nature" (I, 97).