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Shiur #20: The Mitzvot (Part II)

  • Rav Itamar Eldar

     We cannot discuss the issue of the reasons for the commandments without considering the distinction accepted by almost every medieval Jewish thinker between "rational" and "received" mitzvot.  Therefore, before we begin to analyze R. YehudaHalevi's position regarding the reasons for the commandments, let us first discuss this distinction.




     Rihal distinguishes between rational and received mitzvot.  This distinction fits in well with his fundamental view regarding the relationship between the natural-human plane and the Divine plane:


The Khazar king:… I think I read in your books as follows: 'What does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God' (Devarim 10:12) and 'What does the Lord require of you' (Mikha 6:8), and many similar passages…

The Rabbi: These are the rational laws, being the basis and preamble of the Divine law, preceding it in character and time, and being indispensable in the administration of every human society.  Even a gang of robbers must have a kind of justice among them if their confederacy is to last.  (II, 47-48)


     Rihal identifies the rational commandments (this is the way he refers to them in the continuation of the aforementioned passage) with the rational laws without which  human society cannot exist.  "Even a gang of robbers must have a kind of justice among them if their confederacy is to last."[1] Rihal also refers to this layer as "the social and rational laws," but later in this passage he even includes under this heading "justice and recognition of God's bounty," as they are also part of the rational commandments.  Would it be correct to say that "recognition of God's bounty" is a necessary condition for the survival of a confederacy of robbers? Later, however, we find a more detailed distinction which may explain what is stated here. 


At the beginning of Part III, Rihal spells out in detail the pietist's service of God:


The Rabbi: The observant among us fulfils those Divine laws, viz. circumcision, Sabbath, holy days, and the accessories included in the Divine law.  He refrains from forbidden marriages, using mixtures in plants, clothes and animals, keeps the years of release and jubilee, avoids idolatry and its accessories… These are the Divine laws, most of which are performed in connection with the priestly service.

The social laws are such as the following: 'You shall not murder,' 'You shall not commit adultery, steal, give false testimony against your neighbor,' 'Honor your parents,' 'You shall love the stranger,' 'You shall not speak untruth and not lie;' such as concern the avoidance of usury, the giving of correct weights and measures; the gleanings to be left, such as the forgotten grapes, the corners, etc.

The rational laws are: 'I am the Lord your God,' You shall have no other God,' and 'You shall not take the name of your God in vain,' with its corollary that God is all present, and penetrates all the secrets of man, as well as his actions and words, that he requites good and evil, and 'that the eyes of the Lord run to and fro' (II Divrei Ha-yamim 16:9).  (III, 11)


     We find, then, that the Rabbi divides the Torah's commandments into three categories:


The Divine mitzvot – including circumcision, the Sabbath, the festivals, the laws of forbidden sexual relations, forbidden mixtures, the sabbatical and jubilee years, idolatry, ritual purity and impurity, the sacrifices, etc.


The social mitzvot – including the prohibitions to murder, commit adultery, steal and lie, honoring one's parents, loving one's fellow and the proselyte, the prohibitions of usury and interest, executing justice in judgment, and helping the poor.


The rational mitzvot – including belief in the unity of God, providence, and reward and punishment.


     As we see, Rihal makes a distinction here that he does not make in the previous passage – between social mitzvot and rational mitzvot.


     It seems to me that the key to understanding the matter is the distinction that Rihal makes in his book between the attitude of the nations of the world to the idea of faith and religion and the attitude of the people of Israel to this issue.  It was only to Israel that the existence of God and His benevolence to Israel were proven by way of irrefutable rational proof.  It is therefore for Israel alone that faith in God and His unity and recognition of His benevolence are rational mitzvot.  With respect to Israel, these are matters necessitated by reason.


     This connects to an issue that we discussed in the past (lecture no. 5) regarding the two forms of existence.  The first form of existence is the rational level that "leads to the development of one's faculties, one's home, one's country, from which arise administrative and regulative laws" (I, 35), as opposed to the "supernatural" existence that is directed at the Divine influence.


     The rational level is the level from which the rational laws that Rihal praises are derived.  He even sees the philosophers as the most important contributors to the establishment of these laws:


They are full of doubts, and there is no consensus of opinion between one philosopher and another.  Yet they cannot be blamed, nay, deserve thanks for all they have produced in abstract speculations.  For their intentions were good; they observed the laws of reason, and led virtuous lives.  (V, 14)


     It may be suggested on the basis of what is stated here that, according to Rihal, the Torah's rational mitzvot demonstrate no far-reaching novelty.[2] In essence, they correspond to human logic, which, when exploited to the maximum (as was done by the philosophers according to Rihal), can bring us to a complete system of laws and commandments that allow for the orderly administration of society and state.


     Rihal's distinction between rational and received mitzvot is not identical to the distinction between mitzvot between man and God and mitzvot between man and his fellow, as some wish to argue.  Rather, the distinction is between mitzvot necessitated by logic, which include mitzvot that touch upon the relationship between God and man, and mitzvot that are not necessitated by logic.  From this perspective, a distinction can be made between Israel and the nations; for Israel, reason necessitates recognition of God and His providence, which is not true with respect to the other nations.[3]


     This assertion may explain another difficulty in the Rihal's position.


     In part III of the Kuzari, in his description of the pious man, the Rabbi divides the life and actions of a righteous person in two.  The first part – in section 5 – describes what Rihal calls "well-known pious deeds," a term which is explained as follows:


The Khazar king: Do you refer to deeds generally known?

The Rabbi: The social and rational laws are those generally known.  The Divine ones, however, which were added in order that they should exist in the people of the 'Living God' who guides them, were not known until they were explained in detail by Him.  (III, 6-7)


     But the "well-known pious deeds" in section 5 also include the following mitzvot: prayer, the Sabbath, and the festivals.  But surely these mitzvot are clear examples of received laws, and later the Rabbi himself includes them in that category (III, 11).  Why, then, are they brought here in this context?


Attention must be paid to the manner in which Rihal relates to these mitzvot in this passage:


All this stands in the same relation to the soul as food to the human body.  Prayer is for his soul what nourishment is for his body.  The blessing of one prayer lasts till the time of the next, just as the strength derived from the morning meal lasts till supper.  The further his soul is removed from the time of prayer, the more it is darkened by coming in contact with worldly matters.  The more so, as necessity brings it into the company of youths, women, or wicked people; when one hears unbecoming and soul-darkening words and songs which exercise an attraction for his soul which he is unable to master.  During prayer, he purges his soul from all that passed over it, and prepares it for the future.  According to this arrangement there elapses not a single week in which both his soul and body do not receive preparation.  Darkening elements having increased during the week, they cannot be cleansed except by consecrating one day to service and to physical rest.  The body repairs on the Sabbath the waste suffered during the six days, and prepares itself for the work to come… He, then, provides himself with a monthly cure, which is 'the season of atonement for all that happened during this period'… He further attends the Three Festivals and the great Fast Day.  (III, 5)


     According to this definition and understanding of these mitzvot, they fall into the category of rational mitzvot, as mitzvot "which are as absolutely necessary for a society as are the natural functions of eating, drinking, exercise, rest, sleeping, and waking for the individual" (II, 48).


     This spiritual process is necessary for every person and it therefore can be seen as part of the rational mitzvoth; the specific manifestation of this process in Israel, however, finds expression in the Sabbath and the festivals.


This conceptualization of the Sabbath and the festivals and the proper conduct for these days is novel and not self-evident, but the spiritual process of the Sabbath and the festivals is natural and necessary, even though the way to reach this spiritual process is a Divine novelty given exclusively to Israel.  On the one hand, the principle underlying these mitzvot is comprehensible, and as such these commandments fall into the category of rational mitzvoth; on the other hand, we are still dealing with mitzvot that clearly fall into the category of received mitzvot.[4]




     We saw earlier that there is another level of existence beyond administration of the state and ideal natural human existence, one that is unique to the people of Israel – the Divine influence.


Whereas the social and rational laws bring a person to his natural climax, in order to continue climbing up to the Divine influence, as we saw in the previous lecture, an additional, unique act is necessary, namely, the received mitzvot.  Rihal refers to these mitzvot as "the Divine laws."


     These mitzvot do not and cannot stem from reason and intellect.  The Rabbi already emphasized many times that one must not approach the King dressed in the garb of the intellect.  Just as the Divine influence cannot be proven by way of reason and logic (and only Israel merited that unique revelation in which the existence of God was proven to them in a manner that parallels rational proof), the path to God is not built on reason and logic.


The social and rational laws are those generally known.  The Divine ones, however, which were added in order that they should exist in the people of the 'Living God,' who guides them, were not known until they were explained in detail by Him.  (III, 7)


     All the warnings and reservations that we saw in the previous lecture regarding the attempt to determine and fashion the course to the Divine influence by way of reason lay the groundwork for Rihal's sweeping assertion that the received mitzvot do not stem from logic and intellect.[5]


     For this reason, the received mitzvot are directed exclusively at Israel, for it is only the people of Israel who are worthy and capable of rising to the Divine influence.


What has he, who fails in this respect, to do with offerings, Sabbath, circumcision, etc., which reason neither demands, nor forbids? These are, however, the ordinations especially given to Israel as a corollary to the rational laws.  Through this they received the advantage of the Divine Influence.  (II, 48)


     Therefore, argues Rihal, any attempt to imitate the "living nation" with deeds that fall into the category of received commandments (the building of the Temple [II, 32], or the observance of the Sabbath [III, 8-9]) is doomed to fail.  This is because "the Divine [laws] which were added in order that they should exist in the people of the 'Living God' who guides them" (III, 7) were meant exclusively for Israel.


     The received mitzvot, then, are those that raise the people of Israel above the other nations and give expression to the difference between Israel and the nations of the world.  This difference "separates those who occupy it from the physical point of view, as the plant is separated from inorganic things, or man from animals" (I, 39).[6]


     It is interesting to compare what is stated here to the position of R. Sa'adya Gaon, who preceded Rihal in distinguishing between rational and received mitzvot.


     R. Sa'adya also defines the rational mitzvot as mitzvot "necessitated by reason," but he goes further than Rihal in that he subsumes under this category many more of the mitzvot between man and God: to know Him and to serve Him with a full heart, to submit to Him and stand before Him, not to serve any other god along with Him, not to swear falsely in His name, etc.  In addition to these, R. Sa'adya includes in this category the classical rational mitzvot: "to act with righteousness, truth, uprightness and justice, to abstain from killing, to forbid harlotry, theft, gossiping, and deception, and that the believer should love his brother as he loves himself…"


     According to R. Sa'adya, all of these mitzvot are rational mitzvot rooted in the intellect:


All of these that we were commanded to do [positive precepts], it was planted in our intellect to love them, and all of these that were forbidden to us [negative precepts], it was planted in our intellect to loathe them.  (Emunot ve-De'ot, III, 1)


     Placing all of these mitzvot in the category of rational mitzvot fits in with R. Sa'adya's view, which I have related to in the past, that all of the principles of faith are subject to rational-philosophical proof, and in this area there is no difference between Jews and non-Jews.


     Broadening the contents and objectives of the rational mitzvot will, of necessity, exact a price from the received mitzvot.  Indeed, R. Sa'adya defines the received mitzvot as follows:


The second part includes those things that the intellect necessitates neither that we should love them nor that we should loathe them.  Our God added for us commands and warnings to magnify our reward and happiness, as it says: "The Lord was well pleased for His righteousness' sake, to magnify Torah, and to make it glorious" (Yeshayahu 42:21).  Those that we were commanded to do were made desirable, and those that we were forbidden to do were made loathsome, owing to the obedience that they demand, and they have become appended to the first part.  Nevertheless, it is impossible that they do not have any benefit and reason on the rational level, just as the commandments of the first type have great benefits and reasons on the rational level (ibid.).


     While Rihal sees in the received mitzvot the critical transitional point between the human and the Divine, R. Sa'adya significantly constricts the role of these mitzvot: "to magnify our reward and happiness," in the sense of "the Holy One, blessed be He, wanted to credit Israel, and therefore gave them much Torah and many mitzvot." R. Sa'adya emphasizes that the benefit that these mitzvot bring Israel is "owing to the obedience that they demand." That is to say, their contents do not elevate the people of Israel, but it is rather the fact that they are fulfilling God's command that earns them credit.  R. Sa'adya, who subsumes all Divine values and ideals under the heading of the intellect, is not willing to accept that there are actions related to these values that are not subject to rational understanding.  Anything that is not subject to rational understanding cannot bestow benefit with respect to its contents.  The very opposite is true! It is precisely upon leaving the rational system that a person arrives at an entirely different plane of fulfilling mitzvot – "the obedience that they demand." For beyond the fact that God commanded them, man cannot identify with the content of these mitzvot, because they are not subject to human understanding.


     R. Sa'adya qualifies his position and cannot resist the temptation to suggest a rational reason even for the received mitzvot,[7] although these are explanations on a secondary level.


     As opposed to Rihal, R. Sa'adya does not see the received mitzvot as bringing a Jew to spiritual perfection; according to him, such perfection can only be acquired by way of reason and the intellect, and the received mitzvot, inasmuch as they are not necessitated by reason or the intellect, cannot serve this objective.  Rihal, on the other hand, maintains that in order to achieve Divine spiritual perfection, one must pass through a stage that is above the intellect and that is not subject to rational comprehension and understanding.  In this sense, as opposed to R. Sa'adya, he sees the received mitzvot that are not given to rational understanding as the peak of religious action, which raise the Jew to the Divine influence.




     The relationship between rational and received mitzvot, between the practices that are meant to administer society in righteousness and justice and the higher level of the spiritual and metaphysical, is very clear according to Rihal:


The Rabbi: These are the rational laws, being the basis and preamble of the Divine law, preceding it in character and time, and being indispensable in the administration of every human society.  Even a gang of robbers must have a kind of justice among them if their confederacy is to last.  When Israel's disloyalty had come to such a pass that they disregarded rational and social principles (which are as absolutely necessary for a society as are the natural functions of eating, drinking, exercise, rest, sleeping, and waking for the individual), but held fast to the sacrificial worship and other divine laws, He was satisfied with even less.  It was told to them: 'Haply you might observe those laws which rule the smallest and meanest community, such as refer to justice, good actions, and recognition of God's bounty.' For the Divine law cannot become complete until the social and rational laws are perfected.  The rational law demands justice and recognition of God's bounty.  What has he, who fails in this respect, to do with offerings, Sabbath, circumcision, etc., which reason neither demands nor forbids? These are, however, the ordinations especially given to Israel as a corollary to the rational laws.  Through this they received the advantage of the Divine Influence.  (II, 48)


     The second stage cannot be achieved before the first stage.  Any society wishing to rise spiritually above its natural level must not neglect and alienate itself from the administration of society and laws based on reason.


     In the following passage, Rihal expresses his understanding of the criticism leveled by the prophets, most notably by Yeshayahu, against the sacrifices offered by Israel:


To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to me? says the Lord: I am sated with the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts.  And I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats… Your hands are full of blood.  Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.  (Yeshayahu 1:11-17)


     As we saw earlier, Rihal maintains that the Divine influence only rests after the intellect has reached perfection.  The inanimate-plant-animal-human hierarchy that Rihal established at the beginning of the book (I, 31-42) reflects not only levels in height and elevation, but also in time and order.  The inanimate, plant, and animals aspects that exist in man constitute a chariot for the rational soul that must rest upon them; together with them, the soul constitutes a chariot for the Divine influence.  This process is explicitly described with regard to the individual:


Altogether, this is so arranged and prepared as to become fit to receive the guidance of the reasoning soul, which is an independent substance, and nearly approaches the angelic, of which it is stated: 'Its dwelling is not with flesh' (Daniel 2:11).  It inhabits the body as ruler and guide, not in the sense of space, nor does it partake of this food, because it is exalted above it.  The Divine influence only dwells in a soul which is susceptible to intellect, while the soul only associates with the warm vital breath.  The latter must needs have a mainspring to which it is attached, as is the flame to the top of the wick.  (II, 26)[8]


     Rihal does not accept the existence of a society that is void of social laws and abandons the natural levels of man acquired by way of reason and intellect, casting everything upon the lofty and spiritual.  Such a society, or such an individual, cannot enjoy the spiritual if it is not established on a firm foundation of the natural and the rational.[9]


     These things obligate the people of Israel.  When Rihal speaks of the rational mitzvot without which no society can exist, he is referring to principles dictated by reason for every society.  With respect to the nations of the world, this obligation embraces all the social mitzvot, but with respect to Israel, as we saw earlier, this also includes faith in and recognition of the Creator.


     Rihal does not say this explicitly, but it seems to me that we would not be off the mark if we say that what follows is that just as a gang of robbers cannot maintain their confederacy if they do not refrain from robbery, falsehood, murder and the other social statutes because reason and logic obligate their observance, Israel similarly cannot exist without belief and recognition of God.


     From the very moment that the existence of God, His providence over Israel, and the supernatural level to which He elevates them were proven to Israel at the level of rational demonstration, they were set apart from the nations of the world not only with respect to the Divine influence, as was argued thus far, but even with respect to the natural level.


     As we saw in the past (lecture no. 12), this separation did not begin with the exodus from Egypt and the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai with signs and wonders; rather, it resulted from the unique essence that began with Adam and was passed down from one generation to the next.


     We can now say that what is demanded of an ordinary person in order to satisfy his natural existence differs from what is demanded of a member of Israel who bears the unique Divine essence in his very nature.  The role of the rational mitzvot, as Rihal emphasizes, is to make possible natural-human-social existence.  The way to materialize this vision is by following in the footsteps of logic and intellect.  But while logic and intellect stopped for the nations of the world with the social laws, for Israel it continued another step to recognition of the Creator and His providence.  Thus, this recognition enters into the category of essential conditions for the existence of the people of Israel.[10]


     Of course, even after the people of Israel acquire this level with the establishment of the social and rational laws, they must not content themselves with them, since they are capable of ascending to a higher level:


Can it be imagined that the Israelites observe "the doing of justice and the love of mercy" but neglect circumcision, Sabbath, and the other laws, and felt happy withal? (II, 48)


     Since the people of Israel bear the Divine essence and preserve in their hearts the revelation at Mount Sinai and the giving of the Torah, they do not fully realize their mission until they fulfill the received mitzvot and actualize the potential to receive the Divine essence that is concealed within them.  This potential is beyond the natural level, and even beyond the natural level that is unique to Israel – that is to say, revelation and prophecy.


     In my humble opinion, this approach does away with the dichotomy that characterizes the position of the medieval philosophers with respect to the gap between the natural life of the Jew, regarding which he is no different than his non-Jewish colleagues, and the sanctified life that relates to his relationship with God.


     When Rihal points to the unique natural essence of Israel and to the revelation at Mount Sinai as bursting forth from the Divine realm to the natural existence of the Jew, he creates a separation between the Jew and the non-Jew even on the natural plain and thus also with respect to the nature of the rational mitzvot for each of them.  In this sense, he sets himself apart from many of his contemporaries.


(Translated by DavidStrauss)



[1] In this, Rihal follows Plato in his Republic.

[2] In the next lecture, I shall discuss the novelty that nevertheless exists in the rational mitzvot. 

[3] This issue has ramifications regarding the reasons for the mitzvot, as will be explained in the next lecture.

[4] In the next lecture, I will expand on Rihal's tendency to offer reasons for the received mitzvot, and we will see that he seems to subsume them in some way under the rational mitzvot.

[5] The relationship between the received mitzvot and reason and logic will be discussed in the next lecture in connection with the reasons for the commandments. 

[6] When the Rabbi describes the theological distance between Yerovam's company and the people of Israel, he notes that the distance stems from several reasons, but especially from the fact that they "altered the majority of ceremonial laws, thus wandering far from the straight path" (IV, 13).

[7] So, too, the Rambam.

[8] The Sefat Emetalso uses the analogy of a wick and fire in order to clarify that it is only through the mitzvot that we can cling to the light of God.  See Sefat Emet (Behaalotekha, 5641).

[9] See lecture no. 5, note 5, where I expanded on this issue.

[10] For a similar view, see Rav Kook, Orot Yisrael 5, 7.