Shiur #27: Ta’amei Ha-Mitzvot

  • Rav Assaf Bednarsh
Adapted by Leora Bednarsh
            Are there reasons for the mitzvot of the Torah?[1] Philosophers have debated whether – to paraphrase the words of Plato[2] – God commanded the mitzvot because they are good or the mitzvot are good because God commanded them. Are the mitzvot expressions of divine wisdom, chosen by God because He recognized their inherent goodness, or are they expressions of arbitrary divine will?
On the one hand, since God is infinitely wise, we might surmise that when issuing commandments, He logically chose those commandments that would have the most positive effect. On the other hand, since God is infinitely powerful, He is not subject to logic. If we were to assume that God must act logically, then we would be assuming that logic is more powerful than God. Since God is in fact more powerful than anything, including logic, His actions transcend logic.[3]
            This issue is addressed by Chazal in two places. In Berakhot 33b, the mishna rules that a chazan who states in his prayer, “Your mercies extend to the bird’s nest,” referring to the mitzva of sending away the mother bird, is dismissed. R. Yossi bar Avin and R. Yossi bar Zevida argue about the reason for this censure. One explains that such a formulation is inappropriate because is implies that God’s mercy extends to birds but not to other creatures. The other states that it is erroneous to explain the commandments as flowing from divine mercy, when in fact they are mere decrees. Rashi explains that God did not issue the commandments for the sake of mercy, but rather in order to impose decrees on the Jewish People so that they may demonstrate service and obedience.
            Similarly, the midrash (Bereishit Rabba 44:1) quotes Rav as stating that the mitzvot were only given to discipline the Jews. Rav explains that it makes no difference to God whether we slaughter an animal from the front or the back of the neck. Therefore, the mitzva of kosher slaughter must have been commanded only to discipline us.
            It seems clear from these two sources that the mitzvot are expressions of arbitrary divine will. The goodness attached to fulfilling commandments stems from the experience of subjugation to the divine will, and not from anything inherent in the action itself.
The Contradictory Positions of the Rambam
            The Rambam, however, in the Moreh Nevukhim (3:26), concludes that the commandments flow from divine wisdom and not arbitrary will, and that every commandment has a logical reason and a particular purpose that it is intended to achieve. This is true not only of those mitzvot classified as mishpatimmitzvot whose reasons are obvious – but even of those classified as chukim, which have no apparent logical basis. The Rambam explains that the difference between these two types of mitzvot lies not in the commandments themselves, but rather only in our understanding. Mishpatim are those mitzvot whose reason we have discerned; chukim are those whose reasons are complex and subtle and are not understood by us due to our limited intellectual capacity or achievement.
            The Rambam was troubled, however, by the midrash quoted above, which states that there is no difference between slaughtering an animal from the front or back of its neck. He explained that this midrash was not referring to the commandments themselves, which were certainly commanded because of their inherent purpose and not merely to discipline us. Rather, this midrash is referring only to the details of the commandments. While each commandment was given for a specific reason and purpose, the details of the commandments are often arbitrary. For example, while the offering of sacrifices has a clear logical purpose, the precise type and number of additional sacrifices brought on each holiday is arbitrary. Likewise, while the slaughter and consumption of animals serves a logical purpose, the precise method of slaughter was chosen by God arbitrarily and is beneficial only as an exercise in obedience.[4]
            In a later passage in the Moreh Nevukhim (3:48), the Rambam explains that the commandment to send away the mother bird is intended to minimize the suffering that the mother bird would endure if she were to see her offspring being taken away. God commanded us to send away the mother bird so that she would not witness this painful scene. Additionally, if the person who found the nest was not extremely hungry, it would probably not be worthwhile to scuffle with the mother bird just for the sake of eating tiny chicks or half-incubated eggs, and he would leave the birds alone and go on his way. Rambam then raises the objection from the passage in Berakhot, which states explicitly that the motivation for this commandment was not mercy on the birds. He answers that while the opinion just quoted denies that there are reasons for the commandments, we follow the other opinion recorded in that passage, which holds that there are, in fact, reasons for the commandments.
            Surprisingly, although the Rambam in Moreh Nevukhim forcefully rejects the opinion that explained this mitzva as an arbitrary decree, in two of his other works, he explicitly adopts this very opinion. In both the Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot Tefilla 9:7) and his Commentary on the Mishna (Berakhot 5:3), the Rambam writes explicitly that one who prays, “Your mercies extend to the bird’s nest,” is dismissed because this commandment is not an exercise in mercy, but rather an arbitrary decree. The Rambam argues that if God had mercy on the birds, He would not have permitted us to slaughter them at all. Therefore, this mitzva cannot be explained as an expression of mercy.
Resolutions of the Conflict within the Rambam
            The commentators and later Jewish thinkers have struggled to resolve this contradiction within the works of the Rambam.
            R. Kook suggested that the Rambam differentiates between the realms of philosophy and Halakha. From a philosophical standpoint, the Rambam believes that all commandments can be explained logically. From a halakhic perspective, however, the mitzvot are treated as laws that are significant only due to their status as binding commandments. Therefore, in a halakhic context, the Rambam relates to the commandments as arbitrary decrees, even though that is not philosophically accurate.[5]
            R. Yom Tov Lipman Heller offers an alternate resolution that does not require a bifurcation of the Rambam’s works. He suggests that Rambam does believe that we should seek to understand the rationality of the commandments, but we can never be certain that we have achieved a complete understanding of the logical reasons for any commandment, as a human is unable to fully grasp the wisdom of God. Therefore, although we can suggest reasons for the commandments, we cannot include these suggestions in the text of our prayers, which would imply certainty regarding our conclusions. According to this interpretation, the Rambam did not intend that the commandment of sending away the mother bird is a mere decree, but rather that we cannot be certain that it stems from mercy on the mother bird, as we do not have a complete explanation for why God protected the mother bird in this case but did not forbid consumption of birds in other cases. Therefore, our philosophical conclusion is not firm enough to warrant inclusion in the liturgy, which contains only verified truths.[6]
The Ramban
            The Ramban, disagreeing with both Rashi and the Rambam, offers a third interpretation of these texts. In his commentary to Vayikra 19:19, he quotes Rashi, who defines chukim as divine decrees with no reason. This is no surprise, as Rashi holds that even those commandments that seem logical were not commanded for a reason, such that those commandments that do not even seem logical were certainly not commanded for any reason other than the value of obedience. The Ramban disagrees, however, and explains that even the chukim, those commandments that seem arbitrary, have logical reasons underlying them. The difference between chukim and mishpatim according to the Ramban is that mishpatim have logical reasons that we understand, whereas chukim have logical reasons that we have not yet been able to discern. Similarly, in his commentary to Devarim 22:6, the Ramban endorses the position of the Rambam that every mitzva has a logical reason. He quotes many passages from the gemara and midrash that state explicitly that the reasons for the commandments were revealed to unique individuals, such as Moshe Rabbenu and R. Akiva, and will be revealed to all of us in the messianic era. If we cannot find logical explanations for some commandments, that is only due to our intellectual limitations.
            The Ramban differs from the Rambam, however, in his explanation of the two passages quoted above, which seem to imply that the mitzvot are arbitrary. The Rambam’s explanations are not satisfactory to the Ramban, presumably because he considers it inconsistent to claim that the commandments have reasons but the details of the commandments do not, and because he does not want to say that the axiom of the rationality of the commandments was subject to a dispute between the two sages quoted in the gemara in Berakhot.[7]
            The Ramban therefore explains that when the gemara states that the commandment of sending away the mother bird is not an expression of divine mercy on the birds, the intention is not to claim that there is no reason for this commandment, but rather to clarify the true reason. God did not command us to send away the mother bird for the benefit of the bird; rather, He commanded us to have mercy on the bird so that we could develop the character trait of mercy and not allow the necessity of eating living creatures to make us cruel. Ramban presents a parallel explanation to the passage in Bereishit Rabba referring to the mitzva of shechita. When the midrash states that it makes no difference to God whether we slaughter from the front or back of the neck, the intention was not that it makes no difference to anyone. It certainly makes a difference to us that we slaughter animals in the most painless fashion possible in order to habituate ourselves to mercy as opposed to cruelty. However, while it makes a significant difference to us, it makes no difference to God Himself, because He is perfect and has no needs. Unlike a human king, God did not command us to do anything in order to benefit Himself, but rather only in order to benefit us. All of the commandments were commanded only for our physical, moral, or philosophical benefit. Even those mitzvot which involve praising God were not commanded because God wished to be praised, but only because our character is refined and our spirituality is enhanced when we appreciate the nature of God and the role He plays in our lives.
According to Ramban, Chazal never questioned the rationality of the mitzvot and their details, but merely emphasized that the beneficiary of the mitzvot is neither God Himself nor the animals or birds, but only the human beings whose souls are refined and uplifted by the fulfillment of the commandments.
R. Saadia Goan
            Unlike the thinkers quoted above, R. Saadia Gaon (Emunot Ve-De’ot, Book 3) differentiates fundamentally between the two classes of commandments. Like Ramban and the Rambam, he believes that the mishpatim were commanded because of their reasons and not arbitrarily. However, like Rashi, he holds that God commanded us the chukim not because they are inherently logical, but rather to give us the opportunity to earn reward by obeying a divine commandment.[8] R. Saadia Gaon adds, however, that once God decided to command us extra mitzvot as opportunities for expressing subservience, He did not choose those mitzvot arbitrarily. Rather, in His infinite wisdom, He chose commandments that are spiritually advantageous and bring us some benefit. Thus, although the main reason for this class of commandments is merely the virtue of obedience, each of the chukim has a reason that it was chosen by God.
            We have seen four approaches regarding the rationality of the commandments. Rashi claims that there are no reasons for the commandments. The Rambam holds that the Sages debated the rationality of the commandments, but we follow the opinion that there are reasons for the commandments, although not for the details of the commandments. The Ramban holds that every detail of each commandment certainly has a reason, but the reason is for our edification and not to benefit any other being in the universe. R. Saadia Gaon agrees that the mishpatim were commanded for rational reasons, but compromises regarding the chukim, explaining that they were chosen for some slight reason, but were commanded in general merely as opportunities for obedience.
            In the next shiur, we will explore some of the practical implications of this dispute over the existence of reasons for the commandments.
The Reason for the Commandment of Sending Away the Mother Bird According to the Zohar
            We have seen two interpretations of the statement in Berakhot that the commandment of sending away the mother bird was not an expression of mercy on the birds. According to Rashi and the Rambam, this statement expresses the stance that there is no reason whatsoever for the commandment; according to the Ramban, the intention is that the reason for the commandment is the refinement of the human, and not the protection of birds. However, according to the Sefer Ha-Zohar – a work unknown to the above three thinkers but which serves as the basis of our kabbalistic tradition – the purpose of this commandment is not to mitigate the suffering of the mother bird, but rather a decree to cause the mother bird to suffer.
            According to the Zohar, it seems that even if one were to have no desire to eat the chicks or eggs found in the bird’s nest, one is commanded to shoo away the mother bird,[9] who will be exiled from her nest and cry out in pain over her exile and the loss of her children. The angel appointed over birds will hear those cries and will cry out to God, Who will then arouse His mercy upon all those who are exiled and brokenhearted. According to the Zohar, the Torah promises goodness and a long life as a reward for this mitzva (Devarim 22:7) because one who fulfills this mitzva brings salvation to all the exiled and broken-hearted people in the world. It is certainly worthwhile and praiseworthy to cause suffering to a bird in order to alleviate the suffering of human beings worldwide!
            This interpretation, although counterintuitive, fits well with the language of the passage in Berakhot. In fact, this mitzva is not an expression of divine mercy on the birds, but rather a harsh decree on the birds, sacrificing their well-being for the sake of a higher goal.

[1] This question overlaps with our previous topic, whether there exists morality outside of Divine revelation. However, the two questions are not coextensive. It is possible that there exists an objective morality independent of the mitzvot, but that the mitzvot nonetheless transcend that morality and are expressions of arbitrary divine will. (This may be the position of Yeshayahu Leibowitz.) Conversely, it is possible that there is no naturally binding morality, but there are nonetheless prudential reasons for the divine commandments. In this case, the mitzvot are objectively beneficial to us, but not ethically binding in the absence of revelation.
[2] Plato, Euthyphro, p. 10a.
[3] The response to this argument is that logic and goodness are not forces that bind God, but rather part of God’s nature. Acting in accordance with one’s nature is not considered a limitation.
[4] The Rambam concludes, however, that while the details of the commandments of sacrifices are certainly arbitrary, one could perhaps suggest a reason for the details of the commandment of ritual slaughter – i.e., that the prescribed method minimizes the suffering of the animal.
[5] R. Avraham Yitzchak Ha-Kohen Kook, Responsa Daat Kohen, section 197. See also R. Kook’s comments in his Ein Ayah (Shabbat, ch. 2, section 5), which can be understood as referring to the Rambam, although they do not mention him specifically.
[6] R. Yom Tov Lipman Heller, Tosafot Yom Tov, Berakhot 5:3. Another noteworthy suggested resolution is offered by R. Elazar Landau in his commentary Yad Ha-Melekh to the Mishneh Torah, who interprets the Rambam in accordance with the approach of the Ramban quoted below.
[7] See Maharal, Tiferet Yisrael, chs. 6-7, who rejects the Rambam’s interpretation on these grounds. He offers an interpretation that is somewhat similar to that of Ramban.
[8] The Rambam, in Shemonah Perakim (the introduction to his Commentary to Mishnah Masekhet Avot) ch. 6, similarly states that violation of the chukim is wrong only because of the divine commandment. We must conclude either that he changed his mind about the nature of the chukim between writing his commentary on the Mishna and the Moreh Nevukhim or that he intended merely that we would not have discerned anything wrong in such acts if not for revelation.
[9] See Responsa Chavot Yair, section 67, who derives this practical conclusion from the explanation of the Zohar.