Ta’amei Ha’Mitzvos (Part 2): A Troubling Mishnah & Gemara

Read the other parts of this series here.

We begin our examination of the sources with the following Gemara:

Talmud Berachos 33b:

מתני׳: האומר על קן צפור יגיעו רחמיך ועל טוב יזכר שמך מודים מודים משתקין אותו: גמ׳ בשלמא מודים מודים משתקין אותו משום דמיחזי כשתי רשויות ועל טוב יזכר שמך נמי שמע על הטובה ולא על הרעה ותנן חייב אדם לברך על הרעה כשם שמברך על הטובה אלא על קן צפור יגיעו רחמיך מ"ט פליגי בה תרי אמוראי במערבא רבי יוסי בר אבין ורבי יוסי בר זבידא חד אמר מפני שמטיל קנאה במעשה בראשית וחד אמר מפני שעושה מדותיו של הקדוש ברוך הוא רחמים ואינן אלא גזרות…

MISHNAH: Whoever says "To a bird's nest do Thy mercies extend" or "For the good be Thy name remembered" or "We give thanks, we give thanks," we silence him. GEMARA: It is good that we silence him who says, "We give thanks, we give thanks," because he makes it appear as though there were two Dieties; and likewise him who says, "For the good be Thy name remembered," the implication being that for the good [we thank God] but not for the bad; and we have a Mishnaic teaching: A man is duty bound to utter a benediction for the bad just as he utters one for the good. But why [do we silence him who says], "To a bird's nest do Thy mercies extend"? Two Amoraim in the West differ [about this]: R Jose b. Abin and R. Jose b. Zebida, one said: Because he causes jealousy between God's creatures; the other said: Because he makes the ordinances of the Holy One, blessed be He, to be acts of mercy, when they are really simply just [arbitrary] decrees.

The Mishnah lists three things that we silence someone for saying. If one says “modim, modim,” out of fear of (the appearance of) Polytheism, we silence him. Similarly, if one thanks God for the good, but not for the bad, we silence him, as this would imply that not everything ultimately comes from God1.

What is most relevant to us, however, is the third statement that requires silencing, namely, one who says that God is merciful to the mother bird for commanding us to send her away before taking of her eggs. While the Gemara understood the logic behind the first two statements, it is perplexed at why this last statement is problematic. It proposes two explanations, the first of which is that saying such a thing creates jealousy amongst God’s creatures; after all, why does God care only about the birds and not, say, the cows or the chickens? The second explanation, however, has massive implications for our discussion of ta’amei ha’mitzvos: The Gemara states that suggesting that God commanded the mitzvah of shiluach ha’kein out of some sort of Divine mercy is in a sense heretical, as there is no discernible logic to God’s commandments — they are all simply arbitrary decrees from a human perspective. To suggest that God commanded a specific act due to mercy — or any other possible calculus — is to transform the incomprehensible infinite Divine decrees into fallible and childish finitude. In short, the Gemara seems to think that looking for reasons behind the mitzvos is actually problematic. Under this opinion of the Gemara, mitzvos are nothing more than incomprehensible decrees to be observed as such. There is no human comprehension of mitzvos that is worthwhile.

Yet, as human beings, it seems almost impossible to describe the mitzvah of shiluach ha’kein without invoking the idea of Divine mercy or compassion. That which flows naturally from the human psyche is actually declared by Chazal in the Mishnah and Gemara to be quasi-heretical! It would seem from this, then, that Chazal was not much a fan of pursuing any sort of logic behind the mitzvos. We are meant to keep the commandments simply because they are commanded in the Torah by God.

Of course, however, the conversation does not stop there. We must now see how the major interpreters of Jewish tradition dealt with and understood this topic, and it is to said sources that we turn our attention to in the next installment.

1. Naturally, this clause requires a lot more explanation, but such an exposition is not our current topic. It should also be noted that this statement too can be read as being an issue of Polytheism wherein the speaker seems to presume that Good derives from one source and Bad another.

Yom Ha’atzmaut: What’s So Bad About Galus?

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