The topic of ta’amei ha’mitzvos, or the reasons why we do mitzvos, is perhaps one of the most relevant and important topics in all of Jewish thought and philosophy. The question we intend to answer over the course of this series is, in so many words: how much does it matter why we do the things that we do? Put differently, are there humanly discernible reasons for why God commands the various mitzvos, and, even if there are, how much should they matter to us?
Any discussion of this sort must begin with the “na’aseh v’nishmah” of the Jewish nation at the base of Har Sinai before receiving the Torah. The fact that we will do preceded any understanding of why we do. God spoke, we obey, and, in a very real sense, that is the end of the discussion. After all, “mitzvah” does not mean “good deed;” it means “commandment.” The fact that an action is Divinely commanded should be reason enough for us to obey (na’aseh). Nevertheless, there does also exist an aspect of human understanding (v’nishmah) that is reasonable to pursue. There exists, then, two sides to this most important discussion.
Democracy & Us
Needless to say, the trend of the world over the last couple of centuries towards democracy has had unintended consequences for Judaism. The world once functioned with a clear hierarchy, be it a monarchy or otherwise. There were certain people very clearly established as being in charge, and the common man was subject to their superiors’ will. Of course, the fact that we now live under a democratic government is a rather good thing, but it has indeed had unintended consequences nonetheless.
The idea of giving oneself over to a higher authority is not seen in a positive light, to say the least. Every book, movie, and TV show spouts the notion that we are not ruled by anyone else, and should feel that we answer to nobody but ourselves. While many would be inclined towards an understanding of the topic of ta’amei ha’mitzvos resulting in an “it’d better make sense to me or I’m not doing it” approach, this is due to the fact that our value system derives not from the Torah, but from the secular world at large.
The truth is, however, that a Divine authority exists. It is crucial to understand, then, that any foray into an understanding of the reasons for mitzvos must come as only secondary to fulfilling them simply because God said so. If the Infinite Creator demands something of us, we are to simply do it. This is self evident.
No Explanation Is Complete
It is also important to recall that all proposed ta’amei ha’mitzvos, or logical reasons/explanantions for the commandments, do not stem from any primary text or tradition, but are rather derived purely based on human logic. As such, obviously, any suggested reason for a mitzvah cannot govern or define the laws of that mitzvah. Any reason given by a human for a mitzvah is at best a super-great “maybe.” Indeed, the Torah itself gives reasons for its commandments sometimes; we are to wear tefillin, for instance, so as to recall the Exodus on a daily basis (Exodus 13:9). To presume, however, that even such a reason given by the Torah itself is the only reason for the commandment is utterly preposterous. Such a reason is never going to explain why tefillin have to be black and square, instead of gold and round, nor why it has to have straps, nor any of the other tiny details of the commandment.
To further illustrate this point using a rather popular example of Rambam: We can certainly understand the value of animal sacrifices, or korbanos, due to the fact that the Jews of the desert were used to a pagan culture and sacrifice in worship. God, being the wise Educator that He is, decided, instead of taking the candy away entirely, to give it a new meaning instead (Moreh Nevuchim 3:32). It’s a nice idea, but why, then, is the korban olah only for a male and not a female? Why does the mizbeach have to be square and not round? Why is the blood of the animal sometimes sprinkled on two corners and sometimes on four?1 Surely, no one — not even Rambam himself — would suggest that the re-appropriation of pagan worship is the only reason God commanded korbanos! Indeed, Rambam actually says as much explicitly in his Mishneh Torah:
וְכָל הַקָּרְבָּנוֹת כֻּלָּן מִכְּלַל הַחֻקִּים הֵן
And all sacrifices are all in the category of chukim (commandments that we do not understand)…
To put things somewhat differently, we cannot say, for instance, that hakaras ha’tov is the reason for kibud av v’eim, as that would presuppose that hakaras ha’tov is in fact a Divine value. And we cannot say that we know that hakaras ha’tov is a Divine value based on the existence of the law of kibud av v’eim as that is completely circular. Which is all to say that any and all reasons proposed for the various mitzvos can be nothing more than “maybes.” One can never say that something is the reason for a mitzvah (since, as we’ve explained, this makes no logical sense), only a reason. To suggest that a commentary such as Rambam ever meant to say that a proposed reason for a mitzvah is the only reason for the mitzvah is utterly preposterous, and denies them the most basic logical and philosophical faculties — something they surely did not lack. It simply cannot be.
First and foremost, the mere fact that the Divine asks something of us is reason enough for us to obey. Secondly, no human reason can possibly cover the entire Divine basis for a mitzvah. No human can possibly comprehend the entirety of the Infinite calculus. Surely, to suggest a change or removal of a mitzvah based on any of these proposed “reasons” is absurd.
This is the logically and philosophically necessary foundation upon which the entirety of the rest of this discussion must be predicated. Only now can we proceed to read and analyze the primary sources — to which we shall turn our attention in the next installment.
1. Indeed, Ramban argues rather strongly against understanding re-appropriation of pagan worship being the only reason for korbanos given the fact that it does not explain at all why Noach or the Avos brought korbanos — long before the pagan worship of Egypt was an issue. Ramban also points out that if re-appropriation of pagan worship was the reason for sacrifices, the Torah would likely have had a far more negative attitude towards them, but this is not the case (Ramban on Vayikra 1:9). Other than this case, and perhaps one or two others, both Rambam and Ramban overwhelmingly agree on the general approach to the topic of ta’amei ha’mitzvos, as we shall see in future installments.↩