Ta’amei Ha’Mitzvos (Part 3): Understanding Rambam’s Perspective On The Matter

Read the other installments in this “Fundamentals” series here.

We shall first examine the opinion of Rambam on the subject of ta’amei ha’mitzvos. Rambam’s perspective on the matter is often misquoted and misrepresented. For now, we shall try simply to ascertain what, exactly, Rambam believes about discerning the reasons that lay behind the mitzvos, and, using Rambam as a foundation, in future installments turn our attention to the many other authorities that chime in on the issue.

Rambam’s Opening Statements

In opening his discussion of ta’amei ha’mitzvos (Guide for the Perplexed 3:31), Rambam tells us that there are people who presume that there is no discernible reason for any of God’s laws. This is because, these people feel, giving any human reason for the commandments would seemingly prove that they are not Divine in origin. If a human can understand them, how could they possibly be Divine? Rambam, of course, rejects this perspective out of hand, calling such people “weak-minded.” He then proceeds to prove that the various mitzvos do, in fact, have humanly discernible reasons (and that this should not at all bother us) as follows:

Guide for the Perplexed 3:31:

והכונה כולה להועילנו - כמו שבארנו מאמרו "לטוב לנו כל הימים לחיותנו כהיום הזה" ואמר "אשר ישמעון את כל החוקים האלה ואמרו רק עם חכם ונבון הגוי הגדול הזה" - כבר באר שאפילו ה'חוקים' כולם יורו אל כל הגוים שהם 'בחכמה ותבונה' ואם היה ענין שלא תודע לו סיבה ולא יביא תועלת ולא ידחה נזק - למה יאמר במאמינו או בעושהו שהוא 'חכם ונבון' וגדל המעלה ויפלאו מזה האומות?…

[…] all of it is to benefit us. Thus we explained the Scriptural passage, "for our good always, that He might preserve us alive, as it is this day" (Deut. 6:24). Again, "which shall hear all those statutes (chukkim), and say, surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people" (ibid. 4:6). He thus says that even every one of these "statutes" convinces all nations of the wisdom and understanding it includes. But if no reason could be found for these statutes, if they produced no advantage and removed no evil, why then should he who believes in them and follows them be wise, reasonable, and so excellent as to raise the admiration of all nations?

To start, we might quibble with Rambam’s certainty that mitzvos have humanly discernible reasons at all. Why would one necessarily think this to be the case? The position of these “weak-minded” individuals is not at all as preposterous as Rambam makes out, as discussed in our first installment. That aside, though, what is most important for our discussion is the prooftext that Rambam cites.

Essentially, the Torah writes that the local gentile at that time should have been able to look at the Jewish nation, and the rules and regulations they were living by, and have seen an order and intelligence. Of course, though, those local Canaanites did not exactly have a Phd. in philosophy; they were untrained farmers. The Torah states, however, that such simpletons should be able to give a cursory look at Judaism and see wisdom there. This is the posuk, and logic, that Rambam uses to prove that there are humanly discernible reasons for the commandments. It is thus abundantly clear that not for one moment is Rambam suggesting that any of his forthcoming proposed reasons for the various mitzvos are the reason, or an absolute truth, of the mitzvos, but rather a reason, a truth. Surely, no explanations of the mitzvos for the local farmers could possibly cover all the bases for said mitzvos.

We thus see very clearly from this chapter in the Guide that Rambam is not even attempting to cover all the bases of the mitzvos since such a feat is humanly impossible. He is not attempting to state, in his exposition on the possible logical perspectives behind the various mitzvos, that what he suggests is the truth. Rather, he is attempting to explain what the local Canaanite would see. This is the key to understanding all further chapters of Rambam in which he lists various reasons for mitzvos.

Chukkim Vs. Mishpatim

Rambam also deals with our subject when he codifies the law in Mishneh Torah where he writes that it is fitting, but not necessary, for one to attempt to discern the reasons for mitzvos according to his or her own ability (Meilah 8:8, Guide for the Perplexed 3:31). The reason for this, as Rambam also explains elsewhere (Temurah 4:13), is that it brings one to a greater appreciation and meticulousness in the observance of the laws. If we can reach a point at which the Divine laws make great sense to us, we will surely be more inclined to keep to them strictly, and find greater meaning in them. This is all to say, then, that Rambam viewed the understanding and pursuit of a logical system behind the mitzvos as not an imperative, but rather a value. Rambam was giving religious advice, suggesting each should endeavor to make mitzvos meaningful to him or herself to the best of a his or her abilities.

To be sure, Rambam continues to state explicitly that there are things for which a reason will not come easily, or perhaps not at all:

Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Meilah 8:8:

…וְדָבָר שֶׁלֹּא יִמְצָא לוֹ טַעַם וְלֹא יֵדַע לוֹ עִלָּה אַל יְהִי קַל בְּעֵינָיו… וְלֹא תְּהֵא מַחֲשַׁבְתּוֹ בּוֹ כְּמַחְשַׁבְתּוֹ בִּשְׁאָר דִּבְרֵי הַחל. בּוֹא וּרְאֵה כַּמָּה הֶחְמִירָה תּוֹרָה בִּמְעִילָה… הֲרֵי נֶאֱמַר בַּתּוֹרָה (ויקרא יט-לז) (ויקרא כ-כב) "וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת כָּל חֻקֹּתַי וְאֶת כָּל מִשְׁפָּטַי וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם". אָמְרוּ חֲכָמִים לִתֵּן שְׁמִירָה וַעֲשִׂיָּה לַחֻקִּים כַּמִּשְׁפָּטִים… וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים הֵן הַמִּצְוֹת שֶׁטַּעְמָן גָּלוּי וְטוֹבַת עֲשִׂיָּתָן בָּעוֹלָם הַזֶּה יְדוּעָה כְּגוֹן אִסּוּר גֵּזֶל וּשְׁפִיכוּת דָּמִים וְכִבּוּד אָב וָאֵם. וְהַחֻקִּים הֵן הַמִּצְוֹת שֶׁאֵין טַעְמָן יָדוּעַ… וְכָל הַקָּרְבָּנוֹת כֻּלָּן מִכְּלַל הַחֻקִּים הֵן. אָמְרוּ חֲכָמִים שֶׁבִּשְׁבִיל עֲבוֹדַת הַקָּרְבָּנוֹת הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד. שֶׁבַּעֲשִׂיַּת הַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים זוֹכִין הַיְשָׁרִים לְחַיֵּי הָעוֹלָם הַבָּא. וְהִקְדִּימָה תּוֹרָה צִוּוּי עַל הַחֻקִּים. שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (ויקרא יח-ה) "וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת חֻקֹּתַי וְאֶת מִשְׁפָּטַי אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה אֹתָם הָאָדָם וָחַי בָּהֶם".

And something for which you do not find a reason and you do not understand, do not view it lightly in your eyes… and do not consider it as you consider regular, worldly things. Come and see how stringent the Torah is in regards to [a decree for which a reason is not clear like] meilah… and as it says “keep all the [arbitrary] decrees…” And Chazal said to watch and guard and perform these [arbitrary] decrees just as the mishpatim. And Mishpatim are those commandments for which their reason is revealed and the good they cause in the would is known, like the prohibition of stealing, murder, or the obligation of respecting one’s mother and father. And the [arbitrary] decrees are the commandments for which the reasons are not known, and all korbanos are of this category of [arbitrary] decrees. As Chazal said, the entire world is contingent on the korbanos. With the performance of [arbitrary] decrees and mishpatim one is worthy of the World to Come. And the primacy of Torah is contingent on the [arbitrary] decrees. As it says “and keep the [arbitrary] decrees and mishpatim, for you shall do them and live by them.”

Certainly, Rambam is working with the assumption that there are hidden meanings and reasons for the various mitzvos that Man is not privy to. When we translate chukkim as “arbitrary decrees”, we refer only to an arbitrary nature from the perspective of humans. Certainly there is a Divine calculus to which we are not privy. As we saw above in the Guide, Rambam states that the local gentile will be able to discern a logical system in the commandments of Judaism, but Rambam still calls certain of the commandments chukkim, things for which a reason is not obvious, or attainable at all. Indeed, despite what seems to be the impression of so many, Rambam here explicitly considers the entire enterprise of korbanos as chukkim despite the fact that in the Guide he explains that they were instituted so as to wean the Jews off of Paganism. Needless to say, as Rambam states here, if this was the sole purpose of korbanos, the statements of Chazal to the effect that the entire world stands on the service of korbanos would make no sense1. Thus, while it is certainly the case that a certain aspect of korbanos was to wean the Jews of off paganism, there are deeper reasons and benefits to korbanos that we simply do not understand.

To conclude, then, based on all of the above, Rambam specifically writes that chukkim exist in both the Guide (3:28) and in Mishneh Torah. While true that in the Guide he attempts to explain even the chukkim, one must understand, however, that he is clearly attempting to explain only a certain aspect of these chukkim. Rambam’s position would readily concede that the full extent and understanding of all mitzvos — especially the chukkim — eludes us2.

Rambam On “Shiluach HaKein”

We can now turn to one primary example of Rambam’s approach to offering explanations to the various mitzvos. Specifically, his approach to shiluach ha’kein and how he deals with the Gemara we saw in the last installment:

Guide for the Perplexed 3:48:

וכן אסר לשחוט 'אותו ואת בנו' 'ביום אחד' - להשמר ולהרחיק לשחוט משניהם הבן לעיני האם כי צער בעלי חיים בזה גדול מאד אין הפרש בין צער האדם עליו וצער שאר בעלי חיים כי אהבת האם ורחמיה על הולד אינו נמשך אחר השכל רק אחר פועל הכח המדמה הנמצא ברוב בעלי חיים כמו שנמצא באדם. והיה זה הדין מיוחד ב'שור ושה' מפני שהם - מותר לנו אכילתם מן הביתיות הנהוג לאכלם והם אשר תכיר מהם האם מן הולד: וזה הטעם גם כן ב'שילוח הקן' כי הביצים אשר שכבה האם עליהם והאפרוחים הצריכים לאמם על הרוב אינם ראויים לאכילה וכשישלח האם ותלך לה לא תצטער בראות לקיחת הבנים. ועל הרוב יהיה סיבה להניח הכל כי מה שהיה לוקח ברוב הפעמים אינו ראוי לאכילה: ואם אלו הצערים הנפשיים חסר התורה עליהם בבהמות ובעופות כל שכן בבני האדם כולם. ולא תקשה עלי באמרם 'ז"ל' "האומר על קן צפור יגיעו רחמיך וגו'" - כי הוא לפי אחת משני הדעות אשר זכרנום - רצוני לומר דעת מי שחושב שאין טעם לתורה אלא הרצון לבד ואנחנו נמשכנו אחר הדעת השני:

It is also prohibited to kill an animal with its young on the same day (Lev. 22:28), in order that people should be restrained and prevented from killing the two together in such a manner that the young is slain in the sight of the mother; for the pain of the animals under such circumstances is very great. There is no difference in this case between the pain of man and the pain of other living beings, since the love and tenderness of the mother for her young ones is not produced by reasoning, but by imagination, and this faculty exists not only in man but in most living beings. This law applies only to ox and lamb, because of the domestic animals used as food these alone are permitted to us, and in these cases the mother recognizes her young. The same reason applies to the law which enjoins that we should let the mother fly away when we take the young. The eggs over which the bird sits, and the young that are in need of their mother, are generally unfit for food, and when the mother is sent away she does not see the taking of her young ones, and does not feel any pain. In most cases, however, this commandment will cause man to leave the whole nest untouched, because [the young or the eggs], which he is allowed to take, are, as a rule, unfit for food. If the Law provides that such grief should not be caused to cattle or birds, how much more careful must we be that we should not cause grief to our fellowmen. And do not ask about the Gemara (Ber. 33b) that says we should silence those that say "Thy mercy extendeth to young birds," as it is the expression of one of the two opinions mentioned by us, namely, that the precepts of the Law have no other reason but the Divine will. We follow the other opinion.

In short, Rambam concedes that whether or not one should even bother to look for possible reasons behind mitzvos is an age-old debate, but he considers the opinion in the Gemara that doing so is negative or quasi-heretical not to be normative. Our natural feelings and intuitions, and our inclination to find logic and meaning in the mitzvos beyond simply the fact that God commanded them of us, cannot be denied. As such, Rambam deals with our seemingly problematic Gemara by simply disregarding the opinion in said Gemara that suggests that proposing reasons for the various mitzvos is a bad thing to do, and instead, as explained above, believes that there is great benefit to be derived by doing so. Rambam is then able to explain the positive benefits that appear to be behind the mitzvah of shiluach ha’kein3.


To summarize Rambam’s opinion on the topic of ta’amei ha’mitzvos: it is clear that Rambam does not consider humanly discernible reasons to be the totality of the impetus for any given mitzvah. Nevertheless, he certainly does see great value in pursuing a logic and meaning behind the commandments as much as is possible. Indeed, with slight and nuanced variances, this is very much the perspective of most authorities on the subject, as we shall see in future installments.

1. For more on the subject of Rambam’s perspectives on korbanos from a slightly different angle, see this essay by Dovid Schwartz in Kol HaMevaser.

2. And to this, once again despite what seems to be the impression of many, Ramban agrees, as we shall see in the forthcoming installment.

3. As it happens, Maharal in Tiferes Yisrael (6) takes great issue with Rambam’s seemingly casual disregard for a legitimate opinion in the Gemara, as well as the clear implication of the Mishnah. This methodological issue aside, Maharal objects further on philosophical grounds, arguing that it is not for humans to define and categorize the actions of God. We are not privy to, nor capable of comprehending at any level, the Divine calculus. While a full treatment of this piece by Maharal is beyond the scope of this series, it is enough to say that while Rambam would agree that fundamentally Maharal is correct, he would of course disagree with the implication that we should never attempt to propose a discernible logic to the commandments. While Maharal’s position is certainly well-argued, it is not something that seems to resonate with what has been accepted as Jewish tradition. After all, how are we to attempt to figure out what God wants from us in our life if we cannot even attempt to understand what he wants in His Torah?

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