Medieval Jewish Philosophers on the Reasons for the Mitzvot

Jewish philosophers since ancient times have explained the system of mitzvot, and individual commandments, in terms that made sense to their contemporaries.

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Rabbi Isaacs explains the need to offer a rationale for the mitzvot as a response to the hostility or curiosity of non-Jews. In many times and places, though, the worldview of the surrounding culture was adopted by at least some Jews, and the effort to explain the commandments was therefore as much a matter of encouraging Jews to maintain Jewish practice as it was to explain Judaism to those outside the Jewish community.  Reprinted with permission from Mitzvot: A Sourcebook for the 613 Commandments, published by Jason Aronson Inc.

Jewish religious philosophers, especially in the medieval period, began to probe for the purpose and meaning of the commandments. Most of their investigation was generally conducted independently of any definitive study of the commandments. It is difficult to ascertain with certainty the reasons that prompted the Middle Age scholars to steadfastly begin to explore commandments. Some have suggested that one cause may have been apologetic. That is to say, with rabbinic leaders being confronted with anti-semitic attacks, they felt that an intelligent reply would reduce the weight of the misrepresentation.

The following section surveys some of the important philosophers and thinkers who paved the way for a comprehensive series of rationales for the commandments.

Hellenistic Literature

The need for a rational explanation of the commandments was expressed for the first time in the Hellenistic period, a time when the Jewish people were profoundly influenced by Greek culture. The explanation was motivated by a desire to present Judaism to the pagan world as a legislation intended to produce a people of the highest virtue. For example, in the Letter of Aristeas, the dietary laws (kashrut) and other commandments, including the wearing of a prayer shawl and the affixing of a mezuzah to one’s doorpost, were explained as having the purpose of awakening holy thoughts and forming character.

Philo

law scalePhilo, a first-century philosopher, whose Greek writings focused primarily on the Five Books of Moses, offered one of the first systematic treatises for the reasons behind the commandments. He categorized the commandments into the following four categories: beliefs, virtuous emotions, actions symbolizing beliefs, and actions symbolizing virtues. In his explanation of various rationales for the commandments, he often used the allegorical method of interpretation [explaining the Bible’s words as an extended metaphor, not to be taken literally].

Saadia Gaon

This medieval philosopher was Judaism’s first thinker to divide the commandments into those that are an obligation because they are required by reason (called sichliyot in Hebrew) and those given through revelation (called shimiyot in Hebrew). The latter, he said, must be accepted for no other reason than that they were proclaimed by God, although on occasion he was able to explain their usefulness.

In his attempt to offer rationales for the commandments of reason, Saadia often pointed out the deleterious effects of [violating] the so-called negative commandments. For example, the [prohibited act] of stealing undermined the economic basis of a society.With regard to the less understandable laws of the Jewish diet, Saadia, in his Book of Beliefs and Opinions, stated that they were initiated in order to combat animal worship.

Bachya ibn Pakuda

This medieval philosopher combined Saadia’s division of the mitzvot with his division of “duties of the members of the body” (chovot ha-evarim) and “duties of the hearts(chovot ha-levavot). The so-called “duties of the members of the body” are of two kinds: duties obligatory by virtue of reason, and duties neither prohibited nor rejected by reason (e.g., the prohibition of eating milk and meat together). The “duties of the hearts,” on the other hand, are of an intellectual or attitudinal kind, such as belief in God and trust and love in Him. One main difference between this philosopher and Saadia lies in the fact that the former does not attempt to explain the “revelational laws” in terms of their usefulness. For Bachya, the laws with no apparent reason are simply expressions of spirituality and reverence intended to bring people closer to God.

Judah HaLevi

This important medieval philosopher classified the mitzvot under these three headings: rational laws (sichliyot), which he also termed psychic laws (nafshiyot), and which had to do with belief in God and justice; governmental laws (minhagiyot), having to do with the functioning of a society; and revelational laws (shimiyot), or divine laws (elohiyot), whose function was to elevate the Jew to commune with God. Prophecy was the manifestation of the highest level of the divine laws.

Abraham ibn Ezra

He distinguished between laws that are instilled in the human heart prior to revelation (pikkudim) and laws that prescribed symbolic acts reminding us of such matters as creation and the exodus from Egypt (e.g., observance of the Sabbath). He also speaks of commandments that he calls “obscure” (mitzvot ne’elamot), which have no clear-cut rationale. With regard to some of the latter commandments, ibn Ezra attempts to explain them as prohibitions against acts that are contrary to nature (e.g., cooking a goat in its mother’s milk). Others he explains as serving useful purposes. For example, the separation of the leper from the community was commanded by God as a health measure, while the Jewish laws of the diet were meant to prevent serious injury to a person’s body and soul.

Maimonides (RaMBaM)

Perhaps the greatest Jewish philosopher to have ever lived was Maimonides. He did not distinguish between the so-called “rational” and the “revelational” laws. In his opinion, all of the commandments set forth in the Five Books of Moses had useful purposes and rationales. According to Maimonides, the two overall purposes of the Torah were the welfare of the soul and the welfare of the body.

One of his important works was Sefer haMitzvot, the Book of Commandments, in which Maimonides brings together the 613 biblical commandments, listing them under the categories of “positive” and “negative” and adding his own commentary wherever he felt it necessary.

Nachmanides

This Spanish rabbi and scholar maintained that there was a reason for each one of the commandments. In his opinion, the commandments are all for the good of humanity, either to keep people from something that might be hurtful, to remove them from bad habits, to teach them mercy and justice, or to constantly remind them of the dependability of God and His miracles. He often used kabbalistic (mystical) teachings in his interpretations.

Moses ben Jacob of Coucy

This thirteenth-century French scholar stressed the value of Torah study in an orderly fashion. His reputation rests on his most extensive work, called Sefer Mitzvot Gadol (SeMaG). This work includes the essence of the Oral Law, arranged in order of commandments and divided into negative and positive. His work is based on Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, with a number of differences. For example, unlike Maimonides, he included rabbinic precepts [in addition to commandments found in the Bible].

Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno

This fourteenth century Italian commentator spends a good deal of time explaining the reasons for the sacrifices and, as a physician, often uses medical knowledge as well as allegory in his explanations.

Aaron Ha-Levi

A native of Barcelona, Spain, this fourteenth-century philosopher wrote a monumental work called Sefer HaHinnuch, the Book of Education. In the book, which is primarily intended for youth, he listed all 613 commandments as they occur in the weekly scriptural portions, elucidating each one in a most comprehensive manner.

His exposition of each of the commandments is based on a division into four distinct parts. Part one consists of a discussion of the nature of each commandment, its biblical source, and its rabbinic interpretation. Part two deals with the reason for the mitzvah. In part three, the specific laws of the mitzvah are cited as derived from the Talmud and various other sources. Part four, the final part, indicates the condition of each of the mitzvot and explains where and when a given command applied, to whom it applies, and what, if any punishment is due if one violates it.

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Rabbi Ronald H. Isaacs

Rabbi Ronald H. Isaacs is the spiritual leader of Temple Sholom in Bridgewater, New Jersey. He has served as the publications committee chairperson of the Rabbinical Assembly.