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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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.

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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.