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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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.