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Friday, 17 July 2015

Are mitzvos fathomable?

Daf Yomi Nedarim 54


Why do we do what we do?  The debate over taamei hamitzvos – the quest to figure out the reasons behind the commandments – has raged for millennia.  While there are many mitzvos in the Torah that are self-understood, a host of others are quite perplexing.  Why do we eat kosher?  Why do we circumcise?  Are there fathomable explanations for these strange rituals or are they beyond human comprehension?  

Some of our Rabbis have plumbed the depths of the human condition to discover the rationale and meaning of the mitzvos, while others have declared that “the hidden matters are for Hashem, our G-d,” alone.  Which is the more appropriate perspective?

Mishnah: One who vows to abstain from greens may eat squash.  Rabbi Akiva prohibits.
The Rabbis asked Rabbi Akiva, “But what if a person said to his messenger ‘Buy me greens’ and he came back and said ‘I only found squash’?”
Rabbi Akiva replied, “Exactly!  Do you think he would return and say ‘I only found beans’?  Obviously then, squash is included in the category of greens, but beans are not called greens!”

Gemara: What is the substance of their debate?
The Rabbis are of the opinion that any item concerning which the messenger would have to consult, is clearly not in the named category.  But Rabbi Akiva maintains that any item concerning which the messenger would consult demonstrates that it is indeed in the named category! 

We are here on earth as Divine ambassadors.  We are here as messengers of the Almighty to make this world a better place.  We generally know what the mission entails but our tradition has shown that there are really two approaches to the mission.

Either you could take the Rabbis’ approach and say, ‘Onward march.’  You don’t need to understand the nature of the mission; you don’t need to question the Commander-in-Chief; if you start questioning, you’ve stepped beyond the bounds of your mission.  You are a foot-soldier – just get on with the mission you’ve been with tasked with achieving! 

That’s the approach we call kabolas ol – accepting the yoke of Heaven, no questions asked.  According to one school of thought, that’s the ultimate way to serve G-d, and indeed you should strive to serve Him that way even when it comes to those mitzvos we ostensibly do comprehend.  You don’t do them because they make sense; you do them for no other reason other than the fact that G-d said so.

Or there’s Rabbi Akiva’s approach.  He teaches that it’s okay for the messenger to consult.  Sure, you must fulfill the mission – don’t wait until you have all the answers to start marching!  But that doesn’t mean you don’t have a right to continue to question.  If it helps you in your avodas Hashem – Divine service – to work on understanding the reasons for the mitzvos, then go ahead and figure out the meaning!  That’s the approach of taamei hamitzvos, a valid perspective attempted by great rabbis from King Solomon to the Sefer HaChinuch to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. 

If you think you’ll get all the answers, think again.  But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t begin the conversation.  Of course, you must always remember our “acceptance speech” for the Torah – we said naaseh v’nishma, which means that comprehension is never a precondition for action.  But once you’re doing, you have every right to discuss and analyze.


In the Divine mission, there are multiple valid approaches.  First and foremost, we commit to the performance of our Heavenly task.  But then you get to choose whether to analyze the task or accept G-d’s mission unquestioningly.  May you merit finding your ideal path in your fulfilment of the Divine mission!