Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Rational explanations for doing mitzvos

Continuing last week's discussion of ta’amei hamitzvos, see the Iggra d’Kallah (available online http://www.munkatcherseforim.com/) end of Parshas Naso. Very roughly translated:
“The philosophers ask how it is possible through a physical mitzvah to receive [spiritual] reward…They therefore postulated that the reason for mitzvos is that man should not fall prey to his base physical nature, and they invented reasons that apply to each mitzvah. According to their reasoning, if one were to contemplate these rational ideas, one would not need to perform the actual physical mitzvah act… This is why the Torah does not reveal the reason for mitzvos. The action of the mitzvah performance itself draws one close to G-d…and one is obligated to perform the mitzvah without considering its reasons. While there surely is a reason for each mitzvah, and one is surely obligated to consider why a mitzvah was commanded, one can never reach the ultimate reason for a mitzvah, [because a mitzvah] reflects G-d’s wisdom, and G-d and his wisdom are infinite.”
I am not sure that the Rambam would agree that the performance of the physical mitzvah act is an end in itself and not a means to mental and spiritual growth (see end of Hakdamah to Peirush haMishna). However, I do not think anyone would dispute the point made that rational explanations for mitzvos do not supplant Hashem's tzivuy as the motive for their performance.


  1. The way I understand it is that there two basic categories between people including self improvement and those that teach us proper hashkafos e.g. Shabbos(brias haolam and yichud). Those done without reason just as tzivui lose most of their effectiveness. Then there are those that have noreason, which you do because of Tzivui but as part of the requirement is to find a reason that fits your matzav - that is Rambam Temura which you reminded me about the other day. (Also see Shemona prakim on Chosid and Kovesh es Ytzro.)

    The Igra dekallah misunderstood the philosophers. i find that many times especially when they are out to make a point.

  2. I do not think you are correct. You are imposing your own schema on the Rambam, limiting the halacha end of Temurah in a way that there is no evidence for in the text. The Rambam simply does not draw your distinction, and the I"K is fully justified to take the words to mean exactly hat they say.

  3. Anonymous12:25 AM

    the philosopher's reasoning, as reported by the I"K, is more than a bit unreasonable: it's rather like saying that your thinking out what you want to say in a blogpost has the same effect as the actual posting of that post to your blog. I'm not going to say who is confused there--the philosophers or the I"K--but something does not sound right.
    Mitzvot and blogposts have to be actualized in the physical world before they become effective: even when we pray, we are to physically utter the words and not just think them mentally.
    Personally, I don't think we need to know or understand the reason of the mitzvot to perform them properly (although that knowledge and understanding may be necessary in formulating the halacha of performing that particular mitzvah) beyond the basic one that applies to all mitzvot: that they are Divine Commandments and in performing them we are conforming and subjecting our will to His Will.

  4. Jeffrey, What do you say to Vezocharto ki eved hoysso or Ki bayom hazeh yechaper aleichem and so on? I can see for Chukim, where I disagree, but everywhere?

  5. Anonymous9:32 PM

    David--it's really simple. We may need to know the reason for a commandment in order to know how to properly carry it out. But the converse is not true. If you know how to properly carry it out, you don't need to know the reason for the commandment--you only need to carry it out properly. You only need to know the primary reason for all the commandments--to train ourselves to do things according to the way the Deity wishes us to do thing, to accustom ourselves to doing things because He wishes us to do it, and not because we think, after having thought it through, that it is a good thing to do on its own merits (as opposed to being a good thing to do because He wishes us to do it).

    Even something with an obvious reason is this way. We recite the Haggadah at the Passover seder in order to remember the Exodus and the Paschal sacrifices. But remembrance of these two things are simply means to the primary end.