Dear Jew in the City,
Why does Hashem care so much about the intricate details of our practice, i.e. all the halachot of Shabbat, kashrut, etc.?
Thanks for your question. You want to talk about an intricate detail? Let’s talk about commas. A comma is a tiny thing. Certainly, the inclusion or exclusion of a comma couldn’t affect the meaning of a sentence! If you think so, consider the following two sentences:
“We’ve decided to eat, Mary Ellen.”
“We’ve decided to eat Mary Ellen.”
In the first sentence, you’re informing a friend that it’s dinner time. In the second sentence, you’re confessing to a conspiracy to commit cannibalism. That intricate detail makes a lot of difference!
If you need another example, consider jumping your car. You’re supposed to connect the red clamp to the positive terminal of the dead battery, and then to the positive terminal of the working battery. After that, you should connect the black clamp to the negative terminal of the working battery, and then to an unpainted metal surface of the dead car. If you want a dramatic illustration of why details matter, try connecting the cables in the wrong order and/or to the wrong things. (WARNING: Do NOT try connecting the cables in the wrong order and/or to the wrong things! Just see here.)
So yeah, the details matter, even if you think they shouldn’t.
In order to talk about the details of the mitzvos, we first have to discuss the reasons for the mitzvos. This can be tricky, because it presupposes (a) that the mitzvos have reasons and (b) that we are able to discern them.
The Torah rarely reveals the reasons for the mitzvos. This is because it makes people think they can violate the mitzvah so long as they observe the reason. It’s like rationalizing, “I can drive 70 mph so long as I’m careful not to hit anyone.” Yes, the reason we don’t speed is for safety, but you’ll still get a ticket for speeding even if you don’t hit anyone.
An example of this phenomenon is found in the case of Deuteronomy 17:16-17, which prohibits a king (a) from having too many horses, which would cause the people to return to Egypt in order to get horses, and (b) from having too many wives, which would turn his heart away from the service of God. As we see in I Kings chapters 10-11, King Solomon thought he could do as he pleased and not fall into this trap. He amassed huge stables of horses, and sure enough, people moved to Egypt to engage in the horse trade. He married many wives to cement treaties with other nations, and some of them erected idols in his palace, for which he is held responsible. (See Sanhedrin 21b.) If the wisest person who ever lived couldn’t outsmart the system, the rest of us are certainly better off not being told the reasons for mitzvos explicitly. (A more contemporary example would be those who abandoned keeping kosher because they attributed the mitzvah to health reasons, which they rationalized science had conquered.)
The Talmud in Brachos (33b) frowns upon ascribing reasons to mitzvos when they’re not given us by the Torah. There’s a mitzvah to shoo a mother bird away before taking the young from her nest (Deuteronomy 22:6-7). We’re told that if someone attributes this to God’s mercy, he should be silenced. The Gemara explains, “Who are we to decide that the reason for this mitzvah is God’s mercy? The reason is that He said so!”
The Rambam, however, explains that saying “because God said so” is only one opinion; we follow the other opinion, which permits ascribing reasons to the mitzvos (Moreh Nevuchim 3:48). Indeed, Rambam, Ramban and the Sefer HaChinuch, among others, do discuss the reasons for the mitzvos, even when they’re not explicit in the Torah. Nevertheless, we must tread carefully in this area. If nothing else, the reasons for many mitzvos are beyond the average person’s comprehension (Sefer HaMitzvos, Negative #365).
Elsewhere in Moreh Nevuchim (3:26), the Rambam assures us that the mitzvos are the product of God’s wisdom and that each of them serves a purpose, whether or not we know what that purpose may be. For this reason, the Torah refers to the mitzvos as “righteous statutes and judgments” (Deuteronomy 4:8), and Psalms tells us that “the judgments of Hashem are true and completely righteous” (19:10). The mitzvos couldn’t be considered righteous if they were capricious!
Every mitzvah has a reason. Sometimes this reason is apparent, as is the case with the prohibitions against murder and theft. These more obvious mitzvos are called “mishpatim” (judgments). But there are also mitzvos whose reasons we don’t know. These are called “chukim” (statutes). An example would be the mitzvah to send a goat into the wilderness on Yom Kippur. The Sages take it for granted that such mitzvos do in fact have a purpose. If we can’t see the purpose of a mitzvah, that’s a shortcoming in us, not in God.
With all this in mind, let’s now answer your question about all the intricate details of a mitzvah.
The Rambam (Moreh 3:44) cites a midrash from Bereishis Rabbah in which the Sages ask what difference it could possibly make to God whether we slaughter an animal in the front or in the back of its neck. They conclude that the commandments are simply a test from God, as per Psalms 18:31, “The word of God is a test.” The mitzvos do have reasons, Rambam tells us; the reason for ritual slaughter is to provide us with food at a minimum of suffering to the animal. The details of how to perform the mitzvos, however, might not have reasons per se. The details might just be tests for us to follow the procedures properly.
Being a “test” isn’t petty or mean; it’s an opportunity for us to earn merit. A famous Mishnaic dictum tells us that God wanted to give the Jews a lot of merit, which is why He gave us so much Torah and so many mitzvos (Makkos 3:16, reprinted in Pirkei Avos). Following the details of the mitzvos is just another way for us to stockpile merits!
So, we might understand why God commanded us to bring various types of animal offerings – to get closer to Him, to motivate us to repent, etc. But why is one type of sacrifice a lamb and another a ram? There the best we can say is, “Because God said so.” The mitzvos all have reasons but their details need not – or at least they need not have reasons we can understand. If one tries to find an underlying rationale for why the various sacrifices are male or female, or of certain species, or why there are seven of this animal rather than six or eight, he will accomplish nothing and will only end up more confused than he was when he started.
Sometimes we just have to accept that the mitzvos are meant to be performed in certain ways, even if we don’t understand why. If we omit a comma, the police will use our confession against us in the eating of Mary Ellen. If hook up our batteries the wrong way, sparks will fly. If you don’t understand why, it’s because you don’t know enough about punctuation or auto mechanics. Similarly, tefillin must be black, meat must be salted and we don’t mow the lawn on Shabbos. If we don’t understand why, it’s not because there’s no reason, it’s just because we haven’t learned it yet.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
Follow Ask Rabbi Jack on YouTube