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From Parsha to Halakha Chukat: The reasons for the mitzvot

Tammuz 5784 | July 2024

According to the midrash, Shlomo HaMelekh (King Solomon) tried, unsuccessfully, to understand the mitzvah of parah aduma, the red heifer. The ultimate conclusion was: “The Holy One, blessed be He said, ‘I have established a law (chuka) for you, I have decreed a decree, and you are not permitted to transgress My decree.’”[1]

According to this midrash, we are required to observe mitzvot because they are the word of God, even if we can’t comprehend the reason. Parah aduma is introduced as “chukat ha-Torah.” Chok means ordinance, often used in the context of ritual law, but the traditional connotation of chok is a law that doesn’t seem to have a rational explanation.[2] Consequently, it’s unclear if this midrash is exclusively referring to the laws of the parah aduma, which the Torah specifically introduced as “chukat ha-Torah,” or if it’s a general critique on any attempt to find logical reasons for the mitzvot.

“You are not permitted to transgress my decree”

Indeed, there is a small but consistent rabbinic approach opposed to attempts to assign meaning to mitzvot. The mishna states that it’s prohibited to pray for God to show us the same mercy as nesting birds, and the gemara raises the possibility this is “because it makes the measures of God mercy, when they are plainly decrees.”[3]

Others seem concerned that the search for meaning would diminish mitzvah observance. The midrash teaches that Shlomo HaMelekh, the wisest of all men, sought to understand the reason for every mitzvah, yet ended up failing to observe mitzvot that were given along with their purpose. A king may not “have many wives, lest his heart turn away.” Shlomo believed the reason was “I will have many and I will not turn away,” but, “When Shlomo was elderly his wives turned his heart…”[4]

According to these approaches since “you are not permitted to transgress My decree,” efforts to find reasons for the mitzvot are at best extraneous, and possibly dangerous. Others believe that understanding reasons can increase motivation for fulfilling them. Even if some mitzvot remain far from our comprehension, many are rational and meaningful.[5]

Practical halakhic ramifications

Beyond the principal dispute, the different approaches also have an effect on halakhic decision making. The Torah commands, “You shall not take a widow’s garment as collateral.”[6] Yet Rabbi Shimon allows taking such collateral from a wealthy widow. He reasons that the prohibition is based on another mitzvah – if the borrower only has one garment to give as collateral, the person giving the loan must return it as needed – even on a daily basis. In the case of a poor widow, the man loaning the money would have to visit the widow often, tarnishing her reputation among her neighbors. Since a loan to a wealthy woman shouldn’t have this problem, it should be permissible to take such collateral.

Rabbi Yehuda, on the other hand, rules according to the plain meaning of the verse; taking such collateral from a widow is always prohibited, regardless of her financial status.[7] The gemara explains that Rabbi Shimon is “doresh ta’ama dikra,” “he seeks the reason of the verse” and rules accordingly.[8]

Both Shlomo HaMelekh and Rabbi Shimon use the reason for the mitzvah to narrow its scope. At other times the sages apparently used the reasoning behind the mitzvah to broaden its scope, at least in cases where the Torah revealed the reason.

For example, the scope of the mitzvah of “shvut” – rest or cessation – on Shabbat is expanded beyond the specific prohibitions of melakha (creative work).[9] Similarly, the sages direct us to act in certain ways on yom tov to achieve the goal of rejoicing on the festival, because “rejoicing on yom tov is a mitzvah.”[10] In such cases the rationale of the mitzvah is used to expand its fulfillment.

In some cases the mitzvah’s demands are general or amorphous, and the sages determine the specific actions required for its fulfillment. The mitzvah “you shall do what is upright and good” is applied on multiple occasions. It’s understood as a general mitzvah to comport ourselves in a forthright manner that gives no cause for others to suspect wrongdoing, a demand to go “lifnim mi’shurat ha’din” – beyond the letter of the law, and a directive to give preference to our neighbors when selling our field.[11]

God is in the details

It seems the sages’ dispute is not whether it’s permissible to seek out the reasons for the mitzvot and try to learn from them, but rather: should the rationale of a mitzvah be used to limit the mitzvah to those instances when it’s relevant? This seems related to another question: do all the details of a mitzvah have meaning?

Perhaps the issue is connected to the tradition that parah aduma is a “chok” and a “decree.” According to the midrash, Shlomo (and the sages) had trouble with the internal logic of the mitzvah’s details, not the general rationale. The sages couldn’t understand how the waters of the parah aduma could both make a tamei (ritually impure) person tahor (ritually pure) and also a tahor person tamei.[12] Generally, the medium for purification – like a mikvah – makes a tamei person tahor, but does not make a tahor person tamei. The lack of consistency makes the paradox even more perplexing, and it is the details of the mitzvah that bring the sages to the same conclusion as Shlomo: “I said I will gain wisdom, but it was far from me.”[13]

This challenge is apparent in other mitzvot the sages deemed “gezeirot haMelekh” – the Sovereign’s decrees. At times this phrase refers to the obligation to observe the mitzvot, whether we want to or not.[14] Yet there are many occasions when the term is used for mitzvot with somewhat incomprehensible details, or mitzvot the Torah limits even though logic would lead us to expand their applicability.[15] It seems the sages generally believed it’s possible to understand the reasons for the mitzvot, but not necessarily for all their details:

“‘God’s ways are flawless, the word of the Eternal is refined (tzerufa), a shield for all who take refuge…’ If God’s ways are flawless, God all the more so. Rav said: The mitzvot were only given to refine creation, for why would the Holy One, blessed be He, care if an animal is slaughtered from the neck or the back of the neck? It must be that the mitzvot were given to refine creation.”[16]

Rav notes that the verse describing the word of God uses the term for refining metals and removing impurities – “tzerufa” – indicating that the purpose of the mitzvot is for people to undergo a similar (perhaps painful) process of refinement and improvement. Does this mean that the mitzvot are only meant to refine our character and God does not care about the practical effects of each mitzvah?

A careful reading suggests that Rav is not referring to the mitzvah itself, but rather the details; there may be several rational reasons to require ritual slaughter, but the precise placement of the knife on the animal’s neck may be somewhat arbitrary.

This seems to be the case with other mitzvot as well, such as the various details of sacrificial offerings. Why must the Paschal sacrifice be a goat or sheep? Even if there doesn’t seem to be a reason for each detail, it doesn’t mean that the mitzvah itself is not reasonable.[17] As Rambam explains:

“A more suitable instance can be cited from the detailed commandments concerning sacrifices. The law that sacrifices should be brought is evidently of great use, as will be shown by us (infra, chap. xlvi.); but we cannot say why one offering should be a lamb, whilst another is a ram; and why a fixed number of them should be brought. Those who trouble themselves to find a cause for any of these detailed rules, are in my eyes void of sense: they do not remove any difficulties, but rather increase them. Those who believe that these detailed rules originate in a certain cause, are as far from the truth as those who assume that the whole law is useless.”[18]

The Torah does want us to use our intellect – to listen when the Torah provides us with explicit reasons for a mitzvah, to search for rationale when it is hidden, and to expand the ideas and values of the Torah and apply them in the proper situations. Occasionally a sage like Rabbi Shimon may limit a Torah mitzvah based on their understanding of the reasoning, more often the sages accept that there are limits to human comprehension.

“Zot chukat haTorah.” When the Torah explicitly states this is beyond our comprehension, what place is there for our intellect? Perhaps, these rare instances highlight the rationale that is generally apparent when we study Torah. Rather than discourage the search for reason, this should encourage us to seek understanding. We can humbly accept that our comprehension is limited and maintain our adherence to the letter of the law, while appreciating our Divinely given intellect and applying the wisdom of the Torah to other aspects of our lives.




[1] Tanchuma Chukat 4 and Kuzari Book II 26.

[2] Traditionally, a chok is understood to be a law that is difficult or impossible for us to logically comprehend. See Rashi Bamidbar 19:2, based on TB Yoma 67.

[3] Mishna Berakhot 5:3; Mishna Megilla 4:9; TB Brakhot 33b.

[4] He’s also said to have had too many horses. See Devarim 17:14-20; TB Sanhedrin 21a; Tur Yoreh De’ah 181.

[5] Rav Saadia Gaon divided laws between mitzvot sikhliyot, logical mitzvot we know we should do even without a commandment, and mitzvot shemiyot, mitzvot we do because we are commanded, even though we don’t understand them. Yet he ultimately believed there were rational reasons for all mitzvot, but we may not have the time or knowledge to reach them. Emunot v’Deot III 1.

Rambam also differentiated between mishpatim and chukim, but he also maintained there was some rational to chukim. See Hilkhot Temura 4:13; Hilkhot Meila 8:8.

[6] Devarim 24:17.

[7] TB Bava Metzia 115a.

[8] Examples: ibid; Tb Yevamot 23a and 76b; Gittin 49b; Kiddushin 68b; Sanhedrin 16b, 21b.

[9] This is a possible explanation for the prohibitions of “shvot,” for example, Mishna Beitza 5:2; Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael Bo Massechta d’Pischa Parsha 9.

[10] For example, TB Beitza 9a-10a.

[11] Devarim 6:18; Tosefta Shekalim 2:2; TB Bava Metzia 108a; Ramban Devarim 6:18.

[12] Tanchuma Chukat Siman 4.

[13] Kohelet 7:23; Kohelet Rabba Parsha 7 and parallel midrashim.

[14] Tosefta Keritot 1:2.

[15] For example: Tosefta Sanhedrin 11:6 discusses why the laws of Ben Sorer u’Moreh only apply to sons and not daughters. Tosefta Nega’im 3:7 and the laws of tzara’at. Mechilta d’Rabbi Yishmael Bshalach Massechta d’Amalek and why redeeming firstborn non-kosher animals is limited to donkeys. Mechilta d’Rashbi 21:37 on the four and five fold penalties for stealing and slaughtering or selling an ox or sheep. Bava Batra 159a on the disqualification of relatives as co-witnesses. Mechilta d’Rashbi 12:5 on the paschal sacrifice consisting of sheep or goats.

[16] Bereishit Rabba 44:1.

[17] See notes 14 and 15.

[18] Moreh Nevuchim III 26, Friedlander translation from Sefaria.

Rabbanit Dr. Adina Sternberg

was in the first cohort of the Matan Kitvuni Fellowship program and her book is in the publication process. She has a B.A. in Bible from Hebrew University and a M.A. and Ph.D. in Talmud from Bar Ilan University. Adina studied in Midreshet Lindenbaum, Migdal Oz, Havruta and the Advanced Talmud Institute in Matan. She currently teaches Bible and Talmud at Matan, and at Efrata and Orot colleges. Adina lives in Adam (Geva Binyamin) with her family.