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The Music of Halacha: Shabbat 27: Speech Introduction

Body and Soul: A hotly debated question in the thirteenth century was whether it is a legitimate pursuit to search for reasons for the laws of the Torah. Maimonides and his followers believed that there is a lesson, capable of being discovered by man, for every Torah law. In fact, it id desirable to seek the reason because then a person is better equipped to carryout an act if he understands why he is so obliged and because God is not a tyrant imposing arbitrary rules on human beings.

Many took issue with Maimonides. They held that the exercise was fraught with danger. If reasons are given there are bound to be instances where the reason will not apply and people will assume that the law is dropped. Moreover, a human mind, which is fallible, is incapable of grasping the immeasurable wisdom of the Creator, so that to search for the reason behind Divine statements is sheer presumption. People should obey the law because God commanded them. There need be no other motive, nor can any other be so satisfactory.

The Rashba (Responsa #94), Solomon Ibn Aderet of Barcelona (1235 -1310), observed that the Mitzvot are directed to the body, but contain hints for the soul. There are deep spiritual aims for all the commandments over and above the physical performance of the law. “I have seen an end to every purpose; but Your commandment is exceedingly broad.” (Psalms 119:96)

Shabbat is the best example: The Torah offers an explicit reason for Shabbat: “For in six days God made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased from work and rested.” (Exodus 31:17) But this is only the plain meaning of the text. In reality, the institution of Shabbat contains a most exalted mystery. Even according to the plain meaning, there are numerous other ideas of the utmost significance such as Divine Providence and “Creatio ex nihilo”

There are three aspects to the commandments: mouth, heart and soul. The mouth aspect is the study of Torah so that we can appreciate its wisdom. The heart is the power of discernment through which one obtains knowledge of the secret things. The hand refers to the actual practice of the Mitzvot.

I would like to use the next few Music of Halacha essays to explore what the Rashba described as the mouth aspect of a Mitzvah, in the context of speech on Shabbat.

Our working text will be the following verse and selection from the Talmud: “If you restrain your foot because it is Shabbat; refrain from accomplishing your own needs on My holy day; if you proclaim Shabbat a delight, and the holy day of God as honored, and you honor it by not engaging in your own affairs, from seeking your own needs or dabair davar – discussing the forbidden.” (Isaiah 58:13) “One’s speech on Shabbat should not be the same as his speech during the week.” (Shabbat 113)

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