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Parsha Mitzvot: Vayakhel: Reason for Shabbat

A hotly debated question in the 13th century was whether it is a legitimate pursuit to search for reasons for the mitzvot of the Torah. Maimonides and his followers believe that there is a reason, capable of being discovered by man, for every mitzvah of the Torah. It is desirable to seek the reason because a man is better equipped to carry out an act if he knows why he is obliged to do so, and because God is no tyrant imposing arbitrary rules on man.

There was also the apologetic motive. To defend Judaism one had to show the reasonableness of its laws. Maimonides devotes the major portion of the third section of his Guide of the Perplexed to a detailed statement of the reasons he had discovered even for the seemingly most unreasonable mitzvot.

Others, on the other hand, held the whole exercise to be fraught with danger. If reasons are given there are bound to be instances where the reason will not apply and the mitzvah will then be set as naught. Moreover, the fallible human mind is incapable of grasping the immeasurable wisdom of the creator, so that to search for the reason behind divine statements is sheer presumption. The devout should obey the laws because God commanded them. There nearly need the no other motive, nor can any other piece of satisfactory. No truly religious person should appear to question God’s wisdom by asking why he commanded this or that.

The Rashba pursues a course of his own. The questioner asked the Rashba to explain the reasons for the mitzvot. He was especially concerned with the reason for the law that the mother bird be sent away when the young are taken; a question discussed in the Talmud and by Maimonides, and which became the focus for the whole debate on the reasons for the precepts.

The Rashba observes that the mitzvot are directed to the body but contain hints for the soul, over and above the acts enjoined, there are deep spiritual aims for all the mitzvot. Even when the Torah gives a reason for a mitzvah it is not the only one, but in reality: “I have seen an end to every purpose; but your commandment is exceeding broad (Psalms 119:96).”

The Sabbath is a good example. The reason for Sabbath observance given explicitly in the Torah is: “For in six days God made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased from work and rested.” But this is only the plain meaning of the text. In reality, the institution of the Sabbath “contains a most exalted mystery.” And, even according to the plain meaning, there are numerous other ideas of the utmost significance such as God’s providence and creation ex nihilo.

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