Taamei haMitzvos

Until adultery became too commonplace (in the days of Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai, shortly after the destruction of the Beis haMiqdash) a wife whose husband suspected her of having an affair could forbid her from secluding herself with that man. If they are caught in seclusion, she is brought to the Beis haMidqash where a kohein would write the relevent wrds from the Torah, erase them in waster, and then float dust from under the floor of the Temple on top of it, and give her to drink. If she was guilty, and her husband wasn’t also having an affair, and she had no special offsetting merit (which could delay the effect), she would die a gruesome death.

(One thing to note is that unlike Xian Trial by Ordeal, in this case it takes a miracle to be found guilty, not to be saved. No killing of “false witches” in this process.)

The Talmud Yerushalmi (Sotah 2:2, vilna daf 10b) gives this explanation for the recipe for Mei Sotah (translation mine):

And why water and dirt?

Water — from where she came.

Dirt — to where she is going.

Writing — before Whom she is destined to give [self-] judgment and accounting.

Over there the mishnah says:

Aqavia ben Mehallel would say: Look at 3 things, and you will never come under the control of sin. [1st half of Avos 3:1]

This in itself is a beautiful thought, and it would be worth posting just for its own sake. But I also found the continuation of the gemara interesting:

R’ Aba berei deR’ Papi and R’ Yehoshua of Sikhnin in the name of R Levi: Aqavia darshened these three from one verse [Qoheles 12:1], “And you should remember your Creator — Bor’ekha — in your days of youth…” [Which can be read:] “Be’eirekha“, “Borekha” [with no alef, or] Bor’ekha.

Be’erekha — from where you came.

Borekha — to the place where you are going.

Bor’ekha — before What you are destined to give [self‑]judgement and an accounting.

If we only saw the version of Aqavia ben Mehalalel’s thought that is in Avos, we wouldn’t get the same focus on our relationship to the Creator as Rabbi Levi gives it by his choice of source text. Not only is it He before Whom do we get final judgment, but our Creator is also the Wellspring from which we came and the destination to which we are going. All are found in the same word.

I posted this gemara to serve an example. So do yourself a favor and pause to enjoy the gemara before reading on.


It is rare that a ritual gets this kind of explication by Chazal so I therefore want to use it as a springboard for airing some approaches to the study of taamei hamitzvos — the reasons for mitzvos, or perhaps the meanings one can glean from mitzvos. And in particular, why Rav Hirsch’s approach which held such an attraction for me at one point in my life stopped doing so.

Ta’am hamitzvah is more literally the mitzvah‘s “taste”, which might lean toward the latter. If it were clear how to take the phrase, there would be little point for the rest of this post. What do we suggest is the connection between Aqavia ben Mehalalel’s three things and the mitzvah of sotah? It’s not inevitable that a woman given water with text dissolved in it and dirt floating on top is going to think “Oy, I came from liquid, I’m going to the grave, and my soul will have to stand in judgment — what am I doing?” So how to we understand this mitzvah makes this ta’am manifest? I see a scale of various possibilities, each of the following options overlaps with those immediately before and after it:

1- One could suggest it’s mystical. The ingredients move forces around in the higher worlds.

I’m too much of a rationalist to find refuge in it as a general approach; I don’t personally get a “ta’am” from mysticism’s emotional charge through realizing one is confronting something greater than the human mind. It seems more like saying the ta’am is out of reach. But regardless of general approach, how would it work when the ta’am hamitzvah is so blatantly placed in cognitive terms — “look at”, “know from where”?

2- There are levels of the soul which reach above those we are aware of. Thus, the sotah‘s soul can be moved by impressions on a level her conscious mind does not realize. I’m thinking of those who apply this idea to davening, by someone who doesn’t understand the siddur. The idea that the person’s soul understands the Hebrew they are saying even if they are unaware of it, and thus it still has value.

3- It needn’t be a lofty, otherworldly explanation, once we invoke unconscious processes. It could be that the person is shaped by associations even if they are unaware of those associations. It could be that water, dirt and scripture are Jungian symbols that have inherent meaning just based on the unchanging elements of the human condition, and thereby psychologically shape a person in ways they don’t realize.

4- Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch’s (RSRH) position is that mitzvos involve communication from the Creator via symbols. Rav Hirsch acknowledges natural symbols, such as tears and laughter where the meaning is innate in the symbol, as well as those established by convention. See Collected Writings vol. III pp 3 onward. (A chunk is missing from Google Books’ preview, though.) About those base on convention, he gives a list of symbols and a variety of their possible meanings, then writes (pg 12):

We can gain clarity about all these queries only if we first seek to establish, independently of the pictorial representation, the intention of the one who executed the picture, and the context of time and place in which the picture originated. Indeed, depending on him who devised it, and on the person to whom it is addressed, one and the same symbol or symbolic act may represent to diametrically opposed concepts.

And on page 55 (in the chapter titled “Symbolism in Jewish Law”):

IN general, whenever a bodily act of commission or omission whose natural, primary effect would only be physical, is expressed for a purpose that is not physical but spiritual, and, according to the wording of the law, is expected to yield spiritual results, that act must have a symbolic relationship to that purpose and to those results. The commanded act of commission or omission itself must have spiritual significance; it must serve to express an abstract thought, and so we see we are dealing with acts that are undeniably of symbolic character.

Symbols are a place where intellect and emotions intersect. Through contemplating a symbol, one can glean through analogy more details about the idea being represented. And through interaction with something more sensory, the person confronts the idea on a plane where it makes more emotional impact.

The problem I have with this, which eventually alienated me from my earlier love of Horeb, is that symbols are only of value to those who are aware of them. Anyone who isn’t aware of Hirschian Symbology would get next to nothing out of performing most of the mitzvos. Especially the two categories of mitzvos RSRH calls osos and edios , which are symbols established by Hashem yisbarakh or that reflect events of history (respectively), rather than innate symbols self-evident to all people. It would mean that the vast majority of observant Jews (and Noachides) through the ages left the world with souls little changed by all that observance, because they didn’t have the symbology key.

This problem truly bothers me, so let me elaborate on it further. Looking back at our example, yes, the beis din that the kohanim maintained to interpret their rites could have standardized explaining the symbology to the sotah but

  1. if they did it’s not mentioned by Chazal — which makes it either less likely or …
  2. less important. We know such explaining not mandatory, meaning the mitzvah has value without the explanation anyway. And…
  3. our question is a general one about the Hirschian Symbologic approach to taamei hamitzvos, not just sotah. I phrased it in terms of sotah because it’s an example from chazal rather than from RSRH, an acharon who lived after Ashkenaz’s split into derakhim (“Isms”) — and thus his philosophy has far from universal impact.

To rephrase the question around another example: What does Rav Hirsch believe is the value of basar bechalav to people who don’t know anything about an association to keeping human creativity separate from animal procreativity? Did the more than 99 44/100% of the observant Jewish population over the history of time gain nothing from obeying the issur because they didn’t know the key to the symbol and thus didn’t get the truth being communicated?

5- Rav JB Soloveichik understands the search for taamei hamitzvos not in terms of understanding why Hashem commanded something, but as lessons to take post-facto, derashos. RJBS even uses the word “hermeneutics”. This position is very consistent with the Brisker notion as developed by his ancestors that halakhah only stands on halachic terms with First Principles that stand logically prior to the din.

So how would you understand the association given in the opening gemara? (Nothing like overtly begging for comments…)

Personally, I believe both #2 and #3. This flows from my own idiosyncratic metaphysics, in which the difference between speaking of forces in higher worlds and of humans internalizing more abstract ideas and ideals is one of language, not substance. (See the post “Maimonidian Qabbalah“.)

Don’t Present Oneself as a Liar!

צריך שיהיו תפילין עליו בשעת ק”ש ותפלה.

A man must have tefillin on at the time of reading Shema and prayer [Shemoneh Esrei].

- Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayim 25:4

בשעת ק”ש ותפלה: ר”ל לכל הפחות בשעת ק”ש ותפלה וכדלקמן בסימן ל”ז ס”ב ואמרינן בגמרא כל הקורא ק”ש בלי תפלין הרי הוא כאלו מעיד עדות שקר בעצמו ח”ו ופירשו בתוספות לפי שאומר וקשרתם לאות וגו’ ואין קושר ואף שבדיעבד יצא ידי ק”ש מ”מ יש לו עבירה מצד אחר שמראה על עצמו שאין רוצה לקיים רצון הש”י וזהו עדות שקר שמעיד על עצמו ויש עוד פי’ אחר עיין בלבוש וכתב בספר חרדים דמזה נלמוד כשאומר ואהבת את ד’ וגו’ יראה להכניס אהבת הש”י בלבו שלא יהיה כדובר שקר ח”ו. ודע דלא אמרו כן אלא כשעושה כן במזיד שמתעצל להניח תפלין קודם ק”ש אבל מי שאין לו תפלין או כשהוא בדרך ומחמת קור וצינה אינו יכול להניח תפלין וכל כה”ג בודאי אין לו לאחר ק”ש בזמנה מחמת זה. לבוש בסימן נ”ח והעתקתי שם את לשונו עי”ש:

At the time of reading Shema and prayer: Meaning to say, at the very least during reading Shema and prayer. As it says later in 37:2.

As it says in the gemara, “Whomever reads Shema without tefillin, he is as though he gives false testimony about himself ch”v.” And its explanation in Tosafos is that according to what [Shema] says “and you shall tie them as a sign…” and he isn’t tying. Even though post-facto he fulfilled the obligation of reading Shema, still he has a sin from another angle in that he makes himself look like he doesn’t want to do Hashem’s will. And that’s the [talmud's] “false testimony” that he “says about himself,” (There is also another explanation, see the Levush.)

It is written in the Seifer Chareidim that from this we will learn from when [Shema] says “You shall love Hashem…” a person should look [for ways to] being love of Hashem into his heart, so that he will not be like someone telling lies ch”v(emphasis added)

But someone who doesn’t have tefillin, or is traveling and because of cold or heat he cannot put on tefillin, or anything of the like, certainly he should not delay Shema beyond the proper time for this reason. (Levush, siman 58, and I checked his language there, c.f.)

- Mishnah Berurah ad loc, #14

Obvious, no? If I’m careful to wear tefillin when saying Shema, so that we do not look like hypocrits, how the more so should I be careful to actually recommit to loving Hashem and finding ways to increase that love! So why is it so hard to remember to actually do so?

No rest for the weary…

(This post is a different treatment of the same themes as “Mas’ei — the Journey as a Name of G-d“.)

וַיֵּשֶׁב יַעֲקֹב בְּאֶרֶץ מְגוּרֵי אָבִיו בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן.

And Yaaqov settled in the land of his fathers’ dwelling, in the land of Canaan.

Bereishis 37:1

(איוב ט) “אם שוט ימית פתאום…”
אנטונינוס שאל את רבינו, אמר לו: מהו דכתיב: אם שוט ימית פתאום?
אמר רבי: גזור דיסב מאה מגלבין, והוא יהיבין מאה דינרים, דין סכום לדין, ודין סכום לדין, ולא מפקין מידיה כלום, כענין הזה מלעיג על המוכה. (שם) למסת נקיים ילעג.
אמר רבי אחא: בשעה שהצדיקים יושבים בשלוה, ומבקשים לישב בשלוה בעולם הזה, השטן בא ומקטרג. אמר: לא דיין שהוא מתוקן להם לעולם הבא, אלא שהם מבקשים לישב בשלוה בעולם הזה. תדע לך שהוא כן, יעקב אבינו ע”י שבקש לישב בשלוה בעוה”ז, נזדווג לו שטנו של יוסף.

“If the scourge slay suddenly[, it will mock the tragedy of the blameless.]” (Iyov 9:23)

Anthony asked our rebbe [R' Yehudah haNasi]. He said so him “What does it mean, ‘If the scourge slay suddenly…’?”

Rebbe answered: [Say] it was decreed that he would have 100 lashes and he would get 100 dinar [for his suffering]. But only the full amount [of lashes] matches the full amount [of pay], and the full amount [of pay] matches the full amount [of lashes]. Like this they mock the battered — “it will mock the tragedy of the blameless”.

Rav Acha said: “When the righteous dwell in tranquillity or desire to dwell in tranquillity in this world, the satan comes and accuses. He says: ‘Is it not enough that which is prepared for them in the World to Come not enough, that they seek to dwell in tranquility in this world?’  You should know that this is so, for Yaaqov avinu sought to dwell in serenity in this world and the ‘Satan’ of Yosef attached himself to Yaakov: ‘Yaakov settled down’, but ‘I had no tranquility, no quiet, no rest, and trouble came’ (Iyov 3:26):

  • ‘I had no tranquility’—from Esav;
  • ‘No quiet’—from Lavan;
  • ‘No rest’—from Dina;
  • ‘And trouble came’—the trouble of Yosef.”

- Medrash Rabba ad loc (84:3), quoted by Rashi

Why is it so terrible that Yaaqov wanted to rest? He finally got out from behind his conflicts with Eisav and with Lavan, would it have been so bad had Hashem just given him a few years of peace?

Rashi  quotes Rav Acha. The righteous are getting the world to come, that should be enough for them. The reason why, though, is more inherent in Rebbe’s words. A person is in this world to accomplish something. No matter how much that person accomplishes, getting only most of the way there isn’t getting the job done.

בן זומא אומר: … איזהו עשיר? השמח בחלקו. שנאמר: (תהלים קכח:ב): ”יגיע כפיך כי תאכל אשריך וטוב לך.” “אשריך” — בעולם הזה. “וטוב לך” — לעולם הבא.

Ben Zoma would say: … Who is rich? He who is satisfied with his lot. As it is said: ‘When you eat from the toil of your hands, you are fortunate and it is good for you’ (Psalms 128:2). ‘You are fortunate’ — in this world; ‘and it is good for you’ — in the World to Come.

– Avos 4:1

When speaking publicly, I often use this story from the Kotzker Rebbe, a Chassidic master known for his sharp wit.

The Kotzker Rebbe once asked his students: There are two people on a ladder, one on the fourth rung, and another on the 10th, which one is higher?

The book where I saw this thought doesn’t record his students’ answers. I assume some recognized it as a trick question, and answered that it was the one on the fourth, some answered the 10th figuring the rebbe was leading them somewhere, and others were silent. But the rebbe’s answer was succinct, “It depends who is climbing the ladder, and who is going down.”

What is relevant isn’t our state at any point in time, it’s how we’re changing.

Given that idea, I think ben Zoma’s notion of my lot in life is the path Hashem placed before me to travel. Not where I stand now physically, socially, psychologically or spiritually. Not even where G-d is leading me. My lot is the trip along the way. The whole roller coaster ride, the peaks and the dips.

My lot isn’t what I have at any particular point in time. Not in the physical sense, although someone who makes $25,000 a year and is content is certainly wealthier than the millionare who is consumed with craving his next million. My lot, in ben Zoma’s sense, isn’t even my current spiritual state. It’s the road I’m to travel.

And I think this was Yaaqov avinu‘s mistake. He chose to rest, thinking it was time to be content with what he had then, rather than the notion of life in the process. He hadn’t finished all the work necessary for his life’s mission; it wasn’t time yet to stop.

I think this understanding is reinforced by Ben Zoma’s choice of proof-text and its image of eating by the work of one’s hands. “‘Fortunate’ in this world”, along the way, “and ‘it is good for you’ in the world to come” in terms of what you accomplish. The verse’s language can be taken as one of process, working toward a goal.

Here is the test to find whether your mission on Earth is finished: if you’re alive, it isn’t.

- Richard Bach

The Alter of Kelm (R’ Simcha Zisl Ziv 1824-1898, Lithuania) says something similar in Chomkhmah uMussar, but nothing I could figure out how to reduce to a “sound bite”. Self perfection is the work of a life-time, but that’s exactly why we were given a lifetime.

The whole being-vs-becoming distinction is central to existentialism. Kierkegaard’s central problem was that of becoming a Christian, in explicit contrast to being one.

Sartre’s “Existence precedes the essence” is about the fact that the essence of a person is the process his existence follows. And thus a person exists before his essence does. In contrast to a building, where the essence inhabits the architect’s mind and blueprints before it exists. You could know everything there is to know about a table just by knowing how it will be built and what it’s from. Essence precedes existence. Not so for people.

[M]an first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world — and defines himself afterwards.

- Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism

Here’s a related thought from R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch’s (1808-1888, Germany) commentary on themes from Mishlei:

Man can aspire to spiritual-moral greatness which is seldom fully achieved and easily lost again. Fulfillment lies not in a final goal, but in an eternal striving for perfection.

The Alter of Novhardok (R’ Yosef-Yoizl Horowitz 1849-1919) studied under the aforementioned Alter of Kelm. (Alter is a title meaning “elder”; the intent of their students in using this title was to connote a grandfather-grandson relationship.) Here’s a related quote, also from my signature generator, from his Madreigas ha’Adam, but written in the reverse:

Man wants to achieve greatness overnight, and he wants to sleep well that night too.

Last, a thought from the Mussar Movement’s founder, R’ Yisrael Salanter (Lipkin 1810-1883, Lithuania), along the same lines as R’ Hirsch (above):

One doesn’t learn mussar to be a tzaddik, but to become a tzaddik.

The knowledge that this process is what constitutes my curriculum, something tailored specifically for the needs of my soul is quite comforting. The notion that there is something that Hashem’s plan for the universe needed me to do — and only I can do it.

The “payment” Rebbe speaks of is the World to Come. And perhaps, although this may just be homiletics, we could use this identification of “cheileq” (lot / portion) with the person’s entire path through life to explain a grammatical anomaly in another mishnah. The first mishnah in Sanhedrin pereq “Cheileq” (ch. 10 or 11, depending upon edition) begins:

כל ישראל יש להם חלק לעולם הבא. שנאמר (ישעיה ס) “וְעַמֵּךְ כֻּלָּם צַדִּיקִים, לְעוֹלָם יִירְשׁוּ אָרֶץ; נֵצֶר מטעו מַטָּעַי מַעֲשֵׂה יָדַי, לְהִתְפָּאֵר.”

All of Israel [Rambam: in good standing, i.e. those who believe the 13 foundations of our faith] have a portion toward the world to come. As it says “And your nation, they are all righteous, they shall inherit the land eternally; the branch of My planting, the work of My hands, for glorifying Myself.”

(The proof is based on the idea that only the World to Come is a “land” which a person holds eternally.)

Notice the mishnah says that every Jew has a “cheileq le‘olam haba — a portion toward the world to come.” Why doesn’t it say “cheileq be‘olam haba – a portion in the world to come”? Perhaps the mishnah is referring to cheileq in our sense of the term, a person’s lot in terms of their entire existence. In which case, we should translate the mishnah as, “All of Israel have an existence that is a path leading to the world to come”. And, as the Rambam warns, assuming they choose to actually grasp that entire path and walk the road to its intended conclusion.

When I start to feel like I’ve been treading water too long and my arms are getting tired and I’m scared that my head will soon go under, I try to return to the mental image that epiphany gave me. (And I hope I relayed, as it’s hard to convey an epiphany, as I can’t share that “Aha!” feeling, just paint the ideas.)  It doesn’t always work, but overall the idea helps keep me sane.

My lot in life is the ladder that I alone can climb. This is climbing the ladder, the process of becoming, Rav Hirsch’s “eternal striving”, the work of a lifetime, not a single night (with a good night’s sleep fitted into it, to boot!). It is the job for which G-d created me as I am, when I live and where I live, with the people I know, the responsibilities I face, and the challenges He throws at me, solely because this is something His great plan required that required his having a Micha Berger to do it.