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“.)

24 thoughts on “Taamei haMitzvos

  1. You wrote

    “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.”

    I have to differ strongly with you on this. Who says one is supposed “to get” something “out of performing (most of) the mitzvos” more than the satisfaction of having done the will of the Creator? RSRH emphasizes time and again that we are supposed to do the mitzvos, because HaShem commanded us to perform them. This should be enough, namely, the feeling that one has done the will of his creator. Understanding may be an added bonus, but it is no means required.

    I put on my tefillen this morning with bracha knowing that this is what I am commanded to do. Is more needed? Not for me.

    To give a real world example. If a parent asks a child to do something for him or her, shouldn’t the child be satisfied simply because s/he did what the parent asked even if s/he does not understand the reason why the parent wants this thing done?

    Dr. Yitzchok Levine

    • RBM: I don’t know of R’ Hirsch saying anything outright about a lack of cosmic or practical value. I am only commenting on his system of attributing value through symbolisms. It could well be RSRH also held there were other sources of value. But that doesn’t redeem his symbology approach.

      R/Prof Levine: I’m not sure what you mean. RSRH writes about the function of mitzvos at length — aside from random other mentions, this is the thesis of both Horeb and Collected Writings vol III. Yes, my motive should simply be “ana avda deQudeshah berikh Hu”, but R’ Hirsch is explicitly telling you there is something else you get out of mitzvos. Not in the sense of motive, but he certainly does assert that most mitzvos inclucate through symbols. And also that most symbols are meaningless without the two sides agreeing on their meaning. So again I ask, if most observant Jews did and do not know Hirschian symbols, how can these ideas be taam hamitzvah for them? There is no value coming from the Horeb system for the vast majority of mitzvah performances.

      • R. Micha wrote, “So again I ask, if most observant Jews did and do not know Hirschian symbols, how can these ideas be taam hamitzvah for them? There is no value coming from the Horeb system for the vast majority of mitzvah performances.”

        For those who do not know about it it has no value. For those who do, there is value. I fail to see why this is a problem at all.

        • I’m not sure what you’re saying, and It seems I’m missing something that also left me befuddled with R Bob Miller’s comment.

          Rav Hirsch says that mitzvos gain their meaning from their being the transmission of lessons from Hashem to us via the use of symbols. He also says that while some symbols have innate meaning, most are the product of convention.

          It seems we are in agreement that such meaning would only be true of people who were taught that convention, and therefore are capable of internalizing the lesson. And that such people are a small minority of the generations of Jews who observe the mitzvos.

          You write “For those who do not know about it it has no value. For those who do, there is value. I fail to see why this is a problem at all.”

          Were mitzvos given in order to be meaningful to just a small minority of the Jewish people, and Hashem didn’t intend the overwhelming majority of mitzvah acts to benefit the world or the person performing them?

          You seem to still be discussing the functionalist question — what motivates me to observe. I agree that “ana avda deQBH should be sufficient motivation.” But taamei hamitzvos is about a theological question — getting at least pieces and aspects of Hashem’s motivation for commanding these particular acts.

          • R. Micha wrote, “Rav Hirsch says that mitzvos gain their meaning from their being the transmission of lessons from Hashem to us via the use of symbols. He also says that while some symbols have innate meaning, most are the product of convention.”

            Where does he say this? Quotes please.

            R. Micha also wrote, “Were mitzvos given in order to be meaningful to just a small minority of the Jewish people, and Hashem didn’t intend the overwhelming majority of mitzvah acts to benefit the world or the person performing them?”

            Why are you assuming that mitzvos are meaningful only when viewed from RSRH’s perspective? They can be meaningful to an individual from a variety of perspectives.

            R. Micha wrote, “You seem to still be discussing the functionalist question — what motivates me to observe.” No, what motivates me to observe is that they are commanded. The observance can be meaningful for a person for all sorts of reasons. There are those who find davening on Shabbos meaningful, because of the singing in shul. This is just one example.

            The online Webster’s dictionary gives “significant” in its definition of meaningful. Based on this one can say that a tragic experience is meaningful (significant) even if one cannot understand why it happened.

          • R. Micha wrote, “I’m not. I’m arguing that RSRH’s perspective doesn’t speak to me, because it suggests that the primary meaning of mitzvos only provide that meaning for a small minority.”

            I suspect, but I am not sure, that you are misunderstanding RSRH’s perspective. When you send me writings of RSRH that say what you assert they say, then we can debate further.

            Does Rav assert that *his* insights into the meaning of mitzvos is their “primary meaning”?

  2. I have a link to R’ Hirsch’s discussion within the blog entry, and quote outright where R’ Hirsch says that most symbols are established by convention.

    But in any case, I do not understand your words “Why are you assuming that mitzvos are meaningful only when viewed from RSRH’s perspective?” I’m not. I’m arguing that RSRH’s perspective doesn’t speak to me, because it suggests that the primary meaning of mitzvos only provide that meaning for a small minority.

  3. “I’m arguing that RSRH’s perspective doesn’t speak to me, because it suggests that the primary meaning of mitzvos only provide that meaning for a small minority.”

    But isn’t this the case for most theories of halachah? Both the Kabbalists and Rambam (along with RSRH) agree that the *full* benefits of observing mitzvot are only enjoyed by an elite.

  4. Dr Levine, I added a second quote from RSRH’s introduction to symbolism from Collected Writings volume III.

    I also do not know how someone who read the original blog entry could ask, “Does Rav assert that *his* insights into the meaning of mitzvos is their ‘primary meaning’?” Number 5 on my survey of approaches is R’ Solovetichik’s, which I characterized as specifically not looking for meanings of mitzvos as much as post-facto lessons we can take from those mitzvos. Contrast this to Horeb, the first third of Collected Writings III or even the two short quotes of the latter I retyped above — R’ Hirsch presents what he claims to be primary meanings, not post-facto lessons.

    Tzurah, there is a difference between saying that mitzvos have increased value when performed by someone knowledgable with proper kavanos, etc… and giving a primary meaning for mitzvos that only holds true for knowledgable people. One speaks of proportional value, the other is all-or-nothing.

    Another difference is that R’ Hirsch’s value depends on knowledge of a symbol system. The person can be very committed to doing Hashem’s Will, but being non-Hirschians they happened to never have learned his semniotics. Their mitzvos must have some value, but Hirschian Symbology isn’t its source. Thus implying that there is a different source of value to performing mitzvos other than R’ Hirsch’s.

  5. RSRH’s symbolism can be rather involved. Given the obvious level of study one needs to be consistently cognizant of the symbology, I find it hard to believe that RSRH would consider that an unlearned but pious Jew lacking in the knowledge of the symbolism is completely wasting him time by doing mitzvot.

    I’ve only read through snippets of Horev, but I have read through most of the multivolume Chumash commentary, so I’ve read a decent amount of his discussions of various symbols, but I never got the sense the RSRH considers there to be absolutely no benefit to Jews doing mitzvot while lacking in this knowledge. Do you have a “money-quote” showing that RSRH takes such a strong all-or-nothing approach?

    But then again, let’s take the extreme position and say that the only value of the masses of unleaned Jews performing mitzvot is to carry on the tradition, so that those more learned that come after them may benefit by having their conscious mind trained towards God through mitzvot. Is that any worse than the Rambam’s elitism, which is simplisticly put, that “the role of mitzvot is to enable one to better know God, and if you don’t manage to achieve that, then too bad”?

    • We’re now retracing steps I took with Dr Levine. I’m not assessing R’ Hirsch’s beliefs, but the usability of his symbology system to answer the question of taamei hamitzvos. R’ Hirsch could well have believed in other sources of value that for some reason he didn’t think was a message for his target audience. But that doesn’t add usability to the symbol idea.

      According to the Rambam, the minimum knowledge of G-d necessary to get something out of the Jewish project is the 13 Iqarim. They’re listed in his explanation of the mishnah, “All of Israel have a portion toward the World to Come”, in particular defining who qualifies as an Israelite in good standing with regard to this mishnah. So the Rambam’s demand is very minimal, in that every non-heretic would qualify.

  6. 1- I think he’s historically right but halachically wrong. Regardless of how we got here, posqim today use the Rambam’s definition of heresy when defining heretics (ie people who embrace heretical beliefs in an act of rebellion) with regard to stam yeinam and geirus.

    2- It’s irrelevent when discussing a sentence that started with “according to the Rambam”. Discussions of whether we follow the Rambam, ought to be following the Rambam, etc… have nothing to do with answering Tzurah’s question about the Rambam’s position and elitism.

    The Rambam himself does hold like the Rambam, even according to R/Dr Melech Shapiro.

  7. Even if Rav Hirsch ZT”L attributes a primary meaning to a mitzvah that not all may understand or agree to, I doubt he felt that accessing only the other levels of meaning would deprive someone of credit for the mitzvah. Talmud Torah can also be practiced on various levels, only some of which a non-Gadol understands.

  8. The following is from page 48 of Robert Liberles’ article “Champion of Orthodoxy: The Emergence of Samson Raphael Hirsch a Religious Leader, AJS Review, Vol. 6 (1981).

    In Horeb, Hirsch adopted [Michael] Creizenach’s [leader of the Reform party in Frankfurt] idea and composed his own encyclopedia of Jewish law. In contrast to his predecessor Hirsch attempted to attain a spiritual understanding of Jewish law without infringing upon the significance of ritual practice: “Even, therefore, if every
    divine precept were a riddle to us … the obligatory power of the commandments
    would not in the slightest degree be impaired …. We should have to perform them, not
    because there was this reason or another for any commandment, but
    because God had ordained it.” The practice of law could not be affected by
    the search for spiritual understanding. Hirsch, therefore, returned to a traditional
    distinction in Jewish learning between the study of law and of legend.
    But in Hirsch’s formulation, aggadah became identified with that specific
    endeavor of providing legal practice with spiritual meaning: “There will
    accordingly be two spheres of thought engaged in the exposition of the
    divine law, differing only in the sources from which they draw their knowledge.
    One school will concern itself with the comprehension of the utterances
    regulating our practical conduct and with the lessons also concerned
    with practice, that can be derived almost exclusively from the tradition….
    The other school will concern itself with reflecting and pondering on the
    law, and its source of knowledge will be the illuminating power of insight
    which dwells more or less within each individual.” Critical control over
    these subjective interpretations was to be provided by the specific details of
    the ritual: “The more closely a view regarding any law corresponds to the
    component part of the law .. . such that it can be represented as embodying
    the basic idea through which all the details of the law can be coordinated … the more will such a view commend itself to us.”

    • Again, you are defending the man, not the theory.

      Where in his taamei hamitzvos theory is there anything that explains the value — not the obligation, but the taam — of doing the mitzvah if you don’t know his symbol system?

      And since I can’t find one, I searched for different theories of taamei hamitzvos.

      I am not saying that Rav Hirsch didn’t believe such value exists, or that we shouldn’t be doing mitzvos whose value is purely that of obedience. I said he didn’t provide me with a usable explanation of the value of mitzvos, and therefore as a system for finding kavanah when acting, it rings hollow to me.

  9. R. Micha wrote, “Where in his taamei hamitzvos theory is there anything that explains the value — not the obligation, but the taam — of doing the mitzvah if you don’t know his symbol system?:

    Doesn’t Rav Hirsch’s statement quoted above, namely, “Even, therefore, if every
    divine precept were a riddle to us … the obligatory power of the commandments
    would not in the slightest degree be impaired …. We should have to perform them, not
    because there was this reason or another for any commandment, but
    because God had ordained it.”, make it clear that just doing a mitzvah is its value?

    For example, you wrote above, “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?”

    The value is the keeping of the mitzvah, because he says that even it we did not understand anything about why we should keep it, we would have to keep it. Doesn’t a person get reward for observance? He most certainly does! This is the value of the mitzvah, its eternal reward.

  10. The piece you quote says that obligation, fulfillment and even halachic interpretation do not depend on taam hamitzvah. R Hirsch does not say what the value would be; he asserts that even without knowing, we trust it exists and will follow the mitzvah even if blind.

    What I critiqued was a system that does purport to explain the “why” of mitzvos. So what if its author elsewhere plays down the need to know that “why”? How does that change questions about whether the answer is sufficient to the question?

    Or, as I wrote in the text you quoted, “the value — not the obligation, but the taam — of doing the mitzvah if you don’t know his symbol system”. So, yes, you should continue doing it without knowing a reason; but the whole point of Horeb, the Collected Writings III, and much of his commentary on Chumash is to leave you with such knowledge! I’m saying that because the reason for people who don’t know RSRH’s symbol system is still a closed book, it fails at what it sets out to do.

    • R. Micha wrote, “but the whole point of Horeb, the Collected Writings III, and much of his commentary on Chumash is to leave you with such knowledge! I’m saying that because the reason for people who don’t know RSRH’s symbol system is still a closed book, it fails at what it sets out to do.”

      But the rest of his Collected Writings have little in them about symbolism and most of his commentary on the Chumash except for Yayikra does not have much symbolism in it.

      I have to say that despite all of this back and forth, I do not understand what your problem is with RSRH’s writings.

      One has choice, study the symbolism or not. If one does not study the symbolism there is still a world of wonderful ideas and insights to learn from.

      • My problem is that the symbolism, because it must be studied to be of value, doesn’t answer the question it was proposed for.

        Say we say Hashem commanded esrog because of some alignment of the olamos ha’asiyah and hayetzirah or some such. Or that it operates on the soul or the psyche in ways we don’t understand, but are evident (or not) in retrospect. Such explanations presume that the mitzvah accomplishes Hashem’s goal in commanding this particular act even when the person doesn’t know the explanation.

        I can’t believe that Hashem’s goal in commanding those specific mitzvos requires my knowing that goal. And so, I do not believe that R’ Hirsch’s symbol system gives us a way to understand the function of various mitzvos and their dinim. They’re nice thoughts on R JB Soloveitchik’s “lessons we can take away from the activity” sense of taamei hamitzvos, but that’s not what R’ Hirsch said he was doing.

        • R. Micha wrote, “I can’t believe that Hashem’s goal in commanding those specific mitzvos requires my knowing that goal.”

          Can any human being really understand Hashem’s thoughts and goals? I really doubt it. We may come up with insights about all sorts of things, but are they really THE insights of Hashem. To think so would be, IMO, really presumptuous on our part.

          There are many things that have happened in my life that I do not understand, and I am convinced I will never understand. A mensch tracht un Gott Lacht!

  11. Are you going to say that even “lo sirtzach, lo sin’af, lo signov” have no elements for us humans to understand?

    In any case, you’re just bringing more arguments against what R’ Hirsch wrote. Did you follow the link I gave you, or skim the first part Collected Writings III yourself?

And your thoughts...?