Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Walk Article




Rabbi David Walk




We all do mitzvoth all the time, but don't often think about the categories into which these actions fall.  Which type of mitzvah is the most pure or authentic?  Probably your first thought is:  It's the mitzvah which I do with the most sincerity or passion.  We all know that there are mitzvoth we do with great devotion, because we clearly feel the spiritual purpose of the deed.  While other times our mitzvah performance resembles a kid being dragged off to the dentist (Sorry to any devoted readers who are dentists, but we know the truth.  We've all seen The Little Shop of Horrors.).  I maintain that to a certain embarrassing extent it's the mitzvah which we do in spite of kicking, screaming and biting which is the most authentic.  That's because the word mitzvah doesn't mean 'good deed' or 'spiritual act'; it means a commanded act.  The root is tzivui, which means command or order.  The purest mitzvah may be the one I perform because I must.  Not because I want to. 


So, we generally categorize our mitzvoth into two groups.  We usually call them chukim and mishpatim.  The mishpatim tend to be the mitzvoth that we understand.  These are laws that we would institute ourselves, like rules of robbery and murder.  The Chukim, on the other hand, are those mitzvoth which we don't really understand why God commanded us to keep them.  In this category are things like keeping kosher or not wearing linen and wool woven together (shatnez).  The most famous example of these practices is, of course, the red heifer (para aduma), which appears in this week's Torah reading.  That makes this a great week to look into the issue of the different flavors of mitzvoth.


Rabbeinu Bechaye (ben Asher, 1255-1340) also used this week's parsha as an opportunity to discuss the varieties of mitzvoth.   He suggested that there are three kinds of mitzvoth.  He called the mishpatim mitzvoth muscalot or intelligible laws, from the Hebrew word seichel meaning intelligence, and in Yiddish it means common sense.  The chukim are called the mitzvoth whose reasons are not revealed, not very catchy, but descriptive.  But he also lists a category called Mitzvoth Mekubalot (from kibail, to receive).  These are mitzvoth which we never would have instituted them ourselves, but once we have them we understand their purpose quite well.  For example there is Shabbat to remind us that God created heaven and earth, there are Tefilin which declare that our thoughts and actions are under the influence of God and there is Pesach to revisit and relive the exodus every year.   There are many such mitzvoth and we call them Eidot or testimony precepts.  In another comment (Numbers 15:39) Rabbeinu Bechaye only counts two categories of mitzvoth, those we have accepted (Mekubalot) and those we would have instituted ourselves (Mishpatim).  In that comment the Eidot are subsumed within the Mekubalot.  We'll understand why later.


There is a famous question among the rabbis about when it is necessary to recite a blessing over a mitzvah performance.  We all know that before we shake a lulav on Sukkot we say a bracha.  However, we're also aware that before we give Tzadakah or charity we don't say a blessing.  Does that mean that charity is less important than lulav shaking?  I don't think so.  A famous answer that's been suggested over the years concerns Chasidim.  It's been said that if a blessing were required before charitable donations that a Chasid would have to go to the Mikve and then say long preparatory prayers.  By time he got around to saying the blessing and giving the charity the poor beggar would have died from starvation (maybe old age).  I think that we can come up with more reasonable answers to this query.


Many authorities over the years have suggested that only mitzvoth with clearly specified actions carry the recitation of a blessing.  For example the wrapping of a Talit is a very clear action.  Put on a four cornered garment with fringes on the corners and then say the blessing.   No problem.  But a mitzvah like respecting one's parents can be fulfilled in an infinite number of ways.  Therefore, there is no bracha.  Tzedaka is similar.  Maimonides lists eight ways that we can fulfill it. The more amorphous the mitzvah is, the less likely that there will be a blessing.


There is another approach.  There are rabbis who claim that mitzvoth between man and God, like tzitzit, tefilin, or circumcision, carry a blessing.  While mitzvoth between humans, like giving charity or making a Shiva call, do not require a bracha.


However, Rabbeinu Bechaye presents a different explanation.  He suggests that mitzvoth which are dictated by God and that we would never have enacted ourselves, those are the mitzvoth which require a blessing.  On the other hand, mitzvoth like being kind, giving charity or visiting the sick, don't carry a bracha, because we might have figured out on our own that we should perform them.  This explains why Rabbeinu Bechaye sometimes only enumerates two kinds of mitzvoth.  There are those which don't have a blessing, because we should know that we need to do them.  And there are mitzvoth over which we recite a blessing, because God commanded that we do them.  It just so happens that the second group has two types, those we understand and those we don't.


Now, I believe that we can give a definitive answer to my original question:  Which type of performance is most pure?  Clearly it's those acts which are described and demanded by God.  Look at the wording of the blessings recited over mitzvoth:  Blessed are you God, Lord of the Universe who has sanctified us with Divine mitzvoth, and commanded us to (fill in the blank).  The system is based upon us listening to God and following commands.   It's wonderful to be a self starter who does many marvelous things on their own, but the goal is to be a servant of God.  So, Chukim are pretty special and important.  Someday we'll even do the logic based mitzvoth only because God asked us to.

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