Wednesday, January 07, 2009

The Concept of Rabbinic “Mitsvot”

We continue our examination of the introduction to the Mishneh Torah. After counting the 613 commandments, the Rambam proceeds to discuss the status of laws and practices that are not included in the 613 but the observance of which is nonetheless binding on the Jewish people. The Rambam notes that the comprehensiveness of the Mishneh Torah demands that it include the Rabbinic mitsvot and customs as well as Biblical laws. Rabbinic commandments, like their Biblical counterparts, require a great deal of elucidation and clarification, and the Rambam promises to provide this in his “textbook”.

At this point, the Rambam addresses the apparent contradiction between the prohibition of adding onto the Torah and the concept of Rabbinic commandments. If we are forbidden to formulate new commandments, how can the Rabbis enact new laws?

The Rambam introduces an important distinction to resolve this problem. He states that it all depends upon the way in which the Rabbinic institutions are presented to the people. Were the Prophets or Rabbis to claim that the laws they promulgate – such as the reading of the Megillah or washing hands before eating bread - have a Biblical source and that they had been revealed by G-d Himself, they would be guilty of violating the injunction against adding to the commandments of the Torah. However, since they honestly admit that these commandments are of Rabbinic origin and that the force of these laws derives from rabbinic authority alone, they are considered to be adding onto the mitsvot at all.

Finally, the Rambam concludes with a fascinating paragraph:

“…Rather, we say that the Prophets, together with the Court, instituted and commanded that the Megillah be read in its proper time – in order to make mention of the praises of the Holy One, Blessed is He, and the salvation he wrought for us, and the fact that He was near when we called out to Him – so that we should bless and thank Him, and in order to make known to future generations that the Torah was accurate when it promised that ‘what other great nation is there, to whom G-d is close, whenever we call out to Him.’ And along the same lines should we understand every Rabbinical commandment, whether it is positive or negative.”


Three fundamental difficulties must be addressed here:

First, why does the Rambam incorporate this discussion – i.e., the resolution of the apparent conflict between the creation of Rabbinic mitsvot and the prohibition of adding to the Torah - into his Introduction? Shouldn’t this kind of abstruse discussion be located somewhere else in the Mishneh Torah? (In fact, the Rambam revisits this issue in the Mishneh Torah when he addresses the authority of the Bet Din in the Book of Judges).

Second, it seems as if the Rambam is using doubletalk to resolve the contradiction he identifies. After all, what difference does it make whether the Rabbis characterize their commandments as Biblical or not; the fact is that they are increasing the number of laws that we are religiously required to observe, thereby adding onto the corpus of Torah legislation. The honesty and forthrightness of the Rabbis in presenting their commandments, although important, does not seem to be relevant to the question of whether they should be viewed as adding to the Torah or not.

Lastly, the Rambam’s final description of the reason for “All Rabbinical commandments, whether positive or negative”, doesn’t seem to be correct. Clearly, not all of the rabbinic laws are related to the idea that G-d responds to us in times of trouble. Laws like the requirement to wash our hands before consuming bread, or make an eruv tavshilin before a holiday, have nothing at all to do with G-d’s providential intercession on our behalf throughout history.

In order to resolve these problems, we must revisit and reflect upon an essential aspect of the Rambam's approach to mitsvot in general. One of the key messages that the Rambam is trying to convey to the readership of the Mishneh Torah is that the mitsvot are meant to be understood in the context of a principle-based conceptual framework and not in superficial or purely concrete terms. This requires looking beyond the practical implications and sensible manifestations of halakhic thought that preoccupy most Jews and considering the abstract structure that is accessible to the mind's eye alone.

Just as the Rambam felt compelled to formulate the lines of demarcation between individual commandments among the 613 in order to preserve the conceptual clarity of the mitsvah system, so too must he emphasize that there is a fundamental difference between rabbinical and biblical mitsvot – the rabbinical mitsvot are not components of the 613 at all, and must not be confused with them. Although they add more material to our religious lives, rabbinical injunctions and commandments are not part of the conceptual structure of the Torah’s legislation – they must be understood separately from it.

Herein lies the Rambam’s unique approach to the problem of “adding on” to the Torah. In his view, this prohibition relates to the study and comprehension of the commandments, not to our practical observance of them. As long as the purity and clarity of the 613 mitsvot is preserved, the additional of countless rabbinical commandments will not impact it. Only when the rabbinical commandments are not clearly identified, and begin to confound and distort our picture of the biblical laws, does their existence become an issue. Provided that they are introduced as rabbinic legislation and are distinguished from the laws of the Torah, they do not come under the rubric of “addition” to Torah law.

(The issue of the Rambam's understanding of the prohibitions of adding to and subtracting from the Torah is an intriguing one that deserves its own post in the future. However, the discerning reader may discover that in the previous paragraph lies the roots of a more elaborate explanation of the Rambam's view and his disagreement with the position advocated by most other Rishonim; see his treatment of these subjects in Hilkhot Mamrim and the commentary of the Raavad for more details.)

The Rambam, however, did not want to leave us with the impression that Rabbinical legislation is promulgated in a vacuum and that, as long as they are honest, the Rabbis can arbitrarily generate as many new laws as they wish. This is why the Rambam makes reference to the “reason” for some of the rabbinic mitsvot. He wishes to illustrate and thus to emphasize that the rabbinic mitsvot are developed based upon Biblical themes that the Rabbis believe need to be underscored, expanded on, etc.

The Rambam exemplifies this with the case of the Rabbinic holidays, which are based upon the Biblical concept of recognizing G-d’s response to prayer in times of national distress. So too, Rambam states, with all of the Rabbinical legislation – it is rooted in the philosophical ideas and directives contained in the Torah itself. Put simply, Rabbinic mitsvot are based upon Biblical themes but are not themselves “Biblical.”

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