Parshat Re’eh: Each Mitzvah is Distinct

“And you should collect all its spoil into the midst of its open square, and burn with fire the city and all its spoil, completely, for Hashem, your G-d. And it shall be a heap of destruction forever, never to be rebuilt. And nothing that is doomed to destruction shall cling to your hand, so that the Lord may return from His fierce wrath, and grant you compassion, and be compassionate with you, and multiply you, as He swore to your forefathers.” (Devarim 13:17-18.)

Maimonides explains that each of the taryag mitzvot – the 613 commandments — is distinct. Therefore, although a prohibition or obligation may be reiterated a number of times in the Torah, it is only regarded as a single commandment among the 613 mitzvot. In other words, the activities or behaviors that are required or prohibited by each commandment are unique; multiple commandments do not reiterate – either requiring or prohibiting – the same activity or behavior.[1]

Nonetheless, it is possible for a person to violate multiple commandments with a single action.[2] For example, if a person cooks meat with milk on Shabbat, he violates two mitzvot. He violates the mitzvah prohibiting melachah – creative activity – on Shabbat. One of the activities defined as melachah is cooking. The person also violates the mitzvah prohibiting the cooking together of meat and milk. The person only performed a single act. However, this activity is prohibited by two distinct commandments. Therefore, both mitzvot are violated.

This example does not contradict Maimonides’ rule regarding mitzvot. The mitzvah prohibiting the performance of melachah on Shabbat is certainly distinct from the mitzvah prohibiting cooking together milk and meat. In our example a single act was performed; however, different characteristics within this action generate the multiple violations. One characteristic of the action is that it is a melachah. The second characteristic is that meat and milk are cooked together.

Maimonides’ basic principle is intuitively reasonable. We would expect the 613 mitzvot to be distinct from one another. However, Maimonides extends and applies his principle in ways that are not self-evident. The Torah prohibits the consumption of various species. Among these species are those defined as sheretz. The exact definition of this category requires an extensive discussion. For this discussion, we will loosely describe the term to refer to insects. Different mitzvot prohibit flying insects, crawling insects and various other general categories of insects. However, there is no specific mitzvah that prohibits aquatic insects. Instead, there is a general mitzvah that states that all insects are prohibited. Maimonides explains that this mitzvah prohibits consumption of aquatic insects.[3]

Maimonides raises a question. If a person consumes a flying insect, how many mitzvot does the person violate? It would seem that the person violates two mitzvot: the mitzvah prohibiting consumption of flying insects and general prohibition against consumption of insects. However, Maimonides explains that this is not the correct conclusion. His explanation is somewhat vague. It seems he maintains that the person only violates the mitzvah against consumption of flying insects. The general mitzvah against consuming insects is not violated. The general commandment only prohibits the consumption of aquatic insects. Maimonides acknowledges that this general commandment does not make a specific reference to aquatic insects and these aquatic insects are only included in this mitzvah because the commandment legislates a general commandment against the consumption of insects. Nonetheless, he seems to maintain that any insects that are prohibited by another mitzvah are not prohibited by the general commandment.[4]

Why does the general commandment not include all insects? It is a general statement prohibiting all insects! Why does Maimonides insist that this general mitzvah is only applicable to aquatic insects? Maimonides explains that his position is an expression and application of the principle outlined above. Each mitzvah is unique. Furthermore, the particular and specific characteristics of any activity can only be prohibited by a single commandment. Flying insects are prohibited by a specific mitzvah. It is not possible for these insects to also be prohibited by the general prohibition against the consumption of insects. If these insects were prohibited by the general mitzvah, then the specific characteristics of the organism would be prohibited by multiple mitzvot. This is a violation of the principle outlined above.[5] In short, Maimonides position has two aspects. First, each mitzvah is distinct and unique. Second, the specific characteristics, or properties, of any object or activity can only be a prohibited by a single mitzvah.

In our parasha we encounter an instance in which Maimonides seems to violate this principle. The passages above describe the laws of an eir ha’nidachat. This is a city in which the inhabitants have adopted idolatry. The guilty inhabitants of the city are executed and the city and its contents are destroyed. Furthermore, the Torah prohibits anyone from taking anything from this city. Nothing may be rescued from destruction. Maimonides explains that the prohibition against taking anything from the city is a mitzvah. Specifically, it is violated if a person derives benefit from any object in the city that is required to be destroyed.[6] Maimonides explains that this prohibition is not limited to the objects in an eir ha’nidachat. It extends to any object associated with idolatry that is required to be destroyed. For example, the Torah commands us to destroy trees associated with idolatry. If a person uses the wood of such a tree for cooking this mitzvah is violated.[7]

“And you should not bring an abomination into your house, lest you be are to be destroyed like it, but you shall utterly detest it, and you shall utterly abhor it; for it is to be destroyed.” (Devarim 7:26)

The above passages are found in last week’s parasha – Parshat Ekev. The parasha discusses the mitzvah to destroy objects associated with idolatry. The passage above communicates a prohibition against deriving benefit from these objects. Is this prohibition a separate mitzvah or is it included in the mitzvah prohibiting a person from deriving benefit from an eir ha’nidachat and other objects associated with idolatry? We would assume that Maimonides would respond that there is a mitzvah that prohibits deriving benefit from an object from an eir ha’nidachat. This mitzvah also includes a prohibition against deriving benefit from any object associated with idolatry. Therefore, there cannot be a second commandment that specifically prohibits deriving benefit from an object associated with idolatry. The second mitzvah would not be unique. It would prohibit an activity already the subject of another mitzvah. Nonetheless, Maimonides asserts that there is a second mitzvah. He explains that our parasha communicates a mitzvah prohibiting deriving benefit from an object of an eir ha’nidachat. He extends this mitzvah to include any object associated with idolatry. But, he also maintains that the above passages from Parshat Ekev communicate a second mitzvah that prohibits deriving benefit from an object associated with idolatry.[8]

Various commentaries on Maimonides deal with this issue. They argue that the two commandments are really very different. The commandment in our parasha does prohibit benefit. According to these commentaries, the mitzvah in Parshat Ekev does not prohibit benefit. It prohibits bringing an object associated with idolatry into one’s home.[9] However, there is no clear indication in Maimonides’ writings that he accepts this distinction. Furthermore, his treatment of these two mitzvot in his code of law – Mishne Torah – clearly indicates that he regards both mitzvot as prohibitions against deriving benefit from these objects.[10]

In order to understand Maimonides’ position, it is necessary to further consider his treatment of these two mitzvot: the mitzvah prohibiting benefiting from the objects of an eir ha’nidachat or other objects associated with idolatry, and the mitzvah prohibiting benefiting from objects associated with idolatry. In his Mishne Torah Maimonides explains that we are obligated to completely destroy the eir ha’nidachat and all of the property of the city. He immediately follows this statement with a delineation of the mitzvah to not benefit from the objects of an eir ha’nidachat.[11] It seems from this context that according to Maimonides, the mitzvah prohibiting benefiting from these objects is an extension of the obligation to destroy the city and its contents. By taking the object and benefiting from it, the object is rescued from destruction. The requirement to completely destroy the city and its contents is abrogated. Although the mitzvah is not violated until the person benefits from the object, the fundamental element of the mitzvah is to not interfere with the destruction of the city and its contents. Similarly, this mitzvah extends to all objects that are associated with idolatry. The Torah requires us to destroy these objects. Taking these objects and benefiting from them is an abrogation of the requirement to destroy them. This understanding to the mitzvah is conforms to the simple message of the passages in which it is outlined.

In his Sefer HaMitzvot, Maimonides discusses the mitzvah requiring us to destroy all objects associated with idolatry. It is important to note that after describing the mitzvah Maimonides adds that rather than benefiting from these objects we are required to reject and regard as abominations all objects associated with idolatry.[12] Apparently, Maimonides adds this comment in order to explain the fundamental concept underlying the commandment. We are prohibited from benefiting from objects associated with idolatry because we should regard these objects with disgust. If we benefit from the object, we fail to demonstrate the proper and required attitude towards idolatry. This interpretation of the mitzvah is apparent in the above passage.

In short, although these two mitzvot – the mitzvah prohibiting benefiting from the objects of an eir ha’nidachat or other objects associated with idolatry and the mitzvah prohibiting benefiting from objects associated with idolatry – prohibit the physical identical activity. However, the mitzvot focus on different halachic characteristics within the activity. The mitzvah prohibiting benefiting from the contents of an eir ha’nidachat is a prohibition against interfering with the requirement to destroy the city and its contents. The mitzvah prohibiting benefiting from objects associated with idolatry is an expression of the requirement to adopt an attitude of disgust with idolatry. Therefore, Maimonides’ treatment of these two prohibitions as separate mitzvot is not inconsistent with his general principle.

[1] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Sefer HaMitzvot, Principle 9.

[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Shegagot 4.

[3] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Sefer HaMitzvot, Mitzvat Lo Ta’aseh 179.

[4] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Sefer HaMitzvot, Mitzvat Lo Ta’aseh 179.

[5] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Sefer HaMitzvot, Mitzvat Lo Ta’aseh 179.

[6] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Sefer HaMitzvot, Mitzvat Lo Ta’aseh 24.

[7] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Sefer HaMitzvot, Mitzvat Lo Ta’aseh 25.

[8] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Sefer HaMitzvot, Mitzvat Lo Ta’aseh 25.

[9] Rabbaynu Yitzchak DeLeon, Meggilat Esther, Commentary on Maimonides’ Sefer Hamitzvot, Principle 9.

[10] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Avodat Kochavim 4:7, 7:2.

[11] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Avodat Kochavim 4:6-7.

[12] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Sefer HaMitzvot, Mitzvat Lo Ta’aseh 25.