Parshat Va’etchanan: The Obligation to Know that G-d Exists

“I am Hashem your G-d that has taken you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.” (Devarim 5:6)

Moshe reviews the Decalogue – the Aseret HaDibrot. Our passage is the first pasuk of the Aseret HaDibrot. Hashem declares that He is the G-d that redeemed Bnai Yisrael from Egypt. Maimonides maintains that this passage contains a positive command. What is this mitzvah?

In his Mishne Torah, Maimonides defines the commandment as an obligation to know that there is a G-d who is the cause of all that exists. It is clear from this formulation that blind faith in Hashem’s existence does not satisfy this commandment. According to Maimonides, a person must have knowledge of the Hashem’s existence.

Maimonides also discusses this commandment in his Sefer HaMitzvot. Maimonides wrote this work in Arabic. The standard translation of the Sefer HaMitzvot was composed by Moshe ibn Tibon. The first mitzvah in Sefer HaMitzvot is affirmation of Hashem. In Ibn Tibon’s translation, the mitzvah obligates us to have faith in the existence of a G-d that is the cause of all that exists. This seems to contradict Maimonides’ formulation in his Mishne Torah. There, Maimonides insists on knowledge. Here, Maimonides establishes a more general perimeter for the obligation. Faith is adequate. According to the formulation in Sefer HaMitzvot, it seems that blind faith is sufficient for fulfillment of the commandment.

Rav Yosef Kafih offers a simple resolution to this contradiction. He explains that the confusion is based in the Ibn Tibon’s interpretation of Maimonides’ original Arabic. Rav Kafih studied the original Arabic text of Maimonides’ Sefer HaMitzvot. He notes that in the original text, Maimonides uses an Arabic word that should more properly be translated as “knowledge”. According to this rendering of the original Arabic text, there is no contradiction. Sefer HaMitzvot defines the mitzvah as knowing that there is a G-d who is the cause of all that exists.

Rav Kafih’s resolution of this problem is certainly reasonable. However, it does assume that Moshe ibn Tibon’s scholarship is flawed and that he mistranslates the original Arabic. Moshe ibn Tibon was a prolific writer and translator. He wrote translations of various philosophical works. He composed a commentary on the Torah. He wrote on a commentary on a portion of Maimonides’ Moreh Nevuchim. In short, he was an accomplished scholar and translator. He was well aware of Maimonides’ outlook and formulations. It is likely that he felt his translation of the Maimonides’ Arabic was consistent with the author’s intentions. It is appropriate to consider the possibility that Ibn Tibon’s translation is accurate. If we accept this translation, how can we reconcile Maimonides’ formulations? Why does Maimonides insist on knowledge of the Almighty’s existence in his Mishne Torah and in Sefer HaMitzvot define the mitzvah as faith?

The answer lies in understanding Ibn Tibon’s translation. The Hebrew word that Ibn Tibon uses to describe the mitzvah is emunah. This word is generally regarded as the Hebrew equivalent of “faith” or “belief”. However, a simple analysis of the term’s use in the Torah indicates that emunah indicates a firm conviction. It does not refer to a conviction based upon faith or unfounded beliefs.

Let us consider a few examples of the Torah’s use of the term emunah. Yosef uses this term when speaking to his brothers. The brothers come to Egypt to purchase food. Yosef, as Paroh’s regent, rules the land. He accuses the brothers of spying. The brothers deny this charge. Yosef devises a test to determine the truth. He asserts that through this test – v’yaiamnu – the brother’s claim will be established.[1] Yosef uses a term that is a conjugation of emunah. Rashi explains that the term used by Yosef means that the truth of your claims will be established.[2]

Rashi provides a wonderful example to support his interpretation. The Sotah is a woman suspected of adultery. She denies these charges. She is required to drink a special potent. If she is guilty, this potent will kill her. The Kohen administers the test. He first confirms that she maintains her innocence and that she understands the consequences of the test. The woman responds to the Kohen’s query, “amen, amen”. Rashi maintains that the Sotah is providing an affirmation. She affirms that she maintains her innocence. She affirms that she understands the consequences of the test.

Let us consider one final example. Bnai Yisrael are attacked by Amalek. As long as Moshe’s arms are lifted in prayer to Hashem, Bnai Yisrael dominates the battle. Moshe keeps his arms lifted the entire battle and Amalek is vanquished. The Torah describes Moshe’s arms as emunah. Nachmanides, Rashbam and others define this term as meaning firmly established. Moshe’s arms were firmly established in their uplifted position.

All of these examples illustrate that the term emunah and its derivatives are not references to faith or unfounded belief. Instead, the term refers to a conviction that is strongly established or affirmed as true. Ibn Tibon was an accomplished scholar of the Torah. He probably used the term emunah in the manner it is employed in the Torah. His rendering does not contradict Maimonides insistence on knowledge of Hashem’s existence. Ibn Tibon is indicating that we are obligated to firmly establish our conviction in Hashem’s existence. This is completely consistent with Maimonides’ requirement to base the conviction on knowledge.[3]


“Comfort, comfort My people, says your G-d.”
(Haftorah of Shabbat Nachamu, Yishayahu 40:1)

This week the fast of Tisha BeAv was observed. This fast commemorates the destruction of the Bait HaMikdash. The Haftorah for this Shabbat is a related to the theme of Tisha BeAv. The Haftorah begins with our pasuk. In this passage, Hashem offers comfort to Bnai Yisrael. In the Haftorah, the Almighty assures His nation that their suffering in exile will end. The Almighty will reveal His kingship over all of humanity. The land of Israel, Yerushalayim and the Temple will be rebuilt.

This Haftorah offers an important insight into the observance of Tisha BeAv. In order to identify this insight, an introduction is needed.

Tisha BeAv is a date that is reserved for tragedy. Both Sacred Temples were destroyed on this date. Many other misfortunes befell Bnai Yisrael on this date. All of these catastrophes are historical events. None is part of our recent experience. Yet, despite the passing of time, we continue our annual observance of Tisha BeAv. This creates a problem. The tragedies commemorated by Tisha BeAv do not seem very relevant to us. These misfortunes are part of the distant past. Nonetheless, every year we repeat our commemoration of these events. It is difficult on a beautiful summer day to mourn a Temple we never saw. We are expected to feel genuine sadness over events that are not part of our experience. Other nations have also experienced tragedies. At first, they bemoan these misfortunes. However, with the passage of time, the memory of the trauma recedes. The nation moves on and focuses on the present and future. Why do we not place the past behind us?

Let us consider the problem from another perspective. Assume a person looses a parent. This is a terrible experience. The bereaved son or daughter is distraught. The child mourns the parent for a period of time. Halacha requires twelve months of mourning. Slowly, the son or daughter recovers from the loss. Mourning ends and life proceeds. Imagine the child could not overcome this loss. The son or daughter remained fixated upon the misfortune. We would conclude that this person is ill. We would suggest that the child seek help in overcoming this morbid depression. Are we not this child? Why do we not overcome our sorrow? Are we morbidly fixated on the tragedies of the past?

There are various answers to this question. We will consider one response. Tisha BeAv is a day of mourning. However, there is another element expressed in our observance of the day. This element is evident in an unusual halacha – law ­­– of the day. On the eve of Tisha BeAv, the supplication Tachanun is not recited.[4] This supplication is also omitted on Tisha BeAv itself.[5] The reason for the omission of Tachanun is that Tisha BeAv is referred to in the Navi as a Moed – a festival. The prophet Zecharya prophesizes that in the Messianic era, the Temple will be restored and Tisha BeAv will be celebrated as a festival.[6] This element of festivity associated with Tisha BeAv is expressed in other laws as well.

It seems odd that in deference to Zecharya’s assurance we add these elements of festivity to Tisha BeAv. We await the Messianic era. It has not yet occurred. Now we are in exile. The Temple is destroyed. What is the relevance of Zecharya’s prophecy to our current observance of Tisha BeAv?

The answer is that the destruction of the Temple is not merely a historical event. Its destruction and our exile represent an aberrant relationship with Hashem. This is the message of our pasuk and the Haftorah. We are the Almighty’s nation. Our redemption and the restoration of the Bait HaMikdash are inevitable. The Messianic era is only delayed by our own failure to completely repent and return to the Almighty. With our wholehearted teshuva – repentance – the Messianic era will arrive.

This is the reason for the presence of a festive element in the observance of Tisha BeAv. This element reminds us that our fasting is in response to a current tragedy. We have not yet repented. Therefore, we remain in exile and the Temple remains destroyed. We can convert Tisha BeAv into a festival through changing our behaviors and attitudes!

Now we are prepared to understand the relevance of Tisha BeAv to our current generation. Other nations experience tragedies. They move forward. They forget the misfortunes of the past and enjoy the present and hope for an even better future. We too are not fixated on the past. We are not remembering an irrelevant past tragedy. We are commemorating a present misfortune. We are in exile and the Bait HaMikdash has not yet been rebuilt. We must repent in order to end our misfortune. In short, Tisha BeAv should not be regarded as a day that recalls a past misfortune. It should be observed as a day on which we mourn an ongoing tragedy. This tragedy is our own distance from the Almighty. It is a day that should inspire us to repent and restore our relationship with Hashem.

[1] Sefer Beresheit 42:20.

[2] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 42:20.

[3] Based on comments of Rabbi Israel Chait.

[4] Rav Yosef Karo, Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chayim 653:12.

[5] Rav Yosef Karo, Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chayim 559:4.

[6] Sefer Zecharya 19:19.