Parshat Vayikra: The Taryag Mitzvot

“No meal offering that you sacrifice to the Lord shall be made [out of anything] leavened. For you shall not cause to [go up in] smoke any leavening or any honey, [as] a fire offering to Hashem.” (VaYikra 2:11)

The Torah contains six-hundred thirteen commandments. All of the various laws and instructions contained in the Torah can be categorized within this system of six hundred thirteen commandments – Taryag mitzvot. However, although we know that all of the laws of the Torah can be divided into and among the Taryag mitzvot, the Torah does not contain an enumeration of the specific commandments.

Various authorities have developed lists of the Taryag mitzvot. Perhaps the most well known and most often quoted is the list developed by Maimonides. Maimonides wrote a work devoted to this issue –Sefer HaMitzvot. In this work, Maimonides presents his list of commandments with a brief description of each. In addition, the list is preceded by an exhaustive explanation of the means by which Maimonides came to his conclusions.

Although, Maimonides’ list is the most well-known and often quoted, it is likely that of the works that discuss the Taryag mitzvot the one most read is Sefer HaChinuch. The authorship of the work is somewhat of a mystery. The author does not provide biographical information and the work contains few hints to the author’s identity. The author only identifies himself as Aharon HaLeyve of Barcelona. It is generally assumed that he was a student of Nachmanides.

Despite this close association with Nachmanides, the author of Sefer HaChinuch closely follows Maimonides’ position regarding the identity of the six-hundred thirteen commandments. In area in which his teacher disagrees with Maimonides, he will sometimes quote Nachmanides’ dissention.

Sefer HaChinuch’s discussion of each commandment consists of five components:

Definition of the commandment.

A brief discussion of some of the fundamental laws included in the commandment.

An explanation of the reason for the commandment.

A list of the general areas of discussion related to the commandment and the location of the Talmudic discussion of these areas.

A summary of to whom the commandment applies, when it applies, and the consequences for its violation.

The author’s reasons for including most of these elements in his discussion of each commandment are self-evident. He is providing the reader with a brief, yet meaningful description of the commandment and citing the sources to be consulted for further study. However, the reason for one component is not clear. Why does the author include a reason, or rationale, for each commandment?

Furthermore, it is sometimes very difficult to determine the reason for a commandment. In some instances the reason is self-evident. We do not require the Torah to provide us with an explanation for the commandment prohibiting murder. In some cases, the Torah provides an explanation for the commandment. The Torah tells us that we observe Shabbat in order to recall creation and our redemption from Egypt. However, in many instances, the rationale for the commandment is not self-evident and the Torah does not provide any hint to the reason for the commandment. In these instances, the author of Sefer HaChinuch relies upon sources in Talmud and midrash, and his own reasoning, to develop a plausible rationale for the commandment. But this raises a question: Why suggest a rationale for each commandment if, in some cases, there is no clear rationale offered by the Torah?

The passage above provides an illustration of the dilemma that sometimes confronts Sefer HaChinuch. The passage prohibits us from offering leavened products or honey on the altar. Sefer HaChinuch – following the position of Maimonides – maintains that both of these prohibitions are included in a single commandment. He notes that Nachmanides disagrees and maintains that each substance – honey and leavened products – is the subject of its own commandment.

Sefer HaChinuch notes that there is not an obvious reason for these prohibitions. Furthermore, he notes that there is barely a hint or allusion to a reason in the traditional texts. He explains that he feels he must nonetheless offer a hypothesis. He then proceeds to offer a number of plausible but unproven explanations.[1]

In this instance, Sefer HaChinuch raises the issue outlined above. If the Torah does not provide an explanation for the commandment, and there is no clear indication of its rationale in the traditional sources, then why speculate? Why not just allow the mystery of the commandment’s reason to remain unsolved and recognize the limits of our knowledge?

In order to understand Sefer HaChinuch’s answer we must be aware of the audience for whom the work is designed. In the introduction, the author of Sefer HaChinuch explains that one of his objectives in writing this work is to teach the youth. He hopes that young students will read the work and learn the mitzvot and the basic laws of each commandment.

Sefer HaChinuch explains that because the work is designed to serve the young student, it is important to provide a rationale for each commandment. The author explains that he wishes to strengthen a student’s appreciation for the wisdom of the Torah and the benefits of the Torah life. In time, as his intellectual powers grow and mature, the student will come to appreciate the wisdom of the Torah expressed in the intricate system of halachah. The young student is not ready for this in-depth and often abstract analysis of halachah, but the young student can appreciate the wisdom expressed in the rationale for the commandment. Providing a rationale for each commandment provides the student with a tangible and accessible example of the Torah’s wisdom and the benefits of the Torah life.

Furthermore, Sefer HaChinuch suggests that not providing a rationale for each commandment is potentially harmful. If the probing student is told that there is no reason for a commandment – or that the reason is not knowable – he may conclude that the Torah is not accessible. He will lose interest and will conclude that there is little reason to devote his time and energy to studying a subject that cannot be understood.[2] This may be an erroneous and childish conclusion, but children tend to be childish.

Many modern-day Torah educators would disagree with Sefer HaChinuch’s analysis and conclusions. There are two common objections raised to Sefer HaChinuch’s position. First, presenting reasons for commandments can be understood by the student to imply that our obligation to observe the commandment is somehow linked to its “rationality”. The student may conclude that we are required to keep the commandment because it is intellectually compelling and beneficial. This is a faulty conclusion. Furthermore, it can easily lead to the student’s abandonment of observance. If the student begins to question the reasons for the commandments and rejects these explanations, then he has no reason to feel compelled to observe these meaningless directives.

Second, it is important that we impress upon our children the importance of obedience to the Torah. By providing a reason we compromise this lesson. Obedience means following instructions regardless of one’s assessment of the personal benefit derived from compliance. When reasons are provided for commandments, observance becomes more an expression of self-interest and less an expression of steadfast commitment.

Obviously, Sefer HaChinuch rejects these considerations. It is important to understand his position. If we carefully consider Sefer HaChinuch’s position, it is clear that the primary focus in teaching children is to recognize what will appeal to, or discourage, a child and to use this knowledge to assure that the learning experience is rich and exciting.

This focus is more evident when we compare his position to that of the more modern educators described above. These educators make two assumptions. First, they assume that the young student will not understand the distinction between appreciating the wisdom and benefit of a commandment and believing that this rationale is the reason for personal observance of the commandment. Children can grasp this concept. They can understand that we can appreciate the wisdom of the Torah through recognizing the rationale for commandments. They will not confuse this objective with the conclusion that the rationale for a commandment is the reason for its observance.

Second, these educators assume that from an early age, obedience to the Torah must supersede appreciation and love of the Torah. They sense that there is a potential contradiction between obedience and appreciation of the Torah. They assume that the child need not love the Torah or appreciate it in order to be obedient to its commandments.

Both of the assumptions suggest a perspective on the outlook and thinking of the young student. It is true that our obedience to the Torah should not be dependent upon our assessment of personal gain through observance. However, this is a remarkably mature attitude that even most adults never achieve. To deprive our children of the opportunity to appreciate the beauty of Torah in order to attempt to instill in them the loftiest mode of observance is not in the best interest of the students. The student must be taught in a manner that is consistent with his developmental stage and intellectual maturity. He cannot be addressed and treated as a mature adult.

Second, it is true that some individuals who abandon Torah observance will rationalize their decision by criticizing the rational for various mitzvot. However, it is unlikely that these questions and criticisms are the source of their crisis of faith. Instead, these issues are elicited as a justification for their abandonment of the Torah. It is not reasonable to assume that the young student will experience a similar crisis simply because his teacher provided a rational for the mitzvot and explained their benefit.

In short, Sefer HaChinuch’s message is that our approach to education must be age appropriate. Children are not adults. We must be careful to teach our children in a manner that is developmentally appropriate.

[1] Maimonides (Moreh Nevuchim 3,29 and 3,46) explains that it was the common practice among idolators to offer sacrifices of leaved bread or sweats. The Torah prohibits offering these substances in order to differentiate our offerings from those of the idolators. From Maimonides’ perspective, there is no reason for the Torah to provide an explanation for this commandment. Those who received it were familiar with the pagan practices. To them, the rational and objective of the commandment would have been self-evident. This will also apply to other commandments designed to banish idolatry and pagan practices. We are not familiar with these practices. To us the commandments seem arbitrary and without clear purpose. However, to the generation to whom the Torah was given, the rational was clear.

[2] Rav Aharon HaLeyve, Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 117.