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chukim v mishpatim; an in-depth analysis

Written by d fine

Parshas Chukas; Fathoming the Unfathomable & Making it Relevant : This week we shall look at an essential topic within the world of mitzvos. The topic is as detailed as it is important, and for a fuller picture please (feel free to) read the footnotes too. Our sedra opens with what the Torah dubs the quintessential ‘chok’ (to be defined); the parah adumah (red heifer, if you like) which turns the impure pure and the pure impure. We are going to focus on one question. There are two main types of mitzvos; chukim and mishpatim; not murdering is an example of the former, and the parah adumah typifies the latter. What is the difference between a chok and a mishpat? The ‘traditional answer’ is that a chok has no reason behind it, whilst a mishpat has a reason which is easily and fully understandable to man.[1] However, as we shall see, this definition is not so simple or watertight… (the journey begins; fasten your seatbelts.)

There are two main avenues of question on the traditional answer; one challenging its definition of chukim and the other challenging that of mishpatim. With regards to chukim, the Torah states in parshas Va’eschanan[2] that other nations will ‘hear of these chukim and say ‘what a clever and wise nation is this great nation (for keeping the chukim).’’ Thus, it would seem that chukim do have a reason; since the other nations can fathom them.[3] The other indication that chukim have a reason is that Chazal tell us that Shlomo HaMelech understood all chukim apart from the parah adumah[4] and that Moshe Rabeinu understood even parah adumah.[5] Indeed, the Rambam writes[6] that one should look into chukim and ascribe a reason for them whenever possible. Therefore, a whole army of commentators argue that chukim do have reasons, but we just do not know these reasons. The authorities I have caught singing this tune are the Rambam,[7] the Ran,[8] the Maharal,[9] the Kli Yakar,[10] the Malbim,[11] and Rav Yerucham Levovitz.[12]
With regards to mishpatim, our ‘traditional approach’ was that mishpatim’s reasons are fully understandable by the human intellect. This assumption is not so simple either. Firstly, we have a general rule that we cannot be ‘doresh ta’ama dekra.’[13] What this means is that one may not limit the application of a Torah law via applying a reason to it. For example, the Torah forbids taking a loan collateral from a widow. One is not allowed to apply a reason for this law, e.g. lest she need the object and you forget to return it to her to use each day, and to then turn around and say that ‘since this reason is true, the law should only apply to a poor widow and not to a rich widow who has an abundance of possessions.’[14] This is true no matter how logical the reason suggested is, and as such implies that we do not know the true reason for the mitzvah; if we did know the reason, why can we not make halachic implications from our suggested reasons? Similarly, the Mishna[15] tells us that we quieten (/hush) one who says in their prayer that the reason for the mitzvah of shilu’ach haken (sending away the mother bird) is because of HaShem’s mercy. Why? For we do not know the reasons for the mitzvos for sure.[16] It should not bother us that we cannot understand HaShem’s mitzvos; human intellect simply does not have the capacity to fully understand HaShem and His mitzvos. Indeed, to compare HaShem’s limitless Intellect and our limited intellect is as unfathomable as us fully understanding His mitzvos in the first place.
Here we can ask a pertinent clarification question; can we really not understand mishpatim? Let’s take the mitzvah of not murdering. I know very well that the reason one cannot murder is to keep a stable functioning society; why is that beyond my comprehension? The answer is that there is a difference between a ‘reason’ and a ‘purpose.’ As the Rambam points out,[17] it is impossible to speak about a reason for HaShem mandating a certain mitzvah, for this would ‘limit HaShem’ (c’v) by implying that HaShem was forced to command any given mitzvah. To ask ‘why’ and give a reason would be to assert that the reason pre-dated HaShem, which is impossible to say about an Omnipotent Creator. Rather, our entire discussion of ‘giving reasons’ for mitzvos actually refers to understanding the purpose of any given mitzvah. What is a purpose? Every mitzvah has a certain [specific] effect; both in our world and in other spiritual worlds. The purpose of a mitzvah refers to this effect. So whenever we say ‘reason’ we really mean ‘purpose.’ Thus, going back to our example of not murdering, one ‘reason’ (purpose really) of this law might very well be to keep a stable society; but that is only one suggestion – there could be more spiritual effects like keeping another soul in this world or training oneself to avoid cruelty, not to mention any other effect in other realms, etc. or spiritual effects that we are unaware of. So let’s summarise what we have said so far and move on to redefining the difference between chukim and mishpatim…
We cited many who held that chukim do have a reason (‘purpose,’ remember!), just that we cannot understand this reason in general. Similarly, we said that we cannot really understand mishpatim either. If so, what is the difference between a chok and a mishpat? And what is special about the parah adumah that it merits to be the ‘table-topping’ chok?
As Rav Yerucham Levovitz highlights,[18] there is not really so much difference between a chok and a mishpat. We cannot plumb the deepest levels of reason for either a chok or a mishpat. Nevertheless, as defined by the Rambam,[19] Malbim,[20] and Ran,[21] the distinction between the two is that on a simple level most people can comprehend the reason for a mishpat, whilst most people cannot comprehend the reason for a chok. And what is so special about the parah adumah? As the Kli Yakar says,[22] the parah adumah is the most chok-like in that it is the chok whose reason is most hidden from us. Thus, whilst some people are able to comprehend other chukim, the only person to have ever really understood parah adumah was Moshe Rabeinu.
So far so good. We have discovered a new working definition of chok and mishpat and have placed parah adumah within that framework. But one question remains, and this is where our discussion becomes more practical. If, as we said, it is beyond our capacity to really understand the true reasons for mitzvos, why do several commentators (e.g. the Rambam and the Sefer HaChinuch) proceed to give reasons for the mitzvos; how can they? I would like to make this question more pointed. The Rambam[23] codifies the Mishna in Brachos which we mentioned above; one is not allowed to say in prayer that the reason for shilu’ach haken is because of HaShem’s mercy, for ‘mitzvos are decrees from Heaven and are not for mercy.’ In other words, we cannot know the reason for the mitzvah. Yet in his Moreh Nevuchim, the Rambam himself proceeds to give reasons for mitzvos. What’s going on?
The key to this is the explanation of the Tosafos Yom Tov[24] on our Mishna. He reveals that it is only a problem to ascribe HaShem’s mercy as the reason for shilu’ach haken when one does so in one’s tefillah, for in doing this ‘one has firmly decided this ‘fact’…which is not the case if one is giving a reason for a mitzvah (outside the realm of tefillah) via drush or pshat.’ What this means is that there are many levels to mitzvos, and on one level all these explanations for their reasons (i.e. the Sefer HaChinuch and Moreh Nevuchim, etc.) are true.[25] But they do not account for the deeper levels of explanation, and so one may not mention them in tefillah, for this would imply that one has decided that the reason offered is completely true at all levels, which is not so. As the Maharal and Ritva explain[26] the Rambam did not believe that the reasons he gave for the mitzvos in his Moreh Nevuchim were one hundred percent true (to the deepest level); he was giving the reasons mainly for the benefit his generation, many of whom were steeped in secular philosophy, so that they would appreciate the depth of mitzvos via their reasons and significance. Indeed, the Sefer HaChinuch writes[27] that he is writing these reasons for mitzvos on a simple level for his son and his son’s friends, but on a deeper level there are many more reasons for mitzvos. It his here that I would like to make a practical point, with which we shall close. The Rambam writes[28] that we should look into chukim (and mishpatim) and ascribe them a reason whenever we can. What is the point of ascribing them a reason; if the truth is that reasons have endless depth that we cannot fully understand, why must we try and ascribe reasons for mitzvos; what good does it do for us?
Perhaps we can answer via something the Alter of Slabodka once said. He asked how can it be that someone who says kriyas shema with such intensity and intention, and thus fully crowns HaShem as King over all the world(s), can then go and commits a sin at one point during his in his day; what happened to his kriyas shema? The Alter would answer that while this person was too busy proclaiming HaShem as King over the whole world, he forgot to make HaShem the King over him too. For our discussion, the point is that it is wonderful to know that mitvos have supernal depth and in truth are unfathomable. But what does that do for our mitzvah observance? Our job is to make the mitzvos relevant to our lives; not only via their physical performance, but via our mental attitudes and approaches towards them. Perhaps this is the key to ascribing reasons for mitzvos. Our looking into reasons for mitzvos gives us a personal connection to mitzvos and reaffirms the relevance of mitzvos to our lives.
I highly recommend setting aside time to learn about one mitzvah each week from the Sefer HaChinuch. One of my most enjoyable learning sessions in high school was my weekly chavrusa in Sefer HaChinuch; it provides a certain relevance and freshness to mitzvos that we could all do with instilling within ourselves. As Rashi cites,[29] each day the mitzvos should be to us like new things that we run to achieve. And let us say Amen!
Have a great Shabbos!

[1] It must be mentioned that the opinion of Rashi (Bereishis 26:5 and Vayikra 19:19) seems to be that chukim have no reason to them (other than that we should gain by listening to HaShem’s command). Indeed, Rashi seems to have support for this view from the simple reading of Midrash Bereishis Rabbah 44:1, though this is disputed by the Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim chelek gimmel perek 26. In the main dvar torah we shall ask question’s on Rashi’s understanding, but we will offer possible answers in the footnotes. Either way, as we shall see, most understand that chukim do have a reason; just we are unable to understand the reason. A third opinion seems to be that of the Kedushas Levi (parshas Chukas) and Nefesh HaChaim (sha’ar alef perek 22), quoted in Minchas Osher, who hold that chukim do have a reason, but their reasons have never been revealed to anyone.
[2] Devarim 4:6-7
[3] This is the question posed by the Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim chelek gimmel perek 31. An avenue of answer for Rashi (see footnote 1 for Rashi’s opinion) could be via the Drashos HaRan, who explains these psukim to mean that the other nations will be so impressed at our keeping these mitzvos which have no reason; for this shows our devotion to HaShem. Though this answer can be questioned from Rashi Bamidbar 19:2 and Rashi Bereishis 26:5 which says that the other nations will berate us for keeping these mitzvos which don’t have a reason. (There is what to answer, but I can’t make this too long!)
[4] Bamidbar Rabbah 19:3 as cited by Rambam hilchos Temurah 4:13. Though have a look at the Midrash and you’ll see that it does not seem to be talking about chukim per se.
[5] Bamidbar Rabbah 19:6. Rashi (and the aforementioned Kedushas Levi and Nefesh HaChaim) would answer via the Shut Rashba (chelek alef siman 94) who basically says that even the chukim that were revealed to Shlomo HaMelech and Moshe Rabeinu were not fully revealed to them.
[6] Rambam hilchos Temurah 4:13. Seemingly, Rashi would disagree with this assertion of the Rambam, as the Midrash cited in Rashi Bamidbar 19:2 ‘zos’ seems to say.
[7] Rambam Moreh Nevuchim chelek gimmel perakim 26 and 31, as well as hilchos Temurah 4:13 and hilchos Me’ilah 8:8 in the Yad HaChazakah
[8] Drashos HaRan drush 1,5,9,11
[9] Gur Aryeh Vayikra 26:3
[10] Kli Yakar Bamidbar 19:2
[11] Sefer HaCarmel of the Malbim under ‘chok u’mishpat’
[12] Da’as Torah (bi’urim section) parshas Chukas
[13] Lechem Mishna and Kesef Mishna hilchos Avodah Zarah 4:4, as well as Tosafos Sotah 14a ‘kedei’ and the Rambam quoted in Rabeinu Bechaya Devarim 29:28
[14] Gemarra Bava Metzia 115a. We hold like the Rabbanan against Rabbi Shimon. It must be pointed out that there is a case where we do use ta’ama dekra to create halachic outcomes. When we have a genuine doubt as to how to understand the nature of a Torah law (and the pasuk can be read to support each side of the doubt), we may use a suggested reason to pick one of these alternatives and resolve the doubt; which will have halachic ramifications. See Rif Bava Kama 1b and the Rosh Bava Kama 1:1, and then read Tosafos Sotah 14a ‘kedei’ carefully.
[15] Mishna Brachos 33b
[16] Gur Aryeh. See the gemarra and Rashi there.
[17] Rambam Moreh Nevuchim chelek gimmel perek 26
[18] Da’as Torah (bi’urim section) parshas Chukas
[19] Rambam Moreh Nevuchim chelek gimmel perek 26, and hilchos Me’ilah 8:8.
[20] Sefer HaCarmel ‘chok u’mishpat’
[21] Drashos HaRan, drush 9
[22] Kli Yakar Bamidbar 19:2
[23] Rambam hilchos Tefillah 9:7
[24] Tosafos Yom Tov Brachos 5:3, as pointed out by Rav Osher Weiss in his ‘Minchas Osher’ in our sedra.
[25] Rav Yitzchak Berkowitz
[26] Maharal quoted in Minchas Osher. Ritva in Sefer HaZikaron parshas Vayikra
[27] Sefer HaChinuch mitzvah of parah adumah, at the start of parshas Chukas
[28] Rambam hilchos Temurah 4:13
[29] Rashi Devarim 6:6 ‘asher’

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