Pernicious Prying? by Shlomo Klapper


This Shabbat’s special Torah reading describes the mitzvah of the Parah Adumah, Red Heifer, as a “Chukat HaTorah,” “A decree of the Torah.”  Rashi comments that this means Jews should not question the reasons given for Mitzvot.  Why should we not ask questions which would allow us to better understand the Torah, reinforcing our commitment to the Torah?

An incident in the Talmud (Shabbat 12b) can help us understand Rashi.  A Mishnah stated that reading from candlelight is forbidden on Shabbat, but does not explain why.  A Beraita, quoted by the Gemara, explains that this law was enacted to prevent people from tampering with the candle’s wick if the light flickers, which would transgress Shabbat by causing the candle to burn properly.  Rabi Yishmael read by candlelight on Shabbat since he thought that he was not prone to transgressing Shabbat; nevertheless, he ultimately tampered with the wick.  He then declared, “How great are the Sages’ words!”  What compelled Rabbi Yishmael to praise the Sages; was he merely impressed that their suspicions were indeed correct?

The Vilna Gaon explains that Rabbi Yishmael wondered why the Sages did not explain their law in the Mishnah, but upon reading the Beraita that explained the law, he rationalized that he was “above the law” and would not ultimately do an Aveira.  When he did break the law, he realized that the Sages’ lack of explanation was proper, and hence exclaimed his praise of the Sages.  We follow the Torah since Hashem commanded us to; not because of reasoning.

This idea – following Hashem’s words because He commanded us to – recurs many times in Judaism.  Rambam (Hilchot Me’ilah 8:8) states that since the Torah dealt so severely with regard to meager wood, stones, dirt, and ashes sanctified by Hashem’s name, punishing even accidental transgressors, if one treats Hashem’s Mitzvot disapprovingly by rejecting those that he does not rationally understand, he certainly deserves harsh punishments and penalties.

Rav Yitzchak (Sanhedrin 21b) said that the reasons for Mitzvot were not given, as a great man sinned when the Torah explained its laws.  The Torah explained that a king should not have too many wives, lest his heart turn astray, nor should he have too many horses, lest Jews move back to Egypt, where the best horses were bought.  Shlomo HaMelech disregarded these restrictions, as he believed that he certainly could not sin.  Unfortunately, Shlomo HaMelech was terribly mistaken, as his wives ultimately led him astray in his later years, and he indeed moved Jews back to Egypt to enlarge his stable.  If knowing the reasons for Mitzvot can cause Shlomo HaMelech to sin, we, who are far inferior to him, must listen to the Mitzvot because Hashem commanded us to, even though they are not explained.

A story of the Vilna Gaon underlines this idea.  The Vilna Gaon always recited Havdalah using wine, even though Halacha (Shulchan Aruch O.C. 296:2) permits doing so with Chamar Medinah, or the national drink. He made a special exception, however, on Motzaei Pesach, when he made Havdalah specifically with beer.  He did so because he wanted to show that he abstained from Chameitz on Pesach because Hashem commanded him to, not because he did not like Chameitz.  By drinking beer - a drink of Chameitz - after Pesach, the Gaon showed that he did not eat Chameitz previously only because Hashem commanded him to.  

Rav Soleveichik interpreted the phrase in the Hoshanot that we recite on Sukkot, “Yoshevet UMamtenet Ad Sof HaShabbat,” “We sit and wait until the end of Shabbat,” in light of this idea.  A Jew abstains from doing Melachah on Shabbat only because Hashem commanded him to, not because he is too lazy to work; therefore, he sits and waits until Shabbat’s conclusion and immediately thereupon performs Melachah.  

Since Hashem commanded us to observe His Mitzvot, we cannot treat them lightly, even if they are as seemingly paradoxical as the Parah Adumah, where the sprinkler is made impure even though he purified another.  Many Jewish leaders, like Rambam, the Vilna Gaon and Rav Soloveitchik have taken this idea to heart, while others, like Shlomo HaMelech and Rabbi Yishmael, have disregarded this idea and consequently sinned.  Understanding Mitzvot is a means to connect to the Torah, but should not impede one’s observance of Mitzvot.  Often, one finds himself facing a commandment which he does not rationally understand, or looking at a seemingly ancient, anachronistic statute.  Why did the Sages make such a law; how could they not understand basic logic or people’s feelings? In these situations, one must realize that although these Mitzvot do not seem logical, Hashem commanded us to follow the Torah, and, seen by the aforementioned cases, the worst belief is an arrogant, skeptic one.

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