The Case for Restrictions – Part One by Rabbi Chaim Jachter



A major motivation for Jews who choose to not observe the Torah is the dislike and discomfort with restrictions imposed by the Torah. In my experience, the unreasonable arguments put forth by otherwise reasonable and rational people justifying their lack of belief in the divine nature of the Torah constitute an intellectual smokescreen for the real issue at hand. In truth, the core spiritual issue is their unwillingness to submit to the discipline and limitations of the Torah’s rules[1]. Thus, it is important to present reasonable, rational and compelling explanations for restrictions Hashem poses on the Jewish People.

Argument #1 – Creating a Relationship with Hashem through Tzimtzum

In order for any relationship to flourish, each party in the relationship must submit to certain limitations in his behavior. In a successful marriage, one spouse does not unilaterally decide where to go and what to do during a vacation. Decisions are made collaboratively with each spouse not necessarily receiving everything he or she dreamed of receiving. In a loving relationship, this is not regarded as burdensome, since the benefit and satisfaction derived from the relationship far outweigh any frustration caused by one spouse not receiving everything he wishes.

The Ashkenazic practice regarding the placement of the Mezuzah reflects the idea of necessary compromise in family relationships. In Ashkenazic tradition, the top of the Mezuzah is inclined towards the inside of the room, and the bottom of the Mezuzah is inclined towards the outside of the room. How did this come about? The Tur (Yoreh Dei’ah 289) cites two conflicting opinions. He first quotes Rashi (Menachot 33a s.v. Pesulah), who writes that a Mezuzah should be placed vertically. He then cites the view of Rabbeinu Tam (Tosafot ad loc. s.v. Ha), who argues that placing the mezuzah in a “standing” position is not respectful. Therefore, Rabbeinu Tam teaches that a Mezuzah should be placed horizontally, similar to how the Tablets and the Torah scroll were arranged in the Aron in the Beit HaMikdash.

The Tur concludes that those who are careful to do the Mitzvot in the best way fulfill both opinions by placing their Mezuzot on a slant. The Rama (Y.D. 289:6) writes that the Tur’s opinion regarding what the “careful ones” should do has since become prevalent in Ashkenazic communities[2]. This practice persists until today.

The message of compromise between the opinions of Rashi and Rabbeniu Tam is critical for a family to function in a healthy way. Compromise is needed and family members must accept limitations to their behavior in order for a family to live happily. By accepting limitations (and obligations), family members leave “room” and “space” for each other and are thereby able to form a loving family unit. Compromise and limitation are such central ideas that they must be emphasized and “advertised” on the doorpost in (almost) every room in one’s home.

Hashem, surprisingly, also limits himself. The masters of Kabbalah teach that Hashem contracted, limited, and condensed Himself in order for the world to exist (Kabbalah refers to this phenomenon as Tzimtzum)[3]. Hashem is infinite and must contract Himself in order for anything but Himself to exist. He must also engage in Tzimtzum in order for human beings to enjoy free will[4]. Thus, Hashem places limitations on Himself in order to allow us to exist in His world[5].

Accordingly, it is reasonable for us to accept limitations on our behavior and lifestyle in order to create a space for Hashem in our lives. Shir HaShirim compares our relationship with Hashem to a relationship between a loving couple. Just as each member of a loving couple must accept limitations in order to create a space for the other member, this reciprocal process of limitations must occur in our relationship with Hashem. Both parties in the relationship must create space for the other member by accepting limitations. Hashem engages in Tzimtzum in order to create a space for us, and we engage in Tzimtzum by following the Torah restrictions in order to create a space for Him in our lives[6]. Thus, Torah restrictions should not be viewed as nuisances but rather as wonderful opportunities to help us forge a relationship with our Creator and Father in heaven.

Argument #2 – Torah Restrictions as Vehicles of Human Empowerment

Rav Mordechai Kamenetsky relates the following poignant story:

“I once sat on an overseas flight next to a talkative executive who was skeptical about his own Jewish heritage. During the first hours of the flight, the man peppered me with questions, mostly cynical, about Judaism.

Then the meal came. I was served a half-thawed omelet that seemed to be hiding under a few peas and carrots. The half-cooked egg was nestled between a small aluminum pan and its quilted blanket of tape and double-wrapped aluminum foil. Next to me, the executive was served a steaming piece of roast pork on fine china, with a succulent side dish of potatoes au gratin and a glass of fine wine.

As if to score big, the executive tucked his napkin into his collar and turned to me. He stared at my pathetic portion and with sympathetic eyes sarcastically professed, ‘I'd love to offer you my meal, but I'm sorry you can't eat it!’

I did not buy into his gambit. ‘Of course I can eat it!’ I smiled. ‘In fact I think I'll switch with you right now!’ His smile faded. He was famished and in no way did he want to give away his portion. But he was totally mystified at my response. I saw the concern in his face. He was looking forward to eating this meal.

‘I can have it if I want it. And if I don't want it I won't eat it. I have free choice and control over what I eat and what I don't. The Torah tells me not to eat this food and I have made a conscious choice to listen to the Torah. I therefore choose not to eat it[7].’

Then, I went for broke. ‘Now let me ask you a question. Can you put the cover back on the food and hold yourself back from eating it?’

He smiled sheepishly and said, "You are not allowed to eat it. I, however, cannot not eat it.’ And with that he dug in.”

Reflecting upon this anecdote, one realizes that although the non-observant executive may appear to others as a powerful individual, in truth he is a pitiful slave to his biological urges. His own words that “he cannot not eat it” reveal his lack of self-mastery.

A human being is a composite of an animal and an angel[8]. Humans must satisfy both elements of their personality in order to experience authentic fulfillment.


In our next issue, we will, God willing, continue our discussion on Hashem’s limitations in our lives. We will begin with a second story which illustrates the importance of Hashem’s restrictions.

[1] I once had a conversation with a lapsed observant Jew who after an extended discussion ultimately conceded the lack of cogency in his arguments. At the end of the conversation, he admitted that he simply did not wish to live his life within the bounds of Torah law.

[2] Sephardic Jews, however, follow Rashi’s opinion and affix their Mezuzot vertically.

[3] Another example of Hashem exercising restraint can be found in the Gemara (Yoma 69b), which relates that Hashem refrains from immediately punishing those who insult Him. Hashem provides opportunity for human beings, even those who act impudently towards Hashem, to mend their ways and repent. This one of Hashem’s traits is known as “Erech Apayim,” meaning that Hashem is slow to anger (Shemot 34:6).

[4] The Meshech Chochmah (BeReishit 1:26) uses the idea of Tzimtzum to resolve the classic paradox of human free will and divine foreknowledge.

[5] The Wikipedia page on Tzimtzum (accessed on June 25,2015) states:

“An Israeli professor, Mordechai Rotenberg, believes the Kabbalistic-Hasidic tzimtzum paradigm has significant implications for clinical therapy. According to this paradigm, God's ‘self-contraction’ to vacate space for the world serves as a model for human behavior and interaction. The tzimtzum model promotes a unique community-centric approach which contrasts starkly with the language of Western psychology.”

Dr. Rotenberg’s approach is very much in harmony with Torah values and lifestyle.

[6] The Chasidic idea of “building a Mishkan in one’s heart” (whose source is Sefer Chareidim, Chapter 34) fits with this idea as well. Hashem carved out a place in His world (Tzimtzum) for us to exist, and we, in turn, carve out a place in our world (Tzimtzum) in order to make a “home” for Hashem in this world (the Mishkan and Beit HaMikdash). When we respect and abide by the Torah’s restrictions, we similarly carve out a place (a “Mishkan”) in our lives for Hashem.

[7] Rabbi Kamenetsky’s approach is entirely in line with Rashi’s comments (VaYikra 20:26; citing Rabi Elazar ben Azaryah) that one’s attitude to Kashrut should be that he wishes to eat non-Kosher food but chooses not to do so in order to conform to Hashem’s commands.

[8] In the words of Rav Efrem Goldberg, “In Jewish thought, man lives in two dimensions simultaneously. On the one hand, the Talmud observes, we are members of the animal kingdom who share in common the three basic physical activities of animals: eating, elimination, and reproduction. On the other hand, we have been endowed with a Tzelem Elokim, a Godly soul, providing us the capacity to be disciplined, exhibit self-control, and reign sovereign over our instincts and impulses.”

The Case for Restrictions – Part Two by Rabbi Chaim Jachter

Reconciling Torah and Science – an Introduction – Part Two by Rabbi Chaim Jachter