Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Behar-Behukotai (Rambam)


This week we read the final two portions of Sefer Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus—namely, Behar and Behukotai. Hence, it is an appropriate time to sum up the theme of avodah—Divine service, and specifically that of the sacrificial worship in the Temple, which is a central theme in this book. In the following study, I shall also show the centrality of avodah in Rambam’s writing, albeit by a long and circuitous route. Today’s shiur is also one of a series of introductory studies in preparation for Shavuot, the festival of Giving of the Torah.

Introduction: Sefer ha-Mitzvot

In the following study, I would like to present a tentative solution, or at least some new ways of thinking about, one of long-standing problems in the study of Maimonides’ oeuvre: the reason underlying the order of Sefer ha-Mitzvot. Sefer ha-Mitzvot, “The Book of the Commandments,” was written around 1180 to serve a dual purpose: as a kind of introduction to his halakhic magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah or Yad ha-Hazakah, which was completed in 1185; and to provide a more coherent, consistent and orderly solution to the problem of minyan ha-mitzvot, the enumeration of the commandments.

A wit once remarked that Rabbinic sayings, like everything else in this world, require luck. Some are all but forgotten except to a few diligent and erudite scholars, while others are known to every schoolchild and are accepted as if they were fundaments of the faith. One of the latter is the statement that the Torah contains 613 commandments, from which derives the cliché that “Orthodox Jews are required to observe 613 commandments,” making the religion sound very strenuous indeed. Of course, this is at best a half-truth, as the overwhelming majority of the mitzvot are either inapplicable today, only apply in special circumstances, or are negative commandments which in any event only require refraining from certain acts and not any active initiative. Rambam himself counts sixty positive commandments that the ordinary Jew is required to perform in the normal course of life—and some of these only once a year, or only once or a few times in a lifetime. The source of this idea is the statement in the Talmud, at Makkot 23b-24a:

Rav Simlai expounded: Six hundred thirteen commandments were told to Moses at Sinai: three hundred sixty-five negative commandments corresponding to the days of the solar year, and two hundred forty-eight positive commandments, corresponding to the organs of the human body. Rav Hamnuna said: What is the verse [from which we infer this}? “The Torah was commanded us by Moses as a heritage [of the community of Jacob]” [Deut 33:4]. The numerical value (gematria) of the word Torah is 611; “I [am the Lord your God]” and “you shall not have [any other gods before Me]” they heard from the Power [i.e., directly from God].

The problem starts from the fact that nowhere in the Talmud is there a list of precisely what these 613 commandments are. Hence, later generations pored over the text of the Torah in an effort to determine exactly which verses phrased in the imperative constitute the 613, creating a literature known as monei ha-mitzvot, the “enumerators of the commandments.” The earliest list of mitzvot was compiled in the Geonic period by the 9th century Babylonian sage, Rabbenu Saadya Gaon, who wrote a poem known as Azharot. This genre of piyyut (Hebrew liturgical poem) is now almost defunct in most synagogues, but at one time it formed the central feature of the Shavuot liturgy. These were poems or groups of poems in which all 613 mitzvot are listed, often interwoven within the rubric of the Ten Commandments. Several of the earliest major halakhic compilations of the Middle Ages also took the form of “books of commandments”: R. Simeon Kayyara’s Halakhot Gedolot; R. Moses of Coucy’s Sefer Mitzvot Gadol (Semag), and Rabbi Isaac of Corbeil’s Sefer Mitzvot Katan (Semak).

The difficulty arose from the fact that the criteria used to determine which commandments were to be included or not in the listings of mitzvot in these works were at best vague—and indeed, in many cases they did not even come to a total of 613, but far more. Hence, Rambam set himself the task of putting some order into this branch of Torah study. Before writing a comprehensive halakhic work that would present the laws of all the mitzvot of the Torah, it was necessary to know exactly what those mitzvot were. (Indeed, the Yad itself begins with a listing of the mitzvot according to its own order, while each section begins with a heading stating which mitzvot are expounded therein.) Hence, he composed his own Sefer ha-Mitzvot, in which there are indeed 613 mitzvot, with a brief description and definition of each one, including the biblical verse from which each one is derived. Moreover, and perhaps most important, at the very outset he presents a set of clear rules (what, using the term rather loosely, might today be called algorithms) for determining what verses or aspects of the Torah are or are not to be counted as mitzvot. For example, he states that laws of Rabbinic provenance are not to be included in the enumeration; that verses of a wholly general import (e.g., “you shall observe my commandments” or “you shall do that which is good and right in the eyes of the Lord”), even if couched in imperative terms, are not to be considered mitzvot; that the individual details of a commandment are not to be counted separately; etc.

Thus, Sefer ha-Mitzvot consists of two, or really, three main parts (in addition to a brief introduction): the rules for determining what is and is not counted as a mitzvah (given in fourteen chapters, or shorashim, “roots”); the listing of the positive mitzvot, 248 in number; and the listing of the negative mitzvot, 365 in number.

Before turning to this work in more detail, I shall briefly conclude our survey of the literature of monei ha-mitzvot with those that followed Rambam. Although Sefer ha-Mitzvot is often considered the apex of this literature, it was far from being the final word. To begin with, it spawned an entire set of commentaries of its own, printed in standard editions as an integral part of the page. The best-known of these is Nahmanides’s glosses, both to the shorashim and to the lists; in many cases he took exception to the inclusion of one or another mitzvah or to its definition (we saw an example of this in our recent discussion of premarital sex, re lav §355), and he also provided an alternative list of those mitzvot that Rambam didn’t include, so that his enumeration also comes out to exactly 613. The other classical commentaries include R. Isaac de Leon’s Megillat Esther, R. Aryeh Leib Zitel Segal Horowitz's Marganita Tava, R. Abraham Aligri’s Lev Sameah, and R. Hananiah Kazis’ Kinat Sofrim. The entire subject was summarized a century or two later in a work entitled Sefer ha-Hinukh, attributed to R. Aharon of Barcelona, which lists the mitzvot arranged according to the portions of the Torah, in which he summarizes the views of both Rambam and Ramban. He gives, in addition, a brief description of each mitzvah, states when, where and to whom it is applicable, and gives a brief summary of its laws and a philosophical rationale for each mitzvah. In the 19th century the Hinukh served in turn as the springboard, so to speak, for the fine work of pilpul and halakhah, R. Joseph b. Moses Babad’s Minhat Hinukh. In modern times, a new type of mitzvah books has emerged, aimed largely at those more removed from the tradition, among which S. R. Hirsch’s Horeb is a classic.

The Problem

The basic problem, over which I have been puzzling for some years, is the following: what rule determined the sequence of the mitzvot in Sefer ha-Mitzvot? Rambam himself does not give any indication as to why he arranged them as he did. They do not follow the order of the Humash, nor that of the Mishnah, nor that which he himself used later in the Yad. And yet, Rambam was known as a master of order. Twersky’s Introduction includes “classification,” alongside “form, scope, language and style, Law and philosophy,” as one of the five salient aspects of this work. One of the classical questions asked by latter-day commentators on the Yad from the traditional world of Torah scholarship (R. Meir Simhah of Dvinsk, R Hayyim of Brisk, etc.) is why such-and-such a law was placed in a particular chapter and section—and this inevitably leads to new insight into Maimonides’ thought (see my essay for my son’s wedding, which is also structured in this way: HY V: Hayyei Sarah).

Yet in Sefer ha-Mitzvot the situation is dramatically different. This work, which was written as an introduction to the Yad, gives a simple listing of the 613 commandments, divided into positive and negative commandments, numbered consecutively, without any attempt to organize them into groups. There is no hint, either in the text itself or in the Introduction, as to why he arranged them in the particular way that he did. There are no chapter headings, dividing sections of the lists into coherent, logical groups. And yet, surely, there must have been some principle, probably a fairly simple one, that governed him in writing this book. The classical commentaries on Sefer ha-Mitzvot do not address themselves to this issue at all. Modern scholarly literature on the subject is also rather scanty. Both R. Hayyim Heller and R. Joseph Kapah, in their respective editions of the book, largely bypass the issue. In general, Maimonidean scholarship has given far more attention to the Guide and to the Yad than it has to Sefer ha-Mitzvot. Shamma Friedman, one of the few exceptions to this, does not attempt to describe the principle underlying the actual order itself, but describes the order of Sefer ha-Mitzvot as “a logical scheme in which each law would follow linearly from the previous.” Elaborating on why Maimonides chose such a system, he describes it as a “linear pattern… [there is an] intellectually superior quality of placing each law in its correct theoretical order, flowing from the previous law, and leading directly to the following, without subgroupings…” It is thus a “linear sequence of strict conceptual relationship,” as contrasted to the “Mishnaic model of hiluq—dividing into large sections, each devoted to one general topic, with internal subdivisions”

Comparison to the Yad and to the Guide

I began my attempts to unlock this enigma by doing something rather obvious: namely, to conduct a comparison of the order found in Sefer ha-Mitzvot with the groupings of the mitzvot found elsewhere in Rambam, to observe where it deviates from the other schemes and whether there seems to be any overall pattern to this deviation—and thereby, through a process of induction, to attempt to reconstruct the underlying principle. It seemed logical, given that Sefer ha-Mitzvot was written as kind of preliminary or preparatory work to the Yad, that the scheme of the latter already existed in Maimonides’ mind, at least in a rough form, when he wrote the former. Even though not formally divided into any groupings, Sefer ha-Mitzvot does contain bunches or clusters of mitzvot of the same type placed together; hence, comparison of their arrangement, compared to that in the Yad, was bound to be illuminating.

The Maimonidean oeuvre contains two main schemes for dividing the mitzvot: that of the fourteen books of the Yad, and the fourteen “classes of commandments” found in the chapters of ta’amei ha-mitzvot (rationales for the commandments) given in the Guide for the Perplexed (III.35-49). The fourteen books of the Yad ha-Hazakah / Mishneh Torah, are:

1. Mada: basic principles

2. Ahavah: laws of fixed religious worship, applicable to all

3. Zemanim: Shabbat and festivals: mitzvot regarding specific times

4. Nashim: family law

5. Kedusha: laws regulating the physical needs of food and sex

6. Haflaah: oaths and vows

7. Zeraim: agricultural laws—tithes, etc. to priests & alms to the poor

8. Avodah: Temple worship

9. Korbanot: sacrifices

10. Toharah: ritual purity and impurity

11. Nezikin: damage to property or person

12. Kinyan: business law, buying and selling, partnership, etc.

13. Mishpatim: civil law—bailiffs, loans, rentals, contract law

14. Shoftim: structure of government—judges, monarchy, prophecy, military law

To simplify matters somewhat, and so as to see more clearly (and later compare) the underlying patterns, I compiled a more compact list based on larger groupings. For this purpose, I found the four-fold division used in the Tur and Shulhan Arukh to be quite helpful: I: Orah Hayyim: the regular worship of God, applicable to all, both daily and in the round of the year; II: Yoreh Deah—disciplining of the basic instincts through regulation of physical pleasures, i.e., kashrut and sexual laws; III: Even ha-Ezer: family law; IV: Hoshen Mishpat—civil law, torts, damages, etc. To these I added two categories found in Rambam which are absent in the Tur: general principles: theology, philosophy, ethics, etc., which I designated as 0; and laws of the Temple, sacrifices, and priests, including priestly gifts, which I called Ib: Divine worship in the temple. The regular worship incumbent upon all I relabeled as Ia. I this arrived at the following outline of the Yad:

0 Basic principles: Book 1

Ia Regular worship 2-3

III Family law 4

II Discipline of instincts 5-6

Ib Temple worship 7-10

IV Civil law 11-14

We now turn to the “classes of commandments” found in Guide III .35 which, to avoid confusion, I have assigned lower-case Roman numerals. The books of the Yad in which the relevant laws appear are given in parantheses at the end of each entry:

i. Fundamental opinions (1a)

ii. Idolatry (1d)

iii. Improvement of moral qualities (1b)

iv. Alms, lending, oaths, priestly gifts (6-7)

v. Preventing wrongdoing and aggression (12)

vi. Punishment of evildoers (11a, 14)

vii. Property, mutual transactions (11b, 13)

viii. Days of forbidden work & festal days (3)

ix. Worship prescribed for everybody (2)

x. Sanctuary & its utensils (8)

xi. Sacrifices (9)

xii. Clean and unclean things (10)

xiii. Prohibited foods (5b)

xiv. Prohibited sexual unions & marriage (5a, 4)

Summarizing this scheme in terms of the broader categories, as we did above for the Yad, we arrive at the following overall pattern:

0 Basic principles (i-iii)

IV Civil law (iv–vii)

Ia general religious worship (viii-ix)

Ib Temple worship (x– xii)

II Disciplining instincts (xiii-xiv)

III family law (xiv)

We shall now turn to Sefer ha-Mitzvot, and see what, if any, overall patterns emerge, in terms of the arrangement of the various “clusters” of mitzvot. As the list is rather long, I shall send it separately, as a supplement to this paper, and suffice for the moment with presenting my conclusions. Three features of the listing in Sefer ha-Mitzvot struck me as particular significant:

1. There is a clear line of demarcation between “mitzvot between man and God” and “mitzvot between man and his fellow”—that is, between theocentric and ethico-social mitzvot—in which the listing of the former is concluded completely before beginning the latter.

2. Related to this: the centrality of the concept of avodah. Unlike the scheme of either the Yad or the Guide, all of the avodah-motivated mitzvot are grouped together: that is, the laws concerning worship at the Temple follow immediately upon those concerning the forms of worship incumbent upon all.

3. There is a significant parallelism between the order of the positive mitzvot, and that of the negative ones. While there are certain exceptions, the overall arrangement of the large blocs of law is similar in both lists. e.g., the laws of the Temple service, purity, etc. are followed in both lists by the laws of oaths, and then by those which he later places in Sefer Kedushah (i.e., kashrut and sex laws), before turning to various laws for the regulation of society and inter-personal relations, such as family law. One explanation that seems plausible is that he considered using this list as a basic framework for his future law code in which, by the nature of things, positive and negative mitzvot would need to be intermingled.

To summarize, I present the conjectured “macro-order” of Sefer ha-Mitzvot in tabular form, as I did for the Yad and the Guide:







Summary: the Centrality of Avodah

The predominant role given to the concept of Divine service, avodah, in Sefer ha-Mitzvot, is tangibly felt not only on the “macro” level, but also in the “micro.” What first drew my attention to the underlying organizing principle of Sefer ha-Mitzvot was Rambam’s “deviation” from the pattern of the Yad in Aseh §5:

Mitzvah #5 In which he commanded us to serve Him. And this command ihas already been repeated twice [or more]. when it says “and you shall serve the Lord your God” [Exod 23:25], and it says “and you shall serve Him” [Deut 6:13; 10:20].

And even though this command is also among the general commandments, as we explained in Root §4, it also has a specific sense, which is the commandment of prayer. And the language of the Sifrei is, “’And to serve Him’ [Deut 11:13]—this refers to prayer.” And they also said,. “’And to serve him’—this refers to study.” And in the Mishnah of Rabbi Eliezer son of Rabbi Yossi the Galilean it says: From whence do we know that the principle of prayer is a mitzvah? From: “You shall fear the Lord your God, and you shall serve Him” {10:20}. And they said, “Serve Him in His Torah, serve Him in His Temple.” That is, direct your thoughts there in prayer, as explained by Solomon.

What I found significant here, reading closely, is that he begins by presenting the general sense of “service,” as if it were important to him to establish that avodah has, first of all, and perhaps also foremost, a general meaning—notwithstanding its more specific sense of prayer, or even more specifically of the Amidah Prayer. One of the fundamental imperatives of Judaism is to serve God. Hence, immediately after presenting the first four commandments (which are also the first four in the arrangement of the Yad); namely, the existence of God, His fundamental nature as unitary, and the two basic emotive components of our relationship to God—namely, to love and to fear Him—he turns to this. It seems to me that one could plausibly argue that all of the commandments except for the first four are, in a certain sense, subsumed under this.

Then, because of rule §4, that general mitzvot are not to be counted among the 613 mitzvot, he adds that this “also” has a specific meaning—i.e., daily prayer. But he immediately adds two more possible meanings of avodah: “Torah” (presumably, in the sense of Torah study), and Temple worship. This last is a bit ambiguous: it seems to refer both to the basic principle of Temple service, and to the idea that verbal prayer, wherever recited throughout the world, is somehow directed to God via the Temple (see 1 Kgs 8:30 and passim.): hence the custom of facing the Land of Israel/ Jerusalem/ the Temple site during prayer. There is also perhaps a hint here that, by directing prayer there, one is so-to-speak actually standing in the Temple while praying. In any event, there are no less that four different connotations given here for avodah: avodah in general; prayer; Torah study; and Temple service.

It is interesting, for purposes of comparisons, to observe the treatment of this same mitzvah in the Yad. We shall begin, in this case, with the heading to Hilkhot Tefillah, followed by 1.1:

Heading: …and these [i.e., this section] include two positive commandments: one, to serve God every day in prayer …

1.1 It is a positive commandment to pray every day, as is said, “and you shall serve the Lord your God” [Exod 23:25]. From the oral tradition we learn that this service is prayer, as is said, “to serve Him with all your heart” [Deut 11:13]. Our Sages said: “What service is it that is of the heart? This is prayer.” But the number of prayers is not from the Torah, nor is the formulation [i.e., wording] of this prayer from the Torah; and prayer has no fixed time from the Torah.

I will treat the contents of this halakhah, and one or two that follow, on another occasion, when we discuss prayer per se—probably in either Vaethanan or Ekev. What is interesting here is the direct, focused way in which Rambam moves directly from “service” to “prayer,” unlike his multi-valenced treatment of the same verses in Sefer ha-Mitzvot.

To return to our main subject: the above sequence continues to develop the theme of avodah in §§6-19, which consist basically of the various fixed, universal modes of worship of God, from the more abstract ones (to take oaths in His name, to strive to imitate Him, to sanctify His name) to the practical, daily mitzvot (Keriat Shema, Torah study, tefillin, tzitzit, mezuzah, Sefer Torah, etc.). These are in turn followed by the various commandments relating to the Temple service, its offerings, the duties of the priests, the priestly portions, etc., etc., which dominate the entire central section of Sefer ha-Mitzvot, from §20 through, as I see it, §133.

What, then, is the significance of the order in Sefer ha-Mitzvot? When I first conceived of this essay I assumed that the overall scheme of the Yad was already in Rambam’s mind when he wrote Sefer ha-Mitzvot. Hence it seemed logical to compare the two schemes to find differences or “deviations” between the one and the other. But chronologically, this of course need not be the case. While we know that Rambam had the Yad, or something like it, in mind when he wrote Sefer ha-Mitzvot, we do not know if he had the entire plan in mind, already full blown. It seems just as plausible to assume that this was an initial, trial effort at organizing the mitzvot. Perhaps when he started writing the Yad he confronted the need to present the material in a manner that would make the laws themselves as coherent as possible. In order, for example, to present general rules that are applicable to an entire group or category of laws, he needed to plan his arrangement accordingly.

Avodah and Sinai

A few concluding remarks, not necessarily related to Sefer ha-Mitzvot as such, but more in the spirit of derush preparatory for Shavuot.

One idea that came to me was that perhaps the “service of God’ was a kind of basic imperative that derived implicitly from what happened. We noted in the above-cited passage from Makkot that the Israelites only heard the first two commandments during the Sinai epiphany: anokhi and lo yihyeh lekha—God’s kingship, and eschewing the worship of all other gods. Rambam particularly stresses this idea, emphasizing that Moses played an absolutely central role in conveying the Torah to Israel (see Guide II.33; Yesodei ha-Torah 8; Mishnah Commentary, Hakdamah le-Perek Helek, Principle §7; I explained this idea in some detail in HY I: Shavuot).

Even regarding the first two mitzvot, Rambam seems to suggest that the masses of Israelites did not hear any words clearly, but only sensed the overwhelming presence of the Ineffable, and the deep awe and fear this inspired. Yet whether they heard the words themselves is perhaps not really the most important thing: the overwhelming experience of the numinous, of the Divine presence, in and of itself was the “Anokhi” experience—the source of the strongest, surest and most certain knowledge that “I am the Lord your God.” Similarly, the concomitant fear of God, verging upon sheer terror and panic in the face of the overwhelming Presence of the Infinite, the Wholly (and Holy) Other, was existentially, the source of “you shall have no other gods before me.” They felt the quintessential fear of Him that is the root of all the negative commandments, and first and foremost the prohibition of idolatry. They received the Revelation as a non-verbal, intuitive kind of epiphany.

But beyond that, it occurred to me, they intuitively understood one more thing: that they must serve God; that the basic imperative to be drawn from this revelation, before any specific mitzvot and any concrete details, and before Moses started to teach them anything, was that they were called upon to serve God; that to engage in avodat ha-Shem was the central duty of their lives from then on in.

What is meant by avodah, the service of God? It goes beyond mere belief in God. I would suggest as a working definition: any act in which man is not focused on human needs, individual or communal, however broadly defined, but upon the transcendent: it is any act done with the intention of serving God. There is a certain gratuitous implication to the word, even a paradox: since He has no needs, He cannot really be served in the same sense that, say, a servants serves his master, a disciple serves his teacher, or a child serves his parents when he performs acts of kevod horim—but it is “as if” he is giving to Him. A few weeks ago I wrote about giving, self-abnegation, as a central motif in a wide gamut of religious acts, ranging from animal sacrifices, through alms and charity, to fasting and other abstentions from pleasures, to devoting time to prayer or study, to the ultimate sacrifice of martyrdom (HY V: Tzav).

Thus, avodah marks a basic separation between the religious and the secular mentality: do you live for yourself (in the collective sense) alone, are human considerations all that there is, or is there another dimension of existence, that of serving God? The late philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz used to talk about the distinction between tzorekh and erekh—between human needs and values, those things that are an end in themselves, and warned against the all-too-common confusion between the two (including that on the part of religious leaders!).

One of the problems in contemporary Judaism, is that much that is being written and taught today in the name of Torah and Judaism is really of the “self–help” or “personal development” model. To avoid misunderstanding: I do not wish to criticize this trend per se. (Some of my best friends, as the old saw goes, are among the authors!) Much of what is being written is very beautiful and valuable material, that enriches people and helps them deal with their personal problems. And Heaven knows that the modern world is a difficult place to live in, with much confusion in people’s expectations in terms of personal life, changes in family, gender roles, rapid changes in employment, technology, etc.—not to mention the difficult times those of us living in Israel have had to deal with for nearly four years. However, it is important to understand the distinction between that which is avodah and that which is something else.

Or, to take another example: many people, particularly in the Diaspora, see Judaism, Jewish education, the assembly of Jews in the synagogue, as instruments serving Jewish survival or “continuity”; the mitzvot are understood and even cherished primarily for their sociological value. This, too, may be a blessed, even crucial, enterprise, but it is not avodat hashem in any simple, straightforward sense.

On second thought, the two areas I’ve mentioned here—personal growth and Jewish survival—may also ultimately be a form of avodah. If personal growth or helping others to grow is undertaken to make the self into a more perfect vessel with which to serve God, then that may ultimately be an activity of avodah. In a similar vein, sanctifying God’s Name by raising up the name of Israel in the world, by the Jewish people not being in a downtrodden or despicable position in the world (which surely includes the threat of disappearance through assimilation), then that too is ultimately an act of avodah (the prophet Ezekiel, for example, often talks about God’s Name being uplifted through Israel’s Name being uplifted among the nations). All depends, ultimately, upon the kavannah, the intention. Every mitzvah can be done to discharge one’s duty, to avoid punishment, or for ulterior motives of receiving honor or power from others—or as avodah, an act performed out of love and fear of God.

I often heard Art Green say that the essence of the Hasidic innovation, that in which it differed from the old Rabbinism, was in its teaching an “avodah” orientation rather than an halakhic orientation. For a hasid, it goes without saying that, even if strictly speaking Prayer as inferred from the verse “to serve Him” refers to the Amidah, in a broad sense the entire prayer service—nay, all of life—is one long act of avodah.

Perhaps a thought to take with us into Shavuot is the concept of the Sinai experience, not only as the transcendent source of our Law, but also as a call and source of the service of God as the central theme in the life of the Jew. Perhaps this is the deeper meaning of the verse “When you take the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God upon this mountain” (Exod 3:12).


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