Thursday, August 03, 2006

Vaethanan (Rambam)

Rambam and the Symbolism of the Mitzvot

In addition to the perorations of each book, at times Rambam interjects philosophical—homiletic comments in the middle of his presentation of the laws relating to various practical mitzvot. Tow good examples of this appear in relation this week’s parsha. The opening section of the Shema (Deut 6:4-9), often regarded as the centerpiece of this week’s parsha, contains, alongside the principles of God’s unity and the obligation to love Him, which we have already discussed elsewhere, several of the most familiar practical mitzvot of the Torah: tefillin and mezuzah. Rambam concludes his discussion of the concrete laws of these mitzvot with some remarks about their moral and spiritual implications, and their effect upon the person performing them. Thus, in Hilkhot Tefillin 4.25, we read:

The sanctity of tefillin is very great, for so long as the tefillin are upon a person’s head and on his arm, he is modest and God-fearing and is not drawn towards frivolity and idle talk and does not think evil thoughts, but turns his heart to the words of truth and justice. Therefore a person should attempt to wear them upon his person the entire day, for such is their mitzvah.

Rambam speaks here, with no little pathos, of the ethical impact of the mitzvot—here, specifically, of tefillin—upon a person: that they somehow instill a person with a sense of modesty, so-to-speak “inoculating” him against negative forms of behavior, and drawing him towards positive ethical traits. This is specifically related to the “holiness” of the tefillin, which might be described as a kind of miniature or quintessential Torah scroll that a person bears upon his body. Because the tefillin (small receptacles containing scrolls with certain key passages from the Torah, affixed to a person’s arm and head with leather straps) contain Divine Names, written by hand with he deliberate intention of sanctifying them, they are seen as holy objects.

The key question is this: is the effect wrought by the mitzvah upon a person mystical-metaphysical or educational-didactic? That is, are the mitzvah’s effect upon a person the result of hidden, almost magical forces that work upon him willy-nilly, automatically, or does the practice of the mitzvah work upon the person’s consciousness, causing him to see himself and his life in a different way? There are two great, opposing schools of thought within Judaism concerning the rationale for the mitzvot; notwithstanding, it is clear from many sources that Rambam clearly identifies with the latter.

One often hears people say that they refrain from doing certain things in public because they wear a kippah, which is considered as the identifying mark of the religious Jew (incidentally, the wearing of a head-covering is not strictly speaking a mitzvah, or even a fully mandatory halakhah, but rather a kind of pious custom that has become universally accepted as almost a sine-qua-non of Orthodoxy). All the more so that a person wearing tefillin, which literally contain God’s holy names (and hence might be viewed as symbolizing a kind of enhanced “presence” of God) will be embarrassed to behave badly—and thus almost be forced to behave decently.

I recently had a rather gratifying experience illustrating how a small comment can have far-reaching results in the life of another person. Some weeks ago (HY V: Shelah lekha) I mentioned the story of the newly divorced man who deliberated whether or not to continue to wear a tallit. I suggested that, in any event, he should wear a small tallit (tzitzit) beneath his garments so as to fulfill the mitzvah of tzitzit in some fashion or another. Some months later he told me that he had begun to do so almost immediately after our conversation, and that this practice had a profound impact upon his religious observance, his life generally, and his sense of self and his identity.

It was related of Rab, the disciple of Our Holy Rabbi [i.e., R. Judah the Prince], that his entire life no one ever saw him walking four ells without [speaking words of] Torah and without tzitzit or without tefillin... Even though the mitzvah is to wear them all day long, it is so during the hour of prayer more so than anything else.

Ideally, a person should wear tefillin all day long; halakhically, the mitzvah is incumbent throughout the daily daylight hours; but, as a concession to widespread custom, and to the difficulty entailed in wearing them constantly—whether because of an awkwardness if one moves within a non-Jewish society, or because of the religious tension and high level of bodily purity required— he mentions the practice, nearly universal today, even among very learned and pious sages, to wear them only for the Shaharit prayer. (Halakhically, there is a conception that each new day constitutes a discrete obligation to wear tefillin, for however short a time.) Albeit, in recent years there is a moment in certain circles to wear them at all times.

We now turn to the laws of mezuzah. Hilkhot Mezuzah 6.13:

A person must take care regarding mezuzah, because it is a constant obligation upon all. And whenever he comes in and goes out he encounters the unity of the Name of the Holy One blessed be He, and remembers His love, and he awakens from his slumber and his capricious involvement in passing vanities, and he shall realize that there is nothing that is constant for ever and ever except for knowledge of the Rock of the Universe. And immediately he returns to his knowledge and walks in the right path.

Here, too, the mezuzah is seen as a constant reminder, as an instrument affecting and constantly renewing religious awareness. (Albeit their effect is described in less total terms than those of tefillin, perhaps because, unlike tefillin, which are worn upon the body itself, the mezuzah is only encountered when entering or leaving the home). Interestingly, the emphasis here is on the conflict between the eternal nature of religious truths, contrasted to the transient and passing nature of all human pursuits—a motif in Maimonides’ philosophical writings. Involvement in “passing vanities,” while not precisely a sin, is seen as a waste of time, and hardly as a worthy pursuit for a person with a God-centered consciousness (we’ve had occasion in the past to discuss the problematic, world-denying nature of this view). The tone and wording here, especially the phrase “to awaken from his slumber,” is very reminiscent of the description of the function of the sounding of the shofar in Teshuvah 3.4.

The early Sages said: whoever has tefillin on his head, tzitzit in his garment, and a mezuzah on his door, is assured that he shall not sin, for he has many reminders, and these are the angels that save him from sinning, as is said, “the angel of the Lord encamps around those that fear Him, and saves them” (Ps 34:8). Blessed is the all-Merciful who has helped us.

This passage brings to mind, by contrast, the midrash about King David, who one day while in the bath house, wearing neither tzitzit and tefillin, and without a mezuzah on the door, felt anxiety that he was bereft of any visible emblem of God’s presence, through His commandments, until he looked down at his body and saw his circumcised organ. At that point, the Midrash relates, he composed Psalm 12, which begins with the words “For the choirmaster, for the Sheminit”—alluding to the eighth day, on which the infant is circumcised. The point being, that the connection to the mitzvah is tangible in our very bodies. (Or, another reading: raising the issue of external symbols vs. symbols innate in the very body; or, the idea of the person himself as a locus of connection to God. A contemporary question: What should women feel about this? Are the traditional answers, according to which a woman somehow does not need all these formal symbols because in some sense she is more innately spiritual, adequate?)

I will now conclude with one more rather interesting passage, in Mezuzah 5.4:

It is the usual custom that on the outside [i.e., back] of the mezuzah scroll, opposite the space between one section and the next, one writes the word Shaddai [“the Almighty”], and there is nothing wrong with this, for it is on the outside.

But those who write the names of angels or holy names or a verse or charms on the inside [of the scroll; i.e., alongside the prescribed biblical passages], they have no share in the World to Come. For these fools not only nullify the mitzvah, but they have made a great mitzvah—namely, the unity of the name of the Holy One blessed be He and His love and service—as if it were a charm for their own benefit, as it seemed to them in their foolish heart that this is something that benefits in the vain things of this world.

Here Rambam harshly criticizes a fetishistic attitude to physical mitzvot—in this case, by the addition of various quasi-magical annotations to the mezuzah. Such things are as much a part of popular religion today as they were, evidently, in Rambam’s day. He would certainly have been as outspoken in his criticism of other kinds of fetishistic connection to objects associated with holy people or places—water blessed by saints, amulets, earth from the Land of Israel or from the Temple site (as I saw advertised recently), sherayim or wine from a Rebbe’s table, challah from a wedding dinner (which some see as a good-luck charm that may help one to get married), etc., etc. If anything, ironically, we “scientific” moderns are probably more tolerant and “understanding” of such superstitions in the guise of religion, as we have sociologists and anthropologists who explain such things to us in terms of “folk religion” as opposed to “elite religion,” and who assure us (again, probably correctly so historically) that they have always existed, in Judaism as in more openly syncretistic religions.


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