An Introduction to Rabbi Hirsch and Mitzvos

When was the last time you thought about any one of the laws of tumah and taharah? And even if it hasn’t been so long, when was the last time you took a moment to associate some tumah principle with one of your daily activities outside of your Torah learning schedule? I’ll bet that the topic doesn’t feel so practical these days.

And that’s a real shame because tumah and tahara play a big role in the Torah and, therefore, should also play a prominent role in shaping the way we Jews think and act. Isn’t that, after all, the reason we were given the Torah and its mitzvos in the first place?

Or is it? Some people seem to believe that it’s enough to simply perform a mitzva even while completely ignorant of its meaning. Others claim that one can never know the meaning and purpose of a mitzva, insisting that blind observance is an ideally virtuous act of faith.

But that’s not how Rabbi S. R. Hirsch understood things. Of course halacha requires that we perform mitzvos even if we don’t understand their meaning. But what a tragedy it would be to wander through an entire lifetime of mitzva observance while completely missing their point at each step! Hirsch saw each fine detail of each of the Torah’s mitzvos as a rich source of inspiration and wisdom. In his system, an entire community whose members devote their lives to absorbing the full range of those lessons will realize a kind of heaven on earth: an existence that’s both deeply pleasant and satisfying while tangibly furthering the very goals of God’s creation.

Which Jew and which Jewish community can hope to achieve such heights without investing in properly understanding why they do the things they do? And, if the understanding of even a single mitzva is ignored, who can ever claim he thinks and lives the way a Jew should?

So let’s spend a few minutes thinking about mitzvos in general before diving into the specifics of tumah.

Why We Perform Mitzvos

In Hirsch’s view, mitzvos exist to refine our behavior and attitudes. לא נתנו המצות אלא לצרף בהם את הבריות – בראשית רבה מד:א. Of course, that can’t happen without a careful understanding of the many details that form the context of a particular mitzva. In this, as we’ll see a bit later, Hirsch was far from alone among Torah scholars. But first, here’s how Hirsch describes his approach to understanding a mitzva in Letter Ten from The Nineteen Letters:

You may read my statements as though they were nothing more than hypotheses, but they are not. Every opinion which I shall express is the result of many years’ study of Tanach, Talmud, and Midrash. Every detail and every step finds its confirmation in the Gemara, if only we seek to understand according to the simple meaning of its words, asking, at every point: “What have I heard here?” “What is the essential meaning of this thing?” “What is its purpose?” “What symbolic act was ordained for it?” “What is its natural meaning given its context and intent?” We must, furthermore, carefully distinguish between Biblical and Rabbinic laws, comprehending the former by considering the essence and nature of the subject, while seeing the latter as aids to the practical observance of the law. We must also take account of the peculiarities of the sources which, having been intended primarily for oral transmission only, spell out specific particulars for practical application, leaving the underlying general concepts – the spirit – for direct individual instruction or in individual’s personal analytic efforts.

The Hirschian Method: an example

It’s obvious that attaching a mezuza to your doorpost is only an introduction to the mitzva. So what’s it really all about?

Every time you walk into or out of a house or room, you have an opportunity to pause and think about what’s written on the mezuza and, in particular, how those words can influence you deep inside. The text of a mezuza, of course, includes the ideas that there’s one God, He’s all powerful, and that we must love Him and serve him with all our hearts and soul.

But isn’t all of that already included in the separate mitzvah of the Shema? What’s special about a mezuza? Hirsch (Dev. 6; 9) would have us examine the way this message is delivered.

When we think about a mezuza – especially as we walk past one – we should think of the way it was created:

  • It must be written by a scribe who is fully conscious of the words’ meanings – his entire concentration is focused on nothing else.
  • It must be written by someone who is personally obligated in the mitzva – not as some theoretical exercise, but out of personal conviction.
  • The production of the mezuza (as with all mitzva objects) must be as attractive as possible.
  • A mezuza requires “kesiva tama” (“perfect script”) ensuring, for instance, that all the letters are clearly formed and none overlaps its neighbor.

Why? What difference does it make? No matter how nice the writing, considering how the scroll is so tightly rolled and covered, you’re not likely to ever see it.

Putting those pieces together, Hirsch suggests that when we think about the high level of concentrated effort required to transmit the messages contained in a mezuza, we should realize that we must similarly commit ourselves to intelligently absorbing these ideals. Not as a mindless automaton or with half a heart, but with minds and feelings fired by the same sense of intense devotion and precision with which the mezuza itself was created. Mezuza, then, is the manner by which we are to carry out those ideals taught by the Shema.

Let’s consider some more details. Where does the mitzva apply? On the doorposts of buildings. But not all buildings: only on those within which we’re active (as opposed to empty, unused space) and which are fully usable as homes (as opposed to undersized or roofless rooms). This, wrote Hirsch, suggests that it’s not the space – the property – that is to be the subject of this mitzvah, but the normal home and work activities taking place inside.

How does all of this come together? From the moment we first approach the threshold of our homes – engaged in our personal or professional activities – we are to try to infuse full enthusiasm and loving devotion before God into our eating and sleeping, working and playing, and the way we interact with our families. Indeed, into every conscious moment. Pause and think this way upon passing a mezuza even once a day, and see if you don’t gradually change your life’s focus.

The Hirschian Method and Taharah

Attempting to apply R’ Hirsch’s complete methodology for understanding the symbolic meanings of a mitzva on our own might be a bit ambitious. But there’s nothing stopping us from taking what he actually wrote and applying it. With that in mind, the goal of this book is to first organize and present the basic principles of tumah based on the mishnayos of Keilim and Ohalos, and then to see how ideas found throughout Hirsch’s writings can be applied.

How can I be sure that the list of “basic principles” I’ve chosen captures the whole topic? After all, if what’s important could have been accurately expressed using fewer words, wouldn’t Chazal have given us fewer mishnayos? Those are strong questions and the only way to respond is with humility: this book is not a replacement for Tractactes Keilim and Ohalos and their commentaries. But I believe it is a good start. And I believe that deepening our understanding of these principles through Hirschian thoughts will serve to guide and inspire us in our real lives.

What Is a Chok (חוק)?

Before moving on, I should address the elephant in the room. I’m sure you’ve heard the claim that “chukim” are mitzvos without knowable reasons that are meant to be performed as an act of faith. The laws of tumah, furthermore, are among the mitzvos most commonly thought of as chukim. If the popular assumption is correct, then this book should end right here, because there can be no reasons to understand and no inspiration to gain.

As you can probably imagine, Hirsch himself – in the company of many great Torah authorities – rejected this popular notion. Let’s take a moment to examine the issue.

First of all, why not take a quick look at some passages where the Torah itself uses the expression. According to Rashi, its use in Vayikra 26:3, for instance, refers to the mitzva of learning Torah:

אם בחקתי תלכו ואת מצותי תשמרו ועשיתם אתם

It would be very difficult to claim that, of all mitzvos, that particular one had no reason! And here’s one (Shmos 12:17) where a reason is explicitly declared in that very passage:

ושמרתם את המצות כי בעצם היום הזה הוצאתי את צבאותיכם מארץ מצרים ושמרתם את היום הזה לדרתיכם חקת עולם

Nevertheless, elsewhere Rashi did, as we will soon see, write that chukim are “royal decrees” with “no reason.” There’s obviously more to this than what we’ve seen so far. Here’s where we’ll begin:

My statutes (חוקותי) you should keep, your animal do not mix breed, in your field do not plant mixed (crops) and do not wear clothing mixed as shatnez. (Vayikra 19:19)

And here’s what Rashi wrote:

“‘Your animal do not mix breed’…these statutes are Royal decrees; there is no reason. (Rashi)

And this is the passage from the Talmud (Yoma 67b) on which Rashi’s comments seem to be based:

The rabbis taught: “My laws (משפטי) you should do,” (Vayikra 18:4) things that, had they not been written by God, would have to be written through simple logic. Thus: idolatry, sexual immorality, murder, theft and cursing God. My statutes (חוקותי) you shall keep,” (ibid) things through which the Satan challenges our faith. Thus: eating pig meat, wearing shatnez, breaking a levirate marriage (chalitza), purifying a metzora and the sending the Yom Kippur goat out to Azazel. To prevent a person thinking that these statutes are without value, the Torah says (ibid) “I am the Lord your God” – I am the Lord Who decreed these laws and you have no permission to doubt them.

Ramban (Vayikra 19:19) challenges the connection between Yoma 67b and Rashi’s comments to the Torah: since the Talmud lists only one of the three commandments from Vayikra 19:19, the other two would seem to be of a different status. How then could Rashi have lumped all three together in declaring them all “royal decrees…without reason”:

“It was only the commandment of shatnez (mixing wool and linen in a garment) whose purpose our rabbis said was inaccessible and was therefore subject to possible criticism…but not the mixing of animal species (or the mixing of crops).”

Ramban therefore broadens the definition of “chok” to mean any commandment whose purpose is not easily appreciated by relatively uneducated individuals. He thus implies that it is through using this “new” definition that Rashi correctly includes the three commandments from our verse among all subtle or complex Torah laws:

“Our sages certainly never suggested that any single commandment of the King of Kings has no reason, for ‘all the words of God are pure’ (Proverbs 30:5)! Rather, chukim are called “royal decrees” in the sense that a king might establish them without revealing their benefits to the entire nation. People may thus harbor some doubt about them and, rather than properly appreciating the commandments, accept them only through their innate fear of the king…Similarly, the phrase ‘God’s statutes’ refers to the secrets of His Torah that the common folk cannot readily appreciate using their own intellectual abilities, as much as they appreciate laws (משפטים). But all commandments have wonderful reasons and their benefits are perfect.”

There is, however, another Talmudic passage (Brachos 33b) that appears not only to suggest that God’s chukim have no reason, but that this is true of every single one of His commandments!

“Mishna: One must silence someone who, as he fulfills the commandment to send away the mother bird (see Deut. 22:6), says ‘May Your mercy reach this bird…'”

“Gemara: …Why? …Because such a prayer implies that God’s interactions with the physical world (i.e., His commandments) are rooted in mercy, whereas they are really only decrees.

Ramban (Devarim 22:6) quoted Rambam and his approach to the problem:

And Rambam wrote (More Nevuchim 3:48): “Now do not challenge me based on the rabbis’ words (i.e., those quoted above from Brachos 33b) because those represent only one of two conflicting opinions among the sages, specifically the belief that there is no reason for the commandments beyond that they are God’s will. However we adopt the opposing opinion, that there is a reason behind every commandment…”

Ramban himself, while clearly accepting Rambam’s general methodology for understanding commandments, felt that it was unnecessary to restrict oneself to one particular side of a Talmudic debate. In fact, there was no debate. All of our sages, maintained Ramban, would definitely agree that we should adapt our Torah observance to the results of the philosophical quest for meaning. Our Talmudic passage – and a number of others like it – dealt with a particular theological problem:

“But those Talmudic passages that troubled Rambam, in my opinion, are referring to an entirely different subject. Their intent is to teach that God Himself gets no benefit of any sort from our observance of His commandments. Nevertheless, such observance provides enormous benefit to human beings through protecting them from dangerous behavior, false beliefs or disgusting personal qualities. Observance can remind us of the miracles and wonders that help us know God. And this is what is meant by the words (Midrash Rabba Gen. 44:1) ‘The commandments were only given in order to purify His creations’ – that they should be like purified silver. One can’t say that purifying silver has no purpose, for it is obviously intended to remove impurities. So too, with His commandments, our King intended to remove false beliefs from our hearts and to teach us the truth, to remember it always…Thus, when the rabbis said that (one may not suggest) ‘that God’s interactions with the physical world (i.e., His commandments) are rooted in mercy,’ but that ‘His words are really only decrees,’ they only meant that God does not personally care about a particular bird’s nest, nor does His mercy extend to a mother bird and her young. For His mercies do not prevent us from using (or even killing) animals for all our needs – for if God did care, he would have prohibited their slaughter. Rather, the reason He commanded us to (send away the mother bird) is to teach us the quality of mercy, so we do not become cruel… (Ramban Devarim 22:6)

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