Class Notes - Class #8

The mitzvah/essays that conclude our study are relatively straight forward.  They raise important themes and questions that help pull together what we have learned.  These mitzvot come from the very end of Moses’ addresses to the Jews before Moses’ death and the entrance of the Jews into Israel under Joshua’s leadership.  They set a special tone at the end of Moses’ speeches and at the end of Sefer haHinnuch.

 

Mitzvah #602 prohibits Jews from keeping inaccurate weights and measures even without any intention to use them.  This mitzvah is another reminder that the Torah requires scrupulous honesty.  We are less likely to be dishonest if we avoid the means to be dishonest.  The source verses, Deut. 25: 13 – 14, explicitly say we should not keep inaccurate weights and we should not keep other inaccurate measuring devices, but Rambam explains that the verses are playing out several common examples all covered by the same mitzvah.

 

Ex. 17: 8 – 16, describes Amalek attacking the Jews in the desert.  Numbers 21 – 24 tells the story of Balak, the king of Moab trying to get Ba’alam, a prophet, to curse the Jews.  When Ba’alam finally speaks he mentions Amalek as the “first of the nations” destined for destruction.  The rabbis understood this to mean that Amalek was the first nation to attack Israel.  The nations had heard about the miracles that protected the Jews as they left Egypt, and they were afraid to attack.  When the Amalekites attacked that fear was lifted and other nations felt free to attack as well. Deut. 25:17 describes Amalek attacking the Jews from behind, hitting the weakest and most vulnerable although the Jews were not threatening the Amalekites.  Mitzvot #603 – 605 deal with how Jews commemorate that story.  Mitzvah #603 requires Jews to remember what Amalek did.  Mitzvah #605 prohibits Jews from forgetting what Amalek did.  Mitzvah #604, according to our author, requires Jews to annihilate Amalek.

            There are other mitzvot that required Jews to “remember” something.  For example Jews are required to remember the exodus from Egypt.  This mitzvah is accomplished when Jews recite the third paragraph of “shm’a” which mentions the exodus.  Since the exodus is so basic to Jewish thought, Jews mention it explicitly at least twice a day.

According to the midrash halachah, the mitzvot about remembering Amalek’s actions require that Jews remember with hearts and words, by reciting and by personal awareness.  As a practical matter that is accomplished by periodically reading or hearing the source verses for these mitzvot, Deut. 25: 17 – 19.  The author says there is no fixed time interval for that reading.  Different Jewish communities give people the opportunity to do that by publically reading those verses, but different communities did that at different time intervals, annually or every several years.  (The translator has a fascinating note about relevant historical evidence.)  Presumably Jews who hear the Torah reading that includes that passage have fulfilled this obligation.  Common current practice is to read this passage before Purim, and hearing that reading would also fulfill this obligation.

The author explains the shoresh of these mitzvot to make Jews aware that God detests those who oppress the Jews. The worse the oppression, the more God will punish the oppressors.  As our author understands things, God’s punishment of Amalek is accomplished through mitzvah #604 which requires Jews to annihilate the Amalekites.  Jews periodically remember the story of Amalek attacking the Jews to remind the Jews about that obligation.  Since the main focus of the mitzvot to remember what Amalek did is to remind the Jews about the military obligation to attack and annihilate Amalek, our author says the mitzvot to remember apply to men and not to women.

Our author understands mitzvah #604 as a positive mitzvah to annihilate each and every individual Amalekite, men and women, adults and children.  This mitzvah is incumbent on the Jewish community as a whole once the Jews enter Israel, parallel to the requirements to appoint a king and to build the Temple.  The mitzvah also falls on individual Jewish men anywhere, at any time.  If a Jewish man can identify an Amalekite and has the power to kill that Amalekite, he is obligated to kill the Amalekite.  The author does not seem at all uncomfortable with that obligation.

Our author appears to be relying on the story that appears in I Samuel 15 for his opinion that mitzvah #604 requires annihilating each individual Amalekite.  Samuel, making explicit reference to our source verses in Deuteronomy, tells King Saul to attack and annihilate the people of Amalek and their animals.  Saul attacks, but spares the Amalekite king and some of the animals.  That costs Saul the kingship.  (Note that, despite Saul’s near annihilation of the Amalekites, they turn up again later in the story.)

Rambam sees the mitzvah to annihilate Amalek as a national obligation, similar to the mitzvot we saw earlier to destroy certain other nations.  Rambam describes the requirement that the Jews offer a peace settlement to those other nations in Hilchot Melachim 6, and he does not mention Amalek as an exception.  Only if the peace offer is rejected are the Jews permitted to attack, and then the Jews are required to wipe out the entire population.  Rambam may be assuming that Saul was required to make a peace offer to Amalek, or that this incident was an exception to the general rules.  Rambam’s approach is disturbing, but not as difficult as our author’s approach.

The author’s conclusion is surprising in other ways.  Our author told us earlier that when Sanherev conquered Israel, he relocated segments of each conquered nation so that the populations became entirely intermingled and no one individual could be identified by national origin.  Our author does not mention that here, and but he does say that the mitzvah is still applicable only “if one of their descendants can be found.”

Our author cites the midrash halachah that sees the mitzvah to annihilate Amalek as one of the communal obligations of the Jews who conquered Israel.  Our author does not give a source for his assertion that individual Jews are obliged to kill individual Amalekites.

Our author does not seem bothered by the moral difficulty of his understanding of the requirement to annihilate each individual.  The author would require Jewish men to kill Amalekite descendants who are personally blameless and many centuries removed from their ancestors’ bad behavior.  Such behavior would appear to be immoral, but the author teaches God commanded us to do those apparently immoral acts.  Perhaps the apparently immoral act really is entirely moral because God commands it, assuming that God’s command defines what is moral and what is not.  If apparently immoral acts are moral if God commands them, how are we to internalize the apparent moral lessons taught by mitzvot?  But, as Abraham implies when he challenges God’s plan to destroy Sodom, perhaps there are there moral principles that bind even God.  If there are such moral principles, how are we to know what they are?

 This is not a uniquely Jewish question.  Plato raises the same issue in Euthyphro.  But moral issues remain either way.    We are appalled by the requirement to kill each individual Amalekite, especially those who are personally innocent.  That may be primarily because it is intrinsically immoral to kill innocent individuals because of their ancestors’ bad behavior.  Or it may be primarily because God commands us not to murder.  God seems to be violating basic morality, or God seems to be giving us contradictory instructions.  Figuring out how mitzvot relate to morality is a difficult task.

(I am indebted to Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot’s excellent article “Amalek: Ethics, Values and Halakhic Development,” in Tanakh Companion: The Book of Samuel, Ben Yehuda Press 2006, for much of my analysis of this topic.)

 

Mitzvot #606 requires that certain people who bring bikkurim to the Temple recite a specified text.  We learned about bikkurim in mitzvah #91: a farmer marks the first ripe produce of the seven species Israel is famous for, arranges them in a basket, and brings them to the Temple where they are given to the cohanim of the mishmar on duty that week.  In mitzvah/essay #91 the author said, without explaining, that the mitzvah of bikkurim applies to men. 

Deut.  26: 5 – 10 specifies the speech the farmer gives when delivering the bikkurim to the cohanim.  Most of the speech is familiar to us because it appears in the haggadah.  The farmer’s speech contrasts the troubles the Jews suffered throughout their history, the unfair actions of Lavan to Jacob, slavery in Egypt, with the joyful outcome, settling in the land of Israel and receiving God’s bounty of successful crops.  A long, difficult process comes to a successful end and the farmer expresses gratitude to God for that outcome.

            Our author emphasizes the role speech plays.  The farmer is expressing appreciation of God by bringing the bikkurim, but the message is enhanced for the farmer when the farmer verbalizes exactly what is going on.  The author has emphasized the need to people doing mitzvot to internalize the character traits the mitzvot were intended to instill in those people, and verbalizing the point helps accomplish that.  The author suggests the farmer should continue after reciting the required declaration, expressing gratitude to God and asking God’s further blessing.

            But when we speak, especially in a religious context, our author says we need to speak very precisely.  Therefore there are people who can bring bikkurim but do not recite the required text because parts of the text are not true for those people.  For example, women and people of indeterminate gender may bring bikkurim but do not make the declaration because the declaration refers to “the land that God gave me” and Joshua’s original distribution of the land gave land only to men.  The same applies to someone bringing bikkurim as an agent or trustee for someone else.   But male converts do make the declaration since they are considered sons of Abraham, to whom the land was originally promised. If the bikkurim come from trees which the farmer rented, the farmer must have rented enough trees to be considered as having also purchased the land the trees are growing on.

            The author has emphasized repeatedly the need for people to speak honestly and accurately, and to fulfill promises.  Here the author expands that concern to the context of prayer.  Everything we say that is directed toward God should be phrased accurately and precisely. 

            Mitzvah #607 requires a similar declaration by someone who has properly allocated and distributed the required agricultural taxes.  Deut. 26: 13 – 16 supplies the script.  Several of the requirements for ma’aser sheni that we saw a few classes back are derived from this declaration.

            This triumphant declaration can be said in any language.  It is recited in the Temple, although a recital anywhere else fulfills the mitzvah.  It takes place during the day in the fourth and seventh year of the shmittah cycle on the last day of Passover.  Thus the declaration includes at least one year where the tithe that goes to poor people is required.  The author says this mitzvah applies to men, even though women are also required to separate and distribute agricultural taxes.

            And, of course, the declaration must be true.  Speech is a special characteristic of human beings.  The power of speech distinguishes people from other animals.  Some people are very careful about everything they say.  (One suspects our author might be one of those people.)  And this declaration is special because the speaker is attesting to having paid out agricultural taxes that support the levi’im and cohanim who take care of the Jews’ spiritual needs, and to poor people.  God requires this declaration to help encourage Jews to pay the agricultural taxes honestly.

            We noted earlier that many aspects of the required agricultural taxes were essentially on the honor system.  This mitzvah provides the farmer who has complied with the rules a wonderful opportunity.  The farmer followed many expensive, detailed requirements, carefully calculated who gets what, distributed the various taxes to the correct recipients, kept the required foods tahor.  No one but God would know if the farmer cut corners.  The farmer comes to the Temple during the harvest holiday of Passover and says before God and the entire community:  “I did everything God required me to do.  I didn’t cheat.  I didn’t miss a step.  I did it right.”  And then the farmer asks God’s blessing on the entire community, those who followed all the rules and those who didn’t.  The Torah seems to imply that the farmer has earned the right to make that request.

Throughout our study we have seen many detailed requirements about a myriad of mitzvot.  Sometimes it feels almost impossible to get it all right.  Here we have the opposite feeling.  We can take on the task of doing the mitzvot, we can sometimes succeed, and when we do we can say so proudly to God and to our community. 

This mitzvah comes very close to the end of our study, and studying this mitzvah always makes me feel that it reflects on the enterprise of studying Sefer haHinnuch that we are soon to complete.  We have read and thought about each mitzvah in God’s Torah.  Like the farmer who has fulfilled his or her obligations, we have much to be proud of.

 

The source verse for mitzvah #611, Deut. 28:9, describes the reward the Jews will receive if they keep the mitzvot and “walk in His [God’s] ways.”  Our author understands that key phrase to mean that Jews are required not only to do the specific mitzvot but to imitate God.  God is described as merciful, so Jews should be merciful; God is described as gracious, so Jews should be gracious; God is described as patient, so Jews should be patient; God is described as righteous, so Jews should be righteous.  As always, when our author tries to articulate the overall point he says that Jews should be ethical. 

            It is hard to know how to accomplish that.  Mitzvot help, but here the author provides us with another technique which he borrows from Rambam.  People should focus on moderation and avoid extremes of thought or behavior.  That applies to everything people do:  eating and drinking, doing business, praying and doing other ritual mitzvot, participating in ordinary conversations and ordinary activities.  People should take time for self-evaluation, assessing thoughts and behaviors, trying to improve.  Everything in moderation.

            This is entirely consistent with the author’s enterprise of identifying a shoresh for each mitzvah.  God mandates that people do certain acts and those acts help instill character traits in those people.  This mitzvah encapsulates the shoresh of all the other mitzvot.

            Our author raises two problems.  God is perfect, having every characteristic of excellence.  We use words to describe God, but as the author has said many times those words are only metaphors because we cannot really describe God.  So we say God is merciful, but that is different from saying that people can be merciful.  Nevertheless, we can use the words as models for our own behavior.

            But God is also described as angry, vengeful and violent.  Our author says those descriptions of God should not be models for our behavior.  The author says these descriptions are even more metaphorical than the positive ones.  God is perfect.  God can do anything God chooses to do, so there is no reason for God to be angry.  People become angry because people are physical beings who are impatient.  God is not a physical being.  People do ignorant, wicked things, like worshipping astronomical bodies, and God appropriately punishes.  We say God is wrathful when He punishes, but that description is very distant from God’s perfect nature.  In fact people deserve much more punishment, but God’s mercy mitigates.

            The author does not seem entirely satisfied with this explanation.  He suggests that his son might raise this objection, and asks his son to accept this theory until some better explanation comes to light.

 

Mitzvah #612 requires all of the Jews to assemble in the Temple on the second day of Succot that comes just after the end of shmittah to hear a public reading of much of the book of Deuteronomy.  The source verse specifically says that all are required to attend:  men, women, children, infants.  Those who cannot hear or understand the content will be impressed by the assembly and pageantry, and everyone’s commitment to Torah will increase.

            It is a surprise that women are required to do this mitzvah since it is a positive mitzvah that must be done at a particular time.  We saw a general rule that women are exempt from positive, time-bound mitzvot.  The author explains that all general rules, including this one, have exceptions.

            This mitzvah reinforces the centrality of Torah to the Jewish people.  Jews are blessed by having the Torah, and the Torah shows the Jews how God wants Jews to behave, setting Jews apart from other nations.  Excitement about the gather will spread.  Jews will ask each other about the details and purpose of the upcoming assembly.  And all of that will help the Jews see how central Torah and its teachings are to their person and national life.

            The author, as he has done so many times before, describes the ceremony in vivid detail.  The reading took place in the Women’s Court of the Temple.  A special platform was built.  The king was tasked with reading the specified sections aloud so as many people as possible could hear.  The king was the only one allowed to sit in the Temple, but the king could choose to read standing.  Trumpets would sound to summon everyone in Jerusalem to assemble.  Local residents would gather, along with people who had come to Jerusalem for the holiday.  When the people were gathered, a Torah was brought in, passed from hand to hand by the most prominent officials:  the hazan of the Temple, the head of the congregation, the assistant cohen gadol, the cohen gadol, and finally to the king.  Before he began reading the king recited the familiar blessings said by anyone before an aliyah to the Torah.  After the reading the king recited the normal blessing read after an aliyah, and then seven more blessings:  the blessings beginning “r’tzeh” and “modim” from the end of the familiar amidah, the blessing beginning “atah b’hartanu” from the holiday amidah, a blessing for the Temple, a blessing that the kingship should endure for the protection of the Jewish people, a blessing for the cohanim, and finally a more freeform blessing asking God to save the Jewish people and answer prayers.

This ceremony united the Temple complex, and monarchy and the ordinary people, all in the service of hearing the Torah read.  It is easy to imagine this grand, impressive ceremony influencing the people to a sense of unity in loyalty to the Torah.

           

The final mitzvah, #613, obligates every Jewish man to personally write or commission the writing of a Torah.  If Jews are to be knowledgeable about the Torah and remain loyal to its teachings, Jews need access to what the Torah says.  The author envisions Jews eager to study Torah by taking out their own personal Torah and reading it.  That is much more likely if each individual has his own Torah and, as the author explains, does not have to go borrow a Torah from a neighbor.  Our author perceives to a Sefer Torah not only as a ritual object but as a book to be read and studied.

            The author details exactly how a Torah should be written.  The script must be clear and attractive.  There must be a space between words, paragraph forms must be correct and all of the words must be recorded accurately.  Other enhancements beautify the Torah.  Space should be left between lines.  Each line should be long enough for 32 letters, long enough to say something but short enough so the reader doesn’t lose the place.  The scribe should make adjustments to get the appropriate text to fit on each line, elongating letters or writing occasional letters in the margins.  Four empty lines separate one book from the next.  Deuteronomy should end in the middle of a line on the last line of a column, and the scribe manipulates the writing to make that come out right.  Certain letters are written in atypical ways and the scribe should get all of those accurate.  The “tagin,” decorative marks on top of letters, should be included.

            Even if there is a Torah already owned by the family, adult Jewish men should write or commission a Torah if possible.  People follow through on things in which they invest time, effort and money.  Having easy access to a Torah encourages Jews to read the Torah and to cherish it.  Extra copies of the Torah make learning accessible to other Jews who are unable, for financial or other reasons, to have one of their own.  Jews are more likely to read Torah if they have access to new, attractive copies.

            The author says that the same notions encourage Jews to write or commission other works of Torah study.  Jews who could afford to would establish scriptoria where copies of religious works could be produced, thus making Torah study more available to themselves and to others in the community.  Note that the author addresses his comment directly to his son.  Although the author was certainly thinking about other texts, he would have been thinking of his own work as well.  The very last thing the author says is that someone who fulfills this mitzvah will be blessed and that such a person and his sons will grow wise.  Indeed.  And we cannot help but thank the author for including us in his enterprise.  

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