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How to Read a Mitzvah


Each mitzvah/essay in the Sefer haHinnuch has a characteristic organization.  Not all the essays quite follow this organization, but if you look for these sections in each essay, that will help you understand what the author is saying and why.



          In the Feldheim edition most of us are using, the title for each mitzvah appears in brackets.  The title seems to have been added by the translator, and usually gives you a good idea what topic the mitzvah covers.  Be careful, though; occasionally the titles are a little skew to the actual content of the essay.


Introductory paragraph

          At the outset, the author gives the main idea of what the mitzvah is and the source verse from which it is derived.  As to the mitzvah, think about it as an action item:  according to this mitzvah, who must do what, or who must refrain from doing what?

          Make it your practice to look up the source verse.


miShorshei hamitzvah

          Next the author speculates as to why God might want Jews to feel obligated to observe such a mitzvah.  I believe the author is the first to systematically attempt to articulate a reason for each and every mitzvah.  This section characteristically begins with the words “mishorshei hamitzvah,” “from the roots of the mitzvah.”


Dinei hamitzvah

          Next comes a section explaining the “details of the mitzvah.”  This section begins with the label “midinei hamitzvah.”  At the beginning of the book, the author uses this section mostly to list topics for further study.  But as we pick up after 150 mitzvos or so, the author is using this section to advance the various agendas he has developed.  These include more detailed information about the mitzvah, samples of the genres of halachic literature, samples of characteristic types of logic and argument typical of halachic literature, further explication of topics the author considers important or of particular interest, etc.


Concluding paragraph

          At the end of each mitzvah/essay, the author explains to whom the mitzvah applies, when it applies, where it applies, and what the punishment is for breaking the mitzvah.  The author develops the topic of punishments for breaking mitzvos bit by bit throughout the work.


As you read on your own, make sure you can identify each of these sections of the mitzvah.  Try to articulate the main idea of each section in a sentence or two in your own words.  Don’t be surprised if the reading takes you much longer than you anticipate at the outset.  Don’t be discouraged; you will develop the skills to handle the material more easily as you get some experience preparing and reading.  Bring your questions to class so we can discuss them.


We will devote a fair amount of time during our first few classes to making sure everyone understands this structure.