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Class Notes - Class #10

First, we will consider the remaining introductory essay, which we delayed until we had finished the aseres hadibros.  I suspect this was written after the main body of the book, or at least late in the process of writing, because the writing and organization are clear and easy to follow.  The essay assumes the theological axioms we learned in the aseres hadibros.  It proceeds to examine the reliability of our tradition of revelation, and some basic questions about the implications of that revelation.  Someone with a serious background in medieval philosophy would undoubtedly understand the context of this essay better than I do.


We start with an epistemological point:  what is the best proof we have that some historical event happened?  We have lots of theories about history.  Which are most likely to be true?  (Remember that our author is writing before the scientific method, before the fields of archeology, anthropology, etc. had been imagined.) 

            His answer is that our most reliable historic information comes from the collective memory of large numbers of people who experienced something and attest that it happened.  The greater the number of witnesses who attest to something, the more likely it is to be true.  He gives an example of a body of water that is dangerous to drink.  If everyone in town knows the water is dangerous, it is foolhardy to take the advice of one individual expert who disagrees.

            That is why God, when giving the Torah, chose to do so in public rather than in private.  The entire Jewish people, 600,000 men and their associated families, experienced the revelation at Sinai.  Every type of person was there, and each could attest to the same experience.  That experience had an element of prophecy, and all of those people could attest to the experience of revelation and the experience of prophecy.  The prophecy removed any doubt about whether Mosheh had accomplished the exodus from Egypt in conjunction with God, or only through magic and sorcery.  Once it was absolutely certain that Mosheh was working in conjunction with God, it was also clear that the rest of the revelation that came through Mosheh was reliably from God. The people told their children, who told the next generation, and so a reliable living memory of that experience comes down through time.  We have reliable evidence that the Torah is actual revelation from God.


            Next, the author raises and answers questions related to his assertion of revelation.  The systematic nature of his inquiry indicates his background in philosophy.

            First, the author asks whether we might not be better off relying on logic and philosophy than relying on revelation.  A careful use of reasoning and careful observation of the world would lead to understanding of God.

            The author has several answers.  First, revelation does things that logic and careful observation cannot do.  Second, if God has revealed His will, it would be foolish and ungrateful of us to ignore it.  Earlier generations not only attest to that revelation, but they have studied it in detail and found new insight into it.  Third, there are things that the minds of imperfect people will never figure out.  Note that the author says nothing to disparage the enterprise of searching for knowledge of God through philosophy and observation of the natural world.  But that endeavor is limited and revelation expands our potential understanding.

            The next question is why a perfect God would bother revealing Torah to people.  God’s glory is complete, with or without people.  The author’s first answer is: we cannot know why God does things, although we do assume God had good reason.  But then our author speculates anyway.  Once God determined to create the world, He was determined to create a perfect world.  Indeed, we, looking at God’s world, are not able to find any improvements we would want to make.  God faced a challenge:  how to merge two opposites, matter and intelligence.  (I am not sure what the author means by “seichel,” “intelligence.”  After all, he considers the heavenly bodies to be intelligent.  Even without modern scientific understanding of astronomy, the intelligence of stars cannot be just like the intelligence of people.  A student of medieval philosophy could certainly shed light on this.)  When God created people, material beings with intelligence, He created creatures that, by their very nature, yearn toward both the material and the spiritual.  Living in a material world, people have no trouble pursuing their material side.  Revelation allows people to pursue their spiritual side.  Without that opportunity, God’s creation would be imperfect.

            This point leads to a follow-up question. If revelation is necessary for people to pursue their spiritual side, why give Torah only to some people and not to all people.  Again, the author says we cannot know, and then he speculates.  Look at any category of things in the world, and you will find variation in quality.  There will be a small portion more choice than the rest.  That is just the nature of the world.  This sounds much like our modern statistical concept of the “bell curve.”  Only a small percentage of farmland is “prime.”  So, too, God chose to give Torah to a small people, the Jews.  Other people have a spiritual vehicle, the mitzvot that apply to all people, and that has the potential to raise all people above the level of animals.  Similarly, some of the world’s land is choice, specifically Israel.  In Israel the choicest part is Jerusalem.  But all this does not mean that the non-choice portions do not have high status.  After all, even within the Jewish people there are cohanim and levi’im who are more choice than the rest of the Jews.

            Again our author raises a follow-up question.  If God chose the Jewish people for revelation and the potential for higher spirituality, why is it that the Jews suffer exile and persecution?  Answer:  Do not be fooled into thinking that our material world is all there is.  There is a spiritual world, “olam haneshamos.  Count that in, and the results will seem entirely fair.  God needed to provide both so that, when we sin, as we inevitably will, God can take the consequences out on us in the physical world and then grant us reward in the spiritual world.  Even Jews who are entirely overwhelmed with the trials and difficulties of the physical world will end up deserving a spiritual reward.  And eventually, in messianic times, our inability to avoid sin will subside and the spiritual side will prevail even in this material world.  This issue was a highly charged one for Jews in Medieval Christendom.  The medievals saw the world as hierarchical; God put each of us in a particular social slot, with those above us having power over us and with our having power over those below us.  Christians argued that, since Christians were in charge and Jews were not, that demonstrated that God intended for Christianity to supplant Judaism.  Jews, who shared this hierarchical mindset, could only answer that the situation was temporary and not what it seemed. 

Next question:  if all of that is true, why isn’t this spiritual world even mentioned in the revelation?  Answer:  it’s obvious and simply doesn’t need to be mentioned.  All people accept the notion of an afterlife, not just the Jews.


Our author’s logic here is systematic and careful, but some may not find it entirely convincing. 

He establishes the truth of revelation based on a myth that many people experienced at least part of that revelation.  But every culture has its myths.  I am no anthropologist, but we may not be the only culture with founding myths involving many people.  Modern research shows that eyewitness testimony is much less reliable than was once thought.  And other communities also have myths that claim to establish revelation; those revelations are different from ours.

Our author mentions that there are things about the natural world we are unlikely ever to figure out.  Modern scientists have significant insight into all of the examples he gives, and many other things the author could never have imagined.

The author’s argument about why God gives Torah only to Jews is experiential rather than logical.  Maybe some groups of people are more choice than others; that doesn’t necessarily prevent God from giving revelation to all peoples.

The author uses his “spiritual world,” “olam haneshamos,” to solve the problem of bad things happening to Jews.  That may seem a little facile, not quite up to the rigor of some of his other arguments.


            Nevertheless, his is a significant attempt to build up from the axioms we found in the aseres hadibros.  The rationalist philosophic basis is obvious.  This section of the essay concludes with a passage that connects this section to the axiomatic concepts we saw earlier and extends the chain of logic two steps further:  That God observes the details of what people do, and rewards people for their good behavior.


Then the author continues to another problem regarding the content of revelation.  He has established the reliability of the written Torah as revealed to Mosheh.  But what about the “torah sheb’al peh?”  The halachic system depends on accepting the rabbinic interpretations of the written Torah as those interpretations are reflected in the midrash halachah and Talmud. 

Our author responds with a series of observations rather than a clearly articulated logical argument.  First, he suggests an argument parallel to an argument he made earlier: a continuous chain of transmission.  God gave Torah to Mosheh, who passed it on from there, until it came to us.  He reasserts how crucial this interpretive material is to the halachic system.  He explains that there are apparent contradictions in the Torah but that rabbinic interpretation resolves them all, and he gives several examples.  (You can sort the details of those examples out on your own.)

Our author’s problem, of course, is what we earlier called the “1000 year black hole” in the history of halachah.  We have almost no historical information about what Jewish practice was like between Mosheh and the tana’im.  There almost certainly was some sort of cultural continuity.  But that does not answer some crucial questions:  What information beyond the written Torah did Mosheh get?  What was the mechanism of transmission during that very long period of time?  What explains the vast array of topics about which the tana’im disagree?  Our author does not discuss any of those problems.


The final section of this introduction has our author reflecting on the project of his book.  He starts with material already familiar to us.  There are 613 mitzvot; they fall into various categories, etc.  This passage has a few new elements.  First, the author mentions that the mitzvot that count toward the 613 must be “nohagos l’doros,” mitzvot that apply throughout the generations.  There are commands that God gave for one particular historical moment.  Those do not count toward the 613.  For example, God stipulated certain conditions for the Jews to prepare for the revelation at Sinai.  Those stipulations do not count in the official 613.  The author also mentions the special importance of the mitzvah to study Torah, as that facilitates our complying with the other mitzvot because we know what they are.  Therefore the rabbis required us to read Torah in shul on an annual cycle, and to review the weekly parshah. 

            The last several paragraphs are a more personal reflection on the writing task.  The author sees his enterprise as an extension of the rabbinic requirement for us to review the parshah weekly.  With his help, we will be able to focus on the mitzvot.  He reminds us of his special audience, his son and his son’s young friends.  (He also identifies himself as a Levi from Barcelona.  That is most of the information we have about our author.)

            The author also expands a bit on his approach to shorshei hamitzvot.  He calls what he tries to articulate a “remez,” a hint about each mitzvah.  He says that, when he can, he shares what the Torah itself says, or what prior scholars have said.  Beyond that, he says, he will write from his own understanding although his own opinion is not indisputably correct.

His tone is humble, seeing himself as “the least of my group, a student of the students of my time,” but he stills sees a contribution that he can make.  He writes passionately about his desire to contribute to the enterprise of spreading Torah, even as he outlines his own perceived limitations.  And he explains that working on this project is good for him, too, keeping him focused on Divine matters rather than on everyday, commonplace things. 

Last, he tells the reader to make his or her own evaluation.  “Anyone who dines with me should eat the meat and leave the bones and shells.”  He devotes much of his work to teaching the reader how to make those sorts of evaluations, how to tell the meat from the bones, how to think independently and critically.



Before we go back to specific mitzvot, let’s look at Sefer haHinnuch in the context of the Maimonidean controversy.  The information in this section is from the Encyclopedia Judaica and from Y. Baer, A History of the Jews of Christian Spain, Volume 1, JPS 1992.  The speculation in this section is entirely mine.

            Rambam, Maimonides, lived from 1135 to 1204.  He was an extremely controversial figure. In his own day, he was involved in prolonged disagreements with the gaon, Samuel ben Ali.  Rambam saw the gaonate as a corrupt political institution, and disagreed with its educational regime.  When Rambam wrote the Mishneh Torah, he omitted citations to earlier sources and he intended that most people would focus their study on the Mishneh Torah rather than on Talmud.  This undermined the gaonate, which ran academies for the study of Talmud.  In Europe Rambam was controversial for other reasons.  The Reconquista was proceeding, and Jews who had lived under the relatively benign Moslem regime were coming under Christian rule.  They were subject to the horrors that accompanied the Crusades.  The more elite of Jewish society in the Iberian Peninsula, still under the influence of the Moslem intellectuals, were mostly rationalists sympathetic to the philosophical approach. Of course, Rambam’s ideas also gave support to Jews looking for rationalizations for leniency in halalchah.  But in Ashkenaz, and increasingly in the Iberian Peninsula, the mystic tradition was on the rise.  The mystics were horrified by Rambam’s attempt to fuse revelation with philosophy.

            Some controversies run a relatively short cycle, and run out of momentum in a relatively short period of time.  Not this one.  Rather, enthusiasts on either side did all they could to fan the flames using many tactics, including propaganda and exaggeration.  The Encyclopedia Judaica, Volume 11, 750, describes the process:

Dogmatics were radical and clearly defined on both sides.  Herem was hurled against herem, as the authority of northern France was met by the authority of local scholars and communal leaders in Provence and Spain.  Emissaries of both camps traveled about, rallying their supporters.  A profusion of letters and counter-letters, sermons and counter-sermons, commentaries and counter-commentaries poured out.

Rabble rousing was the order of the day.

Ramban was deeply involved in these controversies.  He was a strong opponent of Rambam, writing from the mystical tradition and allying himself with the anti-Maimonidean camp. He wrote letters to rabbis in Spain and France outlining the dangers of Maimonidean thinking. But he also cautioned against taking the fight too far.  He pointed out that Rambam was not writing for the more naïve residents of Ashkenaz, who had limitied general educations.  Rather, by addressing himself to philosophically oriented Jews, Rambam brought many back into the Jewish fold.  Rambam may have been wrong, but he did serve a purpose that rabbis who rejected philosophy could not have filled.

            Then there was a dramatic pause in the counter campaigns.  The Dominicans burned Rambam’s books in Montpellier in 1232.  Then, in 1242, twenty-four cartloads of Talmud and other Hebrew books were burned in Paris.  The Catholic Church was undergoing a parallel dispute between its rationalist and mystical segments, and that certainly contributed to the book burnings.  No one knows how much influence the Maimonidean polemics contributed to these horrific events, but even the possibility was sobering.  The disputes continued, but much more quietly.

            Now let us try to speculate how Sefer haHinnuch fits into this picture.  Our author in heavily influence by Rambam.  He follows Rambam’s count of the mitzvot, grounding his work directly in Ramabm’s Sefer haMitzvot.  We have seen evidence of his philosophical orientation in his discussion of the first several mitzvot in the aseres hadibros and in the longest of the introductions. He follows Rambam on issues of the incorporeal nature of God and on anthropomorphic language in the Torah. His enterprise of shorshei hamitzvot is based in rationalism.  We have seen no evidence of mystical influence. 

Our author is an independent thinker.  He does not agree with Rambam about everything.  For example, in the long introduction we saw our author assert that, in messianic times, human nature would undergo a change and people would not longer by led into sin by their material natures.  Rambam did not think human nature would change in messianic times.

            At the same time, our author quotes Ramban extensively and respectfully.  It seems he is relying on two authorities who were ideological opponents.  Yet our author manages to present them as part of a shared enterprise of halachah.  He does not disparage either the rationalist approach or the mystical approach even as he places himself firmly in the rationalist camp.  We cannot know what our author was thinking, but it seems possible he is consciously trying the bridge the divide by showing that halalchah could be a common ground.

            The question of whether Rambam should be accepted as part of the authentic Jewish tradition has long been settled.  But many of the content issues of the Maimonidean Controversy are alive in our time.  We are still struggling with the role of philosophy and secular education, with issues related to understanding midrash agadah, and many other questions.  As in the earlier episodes of the Maimonidean Controversy, our issues parallel issues in the larger communities in which we live.  Our author is coming primarily from a rationalist point of view, but his approach to those with whom he disagrees is a model of respectful civility.


Now we return to the mitzvah/essays, with three miscellaneous mitzvot, #39 through 41.


            Mitzvah #39 prohibits making statues or other three dimensional depictions of the human figure.  This only prohibits three dimensional figures, not drawings or paintings.  The basic reason for this mitzvah is that making such a statue seems entirely too much like making an idol, although the prohibition applies whether the statue is made as an idol or for any other reason.

            The author mentions a problem with the source verse for this mitzvah.  In the verse, God says, “Do not make anything with me,” figures of gold, silver, etc.  The rabbis understand the word “itti,”  “with me” to mean anything “resembling Me.”   But in what way can anything corporeal resemble God?  Nothing can.  The only way humankind resembles God, according to our author, is through intelligence.  It’s hard to interpret that as a prohibition.  Looking at the verse in context, however, it seems to be adding to the prohibitions of idol worship we saw at the beginning of the aseres hadibros, and that is how the verse is interpreted for halachic purposes.

            Our author does not go into further detail about this mitzvah except to mention some topics for further study, for example whether it is permitted to make a statue of part of the human figure.  He is equivocal about whether this mitzvah has any application to sculptures of things other than people.

            Since I do a fair amount of art and craft activity, I looked at the Rambam for more detail.  In Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Avodah Zarah 4:10, 11, he explains that this prohibits making human figures out of any material, as statue, sculpture, or high relief.  The prohibition does not apply to two-dimensional art forms such as drawing, painting, tapestry, etc.  Nor does it apply to bas-relief.  Rambam applies this to a signet ring that has a human figure in high relief.  It would be forbidden to make such a ring because one would be making a high relief image of a person.  If one owns such a ring, it would be prohibited to wear it, but it would be fine to use it.  If one owns a signet ring that is carved in bas-relief one would be allowed to wear it but not to use it since, in using it, one would be creating a prohibited figure.  Rambam says figures of other things, such as animals and plants are fine.  He does not mention anything about partial figures.

            This is an ordinary lav that applies at all times, to men and women.  The author says it is not punishable by malkos.  He does not say why.


            Mitzvah #40 prohibits using any metal tool in building the alter, the “mitzbeach,” in the Temple.  In fact, no metal instrument may touch the stones of the alter.  When the alter was whitewashed, twice a year, the painters used brushes constructed without metal parts.  Someone, male or female, who built a stone which had been touched by metal into the alter was punishable by malkos. 

            Although metal tools were useful for many purposes in the ancient world, the most crucial difference between cultures that could work metal and cultures that could not was their prowess in warfare.  Our author explains that the alter represents forgiveness, blessing and peace; therefore, it should not be associated with reminders of warfare.  This is another example of character traits being encouraged by specific actions.


Mitzvah #41 also relates to the altar.  The altar was the place in the Temple where the sacrifices were burned.  The altar had extensions on its corners, and that is where the blood of the sacrifices was sprinkled.  It was very large and very high.  According to the Encyclopedia Judaica, the mizbeach was probably 10 cubits, or about 16.6 feet high. The cohanim had to get up and down to the top of the mizbeach to process the sacrifices.  This mitzvah governs how the cohanim got up there.  It requires that access to the top of the mizbeach be by a ramp rather than by stairs.  The cohanim are to go up the ramp in small steps, not large steps, walking heel to toe.

            The idea here is modesty.  If the cohanim walk up steps or take large strides on the ramp, private parts of the cohen’s body might be exposed, if even only to the stones of the mizbeach.  (The cohanim wore a uniform in the Temple that included pants.)  There is a broader idea as well.  As we will see when we study the Temple in more detail, the attitude of people in the Temple was supposed to be reverent awe.  Therefore, one’s behavior in the Temple was to be extremely respectful, devoid of frivolity or levity.  This mitzvah helps encourage an appropriate attitude.

            This mitzvah applies only when the Temple was in existence.  Someone who violated this mitzvah, either by taking steps such that their genitals were visible, or by taking really large steps even while wearing pants, was punishable by malkos.   Our author says this mitzvah applies to men and women, which is a bit obscure since women did not normally go on the mizbeach; I suppose the author is saying that if a woman did go up on the mizbeach, she would be punishable if she broke this mitzvah in the process.