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Class Notes - Class #2

This class will focus on mitzvot 2 through 3, and on the two short introductions.


As we did last time, we will identify and restate the four parts of these two essays, to make sure everyone knows how to do that.


Mitzvah #2 is circumcision.

          This is a positive mitzvah to circumcise every Jewish male.  It is based in the verse in Genesis 17:10, where God commands Abraham to circumcise the male members of his household.  The author provides the biological details of the required surgery.

          Among the roots of this mitzvah is the notion that God wants the Jews set themselves aside physically just as they are set aside spiritually.  Also, this action perfects the human body.  Thus, this process should serve as a model: just as the Jews are required to perfect themselves physically, they should realize that they can and should perfect themselves spiritually.

          Among the laws of this mitzvah that deserve further study are: who has the mitzvah to circumcise children and slaves, when Shabbat and holidays are set aside in order to do a circumcision, under what circumstances the circumcision for an infant is delayed beyond the eighth day.  These topics can be found in gemara Shabbat chapter 4 and in gemara Yevamot.  The author then goes on to describe the blessings and some of the text of the circumcision ceremony.

          This mitzvah applies in all times and places, to men but not to women.  If the father does not arrange for the circumcision of his son, it is the job of the beit din to take care of it.  If an adult, that is a male 13 years plus 1 day old, has not been circumcised, it becomes his own responsibility to arrange to be circumcised.  A father who does not arrange for the circumcision of his son disobeys a positive commandment for which there is no punishment.  An adult who does not arrange for his own circumcision has violated the same positive commandment, but is punishable by karet.  This is one of two positive mitzvoth punishable by karet, the other being failure to bring the Passover sacrifice, korban pessah.




          There is a lot more information in this mitzvah essay than there was in the first one, although it is still somewhat less than satisfying.

          Here, the source of the mitzvah is pre-Sinai.  The author cites a restatement of the mitzvah that appears later in the Torah, and mentions that there are many mitzvot that are repeated in several verses in the Torah.  He mentions that the rabbis consistently explain why the topic needs to be repeated.  He will develop that theme as the book goes along, showing how the rabbis explain the repetition of certain mitzvot.  Perhaps the author is responding to the problem we mentioned earlier of needing a post-Sinai source for each binding mitzvah, but then again maybe not.


          The root for this mitzvah has three distinct parts:

1.     A permanent bodily sign to set the Jewish people apart.

2.    This sign is on the genitals, which cause procreation of the human species.  (note the connection to mitzvah #1.)

3.    Just as people are required to perfect themselves physically, so should people try to perfect themselves spiritually.

Try to read the material carefully so that you pick up as much of this type of detail as you can.   Here, think about what other roots he could have articulated and why he chose these.

          The author’s third shoresh depends on the assumption that circumcision is a physical improvement.  The author does not defend that notion.
            That aside, this third shoresh introduces a fundamental notion our author uses throughout his endeavor at giving roots for each mitzvah.  The author sees mitzvot as carrying larger lessons about moral character.  Some mitzvot serve as examples of the kind of characteristics we should try to have.  It is our job to extend the example of the mitzvah into the larger character trait it represents and incorporate that trait into our character.  This is a controversial notion, and we will come back to a broader discussion of this in a later class.

          The text of the blessings for circumcision are the same as we use, but the good wishes that follow are slightly different from the text we now use. 


The author refers to the requirement to circumcise male slaves.  If you look at the source verse, it is clear why the author mentions this.  (If you need to, go back and look at the source verse.)  Also, it is an example of the author’s attempt to be comprehensive in explaining the scope of each mitzvah he discusses.  We will get to the issue of eved k’na’ani, the non-Jewish slave, later in the work, when the rest of the mitzvot relevant to this topic come up.


As with the first mitzvah, the author plunges into the topic of punishments without really explaining.  Usually, there is no specific punishment for failure to do a positive mitzvah.  That is to say, primary Jewish sources do not describe any punishment, either punishment through human institutions or by God.  (I am not sure that means the failure to keep a positive mitzvah has no consequences.)  There are two exceptions, positive mitzvot that are punished with karet:  this mitzvah, and the mitzvah to bring the korban pessah, the Passover sacrifice, to the Temple to be slaughtered. 

The author does not define karet.  (His writing will improve, but he really does deal with punishments in little bits and pieces that he doesn’t always explain thoroughly.) 

          The word karet means “cut off,” being somehow cut off from the Jewish people.  According to the encyclopedia Otzer Yisrael, various rabbinic authorities define karet differently, reflecting the wrongdoer being cut off physically, spiritually, or through his descendents.  Perhaps karet means early death, or that the offender will be denied olam haba’ah, or that his line of descendents will die out, or that he will die childless, etc.  Of course, since this is a punishment inflicted by God, we really are not in a position to know exactly what it is.


Mitzvah #3 – Not to eat the sinew of an animal’s thigh


Once more, a summary of the four basic sections of the essay:

          This is a negative mitzvah, not to eat specific sinews of the hind part of an animal.

          Among the roots of this mitzvah is the notion that, however bad conditions are for the Jews in exile, we should have hope that they will get better, just as God helped out father Jacob when he fought with the angel.  This is the story in which the prohibition is stated.

          Among the laws of this mitzvah, for further study, are the details of exactly what part of the animal is forbidden, how to remove that part, to which animals it applies, who can be trusted to remove it.  These topics can be found in the 7th chapter of gemara Hullin.

          This mitzvah applies in all times and places, to men and women.  If one eats a whole sinew, or bits and pieces that add up to the size of an olive, one is punishable by flogging.




          Once more the author is concerned with the phrasing in the source verse that makes this practice sound more like a folk memory practice rather than a mitzvah.  The author asserts that this is, in fact, a commandment, but he doesn’t provide any reasoning for that assertion.


          If you are using the Feldheim translation, take a look at footnote 6 to fill you in on more of the details of how this mitzvah actually works.


          The author’s discussion of the roots of this mitzvah depends on the story in which this mitzvah appears in the Torah.  Genesis chapter 32 tells the story of Jacob struggling with an angel.  The midrash, which our author cites, says that the angel in the story is the “guardian angel of Esau.” This story takes place just as Jacob is about to meet Esau for the first time in many years, and as Jacob has made extensive preparations to defend himself against possible attack by Esau.  However, later sources often associate Esau with Rome. 

Our author relies on all of this in his essay.  He talks about the suffering inflicted on the Jews by “Esau and the other nations,” and interprets this mitzvah as a reminder that, despite it all, the Jews will survive.  The author is under no threat from Rome, an empire that had long since disappeared in his time.  He may be just speaking in general about the Jews and exile.  There was almost always some Jewish community under threat somewhere in medieval Europe.  In his own community, Barcelona, the Jews were in a deteriorating situation.  Barcelona had long been part of Christian Spain, but its close connections with Moslem Spain meant that its culture was more cosmopolitan than other parts of Christian Europe.  However, as the Reconquista proceeded, and the Christian presence in the Iberian Peninsula increased, the pressure on the Jews in Barcelona increased too.  Our author writes his book in about 1248.  The Jews in Barcelona had been subjected to increasing missionizing activities during the preceding decade, and the Disputation of Barcelona would take place about fifteen years later.  Perhaps the yearning tone of this passage is really very personal for our author.


Note that this section ends with a prayer for the coming of the Messiah.  Keep an eye out to see how much attention our author gives to the concept of the messiah, how big a part of his understanding of Judaism this concept is.  (You will have to look really carefully.  If I remember right, there is one more mention of it.)



          The punishment section here is obscure.  The author makes several assumptions that he doesn’t explain.  This is typical of how he handles this section.

          The author says that one violates this mitzvah by eating either one whole sinew, or an olive’s bulk of pieces of the sinew.  This depends on the concept of shiur, a definition of minimal standard definitions of various concepts.  Normally, when the concept involved is eating, the minimal amount to constitute eating is a k’zayis, “an olive’s bulk.”  This is defined as not a large olive, not a small olive, but a medium size olive.  The paleo-botanists have studied seeds of ancient olives, so they know exactly what this means, and a medium sized olive then was about the same size as a medium sized olive is now.  It seems to me that this notion of k’zayis makes the minimal definition of eating equivalent to one bite.

          However, eating a whole item has the status of eating, even if the volume is less than a k’zayis.  Thus, eating a whole sinew violates this mitzvah, even if the volume is less than a k’zayis.  Think about eating one whole chocolate covered raisin, as compared to eating a similar volume of cake crumbs left in the bottom of the pan. 

          The author says that the punishment for violating this mitzvah is that the violator is flogged, lokeh.  This is the first human inflicted punishment we have seen.  It is a punishment inflicted by the beis din, Jewish court, under very limited circumstances.  We will get to the details of how this works when we get to the relevant mitzvah, in several years from now.


          Nowadays, this mitzvah is taken care of in the slaughterhouses.  Since the kosher meat industry is integrated into the overall meat industry, the hind parts of kosher animals that have the forbidden sinew are simply cut off from the kosher carcass and passed into the non-kosher food chain. 


Mazal tov.  We have completed the mitzvot in Genesis.


Before we go on to Exodus, let’s take a few minutes to review the two short introductions.  (We will come back to the longer introduction later.)


Introduction #1 (pages 2 – 5 in the Feldheim translation.)

          This introduction is a little hard to read.  It is written in a popular medieval style.  Rather than just saying what he wants to say, the author quotes a few crucial words from a Biblical verse meant to convey the same meaning.  It makes the text very hard to understand.  Our author figures that out pretty quickly.  By the time he is done with Genesis, he has largely stopped that stylistic practice.


After a humble and self-deprecating introduction, the author explains that he had three major sources for the material in his book:  Rambam (Maimonides), Ramban (Nachmanides), and R. Isaac Alfasi (the Rif.)

The author makes reference to Rambam frequently.  In particular, he relies on Rambam’s count of the mitzvot as it appears in Sefer haMitzvot.   Ramban was a contemporary of our author, living in the same area.  It was Ramban who argued in the Disputation of Barcelona, only fifteen years after our book was written.  Our author mentions Ramban with some frequency as well, especially as the Ramban often disagrees with Rambam about what counts as a mitzvah and what doesn’t.  Rabbi Isaac Alfasi is a less obvious influence on our author.  He lived from 1013 to 1103, first in North Africa and then in Spain.  He is a transitional figure between the Geonim and the Rishonim.  (More on this topic when we get to our brief history of halachic literature.)

The author denies being well versed in “Babylonia and Jerusalem Talmud, Midrash Sifra and Sifre, and the Tosefta.”  His denial is not convincing. (If you are not familiar with those terms, don’t worry.  We will explain when we get to our brief history of halachic literature, which we will do within the next few weeks.)


Our author hopes to find his way into the company of these great rabbis by writing this book.  More to the point, he hopes to convince the youth of his town to stop running riot in the streets, and instead to spend their Shabbatot and holidays inquiring about the mitzvot that appear in that week’s Torah portion. 


Last, he addresses future copyists, asking that each subsequent copy include this introduction, and that the scribe correct any errors.  This is a fairly typical piece of introduction that appeared in many medieval manuscripts.  Since each hand copy of a manuscript would include both the mistakes of the author and the mistakes made by other copyists, the issue of whether the scribe should correct things that seem wrong is an important one.  If the scribe corrects, he may change the author’s meaning.  If he doesn’t, layers of errors by copyists will remain in the manuscript.


Introduction #2 (pages 52 – 55 in the Feldheim translation.)

          This introduction focuses on one way in which our author characterizes mitzvot.  He sees mitzvot as falling into various categories:

There are mitzvot that apply to men, and mitzvot that apply to women.

There are mitzvot that apply at all times, and mitzvot that apply only at certain times.

There are mitzvot that apply at all times, and mitzvot that apply only when triggered by a special circumstance.

There are mitzvot that apply to all Jews, mitzvot that apply to cohanim, mitzvot that apply to levi’im.

There are mitzvot that apply everywhere, mitzvot that apply only in Israel, mitzvot that apply only in the Temple.

There are positive mitzvot and negative mitzvot.


          In his original manuscript, the author marked those mitzvot that apply in his time.  He also marked those mitzvot that apply without any special trigger situation.

          The enterprise of characterizing mitzvot in this way speaks to the author’s attempt to be comprehensive and systematic.  It also makes Sefer haHinnuch an especially rewarding work for women to study.  In most medieval works on halachah, women are an afterthought.  In this work, however, women are just another category.


          This introduction ends with a list of the mitzvot that apply to every Jew at all times and in all places.  As our author says about these mitzvot,  “…their obligation is constant; it is not interrupted or removed from a person for even one moment in all his days.” 

          Although we are very early in our study, it is not inappropriate to think about whether we see any themes in the material we have seen so far.  Think about how this passage fits with the shoresh hamitzvah we saw in the first three mitzvot.  Think about the picture we get of the ideal relationship between a person and God drawn by this list of six constant mitzvot.