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Class Notes - Class #10

The rhetorical structure of Deuteronomy tracks the speeches Moses gave to the Jews before his death and their entry into Israel under the leadership of Joshua.  Moses was trying to inspire the Jews to stay faithful to Torah by reminding them of the mitzvot and reinforcing how important it is for the Jews to keep those mitzvot.  Our author provides an introduction to the mitzvot in Deuteronomy, first quoting Ramban’s introduction to Deuteronomy and then commenting on it. 

According to Ramban, when Moses gave his final orations, one of his goals was to review the mitzvot he taught the Jews in the preceding years.  He did not review the mitzvot addressed to the cohanim, since the cohanim were more likely to have paid careful attention in the first place. But there are 200 mitzvot in Deuteronomy.  Some add to topics covered in the other books of the Torah, and some deal with entirely new topics, for example divorce. Moses had been taught all of the mitzvot much earlier. Our author explains why Moses seems to mention mitzvot on what seem to be new topics if Moses’ goal was to remind the Jews about mitzvot they already learned.  The Torah narrative is not necessarily in chronological order.  The Torah modifies from chronological order in order to use the narrative to teach other important lessons, although the author does not give examples.  Thus we can assume that Moses is reviewing mitzvot he has already taught.

The author does not comment on other ways that our beginning the mitzvot of Deuteronomy is a transition in our study of Sefer haHinnuch.  This is a large project, for the author and for his students then and now.  We still have lots of new content and technical material to go.  But the end is in sight.  We are in the final book of the Torah, the last 200 mitzvot.  The underlying Biblical text is Moses trying to explain the overall importance of the Torah, what God ultimately wants from us.  That agenda influences the mitzvot that appear in Deuteronomy.  Add to all the other pedagogic agendas our author has put in place the question of what this all adds up to.


Mitzvot #414 and 415 deal with what qualifies someone to be a judge.  We have seen many mitzvot that govern how judges should decide cases.  But the person who serves as a judge must be moral, courageous and honest.  The judge has to do his job well, and give the impression to the community that he is doing his job well.          Mitzvah #414 requires those appointing judges to appoint qualified people.  The judge must be learned in Torah, able to analyze carefully, honest, observant of mitzvot, well behaved as an adult and even as a young person, courageous, generous to the vulnerable, and humble.  It’s amazing anyone was ever found qualified.       

            The author emphasizes that judges should be appointed not just because they are rich or attractive or come from prominent families.  Qualifications really matter, especially that the judge should be learned and able to analyze cases.  Without that, the judge will reach faulty decisions even if the judge is well intentioned.

            This mitzvah applies directly to those who appoint judges.  If inappropriate judges are appointed, the people appointing the judges bear some responsibility for the erroneous decisions the unqualified judges will reach.  Those appointing unqualified judges are setting up idols, at least metaphorically.  If a judge is appointed because he bribed those who were filling the judicial position, that judge deserves scorn rather than honor.  People should not treat that judge with the respect normally shown to a judge. The author expands the scope of this notion to require a community appointing communal officers or authorities to appoint qualified people. 

            Mitzvah #415 says that a judge must decide cases based on the facts and law, not on fear of the litigants.  Judges deal with thugs and other people who behave badly.  A litigant might be violent, and might not hesitate to go after someone the litigant does not like, for example a judge who has ruled against him.  This mitzvah requires the judge to ignore all that and decide the case fairly.  This is easier said than done.

            If a judge is presented with a case where one litigant is a thug, the judge might prefer to withdraw and leave the case for someone else. (Recall that the judicial system was less formally structured than the judicial system we are used to in modern nation-states.)  The judge may do that before the judge has heard the arguments and evidence, or even after if a verdict has not yet suggested itself.  But if a judge has already heard the case and the judge senses what the verdict should be, the judge may not withdraw.  Even a student observing the case who thinks of an argument on behalf of a poor litigant must make that argument.  That rule has advantages.  A judge can recuse himself if he suspects he will be afraid to consider the case fairly.  But it may be impossible for a litigant seeking relief against a thug to find any judge willing to take the case and hold against the thug.  That leaves the thugs doing whatever they want to do.

            Mitzvah #416 takes us back to the topic of desiring what other people have. Mitzvah #38 prohibits hatching a scheme to take something by force from someone who does not want to part with the item even if the person taking the item ultimately pays for it.  This mitzvah prohibits the internal process of longing for things other people have, lest that longing lead to hatching a scheme to take the item.  Longing for the item can ultimately lead to robbery.  Perforce, someone who violates mitzvah #38 also violates this mitzvah.

            The author asserts again that we have the power to restrain our actions, and also our thoughts and desires. Just as our actions are under our control, our thoughts are also under our control.  Or at least we can try.  God, who knows all of our thoughts, will recognize that we are trying.  We can expect God’s vengeance if we are not trying to do what is right, and God’s loving care if we are trying. The notion that we can control our thoughts and emotions is not so fashionable now.  We saw mitzvot earlier that require us to stay away from things we know to be temptations, both physical and intellectual.  But aside from those, our author doesn’t give us any help knowing how we go about mastering our thoughts and desires.

            This mitzvah applies to men and woman everywhere and always.  It also applies to non-Jews as a subcategory of the general prohibition on robbery, one of the seven mitzvot that apply to all human beings.  Our author expands on those seven mitzvot in this mitzvah/essay.  Those seven mitzvot are main categories.  Whereas the Jews have many mitzvot about forbidden sexual relations, the non-Jews have only one, but that one mitzvah includes many of the prohibitions that apply to Jews as separate mitzvot.  Similarly, the prohibition on idol worship is one mitzvah that applies to all human beings but it includes all the idol worship prohibitions for which Jews could be subject to the death penalty.  Although the acts prohibited to everyone might match the acts prohibited to Jews, Jews get more individually detailed mitzvot as a gift from God, who gives the Jews may opportunities to follow those mitzvot and therefore merit God’s blessing.   Our author has said that many times.  I don’t think he has ever explained why God chose to treat Jews differently.


The source verses for the next series of mitzvot should be familiar because they are mitzvot based on the first paragraph of sh’ma.  These mitzvot bring us back to basic principles that we saw earlier in the mitzvot of the aseret hadibrot.  Mitzvah #417 takes the word sh’ma as a command to believe that God is the unique and sole creator and ruler of the universe.  We are required to acknowledge God’s authority, to accept “the yoke of the kingdom of Heaven” at all times, constantly.  This is the essential basis for the rest of Torah.  Someone who does not believe in the power and unity of God is a heretic, outside the Jewish people. 

            We are required to give up our lives if necessary rather than deny these fundamental notions about God.  (We are similarly required to give our lives rather than commit murder or certain sexual transgressions.)  Our author says many Jews throughout history have done just that.

            This mitzvah seems very similar to mitzvah #25, based on Ex. 20:2, “I am the Lord your God.”  The author’s descriptions of each mitzvah, at the beginning of each mitzvah/essay, do not clarify how these two mitzvot are different from each other.  Mitzvah #25 is to “believe that the world has one God who brought everything into being.”  In that essay the author connects this required belief with the exodus from Egypt, discusses in more detail what we ought to believe, and encourages us to articulate that belief as a way of reinforcing it.  Mitzvah #417 is to “believe that God is the creator of all and is alone the ruler of all.”  The two descriptions appear identical.  Rambam, in Sefer haMitzvot, distinguishes the two mitzvot based on Aristotelian philosophical principles. He describes our mitzvah #25 (his positive mitzvah #1) as an obligation to believe God is the first cause of all.  He describes our mitzvah #417 (his positive mitzvah #2) as an obligation to believe that God is one, alone and unique.  These understandings match the source verses well.  One wonders why our author fails to make the clear distinction that Rambam makes.  Perhaps our author disagreed with Rambam, although if he did one would expect him to distinguish the two mitzvot based on his own understanding. Perhaps our author wants to avoid Aristotelian philosophy just the way he avoids mysticism. 

            Mitzvah #418 requires us to love God.  If we reflect on God’s mitzvot and creations we will come to delight in God and love God.  This love develops from dedication, time and concentration on God, Torah and creation; it does not come easily. We contemplate all we have to be grateful for: wealth, family, honor. Each person works on this at his or her own level. People who focus on material matters and increasing their own status in society are focused on vanity and nonsense.  We are required to long for a relationship with God, in contrast to our being forbidden to long for other people’s goods.

The author says by way of shoresh that this love will motivate us to proper service and performance of mitzvot.  We will not fulfill God’s mitzvot unless we love God.  That proposition is worth noting.  We might think people are motivated to keep mitzvot out of fear of God’s punishment, or out of habit.  Our author creates a much more positive rubric.  We love God, we long for God just as we long for material things we really want, and out of that love comes our desire to do what God wants. 

The author speaks clearly, plainly and passionately in this mitzvah/essay. Rather than focusing on material goods and social status, our goal should be to try to do good for people and strengthen the honest people among us.  The author focuses on moral virtues rather than on ritual mitzvot.  I find myself wondering if he is describing his own spiritual pursuits and goals.

Love of God motivates us to do mitzvot, and learning Torah increases our love of God.  Mitzvah #419 mandates learning and teaching Torah, both as a practical matter so we know what we are required or prohibited from doing, and to enhance our loving relationship with God.  This is so fundamental a mitzvah that, our author says, the first thing we will be required to make accounting of after we die is whether we set aside time to study Torah.

Someone teaching Torah must speak clearly and directly, not dither around.  That sets a high standard for the teacher to be prepared with content and presentation. 

The author sets out an entire educational agenda.  A toddler just learning to talk should be taught verses that convey the most basic notions of Judaism: “Torah commanded us by Moses is the inheritance of the community of Israel,” and “Sh’ma yisrael.”  Bits of information are taught until the child is six or seven and ready to start school.  A community is required to maintain a school for children with a target class size of 25.  The curriculum and atmosphere in school should not be too demanding of young children who might not be able to handle a heavy load.  But as the children get older the work gets harder and the teacher may use coercion to get the students to cooperate. The author gives a vivid description of how difficult and demanding study can be; the student might be subject to “falling ill and fainting on account of the great effort needed.”  Even so, the teacher should help the students see why Torah is attractive, “like spiced wine and honey.”  The curriculum begins with basic literacy, reading and understanding the written Torah.  That is the Torah study this mitzvah requires.

All of this is in preparation for adult study.  Ultimately an adult should divide study time in thirds:  understanding written Torah; memorizing or reviewing tan’aitic oral Torah, mishnayot and b’raitot; and deeper analysis.  The student should maintain that triple curriculum throughout a lifetime of adult study.  The author cites a father described in the Gemara as also having taught halachah and agadah. 

            This mitzvah obligates fathers to teach their sons.  The obligation to study Torah is linked to the obligation to teach Torah, so those required to teach Torah are required to study Torah, and those required to study Torah are required to teach Torah.  The source verse, Deut. 6:7, says “v’shinantam l’vanecha.” V’shinantam means “and you should teach them [Torah] ….”   L’vanecha might mean “to your sons” since vanecha is plural for “your sons.”  But l’vanecha might also mean “to your children” since in Hebrew we would describe a mixed group of sons and daughters with that term.  The midrash halachah accepts the first meaning.  Hence a father has a mitzvah to teach his sons Torah.  If a son grows up without having been taught Torah by his father, the son has an obligation to seek out his own Torah education.  If a father can only afford tuition for himself or his son, usually the father should fund his own education, and then go on and teach what he learns to his son.  But if the son is the more promising scholar, the father should fund the son’s education instead. 

            The mitzvah to study Torah lasts a lifetime, until the very last day of life.  Since no one knows when that day will come, daily study is called for.  People are busy and making time for Torah study is not easy.  One is tempted to rationalize excuses, waiting until one’s financial situation is better, one’s health is better, or until more free time is available.  Therefore the author emphasizes the need for a regular study schedule.  Even a beggar or someone working hard to support a family needs to allocate time for study.  Life brings consuming obligations and worries that leave us in turmoil.  But our author reassures us that when we set aside time to study Torah, our worldly worries will take a back seat to our concentration on our studies.  One wonders if the author is speaking from experience here.

            There is an aspect of self-reference to the author’s discussion of this mitzvah.  The author wrote his book in order to redirect his son’s education.  Apparently he envisions a father going well beyond the school system when the situation warrants it.  We know a great deal about how our author approaches teaching Torah.  His overall emphasis is much more on the “spiced wine and honey” than on the imposition of discipline.

            Based on the midrash halachah we discussed earlier, the mitzvah to teach and study Torah falls on men but not women.  We saw earlier in our study that, according to our author, women are “light minded” and therefore not amenable to deep study.  That notion is apparently a sociological observation rather than a statement about women’s intrinsic abilities, since our author told us in mitzvah/essay #152 that it is possible for women to master Torah study to the point where they are capable of deciding halachic questions. 

Our author expands on how women relate to the mitzvah to study Torah in a confusing passage that echoes earlier sources. Let’s look at those earlier sources so we can evaluate what our author says here.

Start with Mishnah Sotah 3:4.  Recall that if a husband suspects his wife of adultery, the wife might undergo the sotah ritual.  If she is guilty, she will die a horrible and rapid death.  But a woman who has countervailing merit might survive after the ceremony even if she is guilty of adultery.  The Mishnah discusses how long such a meritorious woman might survive.  In that context, the Mishnah says, “ben Azzai said, ‘A father is required to teach his daughter Torah so if she drinks [the water a sotah is required to drink] she will know that the merit will put off [the punishment] for her.’  Rabbi Eliezer said, ‘Anyone who teaches his daughter Torah teaches her tiflut.’” So ben Azzai thinks a father should teach his daughter Torah so that if she is ever guilty of adultery she can go through the sotah ritual knowing that she will survive, at least for a while.  It is possible that ben Azzai thought there were other good reasons for a girl to learn Torah that he does not mention here, or it is possible the Mishnah states ben Azzai’s opinion in full.  Rabbi Eliezer follows up the implication of ben Azzai’s opinion:  if that is the reason to teach daughters Torah, teaching them only leads them into bad behavior.  Tiflut is obviously something negative.  The word means something like “trivialities,” but in context it seems to mean promiscuity.  The Germara challenges Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion; the Torah could not possibly be tiflut.  So the Gemara rephrases Rabbi Eliezer to say that teaching one’s daughter Torah would be like teaching her tiflut.  The Gemara also advises that women get merit for facilitating their sons and husband’s Torah study.  Overall, though, the Gemara on this issue, and especially the word tiflut, is at odds with modern sensibilities.

Now consider how Rambam restates this discussion in Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Talmud Torah 1:13:

A woman who studies Torah is rewarded, but not as much as a man.  This is because she was not commanded.  Anyone who does something that person is not commanded to do does not receive the same reward as one who is commanded, but a lesser reward.  However, even though she is rewarded, the sages commanded that a man should not teach his daughter Torah.  This is because most women are not attuned to study and so will turn the words of Torah into distortions according to the inadequacy of their minds.  Our sages said that anyone who teaches his daughter Torah is to be considered as if he had taught her tiflut.

Rambam omits the notion that women get merit for aiding their husbands and sons in learning Torah, and adds an explanation for why women who do learn Torah get some merit.

Now go back to what our author says.  It mostly parallels Rambam and the Germara. Women are not obligated to study Torah, and are not required to teach their sons (or daughters) Torah.  But women are encouraged to teach their sons Torah and to study Torah themselves, and women will be rewarded for that.  Nevertheless, the rabbis ruled that a father should not teach his daughter Torah because women are light minded and will misunderstand and turn what they learn into nonsense.  Pointedly, though, our author does not go on to say that teaching women Torah is akin to teaching tiflut.  He limits himself to what we know he sees as a sociological explanation for why women are not usually successful at Torah study, and entirely omits anything that implies a connection between women studying Torah and sexual impropriety.

Mitzvah #420 requires recitation of sh’ma twice daily, morning and evening.  By repeating sh’ma so often we repeat the source verses of the prior several mitzvot, thus articulating the basic principles reflected in the those mitzvot.

The author expands on this notion in giving a shoresh for this mitzvah.  People are physical beings who are drawn toward the temptations of the physical world.  It is hard to give enough attention to spiritual matters, so God gives us a mitzvah to remind ourselves of the most basic principles at the beginning and end of each day.  We focus on the idea of the unity of God, and by implication our obligation to do what God asks of us.  God wants us to succeed in that task, and helps us along by creating this reminder.

Because the principles involved are so important, the rabbis required us to have “kavanah” when we recite sh’ma, to pay careful attention to what we are saying, not just mumble the words without thinking. We will not get the reminder we need if we recite sh’ma on automatic pilot.  The rabbis also required us to pronounce each word of sh’ma aloud, precisely and without running words together.  We should elongate our pronunciation of the final word, “ehad,” “one,” since God’s uniqueness and unity are the special focus of sh’ma.  The author cites the Gemara Berachot 13b for a discussion about whether to elongate the het sound and/or the dalet sound.  Presumably, at the time and place this discussion originated, the dalet was pronounced with a sound it was possible to elongate, unlike our current pronunciation of dalet.

The rabbis also formulated blessings to be said before and after saying sh’ma. According to our author, these blessings, like other blessings, we written in the time of Ezra. The author says everyone is familiar with these blessings because we say them all the time.

Lev. 26:6 requires us to speak of Torah “when you lie down and when you get up.”  The midrash halachah associates that with the time people typically go to bed and get up.  People tend to go to bed at different times, so one may recite sh’ma any time during the night. The night begins “when the cohanim go in to eat their t’rumah.” Let’s unpack that phrase.  Recall that cohanim may only eat t’rumah when they are tahor, and that when someone wants to become tahor from many types of tumah the person immerses in a mikvah but remains tamei, a t’vul yom, until nightfall.  (Note another example of different areas of halachah having an unexpected connection.)  But most people get up pretty promptly in the morning, so one should recite sh’ma early, starting from when there is enough daylight to recognize another person who is close by, and certainly before the end of the third hour.  (Recall also that hours were determined by dividing the day into twelve equal segments.)  Admittedly, some folks sleep in, but they are the exceptions.  Someone who misses the three hour deadline may nevertheless recite sh’ma and also recite its accompanying blessings.  There would seem to be a l’hatchila rule and a different b’diavad rule.

According to our author, the Torah commandment requires saying only the first verse which begins with the word “sh’ma.”  All the rest of what we recite is a rabbinic mandate.  We mentioned in class several weeks ago that our author often explains halachic rules as simple and straight forward that are in fact subject to rabbinic dispute.  The question of how much of what we recite in sh’ma is d’oraita and how much is d’rabanan is a prime example.  The translator explains some other opinions in footnote 12. 

The following paragraphs of sh’ma come in a logical order: first we remind ourselves of the unity and uniqueness of God, then recite the first paragraph which includes basic principles and mitzvot that serve as reminders. The second paragraph, “v’hayah,” discusses the consequences of fulfilling or not fulfilling the mitzvot.  The final paragraph, “vayomer,” explains the mitzvah of tsitsit, a reminder of all the mitzvot.

The author also discusses what to do when someone reciting sh’ma is interrupted by someone speaking to him or her, or when the person saying sh’ma wants to greet someone else.  Between the different sections of sh’ma, a person may interrupt to greet someone the person is required to show honor and may respond to a greeting from anyone.  When someone is in the middle of reciting one of the sections of sh’ma the person may greet a person powerful enough to cause trouble if insulted, and may respond to a greeting from someone the person is required to show honor.  One glimpses a hierarchical society in which each person knows his or her place.  But the author says people saying sh’ma do not interrupt to greet or respond to ordinary people.  Apparently, though, the rules for reacting to people of higher status remained in place.

As we would expect, the mitzvah to recite sh’ma applies to men but not women, since it is a positive time-bound mitzvah.  Ramban counts two mitzvot, one for sh’ma in the morning and one for sh’ma in the evening.