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Ta'amei Ha'Mitzvos, Pesach and the Power of Reason

By: Rabbi Moshe Taub


Originally Published in AMI Magazine





Around the year 400 BCE, 3420 years since creation, the Anshei K’Neses HaGedolah (Men of the Great Assembly) were closing the cannon; choosing which books would be included in Tanach and which –like the book of Ben Sira – would be left out (to give some perspective, Esther likely died at around 350 BCE).


Precisely as we were closing our books, l’havdil a’ln a new book was being opened: that of ‘Philosophy’.[1]


In the year 399 BCE, a few weeks leading up to the trial of Socrates, Plato records a dialogue that took place with the religious scholar Euthyphro regarding the structure and pursuit of holiness.


This dialogue, extant today, contains the following exchange:[2]


SOCRATES: Consider this question – Is what is pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it because it is loved?

EUTHYPHRO: I don’t understand what you mean, Socrates.

SOCRATES: Well, I will try to explain more clearly…

SOCRATES: And what do you say of piety, Euthyphro – Is not piety, according to your definition, loved by all the gods?

EUTHYPHRO: Yes.           

SOCRATES: Just because it is pious, or for some other reason?

EUTHYPHRO: No, because it is pious.

SOCRATES: So it is loved because it is pious, not pious because it is loved?


This dialogue is at the heart of the question of how to perceive the Torah, now that it and its prophetic commentaries have been completed.


Namely, how do we view the Divine commands? Are they chosen due to their holiness, or holy due to their choosiness?


This dichotomy is not simply a religious academic exercise; rather it cuts to the heart of our spiritual – or better said, halachic – experience.

How do we view mitzvos?


The average orthodox Jew may very well recoil at this question. “Why, they are surely intrinsically holy”, they may say. Perhaps this is true, nay, this is certainly true, but it is not as simple as presumed by many.


As the era of ancient, classic philosophy closed[3] the era of popular Jewish philosophy commenced, with the Shlah and Maharal of Prague.


At its core, this movement –which would soon give birth to chassidus –would be about ‘asking’ and delving into the reasons and structure of, Gd, our existence, and the Torah. For instance, Maharal[4] points out that animal-life are termed ‘Baheima’, because what they see is what they get: it is composed, therefore, of the same letters of, ‘Bah Mah’ (‘in it is what?’). There is no depth to their thinking, no nuance, and certainly no existential crises.


Man however,[5] or Adam, has a name that shares its numerical value (45) with the Hebrew word ‘Mah’/What. For this is existential man, always asking, pondering for deeper meaning. It is what makes us who we are. Man seeks to discover.


The questions we ask by the seder, then, would seem to align with this mission of man. “Mah Nishtaneh…”, “Mah HaAvodah”, “Mah HaEidus Hachukim U’Mishpatim…” etc. The questions we as humans are directed to ask, which indeed make us human, would seem, then, to extend to the mitzvos, or so it would seem from the seder.


For, by asking “Why” we thereby improve ourselves, while at the same time further our understanding in our Creator and the inherently holy commands that He, due to their holiness, gifted to us.


At this point one may think that the case has been made. Man is supposed to ask questions, mitzvos do have innate meaning, and at the seder these two ideas collide with the ‘seder questions’.[6]


Furthermore, the gemara famously teaches, and the haggada quotes:

“Raban Gamliel was want to say ‘Whomever does not say these three things…pesach al shum mah…matzah al shum mah…marror al shum mah…” “What is the reason behind the mitzvah of pesach…matzah…marror?”

                                                                                                                                                                                 - MISHNAH, PESACHIM 116


It would appear, then, that there is no controversy relating to our topic of discussion. We are supposed to seek the reasons behind the mitzvos! And we are obligated to do so, specifically, by the seder.


Alluding to the fact that our questioning of taamei hamitzvos by the seder extends to the rest of the year and to all the mitzvos, we can connect the idea of the Panim Yaffos who points out that the word ‘Pesach’, when added through the value of its full letters[7] (Peh, Samech, Ches) equals 613.


However, there is an extraordinary Midresh Rabbah that will seem to challenge this assertion (that we are to delve into the taamei hamitzvos), as well as seemingly defy, or test, the seder’s objective.


The midrash opens with a verse in Psalms (18:31) that teaches that we could at least ‘know’[8] Gd through His commandments:

“…’Gd! His paths are perfect(ion). The word of Gd is pure(ified)/ refined…’. If His paths are perfect how much more so is He! Says Rav, the commandments were only given so as to purify/refine (l’tzaref) mankind through them.  For why should Gd care (for example) whether one slaughters from the neck, or from the back – Tanchuma, Shemini 9 adds: ‘or care whether eat kosher or neveila’ – rather the commandments were given only so that mankind may become purified (or, refined) through them.”

                                                                                                                                                                                  - BEREISHIS RABBAH 44:1


It would seem from this midresh that mitzvos were not chosen due to their – each and every mitzvah’s - intrinsic holiness; rather it is the other way around: mitzvos are holy because Gd chose them!


But would not this midrash imply that mitzvos have no meaning?! Was Gd’s choosing of them simply an act capriciousness, arbitrary in thought and execution?


As we shall see, this midrash, and the questions we highlighted that stem from it, have vexed scholars for millennia, especially Rambam in his Moreh Nevuchim as well as Ramban in his commentary on the Torah.


Indeed, this midrash will be the nucleus for this drashah.


We shall return to many of the points raised, but for now all the above suffices to introduce our topic: ‘Ta'amei HaMitzvot, Pesach, and the Power of Reason’


(The term Taamei Hamitzvos, used throughout, is the colloquial term for ‘Reasons for Mitzvos’. The Talmud uses a slightly different term: ‘Taamei D’kra’. Whether the Talmud’s term for it or our own, both express this pursuit with the word ‘Ta’am’ which literally means ‘Taste’ – for, like taste which has no nutritional value rather it allows us to further desire a basic human need, so too taamei hamitzvos, which while surely not touching upon its most inner depth, it can at least give us further temptation and appreciation(s) toward it)




The gemara tells us of a debate between Rav Eliazar and Rav Yehoshua regarding Creation. One says that it took place in the month of Tishrei; the other says it was in Nissan.[9]


It would seem to this writer that this question –where/when is the beginning –is mirrored by what is perhaps the most famous, and the first, Rashi in all of Chumash.


Rashi asks[10] why the Torah begins with the events of creation and the forming of our nation. Why not, instead, open with the events of Pesach –namely the first Divine command, the very first mitzvah: “Hachodesh Hazeh Lachem” (the mitzvah to calculate the calendar)? After all, is not the Torah to be a book of laws? Why the narrative?[11]


While here is not the place to get into the weeds of this particular question of Rashi as well as its many proposed answers, we can however frame it along the lines of debate seen above: Does the Torah - does Judaism - begin as a theology (Tishrei), or as halacha/mitzvos (Nissan). Indeed, Nissan, the month of the exodus, is when that first mitzvah was given.[12]


I heard from Rabbi Dr. A. Lichtenstien that Rabbi Soleveichik was once explaining why he forbade joining interfaith groups. He expressed the disconnect between students of the priesthood and students, l’havdil, in yeshiva. Imagine yeshiva students explaining to them that while they focus on angels and the godhead, we focus on contract verification, and if the notary of a divorce treaty is simply verifying the document or establishing it![13]


In orthodoxy, there seems to be a focus on ‘Nissan’.[14]


On the other hand, and as Rav Kook taught,[15] there are many who do not feel a sense of satisfaction from halacha and its talmudics; they may even become turned-off by its concentrated minutia. Due to this, some would rather see a shift to a more theological focus.[16]


“Tishrei or Nissan”: it is still a question that troubles –even divides –us.[17]


There may even be further insight in Rashi’s question.


Let us presume for a moment that the Torah had started by halacha, in Nissan, by hachodesh hazeh lachem.


Think about this for a moment. There would have been no exodus-narrative leading up to these commands; commands for matzah, a paschal offering, marror. What would we have made of them? They would have been commands without any apparent reason!


Perhaps Rashi –and the midresh his question is based on – is challenging the very need for ta’amei hamitzvos.


Do we need reasons at all? Can’t we skip the events that were the cause of their birth and be simply commanded in what to perform?


Perhaps this is what bothers Rashi there, in the very first verse of the Torah.


A rabbi gives two major sermons a year: one in Tishrei and one in Nissan. These, too, reflect this same dichotomy. The former is all about theology, man’s relationship to Gd, what teshuvah ‘represents’. The latter is to be about halacha,[18] about the shiur of a kezayis, not, however, what an olive is to ‘represent’.




According to all views[19] the idea that some commandments exist for the sake of the commandment alone –having no reason, or contradicting reason [Tzlach] - is a vital tenant of our faith. These are called chukim.


Indeed there are three categories of mitzvos.


After the first set of commandments in Egypt, Gd again gave us laws at Marah.[20] Rashi[21] records what these second set of laws were: Shabbos, Parah Adumah (red heifer), Dinim (civil law, torts).


Many[22] point out that these three were chosen as representatives of the future Torah to be given at Sinai, which would be divided into three[23] natures of command.

  • Mishpat(im) –laws whose reason are accessible (Dinim)

  • Chukum – laws whose reasons seem/are[24] impenetrable (Parah Adumah)

  • Eidiyos –laws that are testimonies (a) past event(s) (Shabbos)

Indeed the numerical value of chok, mishpat, eid equals Torah.[25]


It should be noted that the three mitzvos mentioned by Raban Gamliel also seem to represent these three natures of commands,[26] as Rav Tzadok reminds us, by the seder we act as the pre-Sinai Jew, seeing ourselves as leaving Egypt just now.


Perhaps then the seder is our Marah.


So that, as Ritvah explains: Pesach – As with other korbonos, it is essentially a chok.[27] Matzah – The celebration of freedom –celebrating through the bread of our freedom –is the most natural instinctive response to salvation. Marror – Recalling, testifying to, how we once suffered

This, in fact, is the chacham’s question:

“What are the edus, and the chukim, and the mishpatim, which Gd has commanded you                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               - DEVARIM 6:20


According to the Maharal[28] this is not a question relating just to the seder, but regarding all the mitzvos![29]


So accepted is this idea –that at Marah Gd desired to have all ‘types’ of commands represented – that the Talmudic giant Rav Yosef Engle suggests the following extraordinary idea:[30]


Whilst Rashi mentions parah adumah as the second command taught at Marah, in the version found in the gemara,[31] however, it lists it as Kibud Av V’Eim.[32] Rav Yosef Engle therefore seeks to prove that Kibud Av is also a chok! He goes even further, suggesting that there are some mitzvos that may begin as a chok yet metamorphosize into a mishpat.[33]


We may find a similar, remarkable, transformation by the seder as well.


Back to Raban Gamliel:

When we look at his statement again we will notice something peculiar:

“…matzah al shum mah? Al shum sh’negalu avoseinu m’mitzrayim…”

“Why do we eat matzah? Because our forefathers were redeemed from Egypt”


When we look in our haggadas we will notice that this is not the answer that we provide for this same question. Rather the haggadah reads:

“matzah al shum mah? Al shum sh’lo hispik b’tzeikam shel avoseinu l’hachmitz”

“Why do we eat matzah? Because our dough did not have time to rise”


Why do we change the answer? When did this change occur?


One of the most famous early recordings of the haggadah is found in the Rambam’s Yad.[34] However when looking to see the girsa in his haggada we notice something odd.


At first,[35] by the laws of the seder, he records Raban Gamliel’s words faithful to our version of the mishnah.


However, later, when he records the language of the haggadah[36] he uses the language we are familiar with, that we now say at the seder: that we eat matzah because the dough did not have time to rise.


It is staggering that something that goes to the heart of the seder, the heart of Pesach, is so unclear!


The Nodah B’yehudah[37] suggests the following fascinating approach:

Clearly this is not a question of mistaken texts –for the Rambam at first quotes the mishnah accurately.


Rather the secret is contained in the Rambam himself, who throughout his version of the haggadah informs us of the changes needed to be made since we are in galus (e.g. he points out that in exile we do not ask about the paschal offering in the four questions).


This, explains the Nodah B’Yehudah, is the reason behind this change.


The exodus from Egypt accomplished two freedoms: the freedom of body, and the freedom of spirit. He further explains that these two freedoms were experienced in different ways and at different times in the exodus narrative. A bodily freedom is felt and therefore needs no ‘proof’; it was therefore experienced immediately upon leaving Egypt, or upon receiving permission to leave. Whereas, a spiritual salvation needs something to ‘prove’ that it occurred, for we cannot see it, feel it, b’chush, in our senses. It was only when we saw Gd rushing us to leave, of our dough not having even the 18 minutes needed to rise, when we first realized that Gd needed us to escape, and quickly, out of spiritual necessity. For as the kadmonim teach (see Seforno and Ariz’l)[38] in Egypt we were on the lowest rung of tumah –the 49th –and had we been there for a moment longer all would have been lost forever.


Explains the Nodah B’Yehudah (the following is a loose translation):

“Raban Gamliel lived during the Second Temple, so he understood both freedoms. But we can only learn from a spiritual freedom, for that is still up t ous – still in our hands, should we want it – even in Exile. Therefore in our day that is what we focus on. For in Asia and Africa we wonder how we can call ourselves, by the seder, ‘Free’ whilst still clearly in Exile. And this is what the chacham is asking: ‘What are the chukim and mishpatim…’ For matzah was at one time a mishpat, but today it is a chok”!!


We see from this two things: 1 - A chok is not reserved to specific mitzvos –any mitzvah can be turned into a chok, and any chok can become a mishpat; it up to our level of understanding[39] 2 – even regarding chukim, we are not just allowed to ask, but must ask – as does the chacham.




If this change in the haggada is due to the Tzlachs’s explanation, then it makes beautiful sense that Rambam is our source for this modification.

For it is Rambam in his Morah Nevuchum who argues that we must explain mitzvos, even the chukim.


Let us quote from him and notice allusions to the Tzlach’s points:

“As Theologians are divided on the question whether the actions of God are the result of His wisdom, or only of His will without being intended for any purpose whatever…Some of them hold that the commandments have no object at all; and are only dictated by the whim of God… All of us, the common people as well as the scholars, believe that there is a reason for every precept, although there are commandments the reason of which is unknown to us, and in which the ways of God's wisdom are incomprehensible...There are commandments which are called cḥuḳḳim, "ordinances," like the prohibition of wearing garments of wool and linen (sha‘atnez), boiling meat and milk together, and the sending of the goat… But our Sages generally do not think that such precepts have no cause whatever, and serve no purpose; for this would lead us to assume that God's actions are purposeless. On the contrary, they hold that even these ordinances have a cause, and are certainly intended for some use, although it is not known to us; owing either to the deficiency of our knowledge or the weakness of our intellect. Consequently there is a cause for every commandment: every positive or negative precept serves a useful object; in some cases the usefulness is evident, e.g., the prohibition of murder and theft; in others the usefulness is not so evident, Those commandments, whose object is generally evident, are called "judgments" (mishpatim); those whose object is not generally clear are called "ordinances" (cḥuḳḳim).”

                                                                                                                                                                                     - MORAH NEVUCHIM 3:26


“There are persons who find it difficult to give a reason for any of the commandments, and consider it right to assume that the commandments and prohibitions have no rational basis whatever. They are led to adopt this theory by a certain disease in their soul... According to the theory of those weak-minded persons, man is more perfect than his Creator. For what man says or does has a certain object, whilst the actions of God are different; He commands us to do what is of no use to us, and forbids us to do what is harmless. Far be this! On the contrary, the sole object of the Law is to benefit us….He thus says that even every one of these "statutes" convinces all nations of the wisdom and understanding it includes. But if no reason could be found for these statutes, if they produced no advantage and removed no evil, why then should he who believes in them and follows them be wise, reasonable, and so excellent as to raise the admiration of all nations? But the truth is undoubtedly as we have said, that every one of the six hundred and thirteen precepts serves to inculcate some truth, to remove some erroneous opinion, to establish proper relations in society, to diminish evil, to train in good manners or to warn against bad habits.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            - MORAH NEVUCHIM 3:31[40] 


It seems to many that the scholar he is referring to –who believes that chukkim have no meaning - is none other than Rashi,[41] who often seems to state[42] that chukim have ‘no’ meaning.


For instance, Rashi writes:

“Chukim: these are Divine decrees which have no reason for them”

                                                                                                                                                                                                        - VAYIKRA 19:19


If you wondered how Socrates belonged in a Shabbos Hagodol Drasha, now I can tell you.


It was not Rashi to whom Rambam was referring –as we shall soon seek to prove –rather to the Greek disputants of Socrates, those who were unsure if Divine commandments were chosen due to their holiness![43]


Before proving that Rashi also believed that mitzvos have reasons –even chukim – let us first demonstrate that Rambam was speaking about some Greek philosophers.


In truth, Maharal alludes to this concern:

“There are many men who go in the way of philosophers who are troubled how spiritual concepts could benefit a physical form. More, they are bothered how such good deeds, which can only be performed by the physical body, can in any way benefit a spiritual soul. They cannot fathom or accept that these two worlds can coexist and interconnect. This is especially true of chukim where no apparent physical gain can be seen…”

                                                                                                                                             - TIFERES YISROEL, BEGINNING OF CHAPTER 6

                                                                                                                                                                 (the above is a paraphrase of his words)


These philosophers are the ones chazal mention would first laugh at us for our observance of the chukkim but would soon come to respect us for our performance of them (see verses from Devarim brought below, as well a Rashi throughout the Pentateuch).


While this is not the place to get into this central Jewish tenant of the merging –in limited scope –between the physical and spiritual realms to which Maharal was referring, the point is made: Rambam was not referring, necessarily, to any Jewish sage.


As for Rashi, it would seem that even he would agree –at some level – with Rambam.


For instance, the Torah tells us:

“You shall safeguard and perform them, for it is your wisdom and discernment in the yes of the peoples, who shall hear all of these decrees (chukim) and say, ‘Surely a wise and discerning people is this great nation”

                                                                                                                                                                                                         - DEVARIM 4:6


Rashi, ad loc., states that through the very action of and faithful performance in chukim, by us and observed by the nations, the nations will praise us for our wisdom!


Now, why would the nations think we are wise for keeping chukim? Had not Rashi –based on chazal – taught in many places that chukim cause them –and Satan - to laugh/challenge us?


Malbim[44] explains that chukim only appear to have no reason –that is simply their starting point – and this is all Rashi ever meant when he explained that ‘they have no reason’. But certainly after time we can discover some reasons…exactly the view of Rambam![45][46]


Rambam, and perhaps Rashi, were not alone. The sefer HaChinuch is perhaps the best-known scholar to the hamon am (average Torah Jew) who frequently emphasizes and asserts reasons for mitzvos. What may be less known, however, is what he explains in his introduction, as well as throughout his work,[47] that he comes only to give allusions – remazim -, so as to make mitzvos more meaningful to simple people, with the hope that they will than ask their teachers and get even deeper insight. I would argue that this is in line with Rambam, who never suggested that he was giving the full reasons, the nucleolus, of each mitzvah.


From the Chinuch too we see the two ideas alluded to in Rambam, the Tzlach, and even Rashi: 1 –ALL mitzvos have reasons; 2 – Reasons for mitzvos are on a sliding scale (see Rav Dessler brought below), changing with time and our personal growth.


But what about the midrash quoted when we began that seemed to say mitzvos have no meaning?


Rambam and Ramban[48] - who generally concurs with Rambam’s approach vis-à-vis taamei hamitzvos - both challenge their view from this midrash.


Rambam, on the one hand, explains that while each mitzvah has reasons, the minutia of its laws may not; for instance where in the neck we slaughter, etc, and it was regarding this that the midrash was referring.


Ramban, on the other hand, in a lengthy treatment of this issue,[49] differs here with Rambam. Ramban explains that the midrash is teaching us something else.


Taking the mitzvah of shiluach haken as an example: According to Rambam this mitzvah shows Gd’s pity on the sire (dam) bird. Ramban strongly disagrees and suggests that it is not for the benefit of the bird, but for our benefit, to teach us to keep away from achzoriyos (cruelty).[50] Thus, explains the Ramban, the midrash we quoted above was only stating that mitzvos are not for Gd’s benefit, but rather for our benefit alone. Going back now, the words of the midrash would strongly support Ramban’s supposition.


There is another, quite famous, mishnah/gemara[51] that would seem to challenge this view of taamei hamitzvos. There it teaches that one is forbidden to pray to Gd by saying, “You Who has mercy on the mother-bird, have mercy on us”. The gemara –in one of two opinions – explains that this injunction is due to “the mitzvos are not about character but are simply decrees (gezeiros) without reason”.


Would not this prove that seeking to ascribe reasons to the mitzvos is a dangerous pursuit?


The Ramban explains that we follow the other view[52] brought in the gemara (ad loc) who explains this prohibition as being based on causing ‘jealousy’ among the creatures.


Based on what we have thus far explored: every mitzvah has reasons. These reasons run the gamut from the simple to the mystical. Whatever the reasons we find for each, we can never ignore at least one that will benefit us (according to Ramban). All this applies to chukim as well as mishpatim; only that chukim first appear to not have any reason.


By the seder we focus on all the mitzvos. Judging ourselves –as the chachom does - as to what is and is not a chok in our own personal eyes, thus seeing if we moved mitzvos out of the chok category and into the mishpat one.


We ask ourselves: ‘How far have I come since last year? Have I been able to internalize any more mitzvos?




However, there are those who argue on all of the above.


From the Vilna Gaon,[53] Chasam Sofer,[54] Ksav Sofer,[55] Aruch HaShulchan,[56] Chayay Adam,[57], inter alia, many suggest staying away from the entire taamei hamitzvos enterprise.


The famed mashgiach, Rav Yeruchen Levovitz, often opined that even mishpatim need to be viewed, at their core, as chukim!\


Rabbi Soleveichik[58] mentions this theme in light of a well-known question relating to the girsa found in the Rambam’s Yad to hilchos chometz u’matzah:


When quoting the mishnah of Raban Gamliel, some editions of Rambam read: “matzah al shum mah, etc” –Why do we eat matzah (as we have rendered it thus far).


Others have the girsa, “matzah al shem mah, etc.” –What is behind the name of matzah, marror, pesach.[59]


Rabbi Soleveichik asserts that the latter would have to be the correct version, for we do not concern ourselves with taamei hamitzvos![60] [61]

It need not be said that these views (Gaon et al.) certainly agree that there are human, physical reasons and gain from mitzvos,[62] rather they argue the need to turn away from seeking to discover them.


It would seem that these opinions hold that we are to follow the amara in that gemara in Berachos 33b who states that we are forbidden say, “Gd who has mercy on the mother-bird…” due to the mitzvos needing to viewed only as gezeiros/Divine decrees.


These views would also marshal support from another gemara which seems to directly address the question whether we are to investigate taamei hamitzvos:


Our Rabbis taught: Whether a widow be rich or poor, no pledge (mashkon) may be taken from her: this is R. Yehudah's opinion. R. Shimon said: A wealthy widow is subject to distraint, but not a poor one…Now, shall we say that R. Yehudah does not interpret the taamei d’kra (reasons for mitzvos), whilst R. Shimon does? (Because the verse mentions poverty as the cause for this chesed, and Scripture’s example of a widow was only due to her potential poverty, thus a wealthy widow would not be granted this kindness).  (Asks the gemara) But we know their opinions to be the reverse! For we learnt (relating to laws of a Jewish king): Neither shall he multiply wives to himself, [that his heart turn not away];  R. Yehudah said: He may multiply [wives], providing that they do not turn his heart away. R. Shimon said: He may not take to wife even a single one who is likely to turn his heart away; what then is taught by the verse, Neither shall he multiply wives to himself? Even such as Abigail! (Answers the gemara) In truth, R. Yehudah does not interpret the reason of Scripture; but here it is different, because Scripture itself states the reason: Neither shall he multiply wives to himself, and his heart shall not turn away. Thus, why 'shall he not multiply wives to himself'? So 'that his heart turn not away.' And R. Shimon [argues thus]: Let us consider. As a general rule, we interpret the Scriptural reason. Then Scripture should have written, 'Neither shall he multiply [etc.].' whilst 'and his heart shall not turn away' is superfluous, for I would know myself that the reason why he must not multiply is that his heart may not turn away. Why then is 'shall not turn away' [explicitly] stated? To teach that he must not marry even a single one who may turn his heart.

                                                                                                                                                            - SANHEDRIN 21a, BAVA METZIAH 115a

                                                                                                                                 (translation taken from Soncino [online], with small changes)



Once again, Rambam et al would follow the view of Rav Yehudah that we do investigate taamei hamitzvos;[63] the Gaon et al would follow Rav Shimon who says that we do not.


An additional factor that this gemara raises is the fear that searching for reasons within the mitzvos may lead to gross errors in halachah. For one would apply their reason (real or imagined) to real-world cases, and if the ‘reason’ for the law no longer exists we would then abandon it.

In a staggering opening line to a halachah, the Tur says (relating to the injunction on men against using a razor):


“Once again Rambam suggests that these too were commanded due to (the practices of ancient) idolaters, but this is not mentioned (in scripture) explicitly, rather mitzvos are Divine decrees and we must abide by them even without reasons…”

                                                                                                                                                                                               - YOREH DEAH 181


Rav Yosef Karo in his Beis Yosef commentary to the Tur (ad loc.) comes to Rambam’s strong defense, and seems genuinely surprised that the Tur is suggesting that Rambam disagrees with the idea that mitzvos are intrinsically holy, as if Rambam believes that without knowing the reasons behind each one we would not then have to keep them. “Heaven for fend that Rambam would hold this idea! Is there anyone who honored the Torah more than he!” he exclaims. For even Rambam was aware that mitzvos exist in a far deeper realm than any human reason can aspire to reach. This Tur and Beis Yosef mirror perfectly the debate between Rambam and Vilna Gaon.


Further support for the Gaon et al. comes from a famous Rashi:


“Rav Eleazar ben Azariah said, "... One should not say 'I don't eat pig and don't wear shatnez because I am disgusted by the pig and I am unable to wear shatnez...' Rather, he should say, 'I can eat pig and wear shatnez but what can I do? My Father in heaven has decreed for me that I mustn’t…”

                                                                                                                                                                                                   - VAYIKRA 20:26


Although the Gaon et al. find strong support for their view from the earlier midrash which seemed to state that there are no reasons for the mitzvos, as well as the above chazal as brought in Rashi (etc., etc.), as pointed out above even they would agree that reasons do exist – although we are not to ponder them - for there are numerous midrashim that would seem to disagree with their view and rather support Rambam et al.


For instance, the midrash[64] teaches us how Moshe was taught the reasons for all mitzvos, even for the parah adumah (which Moshe was in turn prohibited to teach; Shlomo Hamelech was taught these as well [with the exception of the parah adumah]).[65] It is also taught that when moshiach comes all the taamei hamitzvos will be revealed.


These sources clearly show that reasons do exist.


The midrash elsewhere[66] famously points out that although Avraham had no Torah teachers he was able to surmise the mitzvos based on reason alone.


But, again, we would have to suggest that the Goan et al would explain these midrashim by agreeing that there ARE reasons, rather that they are to remain hidden (which indeed the midrashim indicate; as it is only in the era of moshiach that they shall be revealed).

Back to the seder:


- The above clarifies why both the Gaon and Beis Halevi explain that the reason the Torah does not give us an answer to the rasha’s question is due to the level of heresy he brought to the table by asking ‘Why’, forcing us to ignore him and re-inspire all those who heard his “heresy”. This is opposed to the chacham who asked ‘What’ – “What are the mishpatim this year and what are still the chukim”. The chacham was not looking for explanations, rather order.


 - Rambam et al would, however, would instead explain that the tragedy of the rasha is not that he dared asked “Why”, but rather that each seder a year goes by and he still has been unable to interpret the Torah in a way that helps him feel a sense of growth and inspiration from the mitzvos.


As Rav Dessler (clearly following Rambam, it would seem) writes,

“Our understanding of the reasons for mitzvos is based on a sliding scale. Any mitzvah can be a mishpat or a chok, depending on how much we wish to internalize them.”

                                                                                                                                                 - MICHTAV M’ELIYAHU, VOLUME 5 PAGE 411 FF


The rasha lost his personal search for meaning in Torah, in mitzvos.[67]


The trouble with the rasha, then, is that he is starting from zero, gave this no thought, has no approach, everything is a chok: He takes neither the approach of the Gaon, that they are gezeiros, nor that of Rambam that every mitzvah has a reason, while its minutia may not have reason outside of being Divine decrees, nor of Ramban that even the minutia teach us much.




And…perhaps this is why we knock the rasha in his teeth – for teeth are the only part of the mouth that has no sense of taam, taste. It is as if we are telling him to put aside the rigidness of law, its teeth, and start focusing on its taam, its taste.


May we all use this seder to ask ‘Why’, for as Maharal above explained this is what defines us as Adam; let us all accept that mitzvos are decrees, and yet seek to find ways to grow through them. Let that journey begin at the seder, in Nissan, when we begin each year to renew our commitment to halachah through the very question of “Why”.




[1] See ‘Eitz Yosef’, found in the back of Nefesh HaChaim Rubin ed., page 446 os 127 where it would seem that Rav Chaim Volozion noticed a similar pattern.


[2] ‘Euthyphro’, 10a ff.


[3] Thus launching the era of Modern Philosophy of the 17th-20th centuries, starting, likely, with Rene Descartes.


[4] Tiferes Yisroel, ch. 3


[5] I could not find this famous corollary to the Maharal. Heard from many, notably Rav Moshe Schapiro.


[6] As to why the focus of ‘Asking’ is seen more by Pesach than, say, Sukkos: see Shabbos Hagodol Drashah 2012 by this writer where Rav Tzadok’s deep approach – mentioned in passing below - is offered.


[7] There are many forms of gematria (taken, according to some, from the same root as geometry). One of which is assigning a value to the letter-spelling of each letter in a word. So while the gematria of the word ‘Bo’ would generally equal 3, in this other system it would equal 523 (the letter Beis is spelled Beis, Yud, Tav; the letter Aleph is spelled Aleph, Lamed, Peh. Adding all these up would equal 532). See Shabbos 104 with commentaries.


[8] Seemingly challenging Rambam’s idea of a negative theology, that teaches one can only know Gd from what He is not, for Man cannot penetrate what He is.


[9] Rosh Hashanah 10b


[10] Bereishis 1:1, quoting a midresh (and not his father as commonly thought. See Taz’s commentary to Rashi, Divrei Dovid ad loc).


[11] See Shabbos Hagodol Drashah 2010 by this writer titled ‘Nomos and Narrative’ with this dichotomy is explored fully, and along different lines.


[12] See Rambam peirush hamishnayus Sanhedrin 7:6 that the mitzvos we keep are not inherited from Abraham, inter alia, rater those laws were renewed through Moshe. Cf. end of Yad, hil. Melachacim 9:1 where he seems to contradict this principle.


[13] The example is mine, to enhance his point.


[14] See Shabbos Hagodol Drashah 2008 from this writer titled, ‘Marror and the Bitterness of Halachah’ where we seek to explain the purpose of halachah’s minutia.


[15] Orot HaTorah. See Shabbos Hagodol Drasha titled “Marror” by this writer where the rigidness of halachah, and its necessity, is explored in detail.


[16] When hired to teach in Telshe Yeshiva, Rav Kook offered a new curriculum that would have indeed included such works as the Moreh, Kuzari, et al. He never did take the position, opting to move to Jaffa instead. The rest, as they say, is history.


[17] Still today, many yeshivah students are challenged, upon returning home to their more modern shuls for the festivals, on being unable to say something over from what they had learned in yeshivah. Trying to explain to some the difficulty of saying over a Ketzos or a Rav Baruch Ber without giving a half-hour background only fosters challenges toward the ‘system’.


[18] See Sefer HaPardes from Rashi


[19] See Yoma 67


[20] Shmos 15:25. “…shum sum lo chok u’mishpat…”


[21] ad loc. s.v. shum


[22] See Emes L’Yaakov ad loc


[23] See Yoma 67 where only mishpatim and chukim are mentioned. See Rabbenu Bachaya’s introduction to parshas chukkas, and Ri Bar Yakar to the haggadah


[24] This will be elaborated upon below


[25] See Seder HaAruch vol. 3 page 145, 146.


[26] A similar idea can be found in the Ritvah relating to the chacham’s question


[27] See, for example, Meshech Chochma. See Rambam end of hil. Meilah


[28] Gevuras Hashem ch. 53


[29] Abarbanel disagrees and holds that this question is reserved to the mitzvos of the night.


[30] See Tiferes Yosef, Shmos, 355ff


[31] See Sanhedrin 56b


[32] See however Aruch Hashulchan brought at the end of this drasha


[33] He does so brilliantly: the gemara in Eiruvin 13b debates: For two-and-a-half years, Beis Shamei and Beis Hillel debated. These said, "It is better for man not to have been created than to have been created"; and these said, "It is better for man to have been created than not to have been created." We see says Rav Engle, that what starts as a chok –our existence, created through the parents – can be reversed to a mishpat should we live decent lives.


[34] Of course, the haggadah in its present form pre-dates Rambam. For its authorship (aside for that –like the mah nishtanah –which is contained in mishnah or gemara), see introduction to Malbim’s haggadah shel pesach.


[35] Hilchos chometz u’matzah 7:5


[36] ibid 8:5


[37] Drashos, 38:10


[38] See Tanya ch. 31


[39] See Michtav M’Eliyahu brought below.


[40] There are many places in the Rambam’s writings where the following points are made, with some differences. See Yad, end of Meila, as well as end Temurah and Mikveos. Lesser known, perhaps, is in his Shemoneh Perakim where he states (Ch. 4) “…The Torah only made forbidden what it made forbidden, and commanded what it commanded, only for these reasons. Namely to distance one from bad (to train)…such as the laws of kashrus…” Here he seems to take the view of Ramchal in Derech Hashem, as well as the Tanya, that the mitzvos have a purpose in toto in that they cleave us with Gd and our better selves. See also Otzros Gedolei Yisroel where he seeks out and finds every reason Rambam had written relating to hundreds of mitzvos!


[41] Many indeed take this view. See Gershon Appel, ‘A Philosophy of Mitzvot’, p. 16 ff who clearly understands Rashi as ascribing to this view. I discovered his fascinating book after this drashah was given and I intend to incorporate some of his fascinating ideas and sources in a second draft, Gd willing.


[42] See his comments to Vayikra 19:19


[43] Dr. Jonathan Dauber, a professor of Kabbalah at YU, suggested I consider the additional possibility that Rambam was referring also to Islamic scholars of his time.


[44] Ad loc. See Sha’arei Aaron there at length


[45] Malbim also gives a second explanation: the very act of observance to mitzvos that have no apparent taam will first cause others to mock us, but after time earn us their respect for our trust in Gd


[46] Along this theme of mitzvos changing categories from chukim to mishpatim, is the view found by certain mitzvos of surprising categorization, where mitzvos thought to be mishpatim are viewed by some as chukim. One amazing example is found in the Shaarei Arhon to parshas Shoftim where he brings from the Chazon Ish who explains that the prohibition of a judge accepting any form of shochad (bribery) is in fact a chok! He explains: we see that the Torah always trusts us to give impartial rulings, and for this reason we are allowed to govern halachic ruling in our own homes, even though there could be a fear of abuse. We see then that the Torah allows us to rule on our own cattle and produce! Rather a chok was placed on judges only. Indeed, I once saw in ‘Derech Sicha’ (on Chumash; answers to questions on the parsha by R’ Chaim Kinievsky) where R’ Chaim was asked why the gemera mentions only ‘lo yirba…” as the two examples where the Torah gave reasons for mitzvos when we find by the injunction against shochad – twice! –reasons given in scripture (‘so as not to blind, corrupt’)? R’ Chaim’s answer would be perplexing if we did not consider this above mentioned view of the Chazon Ish and the fact that he was a rebbe of R’ Chaim. R’ Chaim responded: “By shochad the Torah is not listing reasons rather punishments”!!!

[Another example of this phenomenon may be the fact that many today are explaining the sexual crimes (such as homosexuality) as chukim. However it is unclear if these are views based on precedent or simply, sadly, apologetics]


[47] See mitzvah # 397, # 598. IN the latter he explains that the reasons for mitzvos found in his work were written for children (!) to pique their interest and ask their teachers.


[48] Devarim 22:6


[49] Op. cit.


[50] Some infer from here a more general debate between Rambam and Ramban, where only the latter demands that mitzvos must teach us something. This would seem to be incorrect, and limited to the case of shiluach haken only, for Rambam himself suggests similar explanations to various other mitzvos. See especially his comments in ch. 4 of his Shemoneh Perakim, mentioned briefly in a footnote above.


[51] Berachos 33b


[52] See Yerushalmi for a third approach


[53] To Mishlei, 25:27


[54] Drashos 1 19b


[55] Al HaTorah, Vayikra, ch. 19


[56] Y.D. 140:2


[57] 68:18


[58] Harrarei Kedem, Rav Michel Sherkin, vol. 1, erech: Haggadah, ‘al shlosheh dvarim’


[59] See R. Shabsei Frankel ed., ‘shinu nuscheos’.


[60] Many haggadas quote Rav Chaim and the Brisker Rav asserting the same under a similar line of reasoning.


[61] Indeed, Maharahsa to Pesachim 116 (‘Raban Gamliel haya omer…’), asks, ‘how come we search for reasons for mitzvos the night of the seder?’


[62] See midrashim brough below. E.g. Bereishis Rabbah 61:1


[63] Note the distiction between the Talmud’s use of taamei d’kra here and of taamei Torah elsewhere (Pesachim 119a, at the top of page), the latter reffering to something else entirely (according to Maharsha ad loc. with Rav Chaim Kinievsky Shlit’a hakdama to his ‘L’Michseh Asik’).Note also the usage of the term here of ‘taamei d’kra’ in lieu of ‘taamei hamitzvos’ in the gemara. My brother Rav Shmuel Taub pointed out that Rav Chaim Volizion, Nefesh HaChaim 2:16, explains that we more commonly use the term ‘taamei d’kra’ –generally- to refer to trop (the cantilation marks of the Torah), for, Rav Chaim explains, it is through trop that greater depth and reason can be discovered (he ties the words, vowels, and trup to the three parts of souls, nefesh, ruach, and neshamah). Ironically, the Gaon, Rav Chaim’s teacher, often times would use trop so as to get to the heart of a verse. See Emes L’Yaakov by R’ Yaakov Kamanetzky who often utilizes trop in brilliant ways.


[64] Bamidbar Rabbah 19:6


[65] Rashba, shu’t, 1:94 suggests that even regarding Shlomo Hamelech, Gd only gave over remazim, allusions (see Rambam in his Yad hil. Teshuvah relating to tekias shofer who also gives a reason for that mitzvah by calling it a ‘remez’, for, Rambam agrees that our reasons are not the truest, or final depth of the mitzvah’s reasons). See Mahartiz Chiyus to Rosh Hashanah 16b who may shed light on the distinction of ‘Why’ and ‘What’. See also a powerful Chasam Sofer al HaTorah on this midrash mentioned above that Moshe –the idyllic pedagogue - was forbidden from teaching something.


[66] Bereishis Rabbah 61:1


[67] At this point we should note, that outside of this debate all agree that the mitzvos in toto have a physical purpose outside of their respective commands. See 4th chapter of Tanya, as well Ramchal in Derech Hashem, and Rambam in Shemoneh Perakim

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