Don’t Change the Torah. So What are Rabbinical Mitzvahs? — By Ben

In this week’s Torah portion Re’eh, we get the paramount instruction from God to,

“Be careful to observe everything which I am commanding you, you shall not add to it and you shall not subtract from it.” (Devarim 13:1)

Makes sense. If God wrote the Torah then it should be perfect. Don’t be lax on what you’re supposed to do and don’t think you know better by doing things you were never told. Tangentially I had a friend once who put a mezuzah on his car door. Clearly, without this mitzvah, things could get really out of hand.

But here’s the thing… we DO add on to the mitzvahs. We have rabbinical mitzvahs, gezeiras/fences, takanas/formalizations, and we have minhagim/customs. None of these additions are in the written Torah yet we are bound by halacha/Torah law to do them! How is this allowed?

Later on in parshas Shoftim, the Torah gives the following decree,

You are to come before the Kohanim, the Levites, and the judges officiating during those days…. In accord with the Torah that they instruct you and upon the law that they state to you, are you to act; do not deviate from the word they tell you. (Devarim 17:9-11)

From here we learn that regarding the understanding and practicing Torah laws we are supposed to listen and follow the sages and rabbis. The two verses appear to be in direct contradiction with one another.

This isn’t some arbitrary technicality. There have been fierce divisions in Judaism about this throughout history. During the second Temple period, the Sadducees and the Pharisees argued over Torah mitzvahs versus Rabbinic mitzvahs.

Let’s break these additional mitzvahs down and maybe we can understand the contradiction.

Stringent Fences

Rabbinical Gezeiras (fences)

Technically they aren’t new mitzvahs. A gezeira or fence is in place to make sure a person doesn’t transgress the actual mitzvah. I know it may seem unwieldily, but let’s take the Torah at it’s word for a second and pretend these mitzvahs actually mean something, that they aren’t just important but essential.

Actually, let me go even simpler. Pretend there’s a button that once pressed would blow up the world. Now technically speaking, the only thing you need to do is not press that button. Theoretically, we should just let people know that’s the deal and we should be fine to proceed with our daily lives. You good with that?

Of course not. You’re going to want to build an iron clad safe around that button, then encase it in Fort Knox style military protection. You want to be 100 percent sure no one is going to press that button ever. I believe that’s what a gezeira is about. If we don’t really believe the mitzvahs matter, then if we mess up every so often, what’s the big deal? But if we realize the mitzvahs have tremendous power to shape ourselves, the world, and our connection with God, then guarding them should be of utmost importance. At that point, a fence isn’t really creating a new mitzvah, but is in service to the mitzvah it protects. So the rabbis added them for that reason.

Rabbinical Mitzvahs

  • Shabbos Candles
  • Reciting Hallel
  • Lighting the Hanukiah
  • Washing hands before bread
  • Reading Megillas Ester
  • Eruv
  • Fasting on Tisha B’Av

These rabbinical mitzvahs are different from gezeiras in that they actually are additions and not just reinforcement of Torah mitzvahs. These seem to more keenly contradict the prohibition from adding. However Rambam in his introduction to the Mishneh Torah says the following;

“If a court, together with the prophet of that age adds a commandment as an ordinance, a lesson, or as a decree, this is not considered an addition. …we are saying that the prophets and the courts ordained and commended that the Megillah be read… in order to recall the praise of the Holy One, blessed be He, the salvation He wrought for us, and His response to our cries…”

The essential take away is that as events in history change what it meant to be a Jew (loss of the Temple and Jerusalem, etc.) certain practices needed to be added in order to appreciate and make holy those changes in life.

Takanas

Takanas are the formalizations of mitzvahs that previously existed into a more standard form. For instance, the actual mitzvah of prayer from the Torah is to just open your heart to God and speak from there. However as the generations have lost spiritual literacy, it was decreed by the Men of the Great Assembly that prayer would need to be formatted.

Minhagim

Okay, so I can wrap my head around the decrees of the sages of old adding protections, but minhagim or customs, I personally find a little more tricky. Minhagim or customs are practices that have come about via the expression of a particular community. These may have been takanas to meet a need of the community at a particular time but regardless of that need, became a codified practice of today.

Such an example is the reading of the Haftarah. Back in the days of European oppression, Jews were banned from publicly reading the Torah. So in its place, the community read from the Prophets a section that had a thematic similarity to the Torah portion. Since then those oppressive decrees have obviously been lifted, but we still read the Haftarah. Other minhagim include the minor fasts days, the Ashkenaz not eating rice (kitniot) on Passover, Sephardim reciting Selichos the entire month of Elul, holding six hours between meat and milk, opposed to three hours, opposed to one.

I’ve not found an empirical reason for why this doesn’t contradict the Torah verse of not adding except to make two points. One, Torah has great respect for the power of community. As a way of keeping us together in the exile, a unique practice of a group allowed that community to add their own spin to the mitzvahs. Making it their own. The second idea is that once a practice has been continued for a while, it does gain its own sanctity or power. So unless the practice is found to directly contradict Torah or create problems, there is a value in the tradition.

So What’s the Deal?

There is much more to say about the specifics of each category I mentioned above and there are even more complications, but this post is getting long or I’ll try to wrap it up.

While the Torah is “set in stone” and is unchangeable, the vast majority of what we’d refer to as Torah is found in the Oral Torah. Meaning the explanations, understandings, and practice of the mitzvahs were never meant to be written down, but instead communicated person to person, student to teacher, so it could be communicated in a way tailored to the individual. In short there was supposed to be wiggle room. Though the writing down of the Oral Torah (via the Talmud, Zohar, Midrash) was necessary, it was a last resort. By doing so, it lost the adaptability necessary for a changing world. See my post on Oral Torah for more.

If the concept of a “fence” still doesn’t sound supported by the Torah, I’ll point to the very first story, Adam and Eve. When God puts Adam in the garden God tells him not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge lest he die. (Bereishis 2:17). But when Adam gives this instruction to Eve, he tells her even if she touches the Tree she’ll die. (Bereishis 3:3) According to the Midrash, the snake uses this to his advantage, disproving the added prohibition and then getting Eve to then eat the fruit. You might think this example gives evidence against gezerias/fences. But that’s only in the case of when the student doesn’t learn the difference between what is the law and what is the fence. Had Adam said to Eve, “If we eat from this Tree we’ll die, so let’s resolve not to touch it.” perhaps the tragedy would have been averted. Gezeiras can help us keep the Torah, but only when we ourselves understand what is a fence and what is written Torah law.

Our ability to connect with Torah decreases with each generation as we get farther and farther from Sinai. The phenomenon is known as yeridas hadoros (the declining of the generations). So additions act as a guide to account for changing times. Though we are supposed to regard rabbinical mitzvahs and customs with the same stringency as Torah mitzvahs, this does create wiggle room for a Rabbi who is well versed in the halacha to create leniencies on a case by case basis. That way the Torah can become the living document it was meant to be.

The last thing I’ll add was a metaphor my friend told me that helps reframe it all. Torah laws are like your wife telling you what gift she wants for her birthday. Rabbinical commandments are like she’s hinting at what she wants. Minhagim are like you’ve been listening to your wife and have figured out what she wants without her needing to tell you. Hopefully we’ll all grow to a spiritual level where we can discern the ins and outs of Torah law ourselves. But until then, a little help from the sages of old and the rabbis of today may be just what we need to keep it the best we can.

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