Reprinted with permission From Mitzvot: A Sourcebook for the 613 Commandments (Jason Aronson).
There is considerable rabbinic discussion throughout Jewish history as to why the Jewish people ought to obey the commandments. Many rabbis reaffirmed the reasons that the Bible gave but also added some of their own. Here is a brief summary of the rabbinic rationales for observing and obeying the commandments:
Commandments Help to Improve and Perfect People
The purpose of the commandments according to some rabbinic authorities was to make people pure and refined. This point of view can be illustrated in this selection from Midrash Tanchuma, on Parshat Shemini:
What does God care whether a man kills an animal in the proper Jewish way and eats it, or whether he strangles the animal and eats it? Will the one benefit Him, or the other injure Him? Or what does God care whether a man eats kosher or non-kosher animals? “If you are wise, you are wise for yourself, but if you scorn, you alone shall bear it” (Proverbs 9:12). So you learn that the commandments were given only to refine God’s creatures, as it says, “God’s word is refined. It is a protection to those who trust in Him” (2 Samuel 22:31). (ed. Buber, 15b)
Commandments Preserve the World
Unlike the previous explanation of the mitzvot as ways to purify humanity, other rabbinic sources observed that the commandments were given by God to the people in order to help continue the very existence of the world itself. Here is an example from the midrash Deuteronomy Rabbah, on Parshat Nitzavim” (8:5), to illustrate this point: “God said, ‘If you read the Law, you do a kindness, for you help to preserve My world, since if it were not for the Law the world would again become without form and void.”
Commandments Establish Israel’s National Identity
The Bible stated several times that the Israelites are not to do what the other nations surrounding them were doing. This was the Bible’s way of negatively defining the Israelite identity.
In rabbinic times, the identity of the Jews became even more important, in part because the Jewish people were scattered throughout many different countries. Obeying commandments was a way of staying affiliated with the Jewish people and its peoplehood: “If it were not for My law which you accepted, I should not recognize you, and I should not regard you more than any of the idolatrous nations of the world” (Midrash Exodus Rabbah, on Parshat Ki Tissa, 47:3).
Commandments Have the Potential to Beautify
Rabbinic literature discusses the artistic and aesthetic values in the covenantal relationship between God and the Jewish people. Obeisance to the commandments helps to make Israel beautiful and attractive in the eyes of God. Finding beauty in each other helps to reinforce the covenantal relationship between God and Israel. It is as if the jewelry and perfumes with which Israel decorates herself for God, her lover, are the commandments themselves:
“You are beautiful, my love” (Song of Songs 1:15). You are beautiful through the commandments, both positive and negative. You are beautiful through loving deeds, beautiful in your house with the heave offerings and tithes; beautiful in the field through the commandments about gleaning, the forgotten sheaf and the second tithe[;]… beautiful in prayer, the reading of the Shema. (Song of Songs Rabbah, 1:15)
In short, the authority of the commandments according to rabbinic sources stemmed from a host of factors, all of which were intended to help the Jewish people transform themselves and the world into the kind of community that God wanted them to become.
Pronounced: KOH-sher, Origin: Hebrew, adhering to kashrut, the traditional Jewish dietary laws.
Pronounced: MIDD-rash, Origin: Hebrew, the process of interpretation by which the rabbis filled in “gaps” found in the Torah.