Medieval Jewish Philosophers on the Reasons for the Mitzvot

Jewish philosophers since ancient times have explained the system of mitzvot, and individual commandments, in terms that made sense to their contemporaries.

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Rabbi Isaacs explains the need to offer a rationale for the mitzvot as a response to the hostility or curiosity of non-Jews. In many times and places, though, the worldview of the surrounding culture was adopted by at least some Jews, and the effort to explain the commandments was therefore as much a matter of encouraging Jews to maintain Jewish practice as it was to explain Judaism to those outside the Jewish community.  Reprinted with permission from Mitzvot: A Sourcebook for the 613 Commandments, published by Jason Aronson Inc.

Jewish religious philosophers, especially in the medieval period, began to probe for the purpose and meaning of the commandments. Most of their investigation was generally conducted independently of any definitive study of the commandments. It is difficult to ascertain with certainty the reasons that prompted the Middle Age scholars to steadfastly begin to explore commandments. Some have suggested that one cause may have been apologetic. That is to say, with rabbinic leaders being confronted with anti-semitic attacks, they felt that an intelligent reply would reduce the weight of the misrepresentation.

The following section surveys some of the important philosophers and thinkers who paved the way for a comprehensive series of rationales for the commandments.

Hellenistic Literature

The need for a rational explanation of the commandments was expressed for the first time in the Hellenistic period, a time when the Jewish people were profoundly influenced by Greek culture. The explanation was motivated by a desire to present Judaism to the pagan world as a legislation intended to produce a people of the highest virtue. For example, in the Letter of Aristeas, the dietary laws (kashrut) and other commandments, including the wearing of a prayer shawl and the affixing of a mezuzah to one’s doorpost, were explained as having the purpose of awakening holy thoughts and forming character.

Philo

law scalePhilo, a first-century philosopher, whose Greek writings focused primarily on the Five Books of Moses, offered one of the first systematic treatises for the reasons behind the commandments. He categorized the commandments into the following four categories: beliefs, virtuous emotions, actions symbolizing beliefs, and actions symbolizing virtues. In his explanation of various rationales for the commandments, he often used the allegorical method of interpretation [explaining the Bible’s words as an extended metaphor, not to be taken literally].

Saadia Gaon

This medieval philosopher was Judaism’s first thinker to divide the commandments into those that are an obligation because they are required by reason (called sichliyot in Hebrew) and those given through revelation (called shimiyot in Hebrew). The latter, he said, must be accepted for no other reason than that they were proclaimed by God, although on occasion he was able to explain their usefulness.

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Rabbi Ronald H. Isaacs

Rabbi Ronald H. Isaacs is the spiritual leader of Temple Sholom in Bridgewater, New Jersey. He has served as the publications committee chairperson of the Rabbinical Assembly.