Rabbinic Reasons For the Mitzvot

The Sages proposed additional reasons to obey the mitzvot beyond those offered by the Bible.

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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:

mitzvotWhat 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

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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.