The Reasons for the Mitzvot

Why does the Torah not give us the reasons for the mitzvot? Wouldn’t it be more meaningful for us to know the whys?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Thank you for your fundamental question. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 21b) asks your exact question and answers that as a matter of fact there are two mitzvot for which the Torah did give a reason. And in both cases “a great one of the world” stumbled on account of it.

The two mitzvot are that a king may not keep too many horses “so that he will not return the nation to Egypt to increase horses” (Deut. 17:16), and that he not take too many wives “lest his heart be turned away” (v. 17). Continues the Talmud that King Solomon transgressed both of these acts, feeling that since he knew the reasons for them, it would be sufficient simply taking care not to violate the reasons.

In the end, however, King Solomon was not successful in doing so. As the Torah attests, he sent to Egypt to purchase horses (I Kings 10:29) and his wives let him astray towards the end of his life (I Kings 11:4). (Some explain that we may travel to Egypt temporarily for business purposes and the like, but that Solomon required so many horses that he stationed agents permanently in Egypt.)

The message of the Talmud is clear. God never tells us the exact reasons for the mitzvot for fear we will rationalize. Once we know the reason, we will feel entitled to begin making exceptions – allowing the act where we’re sure the reason does not apply. Not only is that a risk the Torah does not permit, but who can say we fully understand God’s wisdom, and can know definitively that His reason does not apply in certain cases?

In retrospect, King Solomon stated in Ecclesiastes, “I said I would be wise, but it is far from me” (7:23). For all his breathtaking wisdom, King Solomon had to confess that he could never fully fathom God’s Torah.

At the same time, it is certainly proper to try to understand reasons for the mitzvot on our own. This makes their observance much more meaningful to us. In fact, since medieval times many books have been authored precisely for this purpose. Yet we must never claim we know the reason for a mitzvah. That is something God in His wisdom did not fully reveal to mankind. We may thus attempt to explain the mitzvot for the sake of deepening our understanding of them, but we must never pretend we fully know God’s reasoning – and we may certainly not make our observance dependent upon our own limited understanding.

In a similar vein, the Mishna teaches us: “Be careful with a light mitzvah as with a serious one, for you do not know the reward for the mitzvot” (Pirkei Avot 2:1). Just as we do not know the reasons for the mitzvot, we do not know their rewards (unlike the punishments for the negative commandments, which the Torah generally does spell out). And the reason is similar: If we knew which mitzvot were more and less important, everyone would run after the few “high-yield” mitzvot, neglecting the “minor” ones. God rather wants us to perfect ourselves and the world in all ways by performing all His commandments.

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