2010-17 S.H. Parker

Torah texts and translations are from the Mechon-Mamre on-line chumash, unless otherwise noted.

"Six hundred and thirteen commandments were revealed [given, spoken] to Moses."


Rabbi Simlai taught that six hundred and thirteen mitzvot were told to Moses at Sinai: three hundred and sixty-five negative ones corresponding to the number of days in the solar year and two hundred and forty-eight positive ones corresponding to the number of limbs in a human body
[Rashi comments: each of them urging one to do a mitzvah].
Rav Hamnona asked upon which biblical verse this was based.
Rav Simlai replied:] "Moses commanded us Torah, the legacy of the congregation of Jacob" [Devarim 33:4; Rav Simlai explained:] the numerical value of the word 'Torah' is six hundred and eleven; while "I am" and "You shall not have" we heard [that is, all Israel heard directly] from the divine source. -- Makkot 23b

Of course, Torah tell us that the whole people heard the first 10 commandments, not just the two enumerated here. Was there a competing tradition, an alternate tradition? Or is Rabbi Simlai's teaching pure drosheh?

What is a "commandment," a מִּצְוָה (a mitzvah)? What does this pivotal term mean?

Yes, a commandment is an order.

Or is it, really?

But מִּצְוָה, "mitzvah," as in "bichur cholim (visiting the sick) is a mitzvah" (generally, "such-and-such is a mitzvah") is not commanded. The concept has morphed over time. In many contexts, מִּצְוָה is more correctly understood, as pointed out by Sam Fox, as "a holy deed." Dr. Fox is right, this fits better with our intuitions about the meaning of the term.

Sam's rendering works very nicely in contexts requiring a noun or adjective ("it is a holy deed to visit the sick" or "my holy deeds you will keep [observe, guard, protect]"). Very nicely indeed. 

בשם מורים: I recently read an article, on kashrut if I recall correctly, that claimed there were two kinds of מִצְווֹת. There are מִצְווֹת for which there is a rational explanation and there are מִצְווֹת for which there is no rational explanation. 

This is not what I learned. And, more to the point, is not what I find in Torah.

I was taught that there are three kinds of מִצְווֹת and that there is a distinct Hebrew word for each: 

מִּצְוָה -- mitzvah

מִּשְׁפָּט -- mishpat

חוק -- chok

Torah itself (Devarim 6:1) shows us that there are indeed three terms:

וְזֹאת הַמִּצְוָה, הַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים, אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, לְלַמֵּד אֶתְכֶם--לַעֲשׂוֹת בָּאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ Now these are the commandments, the statutes and the ordinances, which the LORD your God commanded to teach you, that ye might do them in the land whither ye go over to possess it.

(Actually, מִּצְוָה is singular here, so this should read "These are the commandment, the statutes and the ordinances (judgements).")

Is there a difference between a מִּצְוָה and a מִּשְׁפָּט and a חוק ? Or are these just three ways of saying the same thing?

Mitzvah: As I was taught, a מִּצְוָה, mitzvah (in its adjectival-noun role), is a commandment that need not have been commanded. A מִּצְוָה is something so obvious any normal person understands immediately the rightness of the מִּצְוָה

What kind of commandment could possibly be so obvious as to not even need enunciation? How about these: 

לֹא תִרְצָח No killing! [murder]
לֹא תִנְאָף No adultery!
לֹא תִגְנֹב No kidnapping! (stealing a person, typically to enslave them)
Shmot 20:12

Such מִצְווֹת are incumbent on all persons, whether they've heard the word of Torah or not; whenever, wherever they live(d). Such מִצְווֹת are, in fact, simple common sense (noting, of course, how uncommon common sense so often is), obvious necessities for the maintenance of human society. Perhaps that's why there are so few described as "מִצְווֹת." 

Mishpat: מִּשְׁפָּט, mishpat (literally "judgment" or "justice," it's used for both -- plural, mishpatim, מִשְׁפָּטִים) is not obvious to any normal person. For example, Devarim 12:23:

רַק חֲזַק, לְבִלְתִּי אֲכֹל הַדָּם, כִּי הַדָּם, הוּא הַנָּפֶשׁ; וְלֹא-תֹאכַל הַנֶּפֶשׁ עִם-הַבָּשָׂר. Only be strong in not eating the blood; for the blood is the soul; and thou shalt not eat the soul with the flesh.

מִשְׁפָּטִים are מִצְווֹת for which there is a reason and that reason is given in Torah. Not simply that a reason exists (and that reason is not necessarily "rational") but the reason is given. The text tells us why. The מִּצְוָה not to eat blood, above, is a perfect example: don't eat the blood because it is the nefesh (soul, breath) of the animal (great stuff for devarim in many of the מִשְׁפָּטִים). We are told why we should do the מִּצְוָה.

Whether all מִשְׁפָּטִים have a rational reason ... well consider the Holiness Code (Vayikra 17-26). Throughout the Holiness Code, the reasons for commandments are given, very powerfully. These reasons include:

אֲנִי, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם. I am Adonai your God
אֲנִי, יְהוָה I am Adonai
תֶּבֶל הוּא It is perverse (now there's a change of pace!)
כִּי קָדוֹשׁ, אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם I, Adonai, your God, am holy

Reasons are given. Are these reason "rational?" No, not always. Are these reasons food for thought? Certainly.

As I was taught, though, מִשְׁפָּטִים are such that once you see the reason (or, where necessary, thought it through), the מִּצְוָה does make sense, you know more about God's thinking and what God wants us to be.

That "מִּשְׁפָּט" is not simply a way of characterizing a group of מִצְווֹת is clear from Micah 6:8 where the term is rendered "justice:" 

  הִגִּיד לְךָ אָדָם, מַה-טּוֹב; וּמָה-יְהוָה דּוֹרֵשׁ מִמְּךָ, כִּי אִם-עֲשׂוֹת מִשְׁפָּט וְאַהֲבַת חֶסֶד, וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת, עִם-אֱלֹהֶיךָ It hath been told thee, O man, what is good, and what the LORD doth require of thee: only to do justly, and to love mercy, and walk humbly with your God

That the root of מִּשְׁפָּט is "judgment" (i.e., "justice") of itself seems quite meaningful. 

Some thinkers group מִצְווֹת and מִשְׁפָּטִים together as "laws that have a rational explanation." These thinkers refer to מִצְווֹת that have an explanation as עֵדֹתָיו (edot), usually translated as "testimonies." Such modern thinkers distinguish them as (1) laws that would be promulgated by any well ordered society, (2) laws that are appreciated once the explanation is given and (3) laws without explanation. 

Hukkim: חוק (plural -- חֻקִּים). There are the tough ones. Not simply do חֻקִּים not make any sense on their face; you read them and you just don't understand the point, most defy satisfying explanation and none is offered in Torah. חֻקִּים are neither prima facie obvious, like מִצְווֹת, nor explained for us like מִשְׁפָּטִים.

Kashrut falls into this category: "Just do it;" "This is what I want you to do;" "I told you so." Why shouldn't we boil the meat of the kid in the milk of the mother? Why must an animal have a cloven hoof and chew its cud? We're never told and, keep in mind, the most popular meat in the world fails to meet these requirements.

As both of my teachers observed: kashrut, and other חֻקִּים, do have the effect of making you think about what you are doing. When I go shopping at my local market, as I browse items on the shelf, looking for a hechsher on the package, I am saying to myself "I'm a Jew, I choose to do this, I am different from goyim." "Different" in Hebrew is קדש, holy. Interesting thought....

Indeed, many חֻקִּים have the effect of preventing certain kinds of interactions between Jews and goyim.

Is that the point of the חוק? Don't know. By definition, you can't prove this one way or the other.

The sacrifices fall into this category too. We are told what kinds of sacrifices to offer. We are told the occasions for sacrifices. We are told, extensively, how to offer them. But we are never told why we should offer them, at least not all of them. Lots of room for homiletics but no explanation.

The classic חוק, of course, is the פָרָה אֲדֻמָּה, the "red" heiffer (Bamidbar 19:2 ff). I especially like R. Hertz's retelling of a story from the Talmud:

To a high-placed Roman questioner, who expressed his amazement at the procedure in connections with the Red Heifer, Johanan ben Zakkai replied by referring him to a Pagan analogy: "Just as a person afflicted by melancholy or possessed of an 'evil spirit' is freed from his disease by taking certain medicaments or by the burning of certain roots, in the same manner the ashes of the Red Heifer, prepared in the prescribed way and dissolved in water, drive away the 'unclean spirit' of defilement...." The Roman was satisfied with the answer, and went his way. Thereupon the pupils of Johanan said to him: "That man's attack thou hast warded off with a broken reed, but what answer hast thou for us?" "By your lives," said the Master, "the dead man doth not make impure, neither do the ashes dissolved in water make pure: but the law concerning the Red Heifer is a decree of the All-holy, Whose reasons for issuing that decree it behooves not mortals to question." 

In other words, "When God speaks, just do it" (with no apologies to E.F. Hutton or Nike). And that is the essence of a חוק, prima facie it makes no sense, any attempt to try to explain it is inconclusive and often unconvincing but it is expected behavior.

That does not, of course, stop anyone from trying to explain these מִצְווֹת, in fact, it seems encourage attempts to "rationalize" them. Many of these attempted explanations are enlightening. But, in the end, the best explanation is just as Yochanan ben Zakkai says, some things are just not for us to understand (if that sounds suspiciously like what the Rabbis have to say about the mysteries of creation ... you're catching on). 

So, in the end, a commandment is a מִּצְוָה. But is a commandment might also be a מִּשְׁפָּט or a חוק. And which is which is clear if you read the text. 

[1] Hebrew is a root system language. A root word, usually two or three letters, is the basis on which the words we use are based; spoken words are derived from a root word. At the root level, a word is not a verb or a noun or any other part of speech. It is just a word. But from the root, the parts of speech -- the expressive actions of language -- are formed. Thus a single word can become a verb or a noun or an imperative or an adjective or just about anything else. Theoretically, a single root can give rise to both nouns and verbs. For example, "learn" is the basis for "teach (v)," student (n)" and "teaching(s) [lessons]." Oh, yes, it is also the root of "to learn" and "to study."