Emor: Three Reasons Why

“There is a group of human beings who consider it a grievous thing that causes should be given for any law; what would please them most is that the intellect would not find a meaning for the commandments and prohibitions.” So writes the Rambam in his Guide of the Perplexed.[1] Many people seek to deny that Torah should make sense. The more mysterious, the better; clearly, this must indicate that it is something not only beyond but above us. We must love, revere, and desire it, all the more.

We can be sympathetic to this point of view. You may, as I have at one time or another during college, come out of a lecture impressed by the rather mystifying lecturer who is too much of a genius to be understood. Or, perhaps you have seen Simone Biles perform some exercise that defies easy explanation, or you may have been fascinated by a rainbow or the grand canyon, looked on with wonder at the dusk or dawn, or the tiny fingers of a newborn. There is a magic we may experience in the things that we cannot quite put into words or wrap our heads around. Sometimes, it is not we who grasp a concept or experience; rather, some concept or experience grasps us. We love a mystery, we wish to know more about the power which produces it. What is obvious or explained is pedestrian, like a magic trick that has been explained. And so, we should not be surprised that this is the position that many take in regard to the mitzvot. Wouldn’t it be grander, greater, more glorious, if we could not understand them?

Take, as an illustrative example, the prohibition to slaughter a cow or sheep along with her young on a single day:

וְשׁ֖וֹר אוֹ־שֶׂ֑ה אֹת֣וֹ וְאֶת־בְּנ֔וֹ לֹ֥א תִשְׁחֲט֖וּ בְּי֥וֹם אֶחָֽד׃

“You will not slaughter an ox or sheep on one day, along with its young.” (Lev. 22:28)[2]

Must we explain why God commands us thus? Would doing so imply that we imagine ourselves the intellectual and moral equals of God, being as we are both bound by reason and what is right and wrong?

Regarding the prohibition of Sha’atnez, wearing wool and linen together (Lev. 19:19), Rashi writes:

את חקתי תשמורו – ואילו הן: בהמתך לא תרביע כלאים וגו׳. חקים הם אילו גזירת המלך שאין טעם לדבר.

“These are Hukkim, statutes decreed by the King without a reason.”

God is the King. He makes decrees and we must obey them. This mystery merely whets our appetite for religious life.

However, Ramban cites this Rashi and then comments:

ואין הכונה בהם שתהיה גזרת מלך מלכי המלכים בשום מקום בלא טעם, כי כל אמרת אלוה צרופה (משלי ל׳:ה׳), רק החוקים הם גזרות מלך אשר יחוק במלכותו בלי שיגלה תועלתם לעם…

"The meaning is not that a mitzva is like a decree of a king offered without any reason, because “every word of God is pure”. Rather, Hukkim are statutes that the king decrees in his kingdom without revealing their use to the people…”[3]

There is a great difference between not necessarily knowing the reason for something and saying there is no reason at all. Rather, of course there is a reason, and no doubt each of the mitzvot are useful and good for us. However, we do not always know what that reason is.[4] 

Regarding our case, Ramban suggests that we are prohibited to slaughter a mother and her young on the same day because when we specifically avoid causing pain to the cow or sheep in this instance, this helps “to cultivate in us the quality of mercy…since cruelty is contagious, as is well known from the example of animal killers by occupation, who often become inured to human suffering…These precepts regarding bird and beast are not motivated by pity on them but are decrees of the Almighty to cultivate good moral qualities in man.”[5] 

Cruelty is contagious. Mercy is contagious. Our very lives, our characters are changed by the study of Torah and the performance of the mitzvot. It changes who we are, how we act towards others, and how they perceive us.

I had a rather long phase where I read many, many self help books. I thought that if I would read them, I would improve myself. In fact, some of these books made a profound difference in my behaviors or thinking. I sat in my office and came up with an incomplete list:

The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg. Grit, by Angela Duckwroth. The Four Hour Work Week, by Tim Ferris. Rich Dad, Poor Dad. Emotional Intelligence. Man’s Search for Meaning. The Righteous Mind. The Dance with Chance.  Option B. Mindset, by Carol Dweck. The Power of Moments. Leaders Eat Last. Anxiety. Difficult Conversations. Getting Things Done, by David Allen. Lots of things by Malcolm Gladwell. Drive. The Freakonomics books, various books by Dan Arieli. Stumbling on Happiness, by Dan Gilbert. Building a Better Teacher. Getting to Yes.

Whether or not we have an interest in this genre, we share a universal interest in its goal. We all want to be better, to flourish, to have stronger relationships, more success and fewer worries. Any healthy person does. And it is therefore imperative that we remember and do not forget that Torah is the ultimate self improvement program. As Rambam writes:

“Every commandment from among these six hundred and thirteen commandments exists either with a view to communicating a correct opinion, or to putting an end to an unhealthy opinion, or to communicating a rule of justice, or to warding off an injustice, or to endowing men with a noble morality quality, or to warning them against an evil moral quality. Thus all are bound up with three things: opinions, moral qualities, and political civic actions.”[6]

Without exception, God’s commandments come to improve us in mind, character, and as a body politic. There are six hundred and thirteen commandments but no exceptions to this rule.

In Devarim, [7] we read that “You will observe and perform (the laws), because they are your wisdom and understanding before the nations, which shall hear all these hukkim, statutes, and say: surely this great community is a wise and understanding people.”

Regarding this, Rambam writes convincingly: “Now if there is a thing for which no reason is known and that does not either procure something useful or ward off something harmful, why should one say of one who believes in it or practices it that he is wise and understanding and of great worth?”[8]


Let me be clear now about two very important points:

  1. Just because we know one reason for a mitzva, doesn’t mean we know every reason. This is no license to dispense with Torah or mitzvot because we understand that they are wise. That would be- we can address why in another drasha- a very bad idea.
  2. There is a rather large distinction between a useful book which is authored by a person- no matter how smart, well researched, and wise- and a book authored by God. It would be rather more efficient and sensible to use the Divine self help book, if you are short on time and intend only to use one.

In short, we must know that Torah is wise, that, fundamentally, the mitzvot make sense and are useful. We should let this engage our intellectual curiosity and our desire to see improvements in our lots.  Such study- and the performance of the mitzvot which must follow it- will result in personal wisdom, growth, too many blessings to count or even acknowledge, and yes, I believe, acclaim.

[1] Translated by Shlomo Pines (University of Chicago Press: 1969), Part 3, chapter 31.

[2] See Sifra, Rashi, and Ramban there; this prohibition refers only to the mother.

[3]  He continues “ואין העם נהנין בהם אבל מהרהרים אחריהם בלבם ומקבלים אותם ליראת המלכות”. We complain and do not enjoy many things which are good for us.

[4] See MT Laws of Temurah 4:13 where the Rambam makes this argument explicitly.

[5] See Ramban to Deut. 22:6-7. Translation by Moshe Sokolow in Studies in the Weekly Parashah Based on the Lessons of Nehama Leibowitz (Urim: 2008), page 179.

[6] Cf. no. 1.

[7]Deut. 4:6 וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם֮ וַעֲשִׂיתֶם֒ כִּ֣י הִ֤וא חׇכְמַתְכֶם֙ וּבִ֣ינַתְכֶ֔ם לְעֵינֵ֖י הָעַמִּ֑ים אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִשְׁמְע֗וּן אֵ֚ת כׇּל־הַחֻקִּ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּהוְאָמְר֗וּ רַ֚ק עַם־חָכָ֣ם וְנָב֔וֹן הַגּ֥וֹי הַגָּד֖וֹל הַזֶּֽה׃

[8] Cf. no 1. See however, Ramban to Deut. 4:8 and Drashot HaRan 1 and 9 for a different view: it is our closeness with God that will result in such acclaim.