Monday, September 3, 2012

Do the Mitzvot have reasons? -Berachot 33b

I am struggling with the mitzvah of שלוח הקן  sending away the mother bird. About this mitzvah our Mishna famously says: אומר על קן צפור יגיעו רחמיך... משתקין אותו One who says in his prayer that G-d should have mercy on us like he has mercy on the mother bird, one silences him.

The Rambam and Ramban famously argue over the reason for the mitzvah of sending away the mother bird. The Rambam states that this mitzvah is in fact a sign of G-d's mercy. He explains that despite the fact that the Torah allows humans to eat meat, it enjoins us from undue cruelty to animals. This includes the mitzvah of ritual slaughtering in order to kill the animal as painlessly as possible, the mitzvah not to slaughter a mother animal and its child on the same day, and the mitzvah to send away the mother bird when taking her young from the nest.

The Ramban argues that G-d is not concerned with mercy on the mother bird. Otherwise, he would prohibit eating her or her young altogether. Rather the mitzvot are not an expression of mercy on the animals and birds but rather they are commanded to teach US to be merciful. (For an excellent summary of these two opinions and others on שלוח הקן and טעמי המצוות in general, see Nehama Leibowitz's Studies in Devarim, Ki Teze 2, pgs 217-222.)

Fundamentally both the Rambam and Ramban agree that G-d commands the mitzvot for a reason that we should try to deduce. In the case of שלוח הקן they only argue on what that reason may be. So how do they deal with our Mishna?

The Gemara gives two explanations to why our Mishna enjoins against such a prayer. The first answer could fit easily into both Rambam and Ramban. One should not invoke G-d's mercy on the birds since this would result in jealousy on the part of other creations who would wonder why G-d is merciful on the bird and not on them.

It is the second answer that is more difficult the explain. The Gemara states: מפני שעושה מדותיו של הקדוש ברוך הוא רחמים ואינן אלא גזרות. [One cannot evoke G-d's mercy on the mother bird in prayer] because one makes G-d's actions to be based on mercy when they are only divine decrees. This reason seems to enjoin against any delving into טעמי המצוות, trying to find reasons for the commandments.

The Mitzvot according to this approach are solely divine decrees. They are designed to test our ability to be עבדי השם divine servants. Any other reason found for a mitzvah where the Torah does not explicitly give one will cheapen our role as slaves totally subservient to our Almighty master and should therefore be silenced.

My question is how the famous ראשונים who try to find reasons for the mitzvot like Rambam and Ramban deal with this opinion in the Gemara. Do they merely say that this is a minority opinion which is to be rejected or do they try to find a way to reconcile this starkly anti-טעמי המצוות approach with their own attitudes towards טעמי המצוות? I welcome your feedback in the comments to this posting.

1 comment:

  1. I have heard many different answers to this question but one sticks out for me. The idea of מצות is first and foremost to be slaves to Hashem. Only after we accept that can we learn lessons from the מצות. The gemara is not saying that we may not explore the reasons and lessons for the mitzvot, rather we should not make our practice of the mitzvot dependent on reasons other than being slaves of Hashem. When we start attributing reasons to mitzvot we run the risk of 1- thinking we can stop doing it because the mitzvah no longer applies 2- limiting the mitzvah in its scope and 3- presuming to understand Hashem's omnipotence and omnisciency. There clearly is an idea that Hashem is compassionate and merciful, and there is an idea of מה הוא רחום אף אתה רחום, but to say that the only reason for the Mitzvah is to teach us that cheapens the mitzvah, Hashem and ultimately all of Judaism.