Thursday, March 26, 2015

Parsha: What Makes Something Into a מצוה? Two Approaches

Rav Turetsky

The opening Pesukim in Parshat Tzav present an opportunity to define what exactly makes something into a Mitzvah.

Hashem tells Moshe in the beginning of the Parsha to command Ahron and his children certain Halachot relating to the Karban Olah. The verb used to establish that command is Tzav (from the same route as Mitzvah), a unique term not always invoked when Hashem commands Moshe. What exactly does it mean, and what distinguishes something as a Mitzvah?

  1. Rashi (Vayikrah 6:2) cites Chazal’s comment that the word Tzav implies it is a command for both now and future generations. Rav Herschel Schachter[1] explains that this stands in contrast with anything commanded by a Navi. Other than Moshe, the Talmud (Meggilah 2b) explains that all prophets only have the ability to make a “Hora’at Sha’ah”, a temporary directive that does not remain for all future generations.[2]  For Rashi, what establishes something as a Mitzvah is the strength and force of its binding nature. This may be supported by other comments of Rashi in which he emphasizes the importance of the obligatory elements of Mitzvot.[3]
  2. In contrast to Rashi, many Hasidim note the Zohar’s additional definition. The Zohar defines the 613 Mitzvot not as commandments, but rather as advice. Clearly it does not mean to argue that Mitzvot are purely voluntary. Instead, the Zohar means that the Mitzvot themselves are 613 ways in which one can connect to Hashem.[4] Within this approach, what makes Mitzvot unique is less their obligatory nature and more their spiritual potential. Mitzvot allow us to find and establish relationships with Hashem.

These two definitions offer alternate approaches, and they may shed light on a variety of debates found in Halacha and Machshava[5]. Yet, they are also both complementary. Each highlights an important element of Avodat Hashem. Rashi’s perspective shows how the Mitzvot are truly obligatory and must be fulfilled. The Zohar’s reminds us that Mitzvot are not just obligations. They are also vehicles for us to connect more to Hashem.

Shabbat Shalom!

[2] See Rav Schachter’s article for a halachic discussion regarding the precise status of Moshe’s commandments. 
[3] See, for example, Rashi’s (Rosh HaShana 28a) explanation of the Talmud’s rule that Mitzvot are not given over for personal benefit (מצוות לאו ליהנות ניתנו), and his comments in Ta’anit (7a) defining what makes something Torah LiShmah. See below.
[4] See, for example, Yoshei Divrei Emet (Kuntrus Rishon 24a).
[5] For example, whereas Rashi (Ta’anit 7a) appears to define Torah Lishmah as learning because God commanded us to Study Torah, the Ba’al HaTanyah (Sefer HaTanyah 1:5) cites an alternate definition. Torah Lishma is Torah studied in order to connect to Hashem. A more thorough discussion of Torah Lishma is beyond the scope of this brief Devar Torah.

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