The Reason for Reasons of the Mitzvot
A human being cannot possibly hope to comprehend the infinite wisdom of G-d, and to understand His motives in commanding us to do a particular mitzvah or to refrain from a transgression. It is possible, however, for the human to understand what effect the mitzvah will have on himself and on the world. Nachmanides quotes a Midrash Tanchumah “What does it matter to G-d whether we slaughter an animal or kill it and eat it? Can you at all aid Him or harm Him?!…’If you have acquired wisdom, the wisdom is yours’. Rather, the mitzvot were given in order to refine humanity…” According to Nachmanides, the Midrash is stressing the idea that the principal beneficiaries of the commandments are people, not G-d. As the Midrash asks, “Can you at all aid Him or harm Him?!”; our fulfillment of mitzvot does not exert influence on G-d’s essence at all, rather they affect the person who performs the mitzvot, refining and elevating the human being.
Maimonides and Nachmanides understand the reasons for the mitzvot not as the motives behind the commandments but as the side-benefits of the mitzvot; the impact that the mitzvot have on the individual, on society or on the universe as a whole. My revered teacher, Rav Moshe Shapiro, once asked Rav Eliyahu Dessler to explain the term “taamei hamitzvot” (the Hebrew term used by the Talmud for the “reasons” for the commandments). Rav Dessler replied, “The taam of a mitzvah is the geshmagkeit (taste) of a mitzvah”. Rav Dessler, translated the word “taam” literally, as ‘taste’, and explained that although we eat food in order to survive, we nevertheless enjoy its variety of tastes and textures as a pleasant side effect of eating. Similarly, G-d made the mitzvot with varied “tastes”; we fulfill the mitzvot because they are the will of G-d and they are his instructions for living; but investing in mitzvot also pays other dividends, which are explained in the “taamei hamitzvot”.
Rav Shapiro explained that according to Rav Dessler the principal purpose in the knowledge of the “taamei hamitzvot” is in order to make the mitzvot “geshmak” (tasty) to the person performing them, as an incentive for their fulfillment. As Chazal advise, “One should engage in Torah and mitzvot even for the wrong reasons (i.e. in order to obtain the benefits of the mitzvot) since this will eventually lead (to observance) for the correct reason (i.e. the love of G-d).’” Rabbi David Gottlieb explains that performing a mitzvah with an understanding of its function makes the fulfillment qualitatively better. The act of a mitzvah is not just a physical action; it involves heart and mind. He also explained that the taamei hamitzvot are explanations of how the behavioral rules of the Torah are connected to the goals and values of the Torah, and through the knowledge of the taamei hamitzvot we will have a more correct idea of what the Torah considers a value.
Knowledge of the rationale of the mitzvot is essential for incorporating the mitzvot into one’s personality and for the shaping of a mitzvah instinct. One who fulfills the mitzvot in a dry, mechanical way and without “geshmakeit” has less chance of being one who “rejoices in acting justly.” There are certain mitzvot, and perhaps aspects of every mitzvah, that are designed to instill in us loyalty and obedience to G-d, and to help us recognize that the authority of the Torah does not depend upon our understanding of it. The reasons for those mitzvot still remain concealed and beyond the grasp of the human mind even after study, and perhaps that is precisely the “taam” that one should taste in these mitzvot.
The investigation of the reasons for the mitzvot is most certainly a fulfillment of the mitzvah of Torah study, and as we have shown, also has other dimensions. The knowledge of the rationale can inspire people to perform mitzvot or to desist from a prohibition, it can increase the joy in the performance of mitzvot and it can help build a Torah-based personality.