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Law vs. Philosophy?: A Maimonidean Teleology of Halacha by Elliot M. Salinger

Posted By Elliot Salinger On August 17, 2010 @ 11:57 am In New Posts,Philosophy | 8 Comments

Indubitably, the הלכה is the force which affects us as religious Jews more than any other. Both in its study and practice, the הלכה has immense control over our day to day lives and long term beliefs, values, and decisions. Consequently, it behooves us to ask the question: what is the telos of the הלכה? What is its ultimate goal and purpose?

The Philosophical Telos

One important authority who has discussed this issue is the רמב”ם. He has a rather lengthy discussion regarding the teleology of the הלכה in the מורה נבוכים. The following are some of the highlights.

מורה נבוכים ג:כז (תרגום אבן-תיבון)

כונת כלל התורה שני דברים: והם תיקון הנפש ותיקון הגוף. אמנם, תיקון הנפש הוא שיתנו להמון דעות אמיתיות כפי יכלתם; ומפני זה יהיה קצתם בפירוש וקצתם במשל, שאין בטבע ההמון לסבול השגת הענין ההוא כפי מה שהוא. ואמנם תיקון הגוף יהיה כתיקון ענייני מחייתם קצתם עם קצתם …

ודע ששתי הכוונות האלה  האחת מהן בלא ספק קודמת במעלה. והוא תיקון הנפש, רוצני לומר: נתינת הדעות האמיתיות. והשנית קודמת בטבע ובזמן, רוצני לומר: תיקון הגוף; והוא הנהגת המדינה ותיקון ענייני אנשיה כפי היכולת. וזאת השנית היא הצריכה יותר תחילה, והיא אשר הפליג לדקדק בה ולדקדק בחלקיה כולם, מפני שאין יכולת להגיע אל הכוונה הראשונה אלא אחר שיגיעו אל השנית הזאת …

והתורה האמיתית אשר בארנו שהיא אחת ושאין זולתה, והיא תורת משה רבינו, אמנם באה לתת לנו שתי השלמיות יחד, תקון ענייני בני אדם קצתם עם קצתם בהסיר העוול ובקנות המדות הטובות המעולות, עד שתתכן עמידת אנשי הארץ והתמדתם על סדר אחד להגיע כל אחד מהם אל שלמותו הראשון, לתיקון האמונות, ונתינת דעות אמתיות כאשר יגיע השלמות האחרון. וכבר כתבה התורה ב׳ השלומיות, והגידה אלינו שתכלית אלו התורות כולם היא להגיע אליהם …  

The general object of the Law is twofold: the well-being of the soul, and the well-being of the body. The well-being of the soul is promoted by correct opinions communicated to the people according to their capacity. Some of these opinions are therefore imparted in a plain form, others allegorically: because certain opinions are in their plain form too strong for the capacity of the common people. The well-being of the body is established by a proper management of the relations in which we live one to another…

Of these two objects, the one, the well-being of the soul, or the communication of correct opinions, comes undoubtedly first in rank, but the other, the well-being of the body, the government of the state, and the establishment of the best possible relations among men, is anterior in nature and time. The latter object is required first; it is also treated [in the Law] most carefully and most minutely, because the well-being of the soul can only be obtained after that of the body has been secured. For it has already been found that man has a double perfection: the first perfection is that of the body, and the second perfection is that of the soul…

The true Law, which as we said is one, and beside which there is no other Law, viz., the Law of our teacher Moses, has for its purpose to give us the twofold perfection. It aims first at the establishment of good mutual relations among men by removing injustice and creating the noblest feelings. In this way the people in every land are enabled to stay and continue in one condition, and every one can acquire his first perfection. Secondly, it seeks to train us in faith, and to impart correct and true opinions when the intellect is sufficiently developed. Scripture clearly mentions the twofold perfection, and tells us that its acquisition is the object of all the divine commandments…. (Translation: M. Friedländer)

This רמב”ם is consistent with the רמב”ם’s greater philosophies on health, beliefs, and טעמי המצוות. He writes in various places in חלק ג’ of his מורה נבוכים that the reason for God’s commanding several מצוות was to prevent us from ingesting unhealthy foods or practicing something not conducive to good health. The רמב”ם maintains that non-kosher food is prohibited since it is unhealthy and repulsive, as he writes later in the מורה:

“כי כל מה שאסרתו התורה עלינו מן המאכלים— מזונם מגונה.”[1] [1]

Additionally, the רמב”ם maintains that the purpose of other Scriptural commands is to eradicate incorrect beliefs and character traits and inculcate correct ones. One need not look further than ג:לה of the מורה for confirmation of these statements. There, the רמב”ם writes that the point of most מצוות is to establish and perpetuate specific principles—both general philosophical ones and ones specific to Jewish Divine worship—throughout the nation.[2] [2] As a leading medical and philosophical authority, it is not surprising that the רמב”ם should adopt this specific teleology of the הלכה.

A Methodological Difficulty

It seems at this point that we have found the answer to our question according to the רמב”ם. For him, the telos of הלכה is twofold: to perfect ourselves both physio-biologically and religio-ethically. However, there is a very large difficulty with this רמב”ם. To understand this question, we must first ask another question: What does it mean to say that something is the goal of the הלכה? What implications does it carry? The answer to this question is related back to the הלכה itself and its inner workings and mechanisms. The question of “what is the telos of the הלכה?” is identical with that of “what is the most important consideration of the הלכה?” We now have the background to understand the aforementioned challenge to the רמב”ם, which is that we do not find that the הלכה cares about health[3] [3] and instilling correct beliefs.[4] [4] Indeed, they seem nugatory inasmuch as they are not major factors in the halachic decision making process. Therefore, we are forced to superimpose a significant qualification on the רמב”ם previously cited. That רמב”ם was only referring to the philosophical purpose of the הלכה, not the halachic one.

Philosophical Reasons and Halachic Reasons- The Case of שילוח הקן

To better comprehend this distinction between philosophical and halachic reasons for commandments, we will briefly discuss a famous apparent contradiction within the רמב”ם involving his opinion vis-à-vis the מצוה of שילוח הקן and טעמי המצוות in general.

The impetus for this discussion is a fascinating גמרא.

ברכות ה:ג (לג:) ועיין מגילה ד:ט (כה.)

האומר: על קן ציפור יגיעו רחמיך… משתקים אותו.

If one [in praying] says ‘may Thy mercies extend to a bird’s nest’… he is silenced. (Translation: Soncino)

גמרא שם

… אלא על קן צפור יגיעו רחמיך, מאי טעמא? פליגי בה תרי אמוראי במערבא: ר’ יוסי בר אבין ור’ יוסי בר זבידא. חד אמר מפני שמטיל קנאה במעשה בראשית, וחד אמר מפני שעושה מידותיו של הקב”ה רחמים ואינן אלא גזירות.

But what is the reason for silencing him if he says ‘Thy mercies extend to the bird’s nest? Two Amoraim in the West, R. Jose b. Abin and R. Jose b. Zebida, give different answers; one ‘says it is because he creates jealousy among God’s creatures, the other, because he presents the measures taken by the Holy One, blessed be He, as springing from compassion, whereas they are but decrees. (Translation: Soncino)

Anti טעמי המצוות

This discussion would indicate that מצוות in general, and especially שילוח הקן, have no reasons. This is what the רמב”ם writes explicitly in the following sources.

פירוש המשניות להרמב”ם: ברכות ה:ג (תרגום אבן-תיבון)

ענין מה שאמרו: “על קן ציפור יגיעו רחמיך,” שיאמר: כמו שחמלת על קן הציפור ואמרת “לא תקח האם על הבנים,”[5] [5] כן רחם עלינו. וכל מי שאמר כן בתפילתו משתקים אותו, מפני שהוא תולה טעם זאת המצוה בחמלת הקב”ה על העוף, ואין הדבר כן. שאילו היה מדרך רחמנות לא ציוה לשחוט חיה ועוף כלל. אבל היא מצוה מקובלת, אין לה טעם.

The meaning of what (our Sages) said “Your mercy extends to the bird’s nest,” is that the (prayer leader) will say: ‘just as you have been merciful to the bird’s nest in saying ‘do not take the mother along with her children,’ so, too, you should be merciful to us.’ And anyone who says thus in his prayer should be silenced, since he identifies the reason for this commandment as God’s mercy over the bird, and this is not correct. Since if it were that the commandment stems from merciful conduct, (God) would not have commanded the slaughter of animal and birds at all. Rather, it is an accepted commandment without a reason. (Translation: E.M.S)

פירוש המשניות להרמב”ם : מגילה ד:ט (תרגום אבן-תיבון)

“ועל קן ציפור יגיעו רחמיך,” לפי שהטעם אינו מצד רחמניות מהשם יתברך באומרו “לא תקח האם על הבנים,”[6] [6] אבל היא גזירת הכתוב.

(The issue with saying in prayer) “Your mercy extends to the bird’s nest” is because the reason is not because of merciful considerations from the Holy Blessed One in his saying “do not take the mother along with the children,” rather it is a Scriptural decree. (Translation: E.M.S)

משנה תורה: הלכות תפילה ט:ז

מי שאמר בתחנונים: מי שריחם על קן ציפור שלא ליקח האם על הבנים או שלא לשחוט אותו ואת בנו ביום אחד ירחם עלינו וכיוצא בענין זה, משתקין אותו, מפני שמצוות אלו גזירות הכתוב הן ואינן רחמים. שאילו היו מפני רחמים לא היה מתיר לנו שחיטה כל עיקר.

One who says in his supplicatory prayers: “May He who showed mercy on a bird’s nest prohibiting the taking of the mother together with the chicks, or the slaughter of an animal and its calf on the same day, also show mercy on us,” or [makes other] similar statements should be silenced, because these mitzvot are God’s decrees and not [expressions] of mercy. Were they [expressions] of mercy, He would not permit us to slaughter at all. (Translation: Moznaim)

Pro טעמי המצוות

However, this position seems to contradict the רמב”ם’s classical view discussed earlier that מצוות do have reasons. This is expressed in the following מקורות both in general idea and specific cases.

משנה תורה: הלכות מעילה ח:ח

ראוי לאדם להתבונן במשפטי התורה הקדושה ולידע סוף ענינם כפי כחו… והמשפטים הן המצוות שטעמן גלוי וטובת עשייתן בעולם הזה ידועה, כגון איסור גזל ושפיכות דמים וכיבוד אב ואם. והחוקים הן המצוות שאין טעמן ידוע. אמרו חכמים: “חוקים חקתי לך ואין לך רשות להרהר בהן.”[7] [7] … והקדימה תורה ציווי על החוקים, שנאמר: “ושמרתם את חקותי ואת משפטי אשר יעשה אותם האדם וחי בהם.”[8] [8]

It is appropriate for a person to meditate on the judgments of the holy Torah and know their ultimate purpose according to his capacity…. The judgments are those mitzvot whose motivating rationale is openly revealed and the benefit of their observance in this world is known, e.g., the prohibitions against robbery and bloodshed and honoring one’s father and mother. The decrees are the mitzvot whose motivating rationales are not known. Our Sages said: “I ordained decrees and you have no license to question them…” the Torah gave precedence to the command for the decrees, as Leviticus 18:5 states: “And you shall heed My decrees and judgments which a person will perform and live through them.” (Translation: Moznaim)

משנה תורה: הלכות תמורה ד:יג

… אף על פי שכל חוקי התורה גזירות הם כמו שביארנו בסוף מעילה, ראוי להתבונן בהן וכל מה שאתה יכול ליתן לו טעם תן לו טעם. הרי אמרו חכמים הראשונים שהמלך שלמה הבין רוב הטעמים של כל חוקי התורה…

Although all of the statutes of the Torah are decrees, as we explained in the conclusion of Hilchot Me’ilah, it is fit to meditate upon them and wherever it is possible to provide a reason, one should provide a reason. The Sages of the early generations said that King Solomon understood most of the rationales for all the statutes of the Torah. (Translation: Moznaim)

מורה נבוכים ג:מח (תרגום אבן-תיבון)

וכן נאסר לשחוט אותו ואת בנו ביום אחד, סייג והרחקה, שמא ישחט מהם הבן לפני האם, כי צער בעלי חיים בכך גדול מאוד… וזהו הטעם גם בשילוח הקן… ואל תקשה עלי באומרם ז”ל: “האומר על קן צפור יגיעו רחמיך” וגו’, כי זו אחת משתי הסברות אשר הזכרנום, כלומר, השקפת מי שסובר שאין טעם למצוות אלא הרצון המופשט, ואנו הלא הלכנו אחרי ההשקפה השניה.

The same reason applies to the law which enjoins that we should let the mother fly away when we take the young. The eggs over which the bird sits, and the young that are in need of their mother, are generally unfit for food, and when the mother is sent away she does not see the taking of her young ones, and does not feel any pain. In most cases, however, this commandment will cause man to leave the whole nest untouched, because [the young or the eggs], which he is allowed to take, are, as a rule, unfit for food. If the Law provides that such grief should not be caused to cattle or birds, how much more careful must we be that we should not cause grief to our fellowmen. When in the Talmud  those are blamed who use in their prayer the phrase, “Thy mercy extendeth to young birds,” it is the expression of the one of the two opinions mentioned by us, namely, that the precepts of the Law have no other reason but the Divine will. We follow the other opinion. (Translation: M. Friedländer)

The Resolution of the בן ידיד

The רמב”ם here writes clearly that he does not accept the opinion in the גמרא that the מצוות are just גזירות, yet he rules like that opinion twice in the פירוש המשניות and again in the משנה תורה. Many commentators on the רמב”ם have attempted to resolve this contradiction. However, the explanation most cogent and compelling is that of the בן ידיד.[9] [9]

בן ידיד: פירוש על המשנה תורה: הלכות תפילה ט:ז

כאן נטה להלכה אחר דעת מי שאמר שמדותיו גזירות. ובספר מורה נבוכים חלק ג’ פרק מ”ח נטה אחר דעת מי שאמר שמטיל קנאה אבל מידותיו רחמים, ועיין שם בפירוש הרב שם טוב ז”ל. והנראה לי כפשוטו, דכיון דבכמה מקומות אמרינן בש”ס “גזירת הכתוב היא,” וקיימא לן שלא נתגלו טעמי תורה, לפיכך להלכה פסק כמאן דאמר שמידותיו גזירות. והתם בספר המורה נתן דעתו למצוא לכל המצוות טעם, ונתן טעם גם לזו. וכמו שכתב, וזה לשונו: “ואנחנו נמשכנו אחר הדעת השנייה,” עד כאן. פירוש: דבאותו ספר נמשך לתת טעם לכל המצוות. ואין הכי נמי, דלהלכה תפסינן דמדותיו גזירות. ועיין שם באותו חלק פרק כ”ו באורך. וסבירא ליה לרבינו דלדרוש שרי, וכמו שעשה הוא, וכהמדרש רבה פרשת תצא, וכהתרגום יונתן בפרשיות אמור ותצא, עיין שם, ולמעבד עובדא לא נהגינן. כן נראה לי ברור. ועיין מה שהאריך בספר מעשה רוקח ועיין בתוספות יום טוב (פ”ט) [פ"ה] דברכות, וקשה לי.

In this passage he was inclined to accept on the halachic level the opinion that (we silence the worshiper who states during prayer “Your mercy extends to the bird’s nest” since) God’s commandments are merely decrees (in the debate in the Gemara in Megilah 25a and Berachot 33b). However, in The Guide for the Perplexed section three chapter forty-eight, he was inclined to accept the (opposing) opinion that (we silence him since) he is engendering jealousy (among the creatures), but God’s commandments are merciful. Vide there in the commentary of R. Shem Tov, o.b.m. And it seems to me to explicate according to the simple meaning, that since in several places in the Talmud we say “it is a Scriptural decree,” and we have a tradition that the reasons for commandments were never revealed, he therefore decided on the halachic level according to the one who says that God’s commandments are merely decrees. However, there in the Guide for the Perplexed, he set out to discover a reason for every commandment, and he consequently gave a reason for this one (i.e. sending away the mother bird), as well. And this is what he wrote, saying “and we have accepted the second opinion” (i.e. that commandments have reasons). Explanation: that in that book he wanted to give a reason for all the commandments. Admittedly, we accept on the halachic level that the commandments are merely decrees. And vide in that section chapter twenty-six at length. And our master (i.e. Maimonides) is of the opinion that to expound (and find a reason for this commandment) is permitted, like he himself did, and as did the Midrash Rabbah in the Torah portion of “Teitzey” and as did Targum Pseudo-Jonathan in the Torah portions of “Emor” and “Teitzey,” vide there. However, we do not conduct ourselves based on this fact (i.e. the reasons do not affect the final laws). This seems clear to me. But, vide the Ma’aseh Rokeach’s long treatment of the subject, and vide the Tosafot Yom Tov in the fifth chapter of tractate Berachot, (both of which) I find difficult. (Translation: E.M.S.)

The key point from this בן ידיד is that the רמב”ם accepts טעמי המצוות, but in the realm of השקפה, not הלכה. [10] [10] This means that philosophically, the רמב”ם maintains that there are real reasons for commandments, but they are not legally significant. If we accept טעמי המצוות at all, then this idea that טעמי המצוות is only operative in the realm of השקפה makes sense by reductio ad absurdum. If we say that טעמי המצוות carry halachic significance, then that means that the הלכה would change based on whether or not that טעם is being accomplished. Since the individual experiences the law—and thus the reasoning behind it—subjectively and relatively, then for each person the הלכה could change into an idiosyncratic and nebulous collection of observances, spelling the end of the halachic system. This is clearly untenable, and thus טעמי המצוות cannot influence the הלכה.[11] [11]

This is an intriguing idea that the בן ידיד has. That we can accept one view להלכה while retaining the diametrically opposed view “להשקפה” is quite remarkable. Of course, as with all grand resolutions involving ראשונים, especially those of the רמב”ם, we must not get ahead of ourselves. This explanation seems to belittle the רמב”ם’s dominant rationalist tradition of טעמי המצוות. Regardless, this distinction is brilliant and can help us think in distinct paradigms that allow us to better understand the רמב”ם’s philosophical and legal conceptualizations.

The Halachic Telos

Now that we can distinguish clearly between halachic reasons and philosophical ones, we shall return to our revised question: what is the most halachically significant factor? The way by which we shall answer this question is by identifying the halachic reasons behind the largest mitigating factors that exist in הלכה. In other words, the הלכה’s true purpose can be seen by understanding in what cases and for what reasons it allows itself to be all but overridden.

The two most powerful mitigating factors in הלכה are those of פיקוח נפש and הוראת שעה. Both of these factors have the ability to override Biblical prohibitions, to the exclusion of all others. Indeed, there are other factors that carry much weight in the halachic decision making process, such as כבוד הבריות, דרכי שלום, איבה, שלום בית, and others. However, these factors generally only operate on a דרבנן level.[12] [12]

Halachic Reasoning behind פיקוח נפש

First, we will identify the halachic reason behind the imperative of פיקוח נפש.

שבת קנא:

תניא רבן שמעון בן גמליאל אומר: תינוק בן יומו חי, מחללין עליו את השבת. דוד מלך ישראל מת, אין מחללין עליו את השבת. תינוק בן יומו חי מחללין עליו את השבת— אמרה תורה: חלל עליו שבת אחד כדי שישמור שבתות הרבה. דוד מלך ישראל מת—אין מחללין עליו. כיון שמת אדם, בטל מן המצוות.

It was taught, R. Simeon b. Gamaliel said: For a day-old infant the Sabbath is desecrated; for David, King of Israel, dead, the Sabbath must not be desecrated. ‘For a day-old infant the Sabbath is desecrated’: the Torah ordered, Desecrate one Sabbath on his account so that he may keep many Sabbaths. ‘For David, King of Israel, dead, the Sabbath must not be desecrated’: Once man dies he is free from [all] obligations. (Translation: Soncino)

The גמרא introduces the idea of desecrating one שבת in order that the one for whom שבת was desecrated should be able to observe many more שבתות. The last line of the גמרא summarizes the reasoning behind the discrepancy in rulings. After one dies, he or she is פטור from observing any מצוה. This means that the command and leniency of פיקוח נפש only exists when there is a potential for the Jew to keep obeying the Torah. In other words, the halachic telos of פיקוח נפש is the הלכה’s own continuity.[13] [13][14] [14]

Halachic Reasoning behind הוראת שעה

Now we shall study the ruling of הוראת שעה, when a  בית דיןcan temporarily suspend or abrogate a מצוה in particularly dire circumstances.

רמב”ם: הלכות ממרים ב:ד

… שאפילו דברי תורה יש לכל בית דין לעקרו הוראת שעה. כיצד? בית דין שראו לחזק הדת ולעשות סייג כדי שלא יעברו העם על דברי תורה מכין ועונשין שלא כדין, אבל אין קובעין הדבר לדורות ואומרים שהלכה כך הוא. וכן אם ראו לפי שעה לבטל מצות עשה או לעבור על מצות לא תעשה כדי להחזיר רבים לדת או להציל רבים מישראל מלהיכשל בדברים אחרים, עושין לפי מה שצריכה השעה.

…Any court has the authority to abrogate the words of the Torah as a temporary measure. What is implied? If a court sees that it is necessary to strengthen the faith and create a safeguard so that the people will not violate Torah law, they may apply beatings and punishments that are not sanctioned by Torah. They may not, however, establish the matter for posterity and say that this is the halachah. Similarly, if they saw that temporarily it was necessary to nullify a positive commandment or violate a negative commandment in order to bring people at large back to the Jewish faith or to prevent many Jews from transgressing in other matters, they may do what is necessary at that time. (Translation: Moznaim)

This case seems to have the same reason as the preceding one, viz. to ensure the הלכה’s own basic stability.[15] [15] If this did not seem clear yet, the רמב”ם’s next line proves our theory beyond a shadow of a doubt.


כשם שהרופא חותך ידו או רגלו של זה כדי שיחיה כולו כך בית דין מורים בזמן מן הזמנים לעבור על קצת מצוות לפי שעה כדי שיתקיימו כולם, כדרך שאמרו חכמים הראשונים: “חלל עליו שבת אחת כדי שישמור שבתות הרבה.

To explain by analogy: Just like a doctor may amputate a person’s hand or foot so that the person as a whole will live; so, too, at times, the court may rule to temporarily violate some of the commandments so that they will later keep all of them. In this vein, the Sages of the previous generations said: “Desecrate one Sabbath for a person’s sake so that he will keep many Sabbaths.” (Translation: Moznaim)

By connecting the previously seen idea of “חלל עליו שבת אחת כדי שישמור שבתות הרבה” with that of הוראת שעה in the medical metaphor for the מצוות, the רמב”ם makes unambiguous his conception of sometimes being able to sacrifice a part to keep the whole alive.[16] [16] Or, in different phraseology, the הלכה forgoes one law so that the whole system can be sustained. Therefore, the answer to our question is that the halachic telos of the הלכה is its own continuity and integrity.[17] [17]


As dry as it may seem, our thesis fits in as a corollary of the halachic טעמי המצוות: God decreed thus. Consequently, after all the dust settles, we end up with four ideas from the רמב”ם. On the philosophical level, we follow מצוות for various specific reasons, some of which are remembering God or staying away from unhealthy foodstuffs; however, on the halachic level, we obey commands simply because the Almighty has commanded us to do so. Similarly, on the philosophical level, the telos of the הלכה is to instill within us the correct values, beliefs, character traits, and health decisions; but, in contradistinction, the telos of the הלכה on the halachic level is its own proliferation and propagation.

* Elliot M. Salinger is a junior at the Maimonides School in Brookline, MA.

[1] [18] מורה נבוכים ג:מח – תרגום אבן-תיבון

[2] [19] The specifics of the reasons behind each מצוה or groups of מצוות are far beyond the scope of this article. However, the reader is highly encouraged to study כו-מט  פרקים of חלק ג’ of theמורה , where the רמב”ם’s full philosophical excursus regarding טעמי המצוות may be found.

[3] [20] One might challenge this assertion with the statement of חז”ל that “חמירא סכנתא מאיסורא” (חולין י.), but this is not a consideration which carries with it much halachic force. All it can do is prohibit the otherwise permitted, but not the more radical converse.

[4] [21] One might counter that in certain streams of Judaism, particularly that of the רמב”ם, beliefs and dogma have a large role to play, so it must be that they really are halachically significant. This is answered by saying that it is true that they themselves are important to the הלכה. However, we don’t find that beliefs qua lessons that emerge from obeying a מצוה having large roles in determining the הלכות of that מצוה, either by their presence or absence.

[5] [22] דברים כב:ו

[6] [23] Ibid

[7] [24] יומא סז:

[8] [25] ויקרא יח:ה

[9] [26] The בן ידיד was authored by ר’ ידידיה שמואל טאריקה, who died circa 1769. The ספר is a lesser known פירוש on the משנה תורה in which many of the author’s responsa also appear. It was published in Thessaloniki in 1806. Among his other works are the חלקו של ידיד on the טור, the אמר ידיד on the סדרים of זרעים and מועד, and the קידש ידיד, which includes sermons for festivals and eulogies.

[10] [27] Along with being very logically sound, as explained above, the בן ידיד’s distinction best fits the רמב”ם’s actual statement. The commentators cited at the end of the בן ידיד’s comment draw a distinction in the רמב”ם between philosophy and תפילה to explain this contradiction, thus resolving the specific issue of the רמב”ם’s statements on the מצוה ofשילוח הקן in the פירוש המשניות, משנה תורה, and מורה נבוכים. They say that mentioning something in the context of requesting something from God gives it an extra weightiness and seriousness. This is the reason why we cannot attribute a reason to a מצוה in prayer. This approach assumes that the רמב”ם’s real, fundamental position is that there are reasons for מצוות. This is slightly difficult since although this seems to be his consistent approach globally in the מורה and in the citations from הלכות תמורה and מעילה, the רמב”ם calls not only the מצוה of שילוח הקן aגזירת הכתוב, but he refers to several other הלכות and מצוות as such. For examples, videג:ד  הלכות תשובה regarding שופר, מקואות יא:יב  הלכות regarding טומאה and טהרה, יח:ו הלכות סנהדרין regarding the בית דין’s acceptance of testimony by two witnesses, יח:ג הלכות עדות regarding עדים זוממין, ו:ז הלכות ממרים regarding the extent of  כיבוד אב ואם, and ibid ז:יא regarding the fact that only a male can be considered a בן סורר ומורה. However, the בן ידיד’s distinction between law and philosophy works in all the cases. Whenever the רמב”ם discusses טעמי המצוות positively, it is in the context of a philosophical discussion. However, his statements in הלכות תפילה and the פירוש המשניות are all in a halachic context— he is describing the details of the הלכה. Additionally, in two out of three of the sources cited, he refutes the “רחמנות” argument for the reason for the commandment with a halachic disproof, indicating that the טעם does not function as a determining factor in the legal system, indicating that he does not accept טעמי המצוות on the halachic level.

[11] [28] Truthfully, whether or not reasons for commandments, whether specified by a פסוק or not, can influence הלכה is a מחלוקת in the גמרא between רבי שמעון and רבי יהודה. This idea is referred to as דרשינן טעמא דקרא. Whether or not we rule like the opinion that, in fact, does maintain that we are דרשינן טעמא דקרא is also a disagreement. Even more complex is whether or not the רמב”ם, with whom this article is concerned, accepted this concept. It appears that, for a variety of intricate and complicated reasons, the רמב”ם was not even of the opinion that the concept even truly existed, and all the more so that he did not accept it להלכה. (I thank my teacher R. Yaakov Jaffe for informing me about this insight.) These details, however, lie far beyond the scope of this article.

[12] [29] Vide ברכות יט.-כ:, which is the locus for the famous discussion regarding the halachic implications of כבוד הבריות. Admittedly, the status of כבוד הבריות vis-à-vis דאורייתא commands is complicated, but all opinions agree that it does not override a trueמצוה דאורייתא  (with the possible exception, of course, of adhering to מצוות דרבנן) in a way which involves proactive commission. For exceptions to the claim that more interpersonally-oriented concerns can only affect Rabbinic law, vide R. Aharon Lichtenstein’s “The Human and Social Factor in Halakha,” published in Tradition 36 (2002) pp. 89-114. פסק הלכה contains, by its very nature, a subjective element left up for the individual פוסק to decide based on the empirical situation. However, in general, the biblically mandated imperative of פקוח נפש and case of הוראת שעה are significantly more potent than their rabbinically derived cousins.

[13] [30] Admittedly, what remains to be seen is how פיקוח נפש operates vis-à-vis other מצוות. Presumably, the same reasoning behind פיקוח נפש on שבת would apply to all other מצוות. The reason why we only state this reason in the case of שבת is because that is the most frequent case of פיקוח נפש that arises.

[14] [31] This idea, that the Torah’s self-suspension for the sake of preserving life is in order to preserve Torah, might be referred to by the Talner Rebbe, R. Dr. Isadore Twersky, זצ”ל, in his article entitled “Aspects of Maimonides’ Epistemology: Halaka and Science,” published in From Ancient Israel to Modern Judaism: Intellect in Quest of Understanding in 1989 by Brown University. In footnote 39 on p. 14, as he describes פיקוח נפש, R. Dr. Twersky writes, “The teleology is all-important in understanding the differences between religion and medicine. The Torah, while not intending ‘its words the cure the body,’ is concerned with the well-being of the body… it delegated the means to the science of medicine. To put it differently, the Torah allows for its suspension in order to prolong life, but the teleology of life in turn is completely subordinate to the Torah.” (I thank my friend Avinoam J. Stillman for bringing this article to my attention.)

[15] [32] Perhaps this is why the רמב”ם feels compelled to add that these rulings do not last indefinitely and that temporary ruling is never to be considered to be the actual הלכה. Doing so would be contrary to the entire point of הוראת שעה, which is preserving the integrity of the halachic system. Additionally, the רמב”ם mentions these two ideas in his brief discussion of הוראת שעה in הלכות סנהדרין כד:ד. There is, however, a more broad type of הוראת שעה in Judaism, which is that of a נביא. The רמב”ם codifies these הלכות in הלכות יסודי התורה ט:ג-ה. This kind of הוראת שעה is very widely applicable, and seems to contradict the very foundations of the halachic system and process. Perhaps this explains some of the otherwise slightly incongruous details in these הלכות. The רמב”ם, interestingly, codifies these הלכות after explaining the מצוות of בל תוסיף and בל תגרע, which exist altogether in order to ensure the integrity of the הלכה as a legal system. Additionally, here the רמב”ם mentions twice that the extralegal commands of a נביא must be temporary, not permanent, and that not even a נביא may command idol worship. The רמב”ם emphasizes these elements of the נביא case of הוראת שעה since they come to counteract its seemingly amorphous and contra-halachic nature.

[16] [33] Another observation about this רמב”ם involves the cases of הוראת שעה. The only case cited in this הלכה is that of administrations of punishments that are not strictly warranted according to the letter of the law. This is the case that the רמב”ם cites in הלכות סנהדרין כד:ד, as well, based on יבמות צ: and סנהדרין מו.. That the quintessential case of הוראת שעה is extralegal punishment fits in well with our thesis. One of the primary goals of punishment in any legal system is to serve as deterrent for those who would otherwise be criminals and impress upon the populace the gravity of the offense and the powers of the enforcers of the legal system. Here, too, the punishments serve to protect the integrity of the halachic system, and therefore would be the prime example of extralegal measures in the halachic legal system.

[17] [34] Also of note is the fact that both of these extraordinarily potent mitigating factors and imperatives, פיקוח נפש and הוראת שעה, have internal limits regarding to which cases they may be applied. As is known, פיקוח נפש cannot override the “big three” of שפיחות דמים, גילוי עריות, and עבודה זרה. Vide הלכות יסודי התורה ה:ז, based on פסחים כה and יומא סז:. In addition, הוראת שעה is, by definition, a temporary ruling and does not operate for extended periods of time, as was discussed earlier. We would explain the phenomenon of limitations of פיקוח נפש as follows: Transgressing one of those מצוות is such an enormity that it represents the breakdown of the halachic system. Free occurrences of murder, idolatry, and adultery would undermine the foundations of Judaism and thus uproot the whole corpus of the הלכה. A proof to this is that the רמב”ם notes twice inהלכות שבת פרק ב’  that one need not receive permission from the בית דין in order to utilize the principle of פיקוח נפש, the implication being that authorization from a higher legal authority would have otherwise been a prerequisite to taking that type of extreme action. By contrast, the authority to enact a הוראת שעה is in the hands of the בית דין, which ensures that matters will not spiral out of control, obviating strict limitations on the scope and applicability of הוראת שעה.

8 Comments (Open | Close)

8 Comments To "Law vs. Philosophy?: A Maimonidean Teleology of Halacha by Elliot M. Salinger"

#1 Comment By Yerucham On August 17, 2010 @ 10:57 pm

The best book to site Rambam from is an accurate versuion of Mishneh Torah from the Mishne torah Project. [35]. there is more than 10,000 diffrences in the text. How can we rely on such text (eventhough that here it might be the same version)
And why not to use R. Kapach version to Moreh Nevuhim?

#2 Comment By Elliot M. Salinger On August 20, 2010 @ 11:12 am

Thank you for reading my article and keeping me honest in my scholarship.

Although I would agree that it is important to confer with manuscript versions if one is doing a serious study in the Rambam, this is only true if one is dealing with just a few words. In this article, I demonstrate at length the themes running through dozens of Rambams without pinning my whole thesis on just one phrase or formulation. The footnotes document further evidence and proof extensively. Besides, one cannot be expected to buy an expensive book in order to be able to cite something from the Rambam. Even though I don’t feel that consulting manuscripts in this context was necessary, I admit that it is always advantageous to do so.

Regarding the citations from the Moreh, the ibn-Tibbon translation is superior to others in that he had audience with the Rambam himself and was consequently able to ask the Rambam to clarify the very words that he wrote. However, the R. Kapach translation is still necessary to truly understand the Moreh and the Peirush HaMishnayot, and, as such, I did consult that translation to find no major differences, certainly none that affected the thesis of the article.

#3 Comment By AS On August 20, 2010 @ 11:58 am

Thank you for a very thoughtful and interesting article. A few questions:

1. you write that Taamei Mitzvot are not legally significant for the reason that taamei mitzvot may or may not apply to particular cases and such an individualizing move in halakha would lead to its breakdown. But the Rambam has already dealt with this issue in Moreh, where he explicitly states that rules are applicable for the many, and may in individual circumstances lead to injustice, but we can’t bend the rules for those few instances. In other words, taamei mitzvot apply on a general level, not an individual one, so your argument for why taamei mitzvot can have no legal significance is not an argument the Rambam would accept. of course, there may be other arguments for why taamei mitzvot should not be part of halakha, but the worry that it would turn halakha into a subjective practice to be applied case-by-case is not one of them.

2. you write that the halakhic telos is its own preservation. But as you note in your footnote, idolatry can never be practiced, even for pikuack nefesh. this would seem to indicate that idolatry and its non-practice is central to the halakhic telos (as the Rambam would maintain but as you would relegate such a purpose to a “philosophical” purpose. it seems to me that in this instance the halakha is clear that the non-worship of other gods is central to halakha.


#4 Comment By Elliot M. Salinger On August 20, 2010 @ 2:25 pm

Thank you for your questions.
1. I assume that you are referring to 3:34 in the Moreh. I read that Rambam slightly differently than you do. The Rambam there is not speaking about Ta’amei HaMitzvot per say, and he is not discussing the possibility of “bending the rules” in order for the ta’am to be applicable. Rather, he is warning his audience that the philosophical telos of the halacha may not be manifest in every individual, but this does not detract from the wholeness and perfection of the Torah. I am lead to this conclusion since both ibn-Tibbon and R. Kapach use the same words in translating that phenomenon which may not apply to every individual as they use in translating the first citation from the Moreh in my article, 3:27. Back in Perek 34, ibn-Tibbon renders:
“אין לתמוה מהיות כונת התורה לא תשלם בכל איש ואיש.”
He also uses the term “כונת התורה” in explaining what I have labeled as the philosophical telos of the halacha. Similarly, R. Kapach translates:
“שאין מטרות התורה מתקיימים בכל אחד ואחד.”
He, too, translates the phrase at the beginning of Perek 27 as מטרת כלל התורה”.”
קרשקש’s comments in Perek 34 seem to indicate that he agrees with my assessment of this Rambam, as well.
Also, the Rambam stresses that the fact that there will always be exceptions in this area is not at all to the determent of the halacha, but is rather a natural consequence of any legal system and thus doesn’t detract from the Torah’s Godly perfection.
Therefore, according to my reading, that Rambam is not particularly germane to my discussion in the article. However, one that most certainly is a passage at the end of the Sefer Ha-Mitzvot. This Rambam takes the line of reasoning I advocated that accepting Ta’amei HaMitzvot on the individual level would lead to a breakdown of halacha. This is the Rambam in מצוות ל”ת שס”ה, in which he writes, following the Shlomo precedent, that if the masses only followed mitzvot to the extent that the reasons for them are applicable, it would lead to the loss of
“Yosher Ha-Dat” for ibn-Tibbon and, perhaps more strongly, just “Ha-Dat” for R. Kapach. This Rambam I believe completely confirms my point that for the Rambam, Ta’amei HaMitzvot exist, but merely on the philosophical plane and not a halachic one. I don’t understand how you can therefore claim that the Rambam would not take this as a valid argument for why Ta’amei HaMitzvot cannot affect halacha le-ma’aseh.
2. I apologize if footnote 17 is unclear and difficult to follow. What I am trying to explain is why Pikuach Nefesh doesn’t extend to Avodah Zarah in the context of the halachic telos. That footnote has nothing to do with the philosophical telos. I interpret your question, therefore, as follows: since the reason for which idolatry constitutes an exception to Pikuach Nefesh is stated in terms of upholding the halachic telos, the implication is that the act of idolatry is not sufficiently egregious to ensure that it can never be permitted, even under life-threatening circumstances. Since this implication seems to be false, it must be that the original explanation of Pikuach Nefesh vis-à-vis Avodah Zarah must be false. My response would then be that that implication does not follow eo ipso from the original statement. On the contrary, both that explanation and that of Avodah Zarah being the ultimate betrayal of the Almighty are valid and correct reasons for why the dispensation of Pikuach Nefesh does not extend to Avodah Zarah. In fact, neither type of Hora’at Sha’a applies to Avodah Zarah, either; vide the Rambam in Hilchot Yesodei Ha-Torah 9:5, which should also apply in the Beit Din type of Hora’at Sha’a. Therefore, that Avodah Zarah is inherently wrong in all circumstances is a pillar of the halachic system, which can be explained independently or as a function of the halachic telos, and that Avodah Zarah is the severing of man’s relationship to God is true on much more than simply the philosophical level.
I hope this answers your questions. Please correct me if I misinterpreted anything you wrote.

#5 Comment By AS On August 20, 2010 @ 3:53 pm

thank you for your response. 1. a) the rambam does not believe taamei mitzvot should apply on the individual level. that is clear and that we agree on. but that, in and of itself, is not a reason to say that b) therefore taamei mitzvot are not legally significant in any respect. that the rambam would not accept. b) does not follow from a), for the rambam certainly believes that taamei mitzvot, on a general level, are legally significant. for instance, much of hilchot deot is basically philosophy driving halakhic rules. so is much of hilchot yesodei torah. moreover, the rambam’s rulings on certain superstitious practices are inconsistent, sometimes he wants them abolished (i.e. taamei mitzvot is legally significant), other times he doesn’t (like the case you mentioned re: the prayer).

re: 2. I was only making the point that halakha aims at more than its own preservation, man’s relationship to God is also a central halakhic telos and in this case the philosophical telos and halakhic telos are the same. i understood your point as being that the central telos of halakha is its own preservation, and I am just pointing out that there are other, possibly even more central goals, goals that are often the same as “philosophical” goals…
thanks again

#6 Comment By Elliot M. Salinger On August 21, 2010 @ 7:35 pm

Thank you for your further comments.
1. I have no reservations in stating that philosophy can certainly impact halacha, which is abundantly clear from many more sources than just the Rambam. However, Ta’amei Ha-Mitzvot cannot impact a mitzvah by abrogating it when the reason itself doesn’t apply, at least for the Rambam, as per his comments I quoted in my previous comment from the Sefer Ha-Mitzvot. This is what I mean when I say not halachically significant: it doesn’t pass my stringent test of being a factor in deciding halacha and being able to consistently override other serious (de’Oraita) concerns. Perhaps my use of the lashon “not halachically significant” is slightly unclear, and for that I apologize.
2. I certainly do believe that man’s relationship with God is a central goal of the halachic system, but I think that it is only truthfully so on the philosophical level. This is because it fails to pass my test, as explained above. If someone felt a stronger relationship to God offering a sacrifice in his or her backyard, we would immediately recognize that this is illicit halachic behavior (this topic takes up more than its fair share of Sifrei Nevi’im). It is true that this example assumes a subjective and relative definition of man’s relationship with God, but that is the only definition worth discussing here, for the objective definition would be obeying mitzvot, and if the halachic telos of the halacha were merely the observance of halacha itself, then we would have a tautology, and there would consequently be no telos of the halacha. This is something the Rambam, and probably most everyone, could never accept. This is different, of course, than saying that halachic observance has inherent value, to which everyone would agree. On the other hand, as my article demonstrates, the concern of the halacha’s own continuity as manifested through Pikuach Nefesh and Hora’at Sha’a can override almost any de’Oraita concern or bona fida mitzvah. With certain exceptions, no other concern can permit the otherwise biblically prohibited, at least not nearly to the extent that the preservation concern can.
It should be noted that I personally think that the philosophy behind the halacha is of paramount importance, as, of course, did the Rambam. Saying that a telos is only philosophical doesn’t necessarily make it of lesser importance; rather, it simply means that it is more subjective and less precise and exact in nature.

#7 Comment By AS On August 21, 2010 @ 10:31 pm

your comments have clarified my questions

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