Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center
Parashat Kedoshim 5763/ May 3, 2003
Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty
of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel.
A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies,
Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center,
and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet
under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's
International Center for Jewish Identity.
Prepared for Internet
Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University.
Inquiries and comments to:
Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,
Parashat Kedoshim 5763/ May 3, 2003
Morals and Mitzvot: For the Sake of Heaven
Rabbi Dr. Jacob Harlap
Department of Talmud
Many commandments in Parashat Kedoshim conclude with the
phrase, "I the Lord am your G-d" (e.g. Lev. 19:2-4; 9-10; 25), or
with the words, "I am the Lord" (e.g. Lev. 19:12; 14; 16; 18).
various explanations can be found in the Midrash and in medieval biblical
commentary; these are usually ad hoc comments. We might attempt a more
general explanation by noting that some of these commandments can be
characterized as expressing moral ideas of universal value. These have been
termed by Rabbi Saadiah Gaon mitzvot sikhliot, "commandments of the
intellect." For example, "You shall each revere his mother and his
father, and keep My Sabbaths; I the Lord am your G-d" (Lev. 19:3),
likewise, "You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your
countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself; I am the Lord" (Lev. 19:18).
Let us begin with the theme of revering parents. When the
Sages sought to teach us how to fulfill this precept, they took the behavior of
an idolater (Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 31a) as a prime
The following question was asked of R. Ulla, how far should
revering one's parents go? He said, "Behold what a certain idolater
from Ashkelon--Dama ben Netinah- did. Once the Sages were offering a
reward of six hundred thousand for certain merchandise, and the key to the goods
lay beneath his father's head, yet he did not disturb him.
This goes to show the universal morality in this commandment,
which therefore can be learned from a gentile. However, just because a
universal morality can be found in them, Rabbi Joseph Bekhor-Shor's
(12th century, French city of Orleans) interpretation for the
addition of the words "I the Lord am your G-d" or "I am the
Lord" is unexpected:
He begins with reverence for parents which is juxtaposed in
the same verse with the Sabbath and concludes "I am the Lord your
G-d". This phrase teaches that although the particular commandment to
honor parents expresses a universal human value, it is on a par with the
commandment of the Sabbath: just as the latter is to be kept 'for the
sake of the Lord', so the commandment to revere one's parents is to
be observed for the sake of the Lord; the conclusion, "I the Lord am your
G-d," indicates that all is for the sake of Heaven.
"You shall each revere his mother and his father, and
keep My Sabbaths" - i.e., even though I told you this in the Ten
Commandments, for there I said, "Honor your father and mother" (Ex.
20:12) - and in the peshat interpretation honoring and revering are
the same - now I say, "I the Lord am your G-d," i.e., what you
do, you should do for the sake of Heaven; for the sake of Heaven you should
revere your parents, and for the sake of Heaven you should keep the Sabbath, and
for the sake of Heaven you shall profane them [the Sabbath, in the case of risk
to life], as our Rabbis said, "May all that you do be for the sake of
Heaven" (Avot 2.12).
Bekhor Shor continued this approach in the verse, "You
shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your
fellow as yourself; I am the Lord" (Lev. 19:18). Even the Sages asked how
a person could be commanded to "love your fellow as yourself."
Indeed, Hillel the Elder's concise interpretation, "'What is
hateful to yourself do not do to your fellow,' - this summarizes the
entire Torah" (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a) is well-known.
Bekhor Shor did not recommend internalizing the ethical importance of this
commandment, rather he seems to have recognized the fact that the moral benefit
inherent in this commandment does not provide sufficiently solid motivation; in
his opinion, this commandment and others like it can be fulfilled only by
internalizing the energies of loving G-d and doing His will, rather than loving
evil, and therefore we have the concluding words, "I am the
The Holy One, blessed be He, is saying to you: may the love
that you have for Me overcome the hate that you have for him; so that you lend
to him for the sakeof loving Me; and that you not be vengeful, and thereby bring
peace among you. Likewise you will find that with respect to the text,
"when you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden..." (Ex.
23:5), the Holy One, blessed be He, said: may the love that you have for Me
overcome the hate that you have for him; so that you help him for the sake of
loving Me. This is what is meant by, "Her ways are pleasant ways, and all
her paths, peaceful" (Prov. 3:17)... I am the Lord - and it is
fitting that love for Me allay hate (Lev., loc. sit.)
The message that comes out of his commentary is, as we said
above, that the Torah does not present a universal moral imperative for keeping
these commandments, rather it gives the reason, "I am the Lord,"
indicating that the way to fulfillment of the commandment involves recognition
of a Divine imperative.
Similar ideas were raised by the Sages and by medievals prior
to the time of Rabbi Bekhor Shor. Rashi (1040-1105) explained Rav's
position in the Talmud which prohibits returning a lost object to a non-Jew
(Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 76b) as follows: "This is because he
compares and equates a Kuti (Samaritan) with an Israelite, and himself
shows that in returning a lost object it is not the command of His creator that
is important to him, for he does so even for a Kuti, although he was not
commanded regarding them." In other words, doing so emphasizes that the
mitzvah is not a Torah commandment but rather a general moral rule to return a
Maimonides' position is somewhat different. He raises
the following question in his preface to Tractate Avot [Shmonah
Peraqim, ch. 6]: which person is to be considered finer and which character
more preferable? One who by nature tends to do what is good and moral -
"an excellent person," or a person who tends to evil, but overcomes
his inclination and does good - "a person who rules over his
soul"? According to the philosophers, Maimonides said, the
"excellent person" is preferable to the one who "rules over
his soul." But viewed from a different perspective the person who
"rules over his soul" can be seen as finer than the "excellent
person," since one must esteem him for overcoming his evil inclination and
attaining virtue. Maimonides cites Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel, who said:
"A person should not say, 'I do not wish to eat meat and milk, or I
do not wish to wear shaatnez, or I do not wish to have illicit sexual
relations; rather, I wish to; but what am I to do, for My Father in Heaven
decreed that I should not?" (Sifra, Kedoshim 10.11).
This sounds similar to the view of Bekhor Shor. However,
Maimonides distinguished between commandments that are evident to the intellect,
like the prohibition against murder or the prohibition against theft, concerning
which he held that even the Sages agreed the "excellent person" is
preferable to the one who "rules over his soul," and commandments
that, had we not been commanded them, there would be no reason for performing
them, and therefore, regarding these commandments, the person who "rules
over his soul" is considered preferable to the "excellent"
person. It follows from Maimonides that commandments which reflect moral
humanist values should be observed for their own intrinsic sake, for thus one
becomes an "excellent" person. One who observes them only because
G-d commanded, but has to struggle with his natural desires not to kill or
steal, is considered an inferior character.
Thus we see a difference between the first approach
(Rashi's view and the position implied by Rabbi Bekhor Shor's
commentary), that in every instance, even when dealing with commandments of
moral humanist value, one is to prefer the person who "rules over his
soul," and the approach espoused by Maimonides, that regarding moral
commandments the "person of moral excellence" is to be
Rabbi Johanan and Rabbi Abahu took opposing stands on this
question (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 34b):
Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba said, "Rabbi Johanan said: The
prophets all made their prophecies (Rashi: of good and of consolation) only to
those who were repentant; but as for the totally righteous person -
'No eye has seen [them], O G-d, but You (Isaiah 64:3)'
[presumably, he interpreted the verse to mean, they see G-d directly,
"You" referring to the righteous, and have no need for prophecy,
being on a much higher religious level than the repentant]. Rabbi Abahu
disagreed, for he said, "Where those who have repented stand, the
completely righteous do not stand; for it is said: 'It shall be well,
well with the far and the near' (Isaiah 57:19) - the far comes first
and foremost, before the near." (Cf. parallel texts in Sanhedrin
Two different approaches lie at the root of the matter: the
approach of Rabbi Johanan, which sides with those who prefer the
"excellent" person, as opposed to the approach of Rabbi Abahu, which
sides with the person who does teshuvah and henceforth "rules over
Maimonides' view, as presented above, is not his last
word on the issue: another approach emerges from Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot
Melakhim. There he wrote that the righteous gentiles have a share in the
World to Come as long as they observe the seven precepts commanded of the
descendants of Noah as commandments; but observing these rules as the dictates
of natural law or morality has no religious value.
All those who accept the seven commandments and take care to
observe them are to be considered righteous gentiles, and they have a part in
the world to come; that means accepting them and doing them because the Holy
One, blessed be He, commanded them in the Torah and made it known to us via
Moses that the descendants of Noah had been commanded them; but if they observe
them because of the dictates of the intellect, they are neither ger
toshav (resident non-Jews), nor righteous gentiles, nor sages. (Loc.
In continuation of the line with which we began, we conclude
with a commentary by the Netziv on the last few verses of the portion of
the week: "You shall be holy to Me, for I the Lord am holy, and I have set
you apart from other peoples to be Mine" (Lev. 20:26). In his opinion,
there is a difference between the separation of kedusha and the
separation implied by the verb havdala. The command, "You shall be
holy," indicates distancing oneself and setting oneself apart from things,
not because the human intellect dictates but because G-d has thus commanded. In
contrast, the concluding words "and I have set you apart" are not a
duplication of the request to be holy but rather the reward: the Israelites will
also refrain from those things which general human comprehension leads people to
avoid. What sort of reward is that?
According to his interpretation, Israel makes itself holy by
distancing itself from those things that ordinary human comprehension does not
call for avoiding, such as certain foods or particular sexual relations; they
will be rewarded in that even those things that all persons draw away from
because of natural morality, they will refrain from doing because the Lord so
commanded. This is the way of the pious (Ha'amek Davar, Lev.
"You shall be holy to Me, for ... I have set you apart
from other peoples to be Mine" - being holy means being set apart,
separated from other peoples, except that there is an additional message:
holiness means separating in a matter that the human intellect does not
necessarily dictate, rather the Holy One, blessed be He, so commands. This is
not the case with setting apart (havdala) which pertains to a natural
difference between good taste and vulgarity. . . .
This holiness will then lead to a more elevated level of G-d
setting us apart from other people to be His, so that even what nature is
inclined to set apart will also be for Him, lihiyot li-- that is, for the
sake of G-d and not because of nature. To be pious is for all one's deeds
to be done for the sake of Heaven.
In conclusion, piety calls for performing commandments that
have moral grounds with the same motivation we perform the hukkim--for
the sake of Heaven.