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.
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Parashat Va-Ethanan 5761/ August 4, 2001
"Do not try the Lord your G-d" (Deut. 6:16)
Dr. Alexander Klein
Department of Mathematics
What precisely is forbidden by this verse? According to Maimonides in Sefer ha-Mitzvot and Mishneh Torah, this prohibition primarily commands us not to cast doubt on the words of a prophet after he has been acknowledged as a true prophet. A navi (prophet), according to Maimonides, attains recognition in two ways: either a confirmed prophet has attested that he is indeed a true prophet, or he has given us signs, primarily foreseeing events of the future. Essentially one is prohibited from asking the prophet for additional signs proving his veracity as a prophet. If one repeatedly requests the prophet to prove his veracity every time he performs a mission or instructs the public in any matter, such an action is likely to undermine the people's respect for him and ultimately they will not follow his instruction. Therein, according to Sefer ha-Hinukh, is the crux of this prohibition.
Others have viewed this commandment as signifying something quite different. Sefer Mitzvot Gedolot says that the prohibition "not to try the Lord" means one should not perform the commandments expecting immediate reward from the Lord; rather, one should do them out of religious motivation. Sefer ha-Hinukh writes in the name of Sefer Mitzvot Gedolot (Semag) as follows:
There is a warning here not to perform the commandments by way of a test, i.e., not to perform a commandment in order to try the Lord, seeing whether He repays in like measure. Rather, one is to observe the commandments out of one's love and fear of G-d.
So too Nahmanides writes in his Torah commentary that "one should not worship the Lord with doubt, or request from Him a sign or trial; for the Lord does not necessarily will to perform miracles for any particular person at any time. Nor is it fitting to serve Him in order to obtain a reward, for perhaps in serving the Lord and following the ways of the Torah one will come upon hardship and calamity, and one ought to accept everything as divine justice".
According to Sefer Mitzvot Gedolot, however, there is one situation in which it is permissible "to try the Lord." Tractate Ta'anit (9a) says the following:
Rabbi Johanan said: The Scriptural text, "set aside a tenth part" (Deut. 14:22), means set aside a tenth part (aser) so that you will become wealthy (titasher) [a play on the Hebrew aser te-aser]. Once Rabbi Johanan came upon the younger son of Resh Lakish and said to him, "Recite the verse which you studied today." He responded, "aser te-aser." "What does that mean?" he asked. "Set aside a tenth part so that you will become wealthy," he responded. "How do you know that?" "Go and try," he answered. "But is one allowed to try the Holy One, blessed be He? Does it not say in the Torah: "do not try the Lord?" He answered, "Thus Rabbi Hoshaiah said: except for this."
In the light of this gemara in Tractate Ta'anit, the Tur wrote: "The Sages said that one may never try the Lord in any matter, except regarding charity." Beit Yosef in his commentary to the Tur noted in this regard, that the exception does not apply to charity in general, only specifically to the giving of tithes. The Shulhan Arukh did not address the subject directly, but on his comment that "charity wards off evil decrees, and in time of famine delivers from death" Rema added, "and it [charity] makes one wealthy; one must not try the Lord except in this regard; and some say that one may try the lord specifically with regard to giving the tithe, but not with other sorts of charity."
To which tithe was he referring? Pit'hei Teshuvah understood from Rema's comment that he was referring to the money tithe that is practiced today, the obligation to give one tenth of one's earnings to charity, which is a commandment of rabbinic origin. However, Pit'hei Teshuvah disagrees with this view on the grounds that the gemara implies that it was the grain tithe given to the Levites which was at issue, which is a Biblical commandment.
The Jerusalem Talmud implies that the prohibition against "trying the Lord" means "one should not rely on miracles." The world follows the laws of nature, and human beings cannot reckon on the possibility of miracle as a factor in considering what they should do. The Yerushalmi learned this from the following:
At dusk, on the eve of the Day of Atonement, they would not let him [the High Priest] each much, since eating brings on drowsiness… As we learned: "they would not let him eat milk, nor eggs, nor cheese, … nor any thing that tends to cause secretion" - But [queries the Tamud] wasn't this one of the miracles that used to occur in the Temple [Korban ha-Edah commentary: namely, that the High Priest was never polluted by nocturnal emission on the Day of Atonement, so why did they have to protect him against this?)! Rabbi Avin answered: [they watched his diet] because of the prohibition "you shall not try the Lord" (i.e., one does not rely on a miracle [Korban ha-Edah]).
The above text indicates that one must take all necessary measures to avert a calamity and not rely on something miraculous happening, even in cases where according to tradition a miracle is "sure to happen."
Thus we have seen three different interpretations of "do not try the Lord":
1) Not to ask a prophet who has already been "approved" for further proof of his veracity.
2) Not to observe the commandments for the sake of obtaining immediate reward.
3) Not to rely on miracles.
This case illustrates the fact that there are sometimes far-reaching differences of opinion as to the actual meaning of the Torah's commandments.
 Negative commandment 64.
 Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah 10.5.
 Ibid., 7.7, also 10.5.
 Commandment 425.
 Cf. Mishnah Avot 1.3.
 Yoreh De'ah 247.
 Loc. sit., sect. 4.
 Yoma 1.4.
 According to the Mishnah, Avot 5.5.