Bar-Ilan University 's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Va-ethanan 5764/ July 31, 2004

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,




“A Wise and Discerning People” [1]

Rabbi Professor Carmi Horowitz

Midrasha for Women


Observe them faithfully, for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples, who on hearing of all these laws will say, “Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people.”  For what great nation is there that has a god so close at hand as is the Lord our G-d whenever we call upon Him?  (Deut. 4:6-7)


What is the antecedent of “that”?   Is the antecedent “observe them faithfully”?  In other words, does the admiration of the other peoples at the wisdom and discernment of Israel follow in the wake of observing the commandments?   This seems to be what the Sages had in mind in their homily in Tractate Avodah Zarah (4b):

Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said:  All the commandments that Israel observe in this world will come and strike vehemently in the faces of the idolaters in the World to Come, as it is said:  Observe them faithfully, for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples (Deut. 4:6).   It does not say “in the presence of the peoples”(neged ha-ammim) but in the sight of” (le-einei) , to teach us that they will come and strike vehemently in the faces of the idolaters in the World to Come. [2]

The advantage that Israel have over the other nations comes as a result of their adherence to the Torah, observing its commandments; it is not the theory of Judaism,  but its practice, the act of performing the commandments, which is proof of your wisdom and discernment:   “Observe them faithfully.”

This verse has another, better-known interpretation, according to which the antecedent of “that” is not “observe them faithfully,” but rather something oblique, not mentioned in the verse. Since it is not explicitly mentioned, the homilist must search for something that satisfies the condition of being “in the sight of the other peoples”, in other words something universal, something which can be appreciated even by a person who has not studied the Torah.   Rabbi Johanan found one such thing, namely calculating the calendar (lit. “seasons and zodiac”), i.e., the “secret of intercalation,” or the basic principles of astronomy that underlie the Jewish calendar.  Tractate Shabbat 75a reads:

Rabbi Samuel bar Nahmani said, quoting Rabbi Johanan:   Whence do we know that human beings were commanded to calculate the seasons and zodiac?  For it is said, “Observe them faithfully, for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples” – that is to say, this refers to calculating the seasons and zodiac.

Understanding Aggadah

Maimonides incorporated Deuteronomy 4:6 into two different contexts, in the process revealing his thoughts about two central themes in the intellectual history of the Jewish people. [3]   The first context is Maimonides’ discussion in his introduction to Perek Helek, his long and important preface to the last chapter of Tractate Sanhedrin (90a), which begins with the mishnah (San. 10, 1):

All Israel have a share in the World to Come, as it is said, “And your people, all of them righteous, shall possess the land for all time; they are the shoot that I planted, My handiwork in which I glory” (Is. 60:21).   And those who do not have a share in the World to Come include anyone who says the principle of resurrection of the dead does not come from the Torah and anyone who is a heretic.

Two ideas troubled Maimonides:  defining the World to Come, and defining the term apikoros, or heretic.  We shall set the second idea aside for the time being and focus on the first.

To understand what was meant by the World to Come according to the writings of the Sages we must first clarify the correct way of reading, understanding and interpreting the aggadic homilies of the Sages. The Sages’ attitude towards aggadah, or legend, is a central theme in the intellectual history of the Jewish people.  The status of aggadah, its authority, ways of interpreting it and defending it against attack from without – all these issues have accompanied Torah scholarship from the earliest days to the present.  A central subject of the utmost importance for Maimonides was the correct reading and understanding of aggadic homilies, many of which are obscure and difficult to understand upon an initial, simplistic reading.   He returned to this subject in a variety of contexts. [4]

In his introduction to Perek Helek, Maimonides gave a categorization of human beings into different types according to their attitude towards aggadic midrash.   Let us look at what he says about the first group:

You should know that with respect to the works of the Sages human beings are divided into three classes:  the first, which as I have observed comprises the majority – from what I have seen of their works and from what I have heard about them – accept them at face value, not interpreting them in any hidden ways whatsoever, and view all the impossible things as necessarily real.  Indeed, they do so in their folly and their lack of science; and they have not the perfection that would enable them to awaken of themselves, nor has there been found someone who could awaken them.  They believe that the Sages, in all their upright and proper words, meant nothing more than what they themselves are capable of understanding by their own knowledge, which is the superficial sense.  Although some of what they said might appear defamation and far from sensible were it recounted at face value to common folk and all the more so to the wise, if they were to ponder these things they would be astonished and say how could there be a person in the world who would think that way or think that to be a correct belief, all the more so that it be seen with favor by him.   This class of the intellectually weak is to be lamented for their folly, for they respect and elevate the Sages according to their intellectual ability, thereby degrading them to the lowest degree without understanding this.  By the Blessed Lord, this category of people lose the Torah its glory and obscure its radiance, for they make the Teaching of the Lord the opposite of what was intended.  For the Blessed Lord said in His perfect Torah that if they observe all these laws, they will say surely that great nation is a wise and discerning people.   But this group recounts the law of the Sages in such a way that when the other peoples of the world hear them, they say how foolish and stupid is this little nation.  Most of what these preachers do is interpret for and teach the masses things which they do not understand.  Would that they maintained silence, seeing as they have neither knowledge nor understanding, as it is said:  “If you would only keep quiet, it would be considered wisdom on your part” (Job 13:5), or if only they would say: we do not understand what the Sages meant by these words, nor how to interpret them.   But they think that they understand them and try to teach the people and interpret according to their understanding on the basis of their weak intellect and not according to what the Sages said; and they preach from Tractate Berakhot and Perek Helek and the like according to their plain sense, word for word.

Briefly we note that in making the verse “Surely…a wise and discerning people” a central pivot in his text, Maimonides ascribed an important and central role to interpreting aggadah. Just as the Sages, in their search for an area of universal significance in interpreting this verse, noted the importance of the calendar, so too Maimonides ascribed a similar role to interpretation of aggadah.  Deep philosophical interpretation that uncovers the abstract philosophical ideas in the aggadah makes it possible to reveal the universal aspect of the Torah, the aspect that will lead other peoples, upon seeing the depth of thought that lies hidden in the aggadot, to respond saying, “Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people.”  Simplistic literal interpretation achieves the opposite and leads to profanation of the Lord.  By rationally analyzing aggadot that do not lend themselves to sensible literal interpretation we sanctify the name of the Lord. [5] Following this, Maimonides was able to deal with those rabbinic aggadot which seem to describe the World to Come in physical terms.

Reason for the Commandments

The second context in which Maimonides quoted the same verse is Guide for the Perpelexed, 3.31 (Ibn Tibbon edition) [6]

There is a group of human beings who consider it a grievous thing that causes should be given for any law; what would please them most is that the intellect would not find a meaning for the commandments and prohibitions.  What compels them to feel thus is a sickness that they find in their souls, a sickness to which they are unable to give utterance and of which they cannot furnish a satisfactory account.  For they think that if those laws were useful in this existence and had been given to us for this or that reason, it would be as if they derived from the reflection and the understanding of some intelligent being.   If, however, there is a thing for which the intellect could not find any meaning at all and that does not lead to something useful, it indubitably derives from  G-d; for the reflection of man would not lead to such a thing.   It is as if, according to these people of weak intellects, man were more perfect than his Maker; for man speaks and acts in a manner that leads to some intended end, whereas the deity does not act thus, but commands us to do things that are not useful to us and forbids us to do things that are not harmful to us.  But He is far exalted above this;  the contrary is the case – the whole purpose consisting in what is useful for us, as we have explained on the basis of its dictum:   For our lasting good and for our survival, as is now the case (Deut. 6:24).  And it says:  Who on hearing of all these laws [hukkim] will say:   Surely that great nation is a wise and discerning people.  Thus it states explicitly that even all the statutes [hukkim] will show to all the nations that they have been given with wisdom and understanding.  Now if there is a thing for which no reason is known and that does not either procure something useful or ward off something harmful, why should one say of one who believes in it or practices it that he is wise and understanding and of great worth? [7]   Rather things are indubitably as we have mentioned.

This passage from Guide for the Perplexed follows several preliminary chapters on the reasons for the commandments that Maimonides sets forth further on.   Chapter 31  ostensibly adds nothing further to Maimonides’ declared position as exposited in the previous chapters, according to which it is inconceivable that the Deity, the source of wisdom, would command things that are not founded on wisdom. The gist of the new idea added in this chapter lies in his use of the verse under discussion, precisely because it refers to statutes ( hukkim, religious laws that have no obvious explanation in terms of human reason).  By incorporating this verse here Maimonides maintained that by discovering the reasons for the commandments we discover the universal foundations that underlie them.  The other peoples learn to appreciate the wisdom of the Torah and thus the Name of G-d becomes sanctified in the world.  When we show that not only the laws (mishpatim) but also the statutes (hukkim) have rational significance, we cause the Name of G-d to be sanctified and draw positive appreciation of our Torah from the entire world. [8]

For Maimonides, our verse is to be interpreted as evidence for the philosophical underpinnings of the aggadah, or for the rationale behind the commandments. Our distinction in the eyes of the nations is based on wisdom and reason. Thus Maimonides followed the approach of the Sages in seeking, like them, the universal side of the Torah, the aspects through which also the gentiles could acknowledge and admire the Torah – “Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people.”


[1] This article is based on remarks by my advisor, Rabbi Professor Isadore Twersky, z”l.   See his book, Introduction to the Code of Maimonides (Mishneh Torah), New Haven, 1980, pp. 380-387.

[2] Twersky, ibid., p. 382 explains: “in the sight of” suggests direct and unmediated confrontation.

[3] For a list of main themes in the intellectual history of the Jewish people, see Isadore Twersky, “Joseph ibn Kaspi – Portrait of a Medieval Jewish Intellectual,” in Studies in Medieval Jewish History and Literature, Cambridge:   Harvard University Press 1979, pp. 233-234.

[4] See the introduction to his commentary on the Mishnah, Guide to the Perplexed, and his Letters.

[5] On trends in interpreting aggadah in the Middle Ages, see Isadore (Yitzhak) Twersky, “Rabbi Yedaiah ha-Penini and his Commentary on the Aggadah,” in Studies in Jewish Religious and Intellectual History Presented to Alexander Altmann, edited by Raphael Loewe and Siegfried Stein, Alabama:   University of Alabama Press 1980, pp. 63-82.  For an important survey and collections of sources on the attitude towards the aggadot of the Sages, see Jacob Elboim, Lehavin Divrei Hakhamim:   Mivhar Divrei Mavo la- Aggadah ve-la-Midrash mi- Shel Hakhamei Yemei ha-Beinayim, Jerusalem 2001, and the bibliography there.  Also cf. my review of this book that appeared in Jewish Quarterly Review.

[6] Cited in I. Twersky, A Maimonides Reader, N.Y. 1972, pp. 326-327.

[7] As Twersky has noted, this was previously hinted at by Ibn Ezra in chapter eight of his book, Yesod Mora (see the new edition put out by Joseph Cohen and Uriel Simon:  R. Abraham Ibn Ezra, Yesod Mora ve-Sod ha-Torah, Ramat Gan, Bar Ilan University Press 2002, p. 150:   “Thus the wise person can know many reasons for laws in the Torah, some that are well-explained and others that are clear to only one person in a thousand.  Our master Moses, of blessed memory, said of all the commandments, ‘surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people,’ and if they did not have reasons that we could discern, how would the other people say that these are righteous laws and that we who observe them are wise?”

[8] Cf. Twersky (n. 1, above), ch. 6, for an exhaustive discussion of the rationale for the commandments according to Maimonides’ philosophy.  Also see his article, “Berur Divrei ha-Rambam Hilkhot Me’ilah perek 8, halakhah 8 – le-Parashat Ta’amei ha-Mitzvot la- Rambam,” in Perakim be-Toledot ha-Hevrah ha- Yehudit bi-Yemei ha- Beinayim u-va-Et ha- Hadashah, Mukdashim le-Professor Ya’akov Katz, ed. Emanuel Atkes and Joseph Salmon, Jerusalem 1980, pp. 24-33.