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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

When Does Less Become More?

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on August 12, 2015)
Topics: Machshava/Jewish Thought, Re'eh, Sefer Devarim, Torah, Torah and Mesorah

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Twice in the book of Devarim, Moshe warns the people to keep the totality of the Torah, not adding to or detracting from it. In Parashat Re’eh we read, “Whatsoever I command you, that thing you shall observe to do; you shall not add to it, nor diminish from it” (13:1), echoing a parallel prohibition in Parashat Va’Etchanan (Devarim, 4:2). While the literal, simple sense of these verses is that one should not add to or detract from the entire body of mitzvot, the halakhic meaning is quite different. Rashi puts it succinctly, writing, “You shall not add – for instance, five compartments of tefillin, five species for the lulav, and five tzitzit. And similarly is the meaning of ‘you shall not detract'” (on Devarim, 4:2). In other words, an individual cannot perform a mitzvah in a way that changes its core components. However, the Talmud never interprets this verse to mean that one should not add to the corpus of mitzvot. Reading this verse in the latter sense would raise many challenging questions about the Rabbinic enterprise, for isn’t creating new laws and adding to those commanded in the Torah what the Rabbis did?

Before attempting an answer to this question, we should stop to consider why adding to the Torah is so wrong. The reason to prohibit detracting is clear: doing so leads to the transgression of Torah prohibitions and to the non-fulfillment of Torah commandments. But why not add? What is wrong with doing more?

The most obvious answer is that additions would compromise the integrity of the Torah. Adding to the Torah leads to misrepresentations of its core message; it is a perversion of dvar Hashem, the actual word of God. This is illustrated by the following tale from Irish mythology:

A man traveling in a forest in Ireland chances upon a leprechaun and succeeds in catching him. He forces the leprechaun to reveal under which tree his pot of gold is buried. The Irishman tied a red handkerchief around the trunk of the tree so he would be able to locate it when he returned with a shovel. Before leaving, he made the leprechaun swear that he would not remove the handkerchief. When he returned the next day, he found that the leprechaun had tied red handkerchiefs around every tree in the forest!

We can efface a thing’s identity by adding just as easily as we can by taking away. In the words of the Rabbis: “Kol ha’mosif goreya.” Whoever adds, diminishes.

Adding to the corpus of mitzvot holds another inherent danger: it may undermine observance. If every law and practice is treated as God’s direct word and given equal weight, then a person who finds herself unable to keep one law might wind up rejecting all, viewing, as she does, all her obligations as one piece. In Haredi cultures, for example, the weight of different halakhot tends to be less differentiated (consider the current intransigence of Haredi rabbis when it comes to the practice of metzitzah b’peh). Often when people leave this world, they land in a place of full secularism and non-observance rather than finding a home in a different form of Orthodoxy or in one of the other movements. Of course, each individual’s story is different and has its own dynamics, but often we hear that this phenomenon is rooted in a belief that it is all or nothing. If some of it can’t be upheld, then none of it can.

There is also the related concern that adding prohibitions to the Torah can sometimes work at cross-purposes to the Torah’s goals. This is what the Rabbis refer to as a chumrah ha’asi lidei kula, a stringency that leads to an unwarranted leniency. This may happen much more frequently than we think, since we are often not sensitive to what we might be sacrificing or compromising by adopting additional strictures. For example, greater demands in the area of ritual mitzvot often translate into compromises in the area of interpersonal mitzvot. Consider the following statement from the Shakh, Rabbi Shabtai Kohen, a seventeenth-century commentator on Shulkhan Arukh:

For in the majority of cases there is a leniency (i.e., a compromise of the law) that results in another area because this thing was made forbidden, and it will thus be a stringency that leads to a leniency. And even if it appears that no (unwarranted) leniency will result, it is possible that one thing will lead to another and a hundred steps down this will be the case

(Practices of Prohibitions and Allowances, Yoreh Deah, 248).

Now of course, stringencies are sometimes necessary, but in such cases, Shakh warns, the posek must be careful to make it clear that his ruling is merely a stringency and not the actual halakha. This will help ensure that such rulings are not given undo weight and that they do not compromise more central values and principles.

So the concerns about adding to the Torah are clear: it can undermine the Torah’s identity and potentially undermine observance and compromise core values. So how could the Rabbis do what they did?

This question can be skirted by insisting that the meaning of the verse is restricted to its narrow halakhic definition not to add to the core components in the performance of mitzvot. However, both Rambam (twelfth c.) and Ramban (thirteenth c.) insist that this verse does indeed prohibit adding to the body of mitzvot as a whole. Rambam states that this verse also forbids the Rabbis from presenting a Rabbinic law as a Biblical one or representing the meaning of a Biblical law as broader or narrower than it actually is (Laws of Rebels, 2:9). In his commentary on the Torah, Ramban echoes this position in a slightly nuanced fashion when he states that one cannot add new practices to those commanded by the Torah (on Devarim, 4:2).

So the question returns in full force: But isn’t this what the Rabbis are always doing, adding new practices? Ramban provides an answer: “Now regarding what the Rabbis prohibited as safeguards….that activity is a Biblical mitzvah, provided that they make it known that these restrictions are made as a safeguard and are not from God’s word that is in the Torah.”

Ramban’s answer contains two points that make the Rabbinic activity allowed: First, they are given explicit license in the Torah to make their legislation and safeguards. This refers to the verse, “u’shmartem mishmarti,” and you shall guard my ordinances (Vayikra, 18:30). The Rabbis interpret this to mean, “asu mishmeret li’mishmarti,” you -the Rabbis- must protect My mitzvot; you must make safeguards. This is key. It states that the mandate to protect the Torah -to respond to contemporary realities and create practices, institutions, and laws that will ensure the survival of the Torah- is equal to and opposite the concern of adding to the Torah.

Does this mean that the concern of adding to the Torah can be discarded? Hardly. This is where the second part of Ramban’s answer comes in. All of this is only allowed if the Rabbinic legislation does not obfuscate what is and is not the Torah. That is, the Rabbis must clearly identify that their activity is of a Rabbinic nature. This point is also made by Rambam: the prohibition only applies when Rabbinic rulings are misrepresented as Biblical.

As Ra’avad states in his critique of Rambam, there is a problem with this. Namely, the claim that the Rabbis were clear about the lines is not borne out by the facts. There are many laws in the Talmud which are not clearly identified as Rabbinic or Biblical. Moreover, the Rabbis sometimes intentionally present Rabbinic laws as Biblical to give them more backing, i.e., an asmakhta. On these grounds, Ra’avad rejects that there is a problem adding to the mitzvot! He states that the meaning of the prohibition is only that one should not alter the performance of a mitzvah; there is no prohibition against adding to the corpus of what is Biblical: the Rabbis do it all the time!

In the end, there are no easy answers. Either the Rabbis clearly identify what is Rabbinic and what is Biblical (they do not), or the pshat meaning of the verse is inaccurate and one can add to the mitzvot. Neither explanation is fully satisfactory. Concerns over adding to the Torah are too often forgotten or ignored, but the importance of the rabbinic safeguards and well-chosen stringencies cannot be minimized. It is only by maintaining this uneasy dialectic that we can hope to truly succeed both in protecting the Torah and in maintaining its integrity.