July 21, 2024
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Editor’s note: This series is reprinted with permission from “Insights & Attitudes: Torah Essays on Fundamental Halachic and Hashkafic Issues,” a publication of TorahWeb.org. The book contains multiple articles—organized by parsha—by Rabbi Hershel Schachter and Rabbi Mayer Twersky.

In his commentary on the opening pasuk in Parshas Tzav, Rashi quotes from the Toras Kohanim that the term “mitzvah” has a technical connotation. It refers, specifically, to an obligation which is binding throughout all generations. From time to time in the past, we had Nevi’im who would instruct our people to perform specific horo’as sha’ah which were not intended to be of a lasting nature. These were never considered mitzvos, technically speaking. Our tradition has it (Megillah 2b) that the only prophet who gave over mitzvosi.e., obligations which are binding throughout all generations — was Moshe Rabbeinu.

This does not mean to imply that every instruction of Moshe Rabbeinu was a mitzvah. Many of his prophecies were also only intended as horo’as sha’ah. The instruction to knock on the next-door neighbor’s door on erev Pesach of the Exodus and to ask for gifts (Shemos

11:2) was an obligation only once in the history of the world. The instructions regarding not leaving over the manna (Shemos 16:19) only applied during those 40 years while traveling in the midbar.

The Rambam (Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 9:2) understands the mishna in Sanhedrin (89a) as saying that one who violates the instructions of a Navi deserves misa beyedei shomayim. The Minchas Chinuch (no. 516) is bothered by a most obvious problem: Wasn’t Moshe Rabbeinu a Navi? It should, therefore, follow that anyone who violates any biblical law given by Moshe Rabbeinu ought to deserve this punishment of misa beyedei shomayim! How can that be? The list of aveiros which warrant this punishment appears in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 83a), and is very brief. Why should Moshe Rabbeinu be inferior to other prophets, that “over al divrei Navi” should apply only to the other prophets, and bedavka not to Moshe?

Various suggestions were offered over the years in response to this issue (see Shailos u’Teshuvos Tzafnas Paneiach by Rav Yosef Rozen, 138:5.) The generally accepted approach today is that which was offered by Rav Soloveitchik, over 60 years ago (see Divrei Hagus Veha’aracha, page 66. See Minchas Yisrael by Rav Yisrael Shurin, page 22). “Over al divrei Navi” only applies to one who violates a hora’as sha’ah. One who left over some manna until the morning, in violation of the instructions of Moshe Rabbeinu, would, indeed, deserve misa beyedei shomayim! But the mitzvoswith a binding force for all generationsand which were only given by Moshe Rabbeinu, are not included in this category. They have their own system which has its own hierarchy of punishments.

“Over al divrei Navi” applies only to one who violates a dvar nevuah. Some of Moshe Rabbeinu’s instructions were divrei nevuah, while most were elevated to the level of divrei Torah and mitzvah because of their binding force for all generations.

In the first half of the Sefer HaMitzvos, Rambam postulates what he considers to be the 14 principles which determine whether any given commandment deserves to be included in the list of the 613 mitzvos. His third guideline is that only obligations which apply throughout all the generations are considered mitzvos. This principle is rooted in the passage of the Toras Kohanim cited in the Rashi mentioned above.

In his commentary to the mishnayos (end of Sanhedrin), Rambam lists what he considers the 13 principles of our faith. We believe in prophecy. It is possible for God to communicate with man.35 We also believe that the prophecy of Moshe Rabbeinu was on a higher level than that of any of the other prophets. What does this mean? Is Rambam grading the prophets? If Moshe Rabbeinu gets an A-plus, what does Micha get? And what grade does Chavakuk deserve?

No, this is not a matter of grading Moshe’s prophecy. What Rambam means to say is that the only prophet who was ever given mitzvos (with a binding force for all future generations) was Moshe Rabbeinu. His was the only prophecy that was on the level of Torah.

This point is spelled out explicitly in Rambam’s commentary to mishnayos Chullin at the end of gid hanasheh. Even the mitzvos of milah and gid hanashehwhich were given to Avraham Avinu and to Yaakov Avinuare not binding today because of Avraham’s prophecy or that of Yaakov; rather, they are binding because these commandments were given again later to Moshe Rabbeinu. Only then, did they acquire the status of mitzvos. Before ma’amad Har Sinai, milah was only a dvar nevuah, and one who did not fulfill this obligation would deserve misa beydei shomayim. This explains the incident recorded in Parshas Shemos (4:24), where the angel came to kill Moshe for neglecting to perform the milah of his son. At that time, milah was not yet (strictly speaking) a mitzvah, and as a dvar nevuah, one who violated it would have the status of “over al divrei Navi.”

Another one of the Rambam’s 13 principles of faith is that the laws of the Torah are immutable. In recent years, this has been a fundamental point of distinction between Orthodoxy and other groups.

35Man’s ability to communicate with God (by way of prayer) is also included in this principle: There is communication between God and man.

This principle requires a bit of elaboration. Just because we believe in Torah min hashomayim,

why does it necessarily follow that all the Torah laws are immutable? What would be so bad if God notified usby way of His prophetsthat due to changing circumstances, some of the mitzvos no longer apply? Why do we assume that any prophet who delivers such a prophecy is automatically labeled as a Navi sheker and deserves the death penalty (Rambam, Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 9:4)? Why such an obstinate insistence on the part of Orthodox Judaism that all the Torah laws are immutable?

The explanation is given by the author of the Tanya (Likutei Amarim, perakim 4-5)as well as by Rav Chaim of Volozhin (Nefesh HaChaim 4:6)who both develop the identical theme. The Torah is not merely a collection of laws. In its entirety, it constitutes a description of God’s essence. Of course, we can’t really comprehend His essence. One of the Jewish philosophers of the middle ages (Rav Yosef Albo, Sefer HaIkarim, ma’amar 2, perek 30) commented that, “If I understood Him, I would be Him.” The only one who can understand “Elokus” is God Himself. Nonetheless, He gave us the Torah, which by way of mashal (analogy) constitutes a description of “Elokus.” It is for this reason that the Torah is described as “the mashal haKadmoni” (Shmuel I, 24:14), the mashal of HaKadosh Baruch Hu (see Rashi to Parshas Mishpatim, Shemos 21:13). Rav Chaim of Volozhin comments that it would, probably, be better to say that the Torah is a mashal of “Elokus,” as opposed to assuming that it is a direct mashal.

The prophet Malachi (3:6) tells us that God’s essence never changes. Everything in the creation is subject to change, but Godthe creatornever changes.

Since, our tradition has it that the Torah is a description (even if only by way of mashal) of “Elokus,” and the prophet Malachi tells us that God’s essence cannot be affected by change, it, therefore, follows that the laws of the Torah can never change. The Torah (Beha’aloscha 12:8) distinguishes between the level of prophecy of Moshe Rabbeinu and that of the other prophets. Moshe was the only prophet “who was shown the image of God.” What can this possibly be referring to? We believe that God has no body, there is no “image of God!”

What the pasuk is driving at is exactly the principle we developed above. Moshe Rabbeinu was the only prophet who was given what we, technically, refer to as mitzvoscommandments which are binding throughout all the future generationsbecause they constitute the description of God’s essence, which is not subject to change. None of the prophets were ever shown “the image of God,” i.e., they were never given mitzvos. They were only given a hora’as sha’ah, which is of a temporary nature only.

The concept of “continuing revelation” developed by certain members of the Conservative movement is totally unacceptable. It is in clear contradiction to the Rambam’s 13 principles of faith which have been accepted. There certainly is a concept of “lifnim mishuras hadin,” that one goes further than the halacha requiresall in the same direction as indicated by the Torah. But, one cannot go contrary to the halacha and consider that lifnim mishuras hadin. The concept of “lifnim mishuras hadin,” only applies when one is going in the same direction as the halacha requires, but even past the point of requirement. When one acts contrary to the din, this does not constitute chasidus.

There will always be instances when two contradictory mitzvos clash. Life is always full of conflict! The world is always full of contradictions! Much of the halachic literature deals with how to resolve halachic conflicts. We must follow halacha, even when it appears to us to be unethical or immoral. The Holy One who implanted within us the sense of ethics and morality is the same One who commanded us to follow His halachos, even if we don’t understand them.


Rabbi Hershel Schachter joined the faculty of Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary in 1967, at the age of 26, the youngest Rosh Yeshiva at RIETS. Since 1971, Rabbi Schachter has been Rosh Kollel in RIETS’ Marcos and Adina Katz Kollel (Institute for Advanced Research in Rabbinics) and also holds the institution’s Nathan and Vivian Fink Distinguished Professorial Chair in Talmud. In addition to his teaching duties, Rabbi Schachter lectures, writes and serves as a world renowned decisor of Jewish Law.

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