July 12, 2024
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What Is the Meaning of Chok?

A widespread understanding of the word חוק in traditional sources is that it is a law that we do not know the reason for, even though God knows its reason.

Here is a passage in Rambam’s Guide (3:26) expressing the “no known reason” approach:

“All of us, the common people as well as the scholars, believe that there is a reason for every precept, although there are commandments the reason of which is unknown to us, and in which the ways of God’s wisdom are incomprehensible … There are commandments which are called ‘chukim—ordinances,’ like the prohibition of wearing garments of wool and linen, boiling meat and milk together and the sending of the goat. Our Sages use in reference to them phrases like the following: “These are things which I have fully ordained for thee: and you dare not criticize them: ‘Your evil inclination is turned against them;’ and ‘non-Jews find them strange.’

“But our Sages generally do not think that such precepts have no cause whatever, and serve no purpose; for this would lead us to assume that God’s actions are purposeless. On the contrary, they hold that even these ordinances have a cause, and are certainly intended for some use, although it is not known to us; owing either to the deficiency of our knowledge or the weakness of our intellect … Consequently, there is a cause for every commandment: every positive or negative precept serves a useful object; in some cases the usefulness is evident, e.g., the prohibition of murder and theft; in others the usefulness is not so evident, e.g., the prohibition of enjoying the fruit of a tree in the first three years … Those commandments, whose object is generally evident, are called ‘judgments’ (mishpatim); those whose object is not generally clear are called ‘ordinances’ (chukim).”

This view of Rambam is based on passages such as Yoma 67b and Tanchuma Chukat, section 8. See similarly Nachmanides to Leviticus 19:19. See also Rambam, introduction to Avot, chapter 6. (See also his “Guide,” chapter 49, where he writes that most “chukim” where the reason is unknown to us are serving as a fence against idolatry.) One can also find something like the above approach in various statements of Rashi. See, e.g., in Leviticus 19:19: “chukim: ‘elu gezerat melech sheein taam ledavar.’” Artscroll elaborates a bit in its translation of the last three words: “for there is no rationale to the matter which man can see.” In my view, their elaboration is a proper one, as is evident if one reads the above Tanchuma. There is a similar Rashi and ArtScroll elaboration at Exodus 15:26. (But many would disagree with these elaborations by ArtScroll.)

The above approach is not mentioned in the root books of Ibn Janach (died 1065) and Radak (died 1235). They suggest other approaches. (But Radak does adopt the above approach in his commentary to Psalm 119:1.) The “no known reason” approach is a surprising one. It is certainly not what any of us would have thought initially. Moreover, at Exodus 12:24-27, the mitzvah of korban Pesach is called a חק and then the reason for Israelites continuing to do it yearly is given! Moreover, in Deuteronomy 4:6, we are told that the nations of the world will see our “chukim” and declare that we are a wise nation!

Crucially, the “no known reason” approach does not seem to be connected etymologically with the word. It is widely agreed that the root of חק is חקק. This root originally meant “engrave.” (חק often occurs in the feminine as well: חקה.) I have seen the suggestion that laws with no known reason have a special need to be engraved/ written down. But all laws need to be engraved or written down in some way for a society to function.

Rav Hirsch explicitly rejects the “no known reason” approach in at least two places (comm. to Genesis 47:26 and Exodus 29:9). He realizes intuitively that it is not likely to be correct. Over the course of his commentaries, he makes several attempts to understand חק on an etymological basis. But I did not find his various attempts convincing. (Aside from the two above references, see his comments to Genesis 26:5, Psalms 119:5 and Deuteronomy 12:32.) If we chose to reject the “no known reason” approach, what could be the explanation of this category of laws? We need to find an explanation that sounds reasonable and that has an etymological basis.

Fortunately, Rabbi Menachem Leibtag has discussed the meaning of חק in an article available online on the Orthodox Union website (“Chukat: Parah Adumah: What’s a Chok?”). He concludes that a חק is a law that is fixed and unchanging. (This would be a natural expansion from the original “engraved” meaning of the root.) He gives many arguments to support this understanding and I agree with him. For example, Jeremiah has God referring to the moon and stars providing light at night as a “chok.” See 31:34-35. See similarly 33:25 where God describes himself as having a covenant with day and night and setting up “chukot shamayim vaaretz.” See similarly Job 38:33 and Psalm 148:6. The movements of the sun, moon and stars are fixed. (In modern times, we call them “the laws of nature.”)

Also, the various biblical holidays are called “chukat olam” in parshat Emor. See Leviticus 23: 14, 21, 31 and 41. They are called “chukat” because they occur on fixed dates and on a regular yearly basis. With the addition of “olam,” they are not just being described as fixed and long-lasting; they are being described as eternal as well. (“Chukat olam” is used to describe many laws in Tanach. There is a view that a “chok” is essentially “eternal’ by definition. See Cheshek Shlomo of Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim, died 1814, pages 227-28. “Olam” is just making clear what was implicit already.)

There are other cases where “chok” has a related meaning: a fixed amount. See, e.g., Exodus 5:14, “fixed amount” (of bricks). At Genesis 47:22, we have both meanings. Joseph purchased the land from the Egyptians, but we are told that he could not acquire the land belonging to the priests “because it is a ‘chok’ of the priests by Pharaoh that they eat ‘chukam’ that Pharaoh had given them.” Here “chok” means “fixed, unchanging law,” and “chukam” means something like “their fixed portion.”

At Genesis 47:26: “Joseph made it לחק until this day, on the land of Egypt, that a fifth should go to Pharaoh … ” “Lechok” here means “a fixed, unchanging law.” It is not “no known reason” that is the definition of a legal חק, but the fixed and unchanging nature of the law that must be obeyed. The best English translation might be “statute” or “decree.” See Vetus Testamentum 15, page 339. In the context of the “parah adumah,” there are many fixed and unchanging aspects to the procedures. That is why the word “chok” is used.

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Often we have a phrase like “chukim umishpatim,” or the feminine form: “chukot umishpatim.” How should we understand these categories? Consistent with what I suggested above, we could say “statutes/decrees, and legal decisions based on general societal principles of justice.”

But the original explanations for many of the categories do not work throughout Tanach and everyone should be able to admit that the meanings of the terms expanded over the centuries. For example, at some point “chukim umishpatim” may have come to be a general phrase that covers all the laws in a society.


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. He wrote on the word חק before and the above is an improved version based on R. Leibtag’s article. He thanks Abby Leichman for referring him to it.

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