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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 she-ein taam le-davar.” 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 later, 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, it 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” and then expanded to mean “write.” (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/written down for a society to function.

Rav Hirsch explicitly rejects the “no known reason” approach in at least two places (commentary to Genesis 47:26 and Exodus 29:9). He realizes intuitively that it is not likely to be correct. Over the course of his many verse comments, he makes several attempts to understand חק on an etymological basis. But, I did not find his various attempts convincing.

If I, too, chose to reject the “no known reason” approach, what could be the explanation of this category of laws? I need to find an explanation that sounds reasonable and that has an etymological basis.

After reading many sources—traditional and non-traditional—I finally came across a good explanation. But, I would first like to mention some of the others that I had seen:

Tanhuma Chukat, section 8: The root חקק symbolizes the line that cannot be crossed when a law is enacted.

Radak, Sefer HaShorashim: “Chukim” are called by this name, because they reflect the details and results of litigation between fellow men and these must be written down.

Rav Hirsch, in his commentary to Genesis 26:5: “(From חקק), the rules which limit the exercises of the free-will of the senses, the laws of the morality and sanctity of the life of the body.” Commentary to Psalms 119:5: “The laws that assign the proper bounds to our physical drives.” See also his commentaries to Genesis 47:26, Exodus 29:9 and Deuteronomy 12:32.

A few times in Tanach, the word חק refers to the laws of nature. See, e.g., Job 38:33 and Psalms 148:6. Based on this, Rav Hertz gives an interesting interpretation of “et chukotai tishmoro” in Leviticus 19:19. Here, the context is כלאים—forbidden mixtures (different animals, different seeds, and wearing shatnez). The prohibition is that man should not go against the laws of nature. What God has ordained to be kept apart, man must keep apart. Of course, this explanation of חק works here, but would not work in most other contexts.

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After all that, what is the best explanation I could find for a legal חק? Let us look at Genesis 47:26: “Joseph made it לחק until this day, on the land of Egypt, that a fifth should go to Pharaoh …”

The root חקק originally meant “to engrave.” But when used for a law, the root must have expanded at some early stage to have the connotation of a “fixed law meant to last for a long time.” Laws that are engraved are meant to be longstanding or permanent. It is not arbitrariness that is the connotation of a legal חק, but the longstanding and unchanging nature of the new law that must be obeyed. The best English translation might be “decree.” I have seen this idea in one scholarly source (Vetus Testamentum 15, page 339). I have also seen it in the Cheshek Shlomo of Rav Pappenheim (died 1814), page 228.

Many times, we have the idioms “chok olam” and “chukat olam.” This is consistent with and, perhaps, extends what is already implied by calling the law a “chok/chukah.” It is being extended from the law of “longstanding duration” to “permanent.”

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Often, we have a phrase like “chukim u-mishpatim,” or the feminine form: “chukot u-mishpatim.” How should we understand these categories? Consistent with what I suggested above, we could say “decrees and societal legal principles.” (Some suggest “religious and civil” laws.) Also, everyone should be able to admit that the particular explanations for the categories are not going to work throughout the Tanach and that the meanings of the terms evolved over the centuries. At some point, “chukim u-mishpatim” and similar terms like “chukim u-mitzvot” may have come to be a general phrase that covers all the categories of laws.

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Even-Shoshan has separate entries for חק (male) and חקה (female). A hundred and twenty-nine entries in the first and 100 in the second. But he uses slightly different words, when he delineates the range of meanings.

Perhaps, there is a subtle difference that he is suggesting:

Here are some other meanings of the root חקק in Tanach: 1) at Michah 7:11, it probably means “land boundary;” 2) other times it means “limit,” e.g., Job 38:10, Proverbs 8:29, and Isaiah 5:14; and 3) several times, it means “fixed portion, quota.”

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I would like to acknowledge the post of Rabbi R.C. Klein of 7/6/19 for providing some of the sources.

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Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. As an attorney, he has extra insights into legal words.

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