5770 - #26


Acharei Mot / Kedoshim

           In The March for Israel Parade and Halachic Decision Making, Nishma Update, June 1993,1 I raised the question of whether the arayot, the major Torah sexual transgressions,2 should be categorized as chukim, Divine ordinances that are beyond human comprehension such as kashrut or shatnez, or as mitzvot sichliyot, laws that we can rationally understand such as murder or theft. It would seem, from a perusal of Jewish sources, the question is actually not so simple. Rambam, Shemona Perakim, Chapter 6, in introducing this very distinction in the mitzvot, includes the arayot in the former category, chukim. T.B. Yoma 67b, where this distinction between mitzvot seems to originate, places them in the latter category, mitzvoth sichliyot.3 This ambiguity is most significant. If the distinction between these categories was a simple factor of the human ability to grasp the meaning or purpose of various mitzvot, we would have a clear yardstick by which to determine categorization. This ambiguity would, thus, seem to indicate that this yardstick is actually not so simple.

            One may contend from the outset, though, that the very attempt to categorize all the issurim, prohibitions, of arayot as a group within one category is itself the problem. It just may be that some of the prohibitions are chukim and some are mitzvot sichliyot. While Ramban 18:6 questions what could be the possible reason for some of the arayot prohibitions,4 therefore concluding that these laws must be chukim, in 18:21, in regard to homosexuality and bestiality, he simply states that the reason for these prohibitions is well known, implying, it would seem, that they are mitzvot sichliyot. Maybe the different sexual transgressions simply have to be categorized independently. In his presentation of reasons for the commandment forbidding any type of sexual contact between the various arayot, Chinuch, Mitzvah 188 specifically states that an explanation for the prohibition of adultery may not be applicable to a prohibition of incest. The meaning behind these variant laws would seem to be, in many ways, essentially different. This would seem to further support an argument that the various arayot prohibitions should be philosophically investigated in an independent manner. Nonetheless, the arayot do seem to form their own unique category, banding these various commands together.5 The language that seems to categorize these variant sexual transgressions together as a group and, as such, philosophically approaches these laws as a group cannot, in my opinion, be simply ignored.

            What ultimately defines a chok or mitzvah sichliya? By extension, we may ask: how are ethical standards established? One answer is, of course, Revelation: we are told what is right or wrong by God. A chok would, as such, seem to be a mitzvah, thus an ethical and/or moral standard, the sole knowledge of which is a command from God, i.e. Revelation. A human being independently would never, perhaps, even consider such a standard. The further question, though, is: how does a human being, in any event, arrive independently at any standard?

            The other answer to how moral laws are determined is, of course, that they are formulated by human beings. But what exactly is this process of determination? What first comes to mind is a process of thought – the secular philosophical study of ethics. We arrive at certain standards because our thought processes have arrived at the conclusion that they are necessary for the functioning of society. Murder is a good example of such a law. It can be easily argued that, without a prohibition of murder, society would be chaotic and, ultimately, inherently destroy itself. A mitzvah sichliya would, thus, seem to be a mitzvah, thus an ethical or moral standard, for which we also have an independent argument from thought. Yet, on a personal level, are our internal moral standards really a product of such thought?

            When most individuals consider the difference between a chok or a mitzvah sichliya, their real criteria is whether they have a personal, moral response, emotion or feeling to the behaviour. Murder upsets us; we feel repugnance towards a murderer. That, to us, is what defines murder as a mitzvah sichliya. In distinction, a chok does not generate this type of response. We do not feel the same negativity to one who violates a chok. Given this realization, the question now exists, though, whether these two criteria for the distinction between these two categories inherently mesh? In the case of murder, it would seem that they do. We have an argument in thought that it is wrong and we feel this personal repugnance. It is thus easy to define murder as a mitzvah sichliya. But what happens when these two criteria do not mesh?

            This would seem to describe the case of the arayot. Chinuch, Mitzvah 35 states that we understand these laws as fundamental in ensuring that the world functions as God intended although, it would seem, we don’t really know why God wishes the world to function this way. We have some understanding of the purpose of these laws but not a complete understanding which would have given cause for humanity to have independently created such laws. He then concludes by pointing out how our inherent nature includes responses that also support these laws. We have internal feelings towards these laws even though we don’t necessarily intellectually understand them – and humanity has legislated based upon these feelings. The ambiguity we have uncovered in how to categorize the arayot would seem to actually reflect an inherent perplexity in these laws. It is this perplexity, though, that may be the ultimate challenge to which we must respond as we continue our observance and Divinely-commanded investigation of these laws.                                                                                                             Rabbi Benjamin Hecht



1 Also available online at

2 These include adultery, incest, homosexuality and bestiality.

3 Although we have applied the term mitzvah sichliyot to the gemara’s classification, it is actually solely the Rambam who uses this phrase. The term actually used by the gemara is the more familiar one of mishpatim. While we have assumed mishpatim and mitzvot sichliyot to be one and the same, given the difference in how Rambam and the gemara categorize the arayot, we may begin to wonder if they actually are. This could be significant in regard to our further discussion.

4 It may be of interest to note, that in challenging variant rational reasons presented for some of the arayot prohibitions, Ramban specifically focuses on the reasons presented by Rambam, Moreh Nevuchim 3:49. It is through challenging these reasons that Ramban concludes that the arayot must be chukim. As we have previously noted, though, Rambam himself still also categorized them as chukim.

5 For example, it is as a group that all these laws are subject to the rule of yehereg v’al ya’avor, that once must sacrifice his/her life rather than transgress. See Ranbam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 5:1,2.

5 It is, for example, the grouping as a whole that is subject to the rule of yehereg v’al ya’avor, that one must sacrifice one’s life rather than transgress. See Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 5:1,2.

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