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      It is well known that Rambam, Shemona Perakim, Chapter 6 distinguishes between two types of mitzvot, those that he categorizes as mitzvot sichliyot and those he defines as chukim. The former are the commands that we theoretically understand such as the prohibitions of murder and theft; the latter are those for which we cannot fathom a reason such as shatnez, the prohibition of wearing wool and linen together, and the various laws of kashrut, the dietary prohibitions. Rambam then goes on to explain why this distinction in defining and therefore relating to God’s commands is important: the two categories are to serve different purposes. Through the mitzvot sichliyot, we are to sharpen our sense of ethics, thereby improving our ability to make correct ethical and moral decisions in situations where the law may not provide a clear direction. Within this category, our own perceptions of an act are to be correlated with that of the mitzvah.1 Part of the goal of the mitzvah sichliya is the integration of the reason for the mitzvah into our psyche and this understanding is also to direct us to observe the law. With the chukim, however, as Rambam himself states, we are, for example, not to refrain from eating a non-kosher item because we are repulsed by the item and/or the idea of eating it. In fact, we are even to perceive eating this food object as something quite tempting. We are to refrain simply because this is God’s command; our own perceptions of the act need not be correlated with that of the mitzvah. We observe chukim for no other reason except to fulfill God’s Will; our focus is that these commands are the directives of God and our observance declares our commitment to Him.

            Pursuant to this theory of categorization, it would seem that mitzvot are thus to be seen as meeting one of two distinct objectives. Some are to teach the value incorporated in the mitzvah activity itself; others are to convey the value of simply listening to God. The further implication would seem to be that these two goals are mutually exclusive. The wealth of further study on this subject, however, seems to indicate that what Rambam is really introducing is a dialectic that actually permeates throughout all the mitzvot. Defining a mitzvah as within one category or the other was not meant to describe it as absent the quality inherent in the other category; categorization simply was to reflect the more recognizable characteristic. As such, even as one observes a mitzvah sichliya there is to be the recognition of the significance that one is thereby simply also fulfilling the Will of God. Similarly, even in regard to the chukim, people are still to strive to find reasons for these commands and to integrate these reasons into their ethical consciousness even as this task seems to be beyond us.

            This would seem to be even evidenced by Rambam, Moreh Nevuchim, Section 3 as, in his investigation of the reasons for the commandments, he also attempts to find rational explanations for chukim, even asserts the absolute requirement to do so. A further question emerges, though, for in his explanation of the concept of chukim, he specifically mentions that, to truly recognize that one is following the law because one is so commanded by God, it is important that one not be disgusted by, for example, something not kosher. One should say that one could eat this non-kosher item, even be interested in eating it, but simply cannot because God forbids it. Yet, if one is to discover the reason for the prohibition, would that not result in the person also no longer wishing to eat this food? How can one experience these two conflicting emotions of not being repulsed by non-kosher food yet, on moral grounds, not wishing to eat it at the same time?

            Within Rambam’s approach to ta’amei hamitzvot, reasons for the commandments, we can observe a distinction between what we may term a gavra, person (or subject), focus in the explanation and what we may term a cheftza, object, focus. This distinction may be applicable in this case and resolve this question. Rambam, in presenting reasons for the mitzvot dealing with the laws of non-kosher foods, often explains how the discipline of applying restraint in responding to one’s appetite-drives is beneficial to the individual -- a gavra approach -- rather than describing the negative quality of the prohibited food item itself, a cheftza approach.2 The possible result, as such, is that one could learn a value benefit through internalizing such a reason for the law while still recognizing that the declaration of this particular item as the one prohibited is only a result of the specific Will of God. I may recognize that there is a discipline value in restricting my choice of foods but as to why it is pork that is prohibited, that is solely because it is the Will of God. One may view the non-kosher item as tempting yet still recognize the value of discipline.

            A challenge to this approach, however, may still arise from the Torah’s very introduction of the general laws of kashrut in Vayikra, Chapter 11, There clearly seems to be an indication within these verses that we are to look upon at least some non-kosher items with disgust.3 The dominant term that is used in this chapter to describe objects of prohibition or negativity, though,  is tamei, often translated as impure but actually reflecting its own unique status most often connected to a bar to involvement in the Temple or its service. In that the Torah actually seems to be creating its own category of negativity, it may be that what the Torah is inherently doing is directing us to also create for ourselves a new category of a cheftza to which we are to maintain negative emotions, even a defined feeling of disgust. We are not to be disgusted by these food items for all the regular reasons that individuals feel negative towards a certain object. On that level, we are even to feel a desire to eat this object. It is not, however, that the Torah is simply then directing us to not eat this object. The Torah is furthermore directing us to feel disgust for this object, a disgust albeit of a different nature which we accept as per the direction of God.

            It is within this context that we can perhaps fully understand the comments of Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch on this chapter in the Chumash. Rabbi Hirsch clearly indicates that we are to experience a disgust in regard to some non-kosher foods but he develops a new understanding of this category of negativity. Somehow we are to be repelled by non-kosher foods because of their inference about the human condition. What he seems to be saying is that such foods are to be recognized as cheftzas that embody the gavra principles of these mitzvot. There is a value in Torah discipline. We are, though, not just to refrain from eating the non-kosher food object. It is to represent the lack of this discipline and we are, as such, to be disgusted by it.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht



1 For example, our own negative ethical emotions towards murder correlate with the Torah’s prohibition

2 Rambam, Moreh Nevuchim 3:38, while presenting what we have termed gavra explanations for the food prohibitions of the Torah, does, however, still also present some reasons that focus on a negative quality in some prohibited foods. The focus of these explanations would clearly seem to make someone uninterested in eating this food aside from the Divine command and so the apparent difficulty does still continue. We leave this quandary to the reader to further consider.

3 The Hebrew word sheketz found throughout this chapter is generally translated as abomination.

Nishma 2012


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