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Torah Values and Torah Commandments


Translated by David Strauss



I. The Binding Power of Torah Values


The Torah obligates us to observe 613 mitzvot, to which the Sages added the mitzvot that are of rabbinic origin. It is very important to emphasize, however, that our obligations are not exhausted by the mitzvot. The Torah also embraces a system of values that impose obligations, even though they were never formally formulated as commandments.


Torat Kohanim states (Kedoshim, parasha 2; cited in Talmud Yerushalmi, Nedarim 9:4):


“And you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Vayikra 19:18). Rabbi Akiva says: This is a great principle in the Torah.

Ben Azai says: “This is the book of the generations of man” (Bereishit 5:1) – This is an even greater principle.


According to Ben Azai, the verse, “This is the book of the generations of man,” is an “even greater principle,” perhaps because it relates not only to the Jewish people, but to every person by virtue of his or her being human.[1] If, however, we are talking about “a great principle,” does it not seem more reasonable to choose a verse dealing with a mitzva, such as, “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself”? It seems, therefore, that while the verse, “This is the book of the generations of man,” does not constitute a mitzva; it represents a value that has binding force just like a mitzva.


            The Gemara in Makkot (23b-24a) states:


Rabbi Simla’i expounded: Six hundred and thirteen mitzvot were told to Moshe...

David came and condensed them to eleven, as it is written: “A Psalm of David. Lord, who shall abide in Your tent? Who shall dwell in Your holy hill? He that walks uprightly, and acts justly, and speaks the truth in his heart. He that does not slander with his tongue, nor does evil to his fellow, nor takes up a reproach against his neighbor. In whose eyes a vile person is despised; but he honors them that fear the Lord. He that swears to his own hurt, and changes not. He that does not put out his money on interest, nor takes a bribe against the innocent. He that does these things shall never be moved” (Tehillim 15:1-5)...

Yeshayahu came and condensed them to six, as it is written: “He that walks righteously, and speaks uprightly; he that despises the gain of oppressions, that shakes his hands from holding of bribes, that stops his ears from hearing of blood, and shuts his eyes from seeing evil” (Yeshayahu 33:15)...

Mikha came and condensed them to three, as it is written: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Mikha 6:8).


Rashi explains (ad loc.):


“And he condensed them to eleven.” At first [the people] were righteous, and they were able to accept upon themselves the burden of many mitzvot. But the later generations were not as righteous, so that had they presumed to observe them all, nobody would have been found worthy. Therefore, David came and condensed them [to eleven], so that they should be found worthy if they observe those eleven mitzvot. Similarly, later generations continued to reduce them.


            Even though Rabbi Simla’i opened with a reference to the 613 mitzvot, some of the things mentioned in connection with David, Yeshayahu, and Mikha – such as “walking humbly with God” and “shutting one’s eyes from seeing evil” – are not included among the six hundred and thirteen commandments! The verses cited here deal not only with mitzvot, but also with values – values that are an integral part of the Torah. Mikha reduced the 613 mitzvot to three values, and these values have binding force just like mitzvot.


            Rabbi Chayyim Vital develops a parallel idea regarding character traits (Sha’ar Kedusha I:2):


The good and bad traits depend on this soul; they are the seat, foundation, and root of the rational soul, upon which depend the 613 mitzvot... It is for this reason that the character traits are not included among the 613 mitzvot. They serve, however, as the primary preparation for the 613 mitzvot... because the rational soul is not strong enough to fulfill the 613 mitzvot through the 613 organs of the body, but only through the fundamental soul that is connected to the body itself... Hence, one must be more careful about bad traits than about fulfilling the positive or negative precepts. For when a person has good traits, he will easily fulfill all the mitzvot.


The Torah does not relate to positive character traits as commandments, but nevertheless Rabbi Chayyim Vital sees them as being even more basic and fundamental than observance of the mitzvot.


II. Values Derived from the Torah


Many values were not explicitly formulated as imperatives in the Torah, but nonetheless are an inseparable part of it. The value of gratitude is derived from the verse: “You shall not abhor an Egyptian, because you were a stranger in his land” (Devarim 23:8). Hospitality is not an explicit mitzva, but it too is derived from the Torah:


Hospitality is greater than receiving the Divine Presence, as it is written [when Avraham spied the three strangers while he was speaking with God] (Bereishit 18:3): “And he said, My Lord, if now I have found favor in Your sight, pass not away, I pray You, [from Your servant].” (Shabbat 127a)


The Gemara (Berakhot 19b) attempts to derive the value of human dignity – about which Chazal said: “So great is human dignity that it sets aside a negative commandment in the Torah” (ibid.) – from the law governing the behavior of the nazirite: “He shall not make himself unclean for his father, or for his mother, for his brother, or for his sister, when they die” (Bamidbar 6:7):


“Or for his sister” – what does the verse teach? If a person was going to slaughter his paschal offering or to circumcise his son, and he heard that a relative died, should he return and make himself unclean? It says: “He shall not make himself unclean.”

Do we say that just as he does not make himself unclean for them, so he does not make himself unclean for a mitzva-corpse [a body with nobody available to bury it]? Therefore the verse says: “Or for his sister” – for his sister he does not make himself unclean, but he makes himself unclean for a mitzva-corpse.


The Gemara ultimately rejects this derivation, but we may still learn from here that in addition to explicit mitzvot, there are also values which may be derived from the Torah.


            There are also certain values that are derived from scriptural stories, through a study of biblical characters and their conduct. This seems to be the meaning of the following Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 60:8):


Rabbi Acha said: The ordinary conversation of the patriarchs’ servants is more pleasing [to God] than the Torah of their children. The incident involving Eliezer is two or three pages; it is stated [once as a narrative] and repeated [in Eliezer’s conversation]. Whereas [the laws governing] a creeping creature are an essential part of the Torah, but the law that its blood imparts ritual impurity like its flesh is only derived by way of an extraneous element in Scripture.


III. General Values


Over and above the specific values discussed above, the Torah also contains general values, which are also endowed with binding force. The Ramban comments on the verse, “And you shall do what is right and good” (Devarim 6:18):


Our Rabbis have a beautiful midrash on this verse. They have said: “[‘That which is right and good’] refers to compromise and going beyond the letter of the law.” The intent of this is as follows: At first, he [Moshe] stated that you are to keep His statutes and His testimonies which He commanded you, and now he is stating that even where He has not commanded you, give thought, as well, to do what is good and right in His eyes, for He loves the good and the right.

Now, this is a great principle, for it is impossible to mention in the Torah all aspects of man’s conduct with his neighbors and friends, and all his various transactions, and the ordinances of all societies and countries. But since He mentioned many of them – such as, “You shall not go up and down as a talebearer” (Vayikra 19:16); “You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge” (ibid., v. 18); “Neither shall you stand idly by the blood of your neighbor” (ibid., v. 16); “You shall not curse the deaf” (ibid., v. 15); “You shall rise up before the hoary head” (ibid., v. 32) and the like – He reverted to state in a general way that, in all matters, one should do what is good and right, including even compromise and going beyond the requirements of the law.

Other examples [of “good and right” behavior] are the Rabbis’ ordinances concerning the bar metzra (the prerogative of a neighbor to receive preference in buying a field adjacent to his, Bava Metzia 108a), and even what they said [concerning the desirability] that one’s youthful reputation be unblemished, and that one’s conversation with people be pleasant (Yoma 86a). Thus, [a person must seek to refine his behavior] in every form of activity, until he is worthy of being called “good and upright.”


Another general value is that ensuring that “[The Torah’s] ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace” (Mishlei 3:17). The Gemara makes use of this principle in several places, giving it clear halakhic weight. For example, the Gemara rejects the possibility that the verse, “branches of palm trees, and the boughs of thick leaved trees” (Vayikra 23:40), refers to thorny plants, because such an identification would contradict the value that the Torah’s ways be pleasant (Sukka 32a-b).


            In a similar vein, Rambam writes at the end of Hilkhot Chanuka (4:14):


If such a poor man needs oil for both a Shabbat lamp and a Chanuka lamp, or oil for a Shabbat lamp and wine for Kiddush, the Shabbat lamp should have priority for the sake of domestic peace, seeing that even a Divine name may be erased to make peace between husband and wife. Great indeed is peace; the whole of the Law was given to bring peace upon the world, as it is said: “Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace” (Mishlei 3:17).


            Values such as these guided halakhic authorities in many cases throughout the generations.[2] It is important to be aware of the existence of these and other values, for they must be taken into account in practical decision-making.


            In extreme cases, certain values are so important that they overpower, at least temporarily, the obligation to perform certain mitzvot, when a contradiction arises between a value and a mitzva. This is the meaning of the rule: “It is time to act for the Lord; they have made void Your Torah” (Tehillim 119:126), mentioned, for example, in Mishna Berakhot (9:5):


It was also enacted that greetings should be given in [God’s] name... And it also says: “It is time to act for the Lord; they have made void Your Torah” (Tehillim 119:126). Rabbi Natan says: [This means] they have made void Your Torah because it is time to act for the Lord.


Rashi offers the following explanation (Berakhot 54a):


We must sometimes void the words of the Torah in order to act for the Lord. Here, too, one who intends to greet his fellow fulfills the will of God, as it says: “Seek peace and pursue it” (Tehillim 34:15). He is permitted to void the Torah and do something that appears to be forbidden.


The value of greeting one’s fellow is so important that it sets aside the prohibition of uttering God’s name. This value is not defined as a mitzva, but it is regarded as “the will of God.”


IV. “A Degenerate within the Confines of the Torah”


A lack of awareness regarding the importance of values, besides its effect on halakhic decision-making, is liable to lead to additional problems as well. One of the general values found in the Torah is the command: “You shall be holy” (Vayikra 19:2). Ramban, in his commentary to that verse, explains why this general command was necessary:


The meaning thereof is as follows: The Torah has admonished us against immorality and forbidden foods, but permitted sexual intercourse between man and his wife, and the eating of [certain] meat and wine. If so, a man of desire could consider this to be permission to be passionately addicted to sexual intercourse with his wife or many wives, and be among “winebibbers, among gluttonous eaters of flesh” (Mishlei 23:20), and speak all profanities freely, since this prohibition has not been [expressly] mentioned in the Torah, and thus he will become a degenerate within the confines of the Torah!

Therefore, after having listed the matters which God prohibited altogether, Scripture followed them up by a general command that we practice moderation even in matters which are permitted...

Similarly, he should keep himself away from impurity [in his ordinary daily activity], even though we have not been admonished against it in the Torah, similar to that which the Rabbis have said: “For the Pharisees, the  clothes of the unlearned are considered as if trodden upon by a zav” [or zava – a man or woman having suffered a flux] (Chagiga 18b), and just as the nazirite is called “holy” (Bamidbar 6:8) because he guards himself from the impurity of the dead. Likewise, one should guard one’s mouth and tongue from being defiled by excessive food and by lewd talk... And one should purify oneself in this respect, until one reaches the degree known as complete “self-restraint,” as the Rabbis said concerning Rabbi Chiyya, that never in his life did he engage in unnecessary talk.

It is with reference to these and similar matters that the general commandment [“You shall be holy”] is concerned, after He had enumerated all individual deeds which are strictly forbidden, so that cleanliness of hands and body are also included in this precept, just as the Rabbis have said: “And you shall sanctify yourselves” – this refers to the washing of hands before meals. “And you shall be holy” – this refers to the washing of hands after meals... For although these [washings] are commandments of rabbinic origin, Scripture’s main intention is to warn us of such matters, so that we should be [physically] clean and ritually [pure], and separated from the common people who soil themselves with luxuries and unseemly things.


            Ramban notes that it is possible to observe all the mitzvot of the Torah, but nevertheless live a lifestyle that is totally contrary to Torah values. A person who conducts his life in this manner is “a degenerate within the confines of the Torah.” His path in life follows from the mistaken belief that the Torah gives binding force only to the formal mitzvot, but not to values.


            We see this danger in the words of the Gemara in Kiddushin (31a-b):


Avimi the son of Rabbi Abahu taught: One can feed his father pheasants, and it drives him out of the world; and one can make his father grind in the mill, and it brings him to life in the world-to-come.


Rashi explains:


“Pheasants” – a valuable and fatty fowl, the species that fell in the wilderness.

“And it drives him out of the world” – he is punished for it, because he eyes [his father] enviously regarding the meal.

“And it brings him to the world-to-come” – because he shows him honor by speaking nice and consoling words, and he casts the work upon him in a gentle tone, showing him that it is a present necessity because they cannot support themselves without this tiring work.

The Yerushalmi cites an incident for each of them:

“An incident involving one who would feed his father pheasants. Once, his father said to him: ‘From where do you have all this?’ He said to him: ‘Old man, what do you care, grind and eat,’ i.e., chew and eat, thus showing how hard it was for him.

Another incident involving one who would grind in the mill. He had an elderly father, whom the king summoned for the king’s work. His son said to him: ‘Father, you grind, and I will go in your stead for the king’s work, which has no set limit.’”


            This passage highlights the fact that the formal fulfillment of a mitzva that does not give expression to its underlying value is liable to be very negative, whereas an act that is not a formal mitzva can be very meaningful, when accompanied by some expression of a value that the mitzva wishes to realize.


V. The Need for Both Systems


If values have binding force like mitzvot, why then were we not commanded about values in a direct manner, as we were commanded about the mitzvot? I wish to suggest an answer to this question, based on the words of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook (Iggerot Ha-Ra’aya, letter 89, p. 97):


Indeed, the Patriarchs fulfilled the Torah out of free, internal recognition. This benefit should not be missing from a great part of the moral realm. This is the foundation of the hidden parts [of the Law] that emerge as traits of piety and actions that go beyond the letter of the law. For had they come as mandatory Halakha, they would have blurred the fixed guidelines, going ahead and illuminating for all generations...

That aspect of morality which must arise out of charity and the love of kindness must always be the greater part of general positive morality, just as the open air is in comparison with the buildings and cultural activities in them; it is impossible that they should not leave it a very broad expanse.

That which must attach itself [to the Law] through voluntary giving of the spirit and freedom of the good will must come as an act of piety. One cannot measure the magnitude of the loss that human culture would suffer if these exalted virtues were set as fixed obligations.  Only that which is most essential for present physical and moral life, and which, if weakened, harms the roots of the future, becomes law, and [of this it is written,] “Greater is he who is commanded and acts.” But that which penetrates to the depth of good as it stands and spreads as dew of life... merits to be fixed as voluntary and love of kindness. This is the fate of [duties] “beyond the letter of the law,” which will be of great benefit when man’s heart of stone will turn into a heart of flesh.

Therefore, that part which remains beyond the letter of the law must perforce remain in that state. As humanity elevates itself, the qualities of piety will go out from the private to the public domain, and will belong to the entire people, and “all your children shall be taught by the Lord.”


            The ideal situation would have been for man to fulfill all the mitzvot out of internal motivation, in the manner of the Patriarchs, and not out of coercion. God anticipated which things man should fulfill out of coercion, and which out of internal identification. Those things that were left in the category of “pious behavior” and were not formally established as mitzvot, remain connected to the moral development of the people. It is of great importance that values stemming from moral characteristics should flow from man’s internal self, and not from any external imperative.


            Restricting oneself to formal adherence to the defined commandments and codified law is likely to come at the cost of developing moral aspirations for justice and uprightness. If the religious world of the individual Jew and the Jewish people as a whole is restricted to formal molds, it will strangle feelings of justice and uprightness. Leaving room for the moral personality of the individual and the nation may lead to worship of God out of full moral identification.



[1] This is the way the passage was understood by the Korban Ha-Eda commentary on the Yerushalmi, ad loc. For alternative explanations, see Penei Moshe, ad loc., and the commentaries by Ra’avad and attributed to Rash of Sens on Torat Kohanim, ad loc.

[2] See, for example, Encyclopedia Talmudit, vol. IV, pp. 712-715, s.v., darkhei no’am.

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