By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, March 6, 2009

Monty Pythons classic film, The Meaning of Life, translates into Hebrew as Taam Hachayim. An American newspaper recently (and nonsensically) translated an Israeli politician saying that there is no taam (sense) in the question as saying the matter has no taste.

These examples illustrate the expanded sense of the word taam, beyond the meanings of the English word taste, which is its dictionary translation. Taam does indeed mean taste, as in the sensory faculty that is located in the mouth, and is also the word used in the Hebrew equivalent of the expression theres no accounting for taste, denoting ones general likes and dislikes.

However, taam also means something like discernment, or commonsense reasoning. Medieval Jewish philosophy expanded and popularised the area of study known as taamei hamitzvot, usually translated as reasons for the commandments.

Maimonides writes that it is possible to find reasons for the Torahs commandments; they should not be taken as senseless, irrational decrees (Guide of the Perplexed 3:26). The contemporary thinker Rabbi Yeshayahu Kronman points out that using the word taam, rather than, say, sibah, for reason, suggests that the reasons we find are subjective, intuitive ones that make sense to us, rather than the divinely intended rationale behind the commandments.

Psalm 119:65 expresses a similar idea. Teach me good reason (taam) and knowledge, for I have believed in Your commandments. Understanding of the commandments flows best from commitment to them rather than from standing in judgment over them.

    Last updated: 12:31pm, March 6 2009