Parashah of the week: Va'etchanan

“Do not add to the matter I command you” Deuteronomy 4:2


Based on this verse, one of the 613 commandments of the Torah codified by the halachists, is that it is prohibited to add more rules to the Torah. We must ensure the wholesomeness of the Torah is kept intact.

How many obligations do we have in Judaism that are not commanded by the Torah, but by the talmudic sages? Plenty. The vast majority of mitzvot in the Torah have some rabbinic fence. How then do we understand the aforementioned commandment?

Rambam offers the following rationale: rabbinic enactments do not violate this prohibition because they were instituted as rabbinic enactments rather than Torah law itself (Mishneh Torah, Mamrim 2:9). The sages made no attempt, and no attempt should ever be made, to endow their legislation with the status of biblical law.

Indeed, rabbinic enactments are treated more leniently than Torah law in several respects, most prominently in situations of doubt: with Torah commandments, when there is a doubt we assume the stringent position, whereas with rabbinic law we assume the lenient position.

On this reading, the additional safeguards the Hachamim made are essential as a fence for the upkeeping of Torah, but they must never be presented as a biblical law itself.

Rambam uses the example of the prohibition of consuming poultry with dairy. The Torah prohibited only the consumption of animal meat with dairy.

If a person says that the Torah prohibited poultry with dairy, he has violated the prohibition of adding to the Torah. The correct presentation of this law would be to say that the Torah prohibited meat and dairy, and the sages prohibited poultry with dairy to ensure people would not consume meat with dairy.

This is the mistake Adam made with Eve. God told Adam not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. In his desire to ensure Eve would stay away from the tree, Adam informed Eve that God had told him not to eat or touch the tree. When Eve touched the tree and nothing occurred, she went on to eat from it. Had Adam clarified that the injunction not to touch the tree was his own and not God’s, history may have played out differently.

This is why the Talmud will often deliberate as to the origins of instructions we have in Judaism. As Jews, we have a duty to study and understand the glorious religion we have.

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