The Commandments and their Reasons as Hardware and Software: Toward a Materialist Understanding of Mitsvot

In this post I want to continue exploring new metaphors for talking about aspects of Judaism (an exploration I started here). Specifically, I want to look at what it might mean if we think of the commandments and their reasons (traditionally referred to as “ta’amei hamitsvot”) as analogous to hardware and software, respectively. This analogy will enable us to draw out and discuss various aspects of the commandments and their reasons, and the relationship between the two.

To clarify a little what I mean by the terms “hardware” and “software,” hardware is the physical devices we interact with in order to access software, while software, the thing we actually want to access, can only be accessed via hardware. I use my computer to access Microsoft Word; using Word is a goal that is only accessible via my computer. Similarly, once we say that the commandments have reasons (not uncontroversial in the history of Jewish thought), it makes sense to articulate reasons that can only be achieved via the commandments. If giving charity makes you a more generous person, “becoming a more generous person” is something that is only accessible via the generous act of giving charity. I therefore use charity to access “becoming a more generous person.”

However, while giving charity is one way of becoming a more generous person, it is certainly not the only way; similarly, my computer is not the only device with which I can access Word. We might therefore ask why we should use these specific pieces of hardware rather than any other. On one level, it’s worth noting that the question is not so fair. Sure you could use any device, but you have to use one, no matter which one it is. So you might justify the one that you use based on simply having to pick one, rather than any specific traits about it. Charity is as good a way as any to become a more generous person.

You also might justify your choice of hardware based on the fact that it is the one you have. Maybe you got it as a present, maybe it’s the one that all of your friends had, maybe you just found it lying on the curb and took it home; however it came to you, now you have it and it is yours. Barring significant issues with the device that interfere with its functioning, this alone is enough to justify using it, as opposed to switching to some other device. I have my phone, I like it, I identify with it, it’s mine. Sure the screen is cracked and the battery-life is stress-inducing, but I identify with its flaws as much as its functions. Moreover, having to pick out and purchase a new phone would be a difficult process.

This leads us toward Maimonides’s historicist conception of the commandments, and their relationship with the idolatrous rituals of ancient Israel’s neighbors. Maimonides argues that human nature cannot change rapidly, that it must be shifted gradually, and that God therefore gave the Israelites commandments that were the same or incredibly similar to the idolatrous forms of worship they were already familiar with. If the ancient Israelites wanted to “access” worship, they would inevitably turn to the “device” animal sacrifice, simply because it’s the one with which they were most familiar and comfortable, and so God accommodated this fact of human nature (Guide for the Perplexed, 3:32). This, Maimonides argued, despite the fact that animal sacrifice has noticeable drawbacks, and prayer or silent meditation would work much better. Sacrifice worked, however, and it was the hardware they already had.

If Maimonides conception assumes the difficulty of changing “hardware,” it assumes  some more ease in changing software. Animal sacrifice used to run “worship pagan pantheon X” and was now being used to run “worship YHWH, the one god.” This holds true to our analogy to software, which was always replaced more easily than hardware, particularly now that even major upgrades and shifts in operating systems can be achieved via the internet.

This brings us to an important point: software is not self-justifying. I use my phone to access WhatsApp, but I don’t use WhatsApp just for the sake of using WhatsApp, I use it for communicating with other people. If a certain piece of software isn’t getting the job done, I am likely to replace it. Moreover, because software is replaced so easily, it is not as easy to hold onto it simply“because it’s mine,” as in the case of hardware.

The analogy to reasons for commandments here is a bit tricky, but I think also important. Commandments are, as I have said, intended for the sake of the reasons for the commandments. But are those reasons for anything outside themselves? I think they are. I think we should understand reasons for the individual commandments as pivoting around larger ideals, such as holiness, morality, covenant, etc. The reasons for individual commandments serve to give us “access” to the larger ideals, much the same way as the commandments themselves give us “access” to the reasons for the commandments.

This is important for the way it enables us to view the historic assertions of reasons for the commandments, some of which we have moved well away from today (for a good example of this regarding the laws of Niddah, see Jonah Steinberg’s “From a Pot of Filth to a Hedge of Roses”). If there is one reason to which a given commandment is meant to provide access, then debates and differences of opinion in regard to the reason for that commandment require deciding who is right and who is wrong. However, if we conceptualize the reasons for the commandments as tools for accessing the larger ideals, then different reasons can coexist without one needing to be “the right one.” Moreover, in changing historical circumstances, with the people already used to certain actions and thought processes, different reasons might be just what is necessary to access the same larger ideal. Whether the details of commandments are based on the ritual worship of the Israelites’ neighbors (Maimonides) or on strict symbolism (Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch), both reasons are part of shaping the life of the nation in relation to God (cf. Rav Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, Shemoneh Kevatsim, 2:54-57). Because the reasons are not ends in and of themselves, they can be replaced when they are not serving their function and we can change between them as necessary. Moreover, different people use their phones and computers for different things, and different people can perform the commandments for different reasons. People even generally use their hardware to access a variety of softwares, and there’s no reason that the commandments and their reasons could not work similarly.

By way of conclusion, I would like to take note of how this analogy structures the relationship between the commandments and their reasons. In a sense, it makes the reasons more primary. The commandments exist and are performed for the sake of the reasons. However, the reasons themselves serve larger ideals and are easily replaceable. The commandments themselves, on the other hand, have a significant presence in the life and laws of the people, and thus are not easily replaceable. This very real presence, and the difficulty it would create in trying to change the commandments, make the commandments more primary. Barring gradual change, the physical commandments are sticking around, while their reasons may shift. This emphasis on the primacy of the physical actions that make up the commandments in the historical life of the nation leads me to call this a materialist understanding of mitsvot. This approach also puts an emphasis on the shifting historical situation of the nation and the way it shapes the reasons for the commandments. The Jewish people have carried these actions with us through various contexts over the millennia, and we have been different in these various contexts. The commandments therefore have served, and continue to serve, different reasons at different times and for different people, just as different people use their hardware for different softwares.



Vayikra Rabbah 30:12 – Identity vs. Actions

There is an oft-quoted midrash that most people are familiar with about how the four species, one of Sukkot’s most notable mitsvot, correspond to four different types of people found in the nation of Israel. This midrash is often quoted to talk about the value of diversity or how ever Jew has a place within Judaism, ideas that are important, to be sure, but ones that I think miss the power of how the midrash follows up the typology of Israelite-flora correspondences. Below is the text of the midrash and an English translation,[1] after which I will examine some of the neglected lines, without pretending to exhaust the meaning of this midrash.

דבר אחר: פרי עץ הדר, אלו ישראל. מה אתרוג זה, יש בו טעם ויש בו ריח. כך ישראל, יש בהם בני אדם, שיש בהם תורה, ויש בהם מעשים טובים. כפות תמרים, אלו ישראל. מה התמרה הזו, יש בו טעם ואין בו ריח. כך הם ישראל, יש בהם שיש בהם תורה ואין בהם מעשים טובים. וענף עץ עבות, אלו ישראל. מה הדס, יש בו ריח ואין בו טעם.כך ישראל, יש בהם שיש בהם מעשים טובים ואין בהם תורה. וערבי נחל, אלו ישראל. מה ערבה זו, אין בה טעם ואין בה ריח. כך הם ישראל, יש בהם בני אדם שאין בהם לא תורה ולא מעשים טובים. ומה הקב”ה עושה להם? לאבדן אי אפשר, אלא אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא יוקשרו כולם אגודה אחת, והן מכפרין אלו על אלו, ואם עשיתם כך אותה שעה אני מתעלה, הדא הוא דכתיב (עמוס ט): הבונה בשמים מעלותיו. ואימתי הוא מתעלה? כשהן עשויין אגודה אחת, שנאמר (שם): ואגודתו על ארץ יסדה. לפיכך משה מזהיר לישראל: ולקחתם לכם ביום הראשון:

Another explanation: “The fruit of a beautiful tree” – these are [referring to] Israel. Just like this citron (etrog), which has taste and has smell, so too Israel has among them people that have Torah and have good deeds. “The branches of a date palm” – these are [referring to] Israel. Just like this date, which has taste and has no smell, so too Israel has among them those that have Torah but do not have good deeds. “And a branch of a braided tree (a myrtle)” – these are [referring to] Israel. Just like this myrtle, which has smell and has no taste, so too Israel has among them those that have good deeds but do not have Torah. “And brook willows” – these are [referring to] Israel. Just like this willow, which has no smell and has no taste, so too Israel has among them people that have no Torah and have no good deeds. And what does the Holy One, blessed be He, do to them? To destroy them is impossible, but rather the Holy One, blessed be He, said “bind them all together [into] one grouping and these will atone for those.” And if you will have done that, I will be elevated at that time. This is [the meaning of] what is written (Amos 9:6), “He Who built the upper chambers in the heavens” (indicating his elevation). And when is He elevated? When they make one grouping, as it is stated (Ibid.), “and established His grouping on the earth.” Hence Moshe warned Israel, “And you shall take for yourselves on the first day.”

The majority of the text of the midrash is taken up by laying out the correspondences one after the other. After the midrash gets to the last correspondence, however, it does not simply move on.

“And brook willows” – these are [referring to] Israel. Just like this willow, which has no smell and has no taste, so too Israel has among them people that have no Torah and have no good deeds. And what does the Holy One, blessed be He, do to them? To destroy them is impossible, but rather the Holy One, blessed be He, said “bind them all together [into] one grouping and these will atone for those.”

Faced with a category of Jews who do not have any meritorious actions, ritual or ethical, to their name, the midrash asks what God should do with such people. It raises the possibility that they should be destroyed by way of rejecting the possibility, in favor of proposing that national unity can enable “these” to “atone for those.”

The first point of note here is that the midrash is asking what should be done with such people. The question implies that the whole description of the various types of Jews isn’t just an exercise in description, or in midrashic creativity. There is a sense that some sort of Divine judgment[2] is at work, and this group of Jews have no merit that should enable them to survive. Presumably this is working off the way Sukkot comes hot on the heels of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, traditionally understood as a time of Divine judgment and forgiveness.

What’s interesting is that it is inconceivable that God would destroy this section of the Jewish people. Given that fact, God has to then justify their survival, which he does by way prescribing national unity. This national unity does more than simply justify their survival, however; it actually atones for these Jews.[3]

This is an important turn in the midrash. Just a few lines before, these Jews had not a single merit on their side, to the point where their survival of Divine judgment had to be justified by God himself. Now they have been atoned for.[4] They are now worthy to survive in and of themselves.

This leads to a different conception of Divine judgment than what the midrash started out with. The initial standard of evaluation used by the midrash was based on people’s actions, ritual and ethical, and to receive a positive evaluation was to have performed positive ritual or ethical actions. Now, however,  the midrash is suggesting that identity is an important factor in Divine evaluation. A Jew can be deemed meritorious not by virtue of actions they have performed, but by virtue of being part of the Jewish people.

“Being part of the Jewish people” is something of an ambiguous idea. It might just mean identifying as a Jew, without any external actions attached to that. Or it might mean that you have to express this identity in some way, likely in your relationship to your Jews. However, given that the midrash says they Jews don’t have any ethical or ritual actions to their merit, it seems likely that this national unity is just a function of internal identity. We thus emerge from the typological correspondences of the midrash with a standard of evaluation where, in order to survive Divine Judgment, you have to either have performed certain actions, or simply possess the identify as a part of the Jewish nation.

This unity of national identity is articulated not just as an ideal state by which to survive judgment, but as an instruction from God to the Jews to unite in order to make sure even the most marginalized survive judgment. To paraphrase, the Jews who have acted righteously are essentially told, “You want to save the rest of the Jews? Help them feel Jewish.” Importantly, they are not told to help the other Jews perform more mitsvot or to do more good in the world. That would potentially be a solution, moving the Jews of the fourth category, the “willow Jews,” into the previous floral categories But God, according to the midrash, does not take that route; God does not turn to what we typically think of as “kiruv.” It seems to be less important to God, at least for the purposes of the present Divine judgment, that the Jews perform ritual and ethical actions than that they identify as Jewish. The next line of the midrash takes it beyond just the practical needs of the present judgment, however.

And if you will have done that, I will be elevated at that time. This is [the meaning of] what is written (Amos 9:6), “He Who built the upper chambers in the heavens” (indicating his elevation). And when is He elevated? When they make one grouping, as it is stated (Ibid.), “and established His grouping on the earth.”

The unity of the Jews leads to the elevation of God. The identifying of all of the Jews as Jewish, more even than their performance of mitsvot, leads to the elevation of God. This unity is not just a practical move in order to help the Jews survive judgment; it is a goal unto itself. It might be argued that it is the survival of the Jews in judgment that elevates God, but the midrash preempts that argument by using a verse from Amos to explicitly link God’s elevation to Israel’s unity. It is thus the very fact of the Jews’ collective existence and identity that elevates God.

This may serve as an explanation for why God cannot destroy the meritless among the Jewish people. The midrash posits an inherent connection between the elevation of God (whatever that means) and the national body of the Jewish people. So destroying Jews, even just a small part of the larger collective, goes against God’s elevation.

This also leads to a sharp conclusion: It is more important that the Jews exist as a collective group with a shared identity than that Jews should perform specific actions. While this might seem strange to some, it is well grounded in an important idea from Tanakh. This is the idea that God sometimes saves the Israelite nation for the sake of God’s name.[5] God is connected to the bodily existence of the Jewish nation (a relationship of elevation, according to our midrash) so it’s destruction is something God has an active interest in avoiding. Thus even when the Israelites are sinning, to the point where they would merit destruction, God may still avert this destruction for the sake of God’s Name. This midrash can thus be seen as extending this idea to a new and exciting conclusion: it is not just the national collective that God is interested in saving for the sake of God’s name, but also individual Jews, meritorious or not.


Hence Moshe warned Israel, “And you shall take for yourselves on the first day.”

The midrash then funnels all of this theological momentum into the mitsvah of of the four species. The mitsvah is a reminder of the importance of Jewish identity. Regardless of the importance of what actions we do or not perform, the essential point is that we identify as part of the Jewish nation.


[1] Hebrew text and translation from

[2] Judgment in this article should be understood as shorthand for judgment of the Jews specifically.

[3] Due the the midrash’s use of inherently vague pronouns, it is possible to understand the midrash is suggesting that each type of Jew atones for some lack in all the others, and perhaps even that God has to justify not destroying all of different types of Jews. I find such a reading unlikely and forced, however, but rejecting that specific reading goes beyond the scope of this article.

[4] Notably, “atonement” usually has to do with removal of actual sin rather than a lack of merit. The midrash seems to assume that people who lack merit are inherently sinful, or are for sure also sinning, or something to that effect. Examining this understanding of merit and human nature would be an intriguing topic for a different composition.

[5] I have written about this theme in this essay.

Parashat Tetsaveh 5774 – The Tension Between Keva and Kavanah In The Mishkan

תָּמִיד לִפְנֵי יְ-הוָה לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם

The parshiyot of the Mishkan are peppered with examples of repeated words and phrases. Some of there because lots of parts of the Mishkan are similar, so the instructions are repeated. For example, “According to all that I show thee” (Shemot 25:9, 40; 27:8), or “round about” (Ibid 25:11, 23, 34, 35; 27:17; 28:32, 33, 34; 29:16, 20; 30:3; 37:2, 10, 11, 12, 26; 38:16, 20, 31; 39:23, 25, 26; 40:8, 33). However, there are other words or phrases that are repeated not out of functional necessity, but because they are key concepts that help us hone in on the purpose and nature of the Mishkan. In Parashat Tetsaveh there are three such phrases that stand out in particular, that of “תמיד”, “לדורותיכם”, and “לפני י-הוה ”. The phrase “לדורותיכם” shows up only five times in context of the instructions for and building of the Mishkan (Shemot 29:42; 30:8, 10, 31; 31:13), but the majority of the times it shows up in the Torah, outside of these parshiyot, it is in the context of the Mishkan and its rituals. “תמיד” shows up eight times in context of building of and instructions for the Mishkan (Ibid. 25:30; 27:20; 28:29; 28:38; 29:28, 42; 30:8), but of the eighteen times it shows up in the Torah as a whole, only once (Devarim 11:12) is it not in regards to the Mishkan and the rituals related to it[1]. The phrase “לפני י-הוה” is certainly the most commonly found of the phrases, showing up a grand total of 147 times in the Torah, of which 18 are in the parshiyot of the Mishkan in Sefer Shemot (Ibid. ), and over a hundred of which deal with Mishkan (or the Bet HaMikdash) and its rituals. These ideas are very strong themes of the Mishkan, and their repetition is meant to highlight that. The question that leads to, however, is what are these themes, and what do they mean? One might suggest that perhaps the two more dominant themes, תמיד and לפני י-הוה, are a manifestation of what Heschel called the dichotomy of Keva (קבע) and Kavanah (כוונה), Fixed Practice and Personal Intention, respectively.

Things that are Keva are fixed. They do not change. This means things like the rules of Halakhah, like the words of Tefillah. These things are established. This has a lot of advantages. The idea of Keva creates unity. When everyone is doing or saying the same thing, that creates a community. A minyan can only pray together because they’re all saying the same thing. Keva also creates consistency. When you can change what you do on a daily basis, often you do, and your actions become subject to human whim. Often, they fall away and are forgotten altogether. Thus Keva also ensures continuity. But it also has downsides. Keva tends to quash individuality and spontaneity, it leaves no room for real religious emotion. All the members of a minyan should be saying the same words, but if they’re all thinking the same things then they aren’t really davening[2]. When things are repeated day after day they can become bland and meaningless. If the entirety of a mitzvah is the physical process, then it hasn’t changed or affected the person doing it the way it ought to have. This is where Kavanah comes in.

Kavanah means personal intention. Kavanah is the soul of Halakhah, the true spirit of Tefillah. It is the meaning and emotion with which a person can imbue actions and words. Kavanah allows for a personal element. It allows for the individual to express their self. It creates a sense of freshness and renewal. It is the honest and meaningful religious experience. But it, too, has downsides. When all that matters is personal intention, the result is a sort of religious anarchy, with everyone doing their own thing. When Kavanah is the decisive factor, then you don’t practice or pray on the days when you don’t have Kavanah, which tends to leads to less and less prayer and practice. Taken to an extreme, the ideal of Kavanah totally rejects taking any form of action, which is certainly not a tenable position within Judaism. Neither one can be rejected out of hand; the goal is a balance, a sense of polarity.

For something to be Tamid (תמיד) is for it be consistent, or in other words, established. All of the actions in the Mishkan that are described as Tamid are things that are done according to a regular fixed cycle. And what could be more of a religious experience than something that is Lifnei Hashem (לפני י-הוה)? Thus, based on the dichotomy of Tamid and Lifnei Hashem, we can see this tension of Keva and Kavanah even in the Mishkan. The problem with this, however, is that Lifnei Hashem does not necessarily denote a religious experience.

The phrase “Lifnei Hashem” is often applied to the same actions or rituals as the term “Tamid.” This could means that the two ideas exist in tension within the same act, but it could also imply that Lifnei Hashem simply does not contradict Tamid, and that’s how they can both be applied to the same act. This would mean that while Tamid is still Keva, Lifnei Hashem cannot be Kavanah.

Taking a step back, this seems almost obvious. The Torah does not often communicate the content of religious experiences. This makes sense as the Torah, generally speaking, is a manifestation of Keva. The Torah speaks to the entirety of the nation, creating principles and actions for the entire community of Israel. The Torah has a heavy emphasis on Law. This is where Rashi is coming from when he asks why the Torah doesn’t simply start with the first time Bnei Yisrael receive a mitzvah. When the Torah does communicate ideas related to the religious experience, it does so obliquely, through terse statements[3] or woven into narrative form[4]. It does not speak straight out or clearly about Kavanah. So what then is the meaning of Lifnei Hashem?

Lifnei Hashem is a quality of these actions performed in the Mishkan. This is because, in a sense, all actions performed in the Mishkan are Lifnei Hashem. The purpose of the Mishkan is that is is where Bnei Yisrael go to stand before and in relation to ‘א. That is where His presence dwells (Shemot 25:8, 29:45). However, this is not an inherent quality of the Mishkan. ‘א does not dwell there by necessity. Rather ‘א is present in the Mishkan in order to meet with us (Ibid. 25:22, 29:43). This is essentially arbitrary. ‘א is in the Mishkan because ‘א said so, and thus these Tamid actions are Lifnei Hashem, because ‘א said so.

What this means for our dichotomy of Tamid and Lifnei Hashem is that it is not a dichotomy at all. Both terms are descriptions of the action, one describing it’s physical performance and the other referring to its nature. Tamid refers to their form and Lifnei Hashem speaks about their meaning. While still seeming somewhat simple, this is actually a revolutionary idea. People tend to assume that any action done consistently has no religious value. That automated, instructed, actions can be religious is the modern mind at the very least unlikely. In a certain sense, Kavanah has won out over and completely dominated Kavanah. People understand the importance of the religious experience, to the point of dismissing and denigrating consistent actions. In the vessels and rituals of the Mishkan, ‘א tells us, quite radically, that a regularly performed ritual can by itself exist before ‘א.

“Since the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, ‘א has no place in this world outside the 4 Amot of Halakha.”[5] The Halakha, the most archetypical example of Keva, is the replacement for the Mikdash in terms of the presence of ‘א. If you want to be Lifnei ‘א, you used to be able to just go to the Mikdash, or the Mishkan, and there you would stand before ‘א. Since the destruction of the Mikdash, ‘א is present in the acts and deeds of Halakha. Thus, even in the absence of Kavanah, Keva remains not just important, but as central to the life of Israel as the Mikdash once was. In the instructions for the Mishkan and it’s vessels, ‘א declares that it is through the specific actions that ‘א has lain before us that we relate to him. Despite the ultimate importance of personal intention and the religious experience, it is through Keva that we put ourselves in a relationship with ‘א.
[1] This example can also be read as being about the Mishkan, as it discusses the Land of Israel. Throughout the Torah, particularly in the second half of Sefer Vayikra, the terminology of the Mishkan is used in reference to Eretz Yisrael in order to create an equivalency there, an important underlying premise of Exile. For more on this, see the introductions to the Yale Anchor Bible Commentary: Leviticus, by Jacob Milgrom.

[2] This a general statement, but not an absolute one. Adding a personal prayer, said aloud, to the end of Shemoneh Esrei is not just allowed, it’s where Elohai Nitsor comes from.

[3] Classic examples include, “קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם”, “Ye shall be holy; for I the LORD your God am holy,” (Vayikra 19:2) and “וּבָחַרְתָּ בַּחַיִּים”, “therefore choose life,” (Devarim 30:19).

[4] This obviously includes everything before the first mitzvah is given, as per Rashi, but also such stories as the Blasphemer (Bamidbar 15), the Daughters of Tselophehad(Ibid. 27), and the Spies (Ibid. 13).

[5] Talmud Bavli Masekhet Berakhot 8a.