The Mishnah (Brachot 5:3) teaches us that if someone adds to their prayers “You are so compassionate and merciful that Your mercy extends to the birds nest” (a reference to Devarim 22:6-7) then we silence them. The Gemara(Brachot 33b) gives two reasons why this addition to prayers is inappropriate:
They instil jealousy in the acts of creation by suggesting that Hashem has mercy on birds but not on other creatures.
They render this mitzvah into an act of mercy, whereas in reality the mitzvot are Gezeirot – divine decrees with no reasons, to which we must submit our will.
However, the Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim III:48) explains that the reason for the mitzvah to send away the mother bird before taking the young or the eggs, is to ensure that the mother does not see its young slaughtered because this would cause great anguish. The Rambam gives the same reason for the prohibition against slaughtering an animal and its young on the same day (Vayikra 22:28).
How does the Rambam deal with the second reason of the Gemara that says that all mitzvot are Gezeirot? The Rambam explains that this is only one approach of Chazal and we hold by the opposite view – i.e. that there are reasons for all of the mitzvot.
The Ramban(Commentary on Devarim 22:6) provides three alternative reasons for this mitzvah of sending away the mother bird.
The mitzvah is not given out of compassion for the bird, but in order for us to mould our characters and to instil in us the trait of mercy.
We are permitted to slaughter members of a species but we cannot destroy an entire species. The mitzvah of sending away the mother bird and the prohibition against slaughtering an animal and its young on the same day are in order to distance us from causing destruction within a species.
A kabbalistic explanation that is beyond the scope of this article (and beyond the scope of my understanding).
However, these commentaries leave us with a question. Is the correct approach for us to seek to understand the reasons behind the mitzvot, or should we rather look upon them solely as Gezeirot to which we must submit our will?
Many great sages have devoted considerable effort to fathom the reasons behind the mitzvot. Arguably, if we have an understanding of the reasons behind the mitzvot, our performance of the mitzvot can be deeper and richer. It also becomes easier for us to perform mitzvot with greater kavana. Additionally, the underlying reasons for the mitzvot can teach us lessons in hashkafa and ethical behaviour. On the other hand, the term for ‘reasons for the mitzvot’ in Lashon Hakodesh is ‘Ta’amei Hamitzvot’, ta’am meaning taste. Although the taste of food adds immeasurably to the experience of eating, it is not the ikar (essence). Only the nutrients and calories contained in food are necessary for survival. Similarly, it can be argued that although appreciating reasons underlying the mitzvot can add immeasurably to our experience in performing the mitzvot, the reasons are not the ikar -ultimately we perform the mitzvot only because Hashem commanded us to.
When we try to understand the reasons behind the mitzvot, we may risk concluding that we understand the single underlying rationale for a mitzvah’s existence. To suggest that we are able to plumb the depths of the Divine will and understand the sole or ultimate reason for a mitzvah is chutzpah. As finite beings with limited understanding it is impossible for us to fully grasp the ways of the Infinite Being. In addition, if we think that we understand the reason for a mitzvah, there is a danger that we may rationalise that the reason does not apply to us. For example, some argue that the rationale for kashrut is health and that pork was forbidden long ago because it can harbour trichinosis if not properly cooked. If this is believed to be the sole reason, then it might be concluded that modern hygiene means that pork can now be safely consumed, and the prohibition no longer applies.
Notably, there are some passages in the Torah where a reason for a mitzvah is explicitly revealed. A king should not take too many wives so that his heart does not turn away and a king should not acquire too many horses so that he does not cause the people to return to Egypt (where the best horses came from) (Devarim 17:16-17). The Gemara (Sanhedrin 21a) highlights the danger of focusing on the reasons behind the mitzvot by pointing out the failing of Shlomo HaMelech. The wisest man in the world stumbled over these two mitzvot (see Melachim I 11:4 and Melachim I 10:29) because he thought that he could avoid those traps without having to keep these mitzvot.
* For more on “Sending Away the Mother Bird” see Volume 5 Issue 20.
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