Commentary for Shemini

21 Mar

The 613 Mitzvot in the Torah can generally be divided up into three categories: mishpatim, eidot, and chukim.  Mishpatim (often translated as “judgments”) are commandments that make sense to us on their own, and our society probably would have come up with them (or some close equivalent) without a directive from God.  These are usually prohibitions against mistreating others or laws such as “love thy neighbor as thyself” that encourage a society in which everyone gets along.

Eidot (“testimonials”) are laws that, while we would likely never have come up with them on our own, make sense when viewed through the context of our relationship with God.  Because God ceased to do creative labor on the seventh day, we, God’s people, also refrain from doing creative labor every seventh day.

The third category, chukim (often translated as “decrees”) is the one that usually gets to people.  The idea of Chukim is best illustrated by the second verse of this week’s maftir: “This is the decree of the law that the Lord has commanded (Num. 19:2).”  That’s it.  God said so, therefore you should do it.

Chukim are mitzvot that appear to be entirely arbitrary decisions made by God with no rational basis whatsoever.

These mitzvot tend to come in two categories: Lifestyle restrictions that dictate what you can and can’t wear or eat, such as the laws of keeping kosher, which appear for the first time en masse in this week’s parshah, and proscribed ritual cures for states of impurity, such as the ceremony of the red heifer which we read in this week’s special maftir.  It seems impossible to explain what is so special about the combination of having split hooves and chewing its cud that would make only mammals that do both of those things okay to ear, or to explain why having the ashes of an oddly-colored cow mixed with some other random stuff and sprinkled on you would make you ritually pure again if you have come into contact with a dead body, but that is quite clearly what the Torah says.

Being rational creatures, most people seek to try to find some rationale for chukim.  Both Maimonides and Nachmanides strongly encourage this approach, and other haves commented that the search for a rational reason for these commandments adds a whole new dimension to performing these mitzvot.

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