By Daniel Oppenheimer
Twice in the book of D’varim, including this week, Moses gives what seems to be a rather problematic instruction in the light of how Judaism subsequently developed. He says to the people, ‘You shall not add to the thing which I command you, and you shall not take away from it’.
This seems extremely puzzling at first sight. The Rabbinic Judaism we practise has made countless additions to the Judaism of the Torah. How can they justify this, given the twice-repeated prohibition on adding things? Various commentators take various approaches, all of them in their various ways clever.
Rashi takes adding and taking away in an almost mathematical sense – where a particular number is required in a mitzvah, don’t increase or reduce it. Quoting a rabbinic midrash, the Sifrei, he says that adding means having five or three compartments instead of four in the tefillin, or having five or three species in the lulav/etrog instead of four.
Chizkuni follows another favourite strategy of the commentators – he explains it by looking at the previous verse, which states ‘… you will come and possess the land which the Lord the God of your ancestors gives to you’. Adding and subtracting, says Chizkuni, refers specifically to that instruction to enter the land. The Israelites must not add to it, as they did when God told them (according to D’varim) to go up and possess the land, and they added the idea of sending the spies. Neither must they subtract from it, as when God told them after the episode of the spies to give up on the idea of entering the land now, and they ignored this command.
Finally, Sforno follows a similar linking strategy but goes forward instead of back. The verse continues ‘you shall not take away from it; keep (lishmor) God’s commandments’. Sforno says that this refers to someone thinking that, if the rationale for a mitzvah does not apply any more, we do not need to keep the mitzvah. The verse, says Sforno, means ‘do not take away from it; rather, keep it’.
We can certainly enjoy the ingenuity of these solutions. Having enjoyed their ingenuity, it is then tempting to say, ‘Well, these are just Rabbinic games though. It’s obvious that’s not what the verses means and they just had to interpret it away because they knew they’d added lots to the Torah.’ But actually, is it ‘obvious’? The verse is genuinely ambiguous. It doesn’t say ‘Do not make new mitzvot’. It says ‘Do not add to the thing (ha-davar).’ What is this thing? We actually do not know. Each of the commentators is responding to something in the text. Rashi is picking up on the use of the word tosif – add – i.e. that it should involve actual mathematical adding. Chizkuni is picking up on the fact that ‘the thing’ is singular and hence cannot refer to the mitzvot in general. Sforno is picking up on the fact that the verse appears to say that, instead of taking away, we should keep the mitzvot. Who is right? We do not need to decide – each one has an interesting insight to contribute.
Daniel Oppenheimer is a member of New North London Synagogue and a founder of its Assif minyan.