Parashat Re'eh - Adding and Detracting
הרב שבתי סבתו | כד אב התשפ | 14.08.2020
הרב שבתי סבתו
Rabbi Shabtai Sabato
Adding and Detracting
This week's Torah portion of Re'eh contains the following interesting and famous pair of commandments:
אֵת כָּל הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם אֹתוֹ תִשְׁמְרוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת
לֹא תֹסֵף עָלָיו וְלֹא תִגְרַע מִמֶּנּוּ.
All that I have commanded you, carefully make sure to perform;
do not add to it and do not detract from it.
On the face of it, it appears that these are two separate commands: We are forbidden to do more than G-d commanded, and similarly warned against doing less.
The interdiction against subtracting from the Torah's commandments (mitzvot) is logical and easy to understand. Clearly, G-d's commands are perfect, containing no unnecessary details. Doing less than what we are commanded is not only insufficient, but also detracts from the parts that we do fulfill, leaving us with a worthless fraction of the commanded act.
But the ban on adding to the mitzvot is not as simple. If we fulfill a mitzvah properly, and then add even more, why should this be a problem? Why, actually, is it forbidden to add to the mitzvot?
Let us take the mitzvah of lulav and etrog on Sukkot, for example. We are bidden to take four species – a lulav, an etrog, willow branches, and myrtle branches. If we do so, and then add a fifth species, we have not fulfilled the mitzvah. But why not? Why does the fifth species nullify the original four? Why can we not simply ignore the fifth one?
In short: Why does adding something actually detract from it?
The Rosh HaShanah shofar, made of a ram's horn, is an example of an addition that does not detract. There is a custom among those who love mitzvot to adorn and beautify certain mitzvah-objects by laminating them in gold. Are we permitted to do so for a shofar? If the gold covers the mouthpiece, it certainly disqualifies the shofar, as the gold plating forms a separation between the mouth and the shofar. Similarly, if the plating changes the shofar's sound, it is also unacceptable. Otherwise, the Sages say, this "addition" of gold does not disqualify the shofar.
In other words, if the external addition does not affect the internal essence of the mitzvah, it is acceptable. But if it changes the essence, the "plus" becomes a "minus" – and is forbidden.
In light of this, the verse with which we opened above - do not add to it and do not detract from it - should be understood in this manner: Do not add to it so that you do not detract from it. That is, it is obvious that we may not detract in the usual sense – but we are also not allowed to detract in the form of adding! The Torah is actually giving a reason for its command, and saying that additions are forbidden because they detract.
According to this, we may conclude that additions that do not detract from the mitzvah are not forbidden.
Let us consider the mitzvah of Sukkah, for example. The Torah teaches us that the simplest Sukkah consists of three walls: two normal-sized ones connected at a right angle, and a third wall that can be as narrow as just a few centimeters (one tefach).
Are we permitted to lengthen the third wall more than this minimum, or add a fourth wall? Or would we then be in violation of the ban on "not adding"? Quite obviously, lengthening the walls or building a fourth wall is acceptable, and the Sukkah is perfectly kosher. Why is the extra wall not considered a forbidden addition?
Because, as the Tosafot commentary on the Talmud explains, the essence of the mitzvah of Sukkah is to have a complete (albeit temporary) place to live, as the Gemara derives from the words בסוכות תשבו, "you shall dwell in Sukkot" (Vayikra 23,42): "You must sit in the Sukkah as you dwell" (Sukkah 28b)." That is to say, the mitzvah is not to "sit down" in the Sukkah, but to "live" in it.
Accordingly, adding another wall does not at all detract from the Sukkah's essence – but rather strengthens it.
The Plain Meaning of the Verses
Let us look at the verses forbidding idol-worship:
כִּי יַכְרִית ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ אֶת הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה בָא שָׁמָּה לָרֶשֶׁת אוֹתָם מִפָּנֶיךָ...
When Hashem cuts off the nations to which you will come…
and when you drive them out and dwell in their land
הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ פֶּן תִּנָּקֵשׁ אַחֲרֵיהֶם ... וּפֶן תִּדְרושׁ לֵאלֹהֵיהֶם לֵאמר:
אֵיכָה יַעַבְדוּ הַגּוֹיִם הָאֵלֶּה אֶת אֱלֹהֵיהֶם וְאֶעֱשֶׂה כֵּן גַּם אָנִי.
Beware, lest you be attracted after them…
and lest you inquire about their gods, saying,
"How did these nations serve their gods? And I will do likewise."
(D'varim 12, 29-30)
This verse is basically warning us not to add foreign elements to our worship of G-d. Why not? The answer is provided in the next verse:
לֹא תַעֲשֶׂה כֵן לַה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ, כִּי כָל תּוֹעֲבַת ה' אֲשֶׁר שָׂנֵא עָשׂוּ לֵאלֹהֵיהֶם.
כִּי גַם אֶת בְּנֵיהֶם וְאֶת בְּנותֵיהֶם יִשְׂרְפוּ בָאֵשׁ לֵאלֹהֵיהֶם.
You shall not do so to Hashem, your God;
for every abomination to G-d that He hates, they did to their gods,
for also their sons and their daughters
they would burn in fire to their gods.
Adding elements from idol-worship is actually not an addition, but an abomination – an essential detraction that deals a death blow to whatever aspects of true G-d-worship were there to begin with.
And from here, the Torah expands this rule to all of its mitzvot, as we read in the very next verse, which we quoted above:
אֵת כָּל הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם אֹתוֹ תִשְׁמְרוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת,
לֹא תֹסֵף עָלָיו וְלֹא תִגְרַע מִמֶּנּוּ.
All that I have commanded you, carefully make sure to perform;
do not add to it and do not detract from it.
As we said above, this means that the Torah is explaining: Do not add in order that you not detract.
A Time-Dimension Addition
Let us analyze another dimension in which it is possible to add to a mitzvah: Time.
What is the Torah law regarding one who decides that after the seven days of Sukkot, he wishes to eat or sleep one more night in the Sukkah? Does this mean that he is unacceptably adding to the seven-day mitzvah of Sukkot? Or, since he has already completed his fulfillment of the mitzvah, does this addition make no difference?
The Talmud discusses this question in Tractate Rosh Hashanah, and states that it depends on the person's intention. If he is doing so for the sake of the mitzvah, this means he wishes to add to it, in violation of "do not add" – for he wishes to change an essential aspect of the mitzvah, from a count of "seven" days to "eight." But if he merely wants to take advantage of the pleasant weather for an outdoor nap or meal, then he is permitted to do so.
What about the bans and regulations enacted and promulgated by the Sages? Why are these not considered to be forbidden additions to Torah law? Let us study this topic.
The Sages' Laws
The Sanhedrin, the Great Court responsible for determining Jewish Law for the entire nation, had many responsibilities. One of them, as we read in Pirkei Avot (1,1), is to "enact a fence around the Torah" - that is, to enact new regulations to keep the people from transgressing the Biblical laws. In fact, our Sages enacted many such "fences," such as not to eat milk products soon after meat, and even instituted extra "mitzvot," such as lighting candles on Erev Shabbat and Chanukah, and many more.
Are these Rabbinic laws not a violation of the Torah's command not to add to its mitzvot? This is of course a very fundamental question in understanding the Sages' role in Jewish Law.
Several of our early commentators and teachers related to this complex issue, most notably the Rambam (Maimonides). In his magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah, the Rambam explains as follows:
Given that the Court is permitted to enact decrees and forbid that which the Torah permits, and the ban will stand for generations; and since the Court is even authorized to temporarily suspend Torah prohibitions – what is the nature of the Torah's ban on adding to or detracting from its mitzvot?
The ban prohibits establishing the addition or detraction as a permanent part of Scriptural Law. (Laws of Heretics 2,9)
The Rambam explains that our Sages are empowered to enact regulations and issue decrees on condition that they stipulate clearly that the new laws carry only Rabbinic authority, and not Biblical.
The underlying explanation of this point is similar to what we said above: Whenever we make an addition that penetrates the essence of the mitzvah, we thereby change or harm its very nature and detract from it. But if the addition remains on a superficial level, and the nature of the Biblical mitzvah is not touched, then there is nothing wrong with adding to it.
Of course, not everyone is authorized to add to the Torah's mitzvot and stipulate that the addition is not Torah-authorized. Only the Sanhedrin, having received its authorization from the Torah itself, can make this decision. As the Torah tells us:
וּבָאתָ אֶל הַכּוהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם וְאֶל הַשּׁופֵט אֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם ...
עַל פִּי הַתּוֹרָה אֲשֶׁר יוֹרוּךָ וְעַל הַמִּשְׁפָּט אֲשֶׁר יֹאמְרוּ לְךָ תַּעֲשֶׂה.
לא תָסוּר מִן הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר יַגִּידוּ לְךָ יָמִין וּשְׂמאל.
You shall come to the Priests and the Levites and the judges of that day…
According to the law they instruct you,
and by the rules they tell you, you shall do.
Stray not from that which they tell you, neither right nor left.
(D'varim 17, 9-11)
The Sin of the Tree of Knowledge
The Gemara (Sanhedrin 29a) seeks a source for this Rabbinic teaching, "Whoever adds, actually subtracts," and finds it in the story of Adam, Eve, and the Tree of Knowledge:
Chizkiya said: From where do we learn that whoever adds, actually subtracts? From that which Adam's wife Eve said to the serpent (B'reshit 3,3): "G-d said that we may not eat from the Tree of Knowledge, nor may we touch it, lest we die" [for G-d had said only "Do not eat from the Tree of Knowledge" (2,17)].
The entire idea of not touching the tree was made up by Eve! This, of course, is what led her to sin by eating the forbidden fruit - and giving it to Adam as well. How so? Rashi tells us that the serpent pushed Eve and caused her to touch the tree. When she saw that she did not die from touching it, as she had thought, the serpent pressed his advantage and said, "Just like touching it caused you no harm, the same with eating it!"
Based on this, a strong question arises: If one may not add to a prohibition because it is liable to lead to the opposite, how is it that the Sages instituted extra prohibitions upon the Nazir (one who has taken upon himself not to have his hair cut, to come near a corpse, or to eat grape products)? The Sages ruled (Avodah Zarah 58b) that a Nazir must not even enter a vineyard: "Go around and around, but do not approach the vineyard!" - in order to avoid the temptation to eat from its fruit.
Why did the Sages add on this extra ban, if the Bible itself forbids only eating? What is the difference between the "fence" that Eve made, and this one of the Sages?
In light of the Rambam's teaching above, the answer appears to be clear. For let us analyze what Eve said. She didn't merely say that touching is forbidden; she said that G-d said that touching the tree is forbidden. If she would have said that she feels the tree should not be touched, that would have been fine. But by attributing this new ban to G-d's word, she infiltrated deep inside the very essence of the command and changed it beyond recognition.
How did the serpent get Eve to make this mistake? She thought that the Divine commandment against eating from the tree was because the tree itself was repulsive and poisonous, liable to harm all those who come in contact with it. By the same logic, she calculated, such a tree was forbidden even to touch.
The snake took advantage of her mistake, and said she need not fear:
וַיֹּאמֶר הַנָּחָשׁ אֶל הָאִשָּׁה לֹא מוֹת תְּמֻתוּן.
כִּי יֹדֵעַ אֱ-לֹהִים כִּי בְּיוֹם אֲכָלְכֶם מִמֶּנּוּ וְנִפְקְחוּ עֵינֵיכֶם
וִהְיִיתֶם כֵּא-לֹהִים יֹדְעֵי טוֹב וָרָע.
You will not die, for G-d knows that once you eat it,
your eyes will be opened and you will be like G-d, knowing good and evil.
"This tree is top-quality!" the snake told her. "The only reason G-d forbade it to you is because He does not want you to be like Him!" Eve looked at the tree, considered what the snake had said, and totally fell for his trap:
וַתֵּרֶא הָאִשָּׁה כִּי טוֹב הָעֵץ לְמַאֲכָל וְכִי תַאֲוָה הוּא לָעֵינַיִם וְנֶחְמָד הָעֵץ לְהַשְׂכִּיל ...
The woman saw that the tree was good for eating
a delight to the eyes, and desirable for gaining intelligence ....
In other words, she began to feel that the situation was not quite what she had thought. The tree was actually "attractive" and a "delight;" perhaps the serpent was right in saying that the Tree of Knowledge was the best tree in all of Eden, and contained true Knowledge of G-d. The next step, not surprisingly, was to take a bite of its fruit.
If, however, she had been more precise in understanding the Divine command, she would not have fallen into the snake's trap. For Hashem had clearly stated:
וּמֵעֵץ הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע לֹא תֹאכַל מִמֶּנּוּ ...
And from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, do not eat...
G-d told her straight out that the tree was The Tree of Knowledge! She did not notice that the serpent had told her nothing new!
Furthermore, let us note that the Torah introduced this story by writing clearly:
וַיַּצְמַח ה' אֱ-לֹהִים מִן הָאֲדָמָה כָּל עֵץ נֶחְמָד לְמַרְאֶה וְטוֹב לְמַאֲכָל
וְעֵץ הַחַיִּים בְּתוֹךְ הַגָּן וְעֵץ הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע.
Hashem sprouted from the earth
all sorts of trees beautiful to see and good to eat,
and the Tree of Life in the garden, and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
From here we see that all of the trees in the garden, including the Tree of Knowledge, were "beautiful to see and good to eat"! Why, then, was Eve so amazed to see, as we read above in verse 6, that the tree was 1) good for eating, 2) a delight to the eyes, and 3) desirable for gaining intelligence?
The explanation for all of this is that she actually "tricked" herself. Because she added on the prohibition against touching – not as her own extra precaution, but as part of the Divine command – she actually changed, harmed and detracted from the actual essence of G-d's command.
The Extra Letters
The above-quoted Talmud passage tells us two other sources (in addition to the story of Eve and the forbidden fruit) for the principle that "whoever adds, actually subtracts." Rav Mesharshaya learns it from the description of the measurements of the Ark of the Covenant in the Tabernacle. The Ark's length was אמתיים וחצי, two and a half amot (Sh'mot 25,10). The word אמתיים, which means "two amot," is actually comprised of the word מאתיים, which means 200, plus the letter aleph at the beginning. We thus see that adding the small letter aleph to the word actually detracts from its value.
The next source is supplied in the Gemara by Rav Ashi, who quotes another measurement from the Tabernacle: עשתי עשרה יריעות, eleven sheets of goats' wool (Sh'mot 26,7). He notes that the word meaning "eleven,"עשתי עשרה , is spelled the same as the word for "twelve," except that it has an extra letter – ע, ayin. Once again, we see that adding a letter detracts from the value of the word.
Both of these sources sound a bit strange and irrelevant to the fundamental determination that "whoever adds, actually subtracts." Is it really of significance that there are two cases in which one letter detracts and does not add? What does the Gemara mean here?
When we delve deeper, the secret is revealed.
After Adam and Eve sinned by eating of the forbidden fruit, G-d fashioned for them garments of skin, as is written:
וַיַּעַשׂ ה' אֱ-לֹהִים לְאָדָם וּלְאִשְׁתּוֹ כָּתְנוֹת עוֹר וַיַּלְבִּשֵׁם
Hashem made for the man and his wife cloaks of skin,
and He clothed them. (3,21)
In the Medrash of Rav Meir, it is not written כתנות עור, cloaks of skin, but rather כתנות אור, with an aleph instead of an ayin, meaning cloaks of light. With this "change," Rav Meir wishes to note that the new garments were the skin tissues of the human body – emphasizing that before the sin, Adam and Eve were made exclusively of light! In other words, the sin brought about a situation in which the light of their soul was covered with the clothing of the skin of the body.
G-d thus "added" clothes – but this was actually a "detraction," in that the light of the soul was now covered and hidden by the skin of the body. All this is alluded to by the switching of the letters aleph and ayin – the same letters involved in the two above-cited sources noted by Rav Mesharshaya and Rav Ashi.
The answer to our question is, then, that these two added sources by Rav Mesharshaya and Rav Ashi are actually a return to, and an amplification of, the first source brought by the Gemara – the story of the Tree of Knowledge. The emphasis on the aleph of light (אור) and the ayin of skin (עור) teaches us an extra dimension of the story of the Tree of Knowledge: that the light of Adam, which our Sages say illuminated from one end of the world to the other, was diminished by the addition of the physical clothing.
The Seventy Elders of the Sanhedrin
Let us expand upon this עור-אור, skin/light contrast in the context of the appointment of the Sanhedrin in the Sinai Desert. Moshe Rabbeinu, from whom rays of light emanated – rendering him a form of pure "light" – is the one whom G-d has assigned to appoint the judges. Following Israel's sin of lusting for meat, Hashem commands him to appoint 70 elders who will help him lead the nation:
... וַיֶּאֱסֹף שִׁבְעִים אִישׁ מִזִּקְנֵי הָעָם ...
וַיָּאצֶל מִן הָרוּחַ אֲשֶׁר עָלָיו וַיִּתֵּן עַל שִׁבְעִים אִישׁ הַזְּקֵנִים
... וַיִּתְנַבְּאוּ וְלֹא יָסָפוּ.
Moshe assembled seventy men of the elders of the people…
G-d caused the spirit upon Moshe to emanate
and He bestowed it upon the seventy elders...
and they prophesized and did not stop.
On the face of it, it appears that the situation had greatly improved. Instead of just Moshe alone receiving Divine spirit, 70 other elders were also receiving it. This seems to be a welcome net gain!
But this is not the true picture. In fact, all the prophetic light that filled Moshe Rabbeinu was now directed through the wise men standing around the tent, meaning that instead of one powerful source of prophecy, there were 70 little ones. The Nation of Israel thus received the prophetic light in a "concealed" fashion; they gained 70 elders, but lost the direct prophecy of Moshe.
Thus, just as with Adam, the aleph (whose gematriya value is 1) of light was covered by the ayin (70) of the skin, and so too, the one – Moshe Rabbeinu – was "covered" by the 70 elders. "Whoever adds, detracts."
Why Do We Blow the Shofar?
The above will also lead us to a deeper understanding of the following Talmudic passage in Tractate Rosh HaShanah (16a):
- Yitzchak said: "Why do we blow the shofar?" The other scholars responded: "Why do we blow?! Because the Merciful One commanded us to blow!"
Rather, R. Yitzchak meant: "Why do we blow teruah sounds?" The others once again retorted, "Because the Merciful One saidזכרון תרועה - we must blow for a remembrance of the teruah!"
Rather, R. Yitzchak's question was, "Why do we blow regular blasts and teruah blasts while standing, and then both of them again while sitting?" To this, the answer came: "In order to confuse Satan."
This is of course a very puzzling passage. R. Yitzchak asked an unclear question, and in the end, the Gemara explains that he really meant something different than what he said. Is it truly possible to understand from R. Yitzchak's original words the question that the Gemara ultimately ascribed to him?
In truth, what R. Yitzchak was really asking, as the Gemara ultimately concluded, was "Is it not a violation of the ban on 'do not add' to blow the Rosh HaShanah shofar twice, both standing and sitting?"
To solve this problem, R. Yitzchak had to first clarify the essence of the mitzvah of blowing the shofar, in order to know whether the additions would change this essence. If the mitzvah's essence is not changed, and perhaps might even be strengthened, then there is no problem in adding to it. Therefore, when he asked why we blow, he was really asking, "What is the essence of these shofar blasts?"
If the essence of the mitzvah is to create tremors in our soul, to shock us and awaken us to our misdeeds, then adding extra shofar blasts will certainly serve the correct purpose and will help bring about new paths of true repentance. The Gemara explains that this is, in fact, the case: The shofar blasts seek to block the intentions of the Satan, who wants only bad for us – and we therefore blow so many times, both sitting and standing, in order to fulfill the essence of the mitzvah and "confuse the Satan."
This is very similar to the example we cited above regarding the walls of the Sukkah. Since the purpose of the mitzvah of Sukkah is to live in it the way we live in our permanent home, it is clear that by adding more walls, we are only enhancing the
mitzvah, and certainly not detracting from it.
Do Not Be Overly Righteous
In conclusion, let us analyze the following three difficult verses written by King Shlomo:
אַל תְּהִי צַדִּיק הַרְבֵּה וְאַל תִּתְחַכַּם יוֹתֵר לָמָּה תִּשּׁוֹמֵם.
Do not be overly righteous, nor overly wise;
why should you bring desolation upon yourself?
אַל תִּרְשַׁע הַרְבֵּה וְאַל תְּהִי סָכָל לָמָּה תָמוּת בְּלֹא עִתֶּךָ.
Do not be overly wicked, and do not be a fool;
why should you die before your time?
טוֹב אֲשֶׁר תֶּאֱחֹז בָּזֶה וְגַם מִזֶּה אַל תַּנַּח אֶת יָדֶךָ כִּי יְרֵא אֱלֹהִים יֵצֵא אֶת כֻּלָּם.
It is good to take hold of this, and also from the other do not withdraw your hand,
for he who fears G-d will discharge himself of them all.
The message of these verses seems to be: "Be slightly righteous and slightly wicked, for a G-d-fearer grasps onto both ends of the rope." This is clearly illogical. Rather, the key to understanding this passage is found in the Gemara:
"And he [King Sha'ul] fought in the valley" (Shmuel I 15,5):
- Mani said: It means, "Because of what happened in the valley." That is, when G-d told Sha'ul, "Now go and smite Amalek" (verse 3), Sha'ul protested: "If on account of one person [found dead], the Torah said to bring an eglah arufah in the valley (D'varim 21,4), how much more so should all these persons [not be killed]! And if the people sinned, what sins did the cattle commit? And if the adults sinned, what did the little ones do?"
A Divine voice came forth and said: "Do not be overly righteous."
And when Sha'ul said to Doeg, "Turn and kill the priests" (Shmuel I 22,18), a Divine voice came forth and said, "Do not be overly wicked."
This passage can be concisely explained as follows: "Do not be overly righteous, lest you be overly wicked." This parallels what we have learned: "Do not add to the mitzvah, let you actually detract from it." Sha'ul's desire to reach a level of perfect righteousness actually led him to a great sin. His frustration and self-anger at not reaching the highest heights resulted in destructive behavior.
Accordingly, the explanation of the above verses is this: "Do not jump so quickly to the level of 'perfection,' lest you soon find that you are actually not perfect – and are left with nothing to return to, other than to 'switch sides' altogether in frustration and become totally sinful. If you wish to ascend in holiness (it is good to take hold of this), do not totally abandon your current level; rather, preserve and maintain it in case it is needed in the future (and also from the other do not withdraw your hand). Thus, if you fail at the level you strove to reach, you will have to where to return."
In general, of course, it is advisable to attempt to ascend the levels of righteousness gradually, without jumps.
And as King David wrote in his Psalms:
תּוֹרַת ה' תְּמִימָה מְשִׁיבַת נָפֶשׁ...
The Torah of Hashem is perfect and rejuvenates the soul (Tehillim 19,8)
The Torah is complete and perfect. Any addition can become a deficiency that will only cause it harm.