Guest Column: The most essential commandment

It seems there is a 614th commandment... a commandment so fundamental it wasn’t even counted among the 613 mitzvot.

May 14, 2010 20:37
3 minute read.
simchat torah 88

simchat torah 88. (photo credit: )


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The Talmud (Yoma 9b) tells us “the former ones [exiles] whose iniquity was revealed had their end revealed; the latter ones whose iniquity was not revealed have their end still unrevealed.” There is a maxim that “the actions of the forefathers serve as a template for their descendants,” so to find the cause of the current exile, it perhaps behooves us to examine the causes of the earlier ones.

The first exile, that of humanity from Eden, was triggered by Adam’s and Eve’s refusal to obey the voice of God delivered “in person.” The 70-year Babylonian Exile of the Jewish nation came because the common Jew (the elite having been removed by Nebuchadnezzar) refused to heed His voice as filtered through His prophet Jeremiah.

It seems there is a 614th commandment – “Obey My voice” (Jeremiah 7:23, Isaiah 28:23 and elsewhere) – a commandment so fundamental it wasn’t even counted among the 613 mitzvot, and the violation of which results in exile.

So what would be the penalty if the very elite of the nation refused to heed His voice as it issued directly from heaven? Might God not reply, in effect: Yes, you have the right to ignore Me, but I have the right to stop talking to you. Now get out of My land until you change your mind!

I object to the notion that, as Rabbi Shlomo Riskin wrote in the adjacent column, “the sages can outvote and overrule, not only Rabbi Eliezer, but even God Himself.” The talmudic story he recounts to explain the origin of this teaching (Bava Metzia 59b) in fact describes a cold-blooded rebellion against God by the very men entrusted to guide the nation, thus fulfilling the prophecy that “Jeshurun will grow fat and kick” (Deuteronomy 32:15), the vision granted to Ezekiel (Ezekiel 8:11-18) and the many warnings of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 7:28, and 11:9-11 for example), and was the cause of this exile.

As to whether God’s laughter in response to this impudence represented His approval, as our rabbis have taught ever since, or was the fulfillment of another of Moses’s prophecies: “As the Lord rejoiced over you to do you good and to multiply you, so the Lord will rejoice over you to destroy you and to bring you to naught, and ye shall be plucked from off the land whither thou goest to possess it, and the Lord shall scatter thee among all people, from the one end of the earth even unto the other” (Deut. 28:63-64), I leave up to the reader.

Consider: The phrase used by the rebels – “the Torah is not in heaven” – was taken out of context from a passage (Deut. 30:11-14) that reads: “What I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us to get it for us and make us observe it’... It is in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it.”

Secondly, there is an epilogue recorded in the Talmud (Eruvin 13b). There, the sages are bickering as to whether Beit Hillel or Beit Shammai shall set Halacha. Again, a heavenly voice (bat kol) is heard, this time declaring, “These and those [i.e. the words of both Hillel and Shammai] are the words of the living God, but the Halacha is in agreement with the rulings of Beit Hillel.”

It is telling indeed that, though apparently still defiant Rabbi Joshua says, “We pay no attention to heavenly voices” (Brachot 52a) – and though the vote was carried by Beit Shammai, “The Halacha is always in agreement with Hillel since the bat kol” (Eruvin 6b).

To understand Rabbi Eliezer’s heroism in not following the majority to do evil (Exodus 23:2), remember that after God empowered the Sanhedrin (Numbers 11:16), He provided at least four legal (i.e. God-approved) ways of overturning a Sanhedrin ruling. One of these is that any later Sanhedrin can simply choose to adopt the minority view of any earlier one.

There is a Sanhedrin today.

The writer is a veteran Post staffer and editor of the Christian Edition.

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