Have you ever been in a situation where you’re confused about what to do? Where you want to know exactly what’s expected of you-nothing more and nothing less? If that’s the case than you’re in luck because that’s a core principle of this week’s Torah portion.
At the beginning of Chapter 4 in Devarim (Deuteronomy), we are told by Moses “You shall not add anything to what I command you or take anything away from it, but keep the commandments of God that I enjoin upon you.” There is actually a commandment not to add, bal tosif, for which the preeminent example the rabbis give is that one cannot add a fifth species to his/her lulav or a fifth portion in one’s Tefillan. Similarly, one cannot subtract a commandment, proclaiming “I won’t keep kosher because I don’t like it.” Instead, we need to take the middle road, doing exactly what God expects of us.
The problem with this is figuring out what we are commanded to do. How many commandments are there? 613. From where do we know that? An aggadeta (non-legal section) in Babylonian Talmud Tractate Makkot 24a is the source for the 613 commandments in the Torah, stating that the numerical value of the word Torah is 611 and that plus the first 2 commandments (which God told us Himself rather than Moses) is how we get to 613 commandments. However, the Talmud does not state what those commandments are and it’s not even clear that this was a guiding principle in Talmudic times, as there are many sections of the Talmud that are not codified as laws. In Geonic period, beginning in 8th century Babylonia, different rabbis created their own lists of commandments. It became a tradition for a rabbi to create his Sefer HaMitzvot, his book in which he listed and enumerated on the commandments. The preeminent list is that of Maimonides of 12th century Spain and Egypt who has 14 guiding principles that he used to derive the Torah commandments. However, Nachmanides of 13th century Spain and Israel wrote a commentary on Maimonides’ book in which he takes out some commandments and adds others! For example, Nachmanides stated that a commandment is to make Aliyah to Israel, and he did this in his lifetime. In contrast, Maimonides does not have Aliyah listed and does not even visit the land of Israel during his lifetime.
The dispute is not only between Maimonides and Nachmanides; Maimonides disagreed with multiple earlier authors, including Shimon Karraya, the author of the Halachot Gedolot, in 8th century Babylonia. Karraya included in his list of 613 commandments the reading of the Megillah and the lighting of the Hanukkah candles, which Maimonides viewed as derabanan, or “rabbinic” commandments, and hence not part of the 613 Torah commandments. Thus you can see that what is included and what is excluded from the 613 is not cut and dry.
This becomes more complicated when one understands that over half the commandments do not apply to anyone today because they required a Temple in Jerusalem. We are no longer able to sacrifice animals, nor are we required to spend Festivals (and all they entail) in Jerusalem. Of those commandments which remain, at least 25 do not apply to those of us living in the Diaspora. What therefore are we obligated to do and how can we ensure that we do not add or subtract from that list?
Unfortunately there is no cut-and-dry answer to this quandary. I appreciate the approach of the note in the Etz Hayim Chumash that states “a modern Conservative perspective would see the Torah as a living organism, constantly shedding dead cells and growing new ones, changing and adapting to new and unprecedented circumstances.” I’ve pointed out before examples of how Judaism has made changes to existing procedures, such as the rabbis eliminating the situation of the rebellious son without uprooting that law. Similarly, Hillel issued a prozbul, having the court take control of debts so that lessors would not lose any money they had loaned out during the Sabbatical year. Ours is a tradition where laws have often been adapted to meet modern needs and I believe the Conservative movement has continued in this tradition. In our ever-changing and evolving world we need to continue to make adjustments to meet modern needs but at the same time not lose sight of tradition and custom. That is how I understand the law of not adding or subtracting-it includes both making fences around the law and changing how the law is applied as long as we do not lose sight of the core principle that the law is teaching us. Of course this is easier said than done but I believe it is important to engage in the struggle and the discomfort and from it try to apply the laws in a way that works for the majority of our community and for our continued growth and betterment. Ken y’hi ratzon, May it be our will to do so.