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Sorting through Mitzvot

Acharei Mot-Kedoshim (Leviticus 16-20 )

by Yehuda Appel

As a seminary student in Israel, my wife and her friends had to cook their own meals. One evening, as my wife was about to broil a chicken, a roommate stopped her, horrified at what was happening. "Don't you know that you can't cook a chicken whole, that you must remove the legs first?" her friend exclaimed.

My wife had never heard of such a thing, and neither had the few rabbis they spoke with about it the next day. So the roommate asked her mother why she cooked chicken that way. Her mother said that she had copied her own mother who was fastidious in the observance of kashrut laws. So they asked the grandmother: "Why did you always cut the legs off the chicken?"

"Simple," she explained, "There wasn't enough room in the pan!"


Sometimes in Judaism, an unusual custom arises because of a misunderstanding. But more frequently, the intent behind an important custom may have simply been forgotten by the people. That is why the rabbis so often speak out against rote observance of the mitzvot - encouraging us instead to investigate the "why" behind a law. (Though a lack of understanding does not exempt one from observance.)

The rabbis were also concerned that there could be confusion about the different sources for Jewish law. Thus there are clear distinctions between laws that are from the Torah itself, and those that the rabbis instituted. Rabbinic law, though observed with equal care, does not have the same status as legislation whose source is from the Torah itself. (Customs, when accepted by the community, need to be upheld as if they were promulgated legislation. Though they do not have the full value of law.)


There are a few essential differences between Torah and Rabbinic law. First, while Torah law can never be abrogated, a Rabbinic law could be abrogated by a qualified rabbinic body that is greater than the one who initiated the law.

Another difference: In instances where a person is in doubt whether or not he has fulfilled a command, then if the law involved is rabbinic, he may be lenient. But if the source is from the Torah, he must treat cases of doubt strictly.

Here's a practical example: After eating bread, if one is not sure whether he had recited Grace After Meals, he would have to recite it again - since its source is in the Torah. On the other hand, the Hamotzi blessing recited before eating bread is a rabbinic enactment, so if one was unsure if he'd recited it, he would not say the blessing a possible second time.


Many rabbinic enactments are called syagim - "fences." Their purpose is to protect the laws of the Torah itself from trespass, just as a fence protects one's property from damage. The rabbis, however, did not make up this idea of fences on their own. In the Torah itself, at the end of this week's Torah portion, God tells the rabbinic courts to "guard my guardings." This means that efforts should be made to prevent people from breaking God's laws.

Why? Just as God has promulgated laws that keep people from harmful activities, so too the Sages were told to promulgate laws to keep people from violating the Torah's dictates. In doing so, the rabbis made certain to alert people about which laws were of rabbinic origin - to prevent confusion which might result in people needlessly cutting the legs off their chickens before cooking.…

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