Highlights of Rambam’s Guide for the Perplexed: Part 8 –
Understanding God’s Will – Reasons for Mitzvoth: Book III Chapters 25 & 27
Rabbi Tuvia Berman


Why do we do what we do? Jews know that Mitzvoth are the commands of God and must be performed as the command of the King. In the end, it matters not why HaShem commanded these mitzvoth and not others, the it is incumbent upon the servant to do God’s will. While rabbis such as Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi viewed following the Divine will without looking for a deeper meaning, Rambam declares that this is not the way to best serve. In his great Halachik work, the Mishne Torah, he spells out the need for looking for the meaning behind the mitzvoth:

Although all of the statutes of the Torah are decrees, as we explained in the conclusion of Hilchot Me’ilah, it is fit to meditate upon them and wherever it is possible to provide a reason, one should provide a reason. ( Temurah 4:13)

Contemplating and examining the Mitzoth, declares Rambam, is a religious necessity. Rambam, maintaining the importance of this pursuit, is aware that the danger exists that one may not be up to the challenge and warns about becoming disillusioned:

It is appropriate for a person to meditate on the judgments of the holy Torah and know their ultimate purpose according to his capacity. If he cannot find a reason or a motivating rationale for a practice, he should not regard it lightly. Nor should he break through to ascend to God, lest God burst forth against him. One’s thoughts concerning them should not be like his thoughts concerning other ordinary matters. (Me’ilah 8:8)

We are both pushed to understand the Mitzvoth, but also to be aware that in the end the Divine decree cannot be questioned.

In the Guide, Rambam reiterates this notion and then follows his own advice writing at length about the meaning of commands or “Ta’amei HaMitzvoth”. In fact the lion’s share of book III of the Guide focuses on explaining Mitzvoth. He first declares:

As Theologians are divided on the question whether the actions of God are the result of His wisdom, or only of His will without being intended for any purpose whatever, so they are also divided as regards the object of the commandments which God gave us. Some of them hold that the commandments have no object at all; and are only dictated by the win of God. Others are of opinion that all commandments and prohibitions are dictated by His wisdom and serve a certain aim; consequently there is a reason for each one of the precepts: they are enjoined because they are useful. All of us, the common people as well as the scholars, believe that there is a reason for every precept, although there are commandments the reason of which is unknown to us, and in which the ways of God’s wisdom are incomprehensible. (Guide III, 26)

Further Rambam develops a general dichotomy explaining the goal of the entire Torah is the perfection of man and perfection of his society:

THE general object of the Law is twofold: the well-being of the soul, and the well-being of the body. The well-being of the soul is promoted by correct opinions communicated to the people according to their capacity. Some of these opinions are therefore imparted in a plain form, others allegorically: because certain opinions are in their plain form too strong for the capacity of the common people. The well-being of the body is established by a proper management of the relations in which we live one to another. This we can attain in two ways: first by removing all violence from our midst: that is to say, that we do not do every one as he pleases, desires, and is able to do; but every one of us does that which contributes towards the common welfare. Secondly, by teaching every one of us such good morals as must produce a good social state. Of these two objects, the one, the well-being of the soul, or the communication of correct opinions, comes undoubtedly first in rank, but the other, the well-being of the body, the government of the state, and the establishment of the best possible relations among men, is anterior in nature and time. The latter object is required first; it is also treated [in the Law] most carefully and most minutely, because the well-being of the soul can only be obtained after that of the body has been secured. For it has already been found that man has a double perfection: the first perfection is that of the body, and the second perfection is that of the soul. (Guide III, 27)

Fixing society and fixing one’s beliefs are ultimately the two parts of the whole of the Torah. Ultimately, developing a deep understanding of God and his will is the goal of mankind. In order to be able to reach this state, man must live in a decent and just society; unburdened by fear from his fellow man. Following Torah Law will lead to a just, moral, and safe society. Able to relax and feel safe, man can contemplate the most important issues in life and pursue the ultimate Truth of God.

Looking around the world today, I think we can appreciate the need for a justice and stability. With God’s help, may we merit a world in which we can follow God’s Torah and contemplate the HaShem and His will.