48. Do the Mitzvos Have Reasons?
As discussed in the previous section, people debate whether God's actions are based in His wisdom (and therefore directed towards some purpose) or if they are exclusively manifestations of His will, and they therefore require no particular purpose. We maintain that God's actions are based in His wisdom and do, in fact, have purposes, whether we know them or not. The same debate applies regarding the mitzvos (commandments): are they the result of God's wisdom, serving some ultimate purpose, or do they reflect His will alone, not necessarily serving any purpose whatsoever? [III, 26] It may be unsurprising that here, too, our position is the the mitzvos are the product of God's wisdom and that each of them serves a purpose, whether or not we know what that purpose may be.
This point of view is stated in the Torah, which call the mitzvos "righteous statutes and judgments" (Deuteronomy 4:8). Similarly, Psalms 19:10 tells us that "the judgments of Hashem are true and completely righteous." The mitzvos couldn't be considered "righteous" if they were capricious, as some people would have us believe.
Granted, there are mitzvos whose reasons we don't know. These are called "chukim" and they include such laws as the prohibition against cooking meat with milk, the obligation to send a goat into the wilderness on Yom Kippur, and shaatnez, the prohibition against wearing a garment that contains both wool and linen. These are mitzvos whose purposes are not apparent, with the result that outsiders may mock them and insiders are more strongly tempted not to comply due to a lack of understanding. Nevertheless, the Sages assume that such mitzvos do serve a greater purpose, as the alternative - that God's actions are purposeless - is unfathomable. If we can't see the purpose of a mitzvah, that's a shortcoming in us, not in God.
There are two types of mitzvos - positive ("thou shalts") and negative ("thou shalt nots"). Every mitzvah of each type has a reason. Sometimes this reason is apparent, as in the case of the prohibitions against murder and theft. Other times, the reason underlying a mitzvah is less obvious, as in the case of the prohibition against using the fruit of a tree in its first three years, or the ban on grapes from a vineyard where other vegetables also grow. The more obvious kind of mitzvos are called "mishpatim" (judgments), while the less obvious kind, as has been noted, are called "chukim" (statutes).
The reasons for the mitzvos are generally not given. The reason for this is that if the reasons were given, people could justify not abiding by them. Imagine, if you will, someone in traffic court for a speeding ticket. His defense might be that speeding laws exist to prevent motorists from running down pedestrians. "Yes, I was doing 70 mph in a 40 mph zone," he pleads, "but I was taking special care not to hit anyone!"
This actually happened with King Solomon, the wisest of all men. Several mitzvos that apply specifically to a Jewish king happen to have their underlying reasons stated explicitly. For example, he may not have too many wives because they will turn his heart away from God (Deuteronomy 17:17), and he may not have too many horses because this will cause the people to return to Egypt (Deuteronomy 17:16). Solomon thought that he could ignore these mitzvos and merely ensure that their end purposes were met. Even though he knew the underlying reasons for these rules, his plan failed. He married many wives in order to cement treaties with foreign kings; these wives established idols in Solomon's palace, for which he was held responsible (I Kings chapter 11). Similarly, he acquired large stables, which caused many people to return to Egypt in order to engage in the lucrative horse trade (I Kings chapter 10). If this happened to the wisest man who ever lived, imagine how vulnerable the rest of us would be!
The Rambam cites a midrash from Bereishis Rabbah (44) that appears at first glance to support the position that the mitzvos have no underlying reasons. There, the Sages ask what difference it could possibly make to God whether we slaughter an animal in the front of its neck or in the back. They conclude that the commandments are simply a test from God, as per Psalms 18:31, "The word of God is a test." This dictum is unique, with no analog in Rabbinic literature, but the Rambam nevertheless felt it necessary to explain:
Indeed, the mitzvos do have reasons. The reason for ritual slaughter, for example, is to provide us with food at a minimum of suffering to the animal. The details of how to perform the mitzvos, however, might not have reasons. The details can just be tests for us to follow the procedures properly.
To give another example, we can understand why God has commanded us to bring sacrifices - to get closer to Him, to motivate us to repent, etc. But why is one type of sacrifice a lamb and another a ram? Because God said so. The mitzvos all have reasons but their details need not. If one tries to find an underlying rationale for why the various sacrifices are male or female, or of certain species, or why there are seven of this animal rather than six or eight, he will accomplish nothing and will only end up more confused than he was when he started.