Settling Israel and Holy Things (N#46-79)

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Holy Temple in Jerusalem

Summary: Negative Mitzvah #46 is that it is forbidden for Jews to dwell in Egypt. The next two mitzvot prohibit dealing with the seven Canaanite nations, followed by two mitzvot prohibiting having mercy on idolaters or to allow them to settle in Israel. Then comes the prohibition of intermarrying with gentiles (specifically idolaters), and a separate mitzvah not to allow Ammonite or Moabite men to marry Israelite women. There is a related mitzvah (#56) not to seek peace treaties with Ammonites or Moabites. Mitzvah #54 and 55 is to allow Edomite or Egyptian converts to formally join the nation, but only after three generations. In other words, they would only be considered full-fledged Jews and Israelites three generations after having converted. Mitzvah #57 is the famous bal tashchit, not to destroy fruit trees nor, by extension, to carelessly destroy anything of value. The next mitzvah is for soldiers not to have fear in war, then not to forget the evil deeds of Amalek, and not to curse God’s Name. The next four are related: not to break an oath taken in God’s Name, nor to take an oath in vain to begin with, not to profane God’s Name (the opposite of doing a kiddush Hashem), and not to test God. Mitzvah #65 is not to destroy anything sacred, whether a written Name of God, a Torah scroll, a synagogue, or the Holy Temple. The mitzvah that follows is not to leave the corpse of an executed person on the gallows. It should be removed and buried promptly. The next 12 mitzvot all have to do with kohanim and Levi’im serving in the Temple, including that they may not be inebriated, and that they must be in a state of purity. Mitzvah #79 is that the Temple must not be built with stones hewn using iron tools, since iron is an implement of war, and the Temple is a house of peace. (To learn more about how the Temple stones were cut without iron, see ‘Mystery of the Shamir‘.)

Insight: The Torah states clearly that it is forbidden for Jews to dwell in Egypt, now that they had been freed and led away from there by God. What’s amazing is that the Rambam himself lived in Egypt! In fact, since the destruction of the First Temple, Egypt always had large and thriving Jewish communities. Alexandria was once the largest Jewish city (by population) in the world. Incredibly, there was even a “Holy Temple” of sorts set up in Leontopolis, Egypt, established by a legitimate though renegade kohen, and the Talmud debates whether it is permitted to bring sacrifices there. Archaeologists discovered yet another Jewish Temple on the Egyptian island of Elephantine, which similarly once boasted a large Jewish community. (For more on these, see ‘The Secret History of the Holy Temple’ in Garments of Light, Volume Two.) The Egyptian Jewish community persisted until modern times, and was only extinguished following the establishment of the State of Israel. One of its last chief rabbis was Rav Ovadia Yosef. So, how was this possible? Why did Jews settle in Egypt when it was forbidden by the Torah? Some say the Torah only specifically forbid that Exodus generation from returning to Egypt. The decree was not meant for all time. Another explanation is that the Torah forbade settling in the ancient pagan, impure Egypt. That Egypt was expunged first by the Persian Empire, and then absorbed into the empire of Alexander the Great, following which it was ruled by Greeks, and then Romans. In other words, it was no longer really “Egypt”. By the time of the Rambam, Egypt had nothing to do with pagan ancient Egypt and was an entirely Arab Muslim, monotheistic land, ruled and populated by a completely different ethnicity, culture, and religion. Thus, there was no prohibition to settle there. Finally, there are those who say that Jewish communities in Egypt never meant to permanently “settle” there, and were only living there temporary due to the exile, with the expectation that at any moment the Final Redemption would come and they would all permanently settle in the Holy Land of Israel.

Prohibitions of Idolatry (N#1-45)

The list of Torah mitzvot continues with the negative commandments, those things that we must abstain from and not do. There are a total of 365 negative mitzvot. The first 45 relate to various prohibitions associated with idolatry.

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Summary: The first negative commandment is not to even consider the thought of idolatry or that there are any other gods. There are many more idolatry-related prohibitions that follow. These include not making idols (#2), not to bow down to them (#5), or worship them in any other way (#6), not to make idolatrous pillars (#11) or prostrating stones (#12), or planting trees for worship (#13). Also are prohibitions of prophesying in the name of a false god (#26) or to listen to such “prophecies” (#28), or to follow any customs or laws of idolaters (#30). Relatedly, the next eight mitzvot have to do with prohibiting all kinds of black magic and fortune-telling. Divination, witchcraft, sorcery, and necromancy are all strictly forbidden. There are another seven negative mitzvot which, according to the Rambam, are associated with idolatry or adopting inappropriate foreign customs. These include cross-dressing (#39-40), tattooing (#41), wearing garments with wool and linen intertwined (sha’atnez, #42), shaving off the hair around the temples and beards (#43-44), and self-mortification, specifically cutting into flesh (#45).

There are shatnez-testing services and events in Jewish communities around the world. A garment can be checked under a microscope to determine if it has a prohibited mixture of fabrics.

Insight: One of the Torah’s most mysterious mitzvot is that of sha’atnez, the prohibition of wearing garments that have wool and linen combined. What is the problem of weaving together wool and linen? Some suggest that this prohibition is similar to that of not consuming meat and dairy products together. Meat is representative of death and bloodshed, while milk is a liquid of life. They have completely opposing spiritual energies, and thus should not be mixed together. Similarly, wool comes from animals while linen comes from plants. They have contradicting spiritual energies and should not be combined. On a deeper, mystical level, the Arizal (Rabbi Itzchak Luria, 1534-1572) explained that it all goes back to Cain and Abel. Recall that each of the brothers brought an offering to God, but Cain’s was inferior. God turned to Abel, and this angered Cain, eventually leading to the first murder. The Arizal states that Cain had brought an offering of linen, while Abel had brought an offering of wool (see Sha’ar HaMitzvot on Kedoshim). Henceforth, this “mixture” of wool and linen became spiritually problematic. By separating between these two fabrics, we accomplish a tikkun, a spiritual rectification for that great sin at the beginning of civilization. The Arizal’s predecessor, the Ramak (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, 1522-1570) pointed out that sha’atnez (שעטנז) is an anagram of satan oz (שטן עז), and this mitzvah has a particularly strong ability to ward off and combat evil forces.

The Final Positive Mitzvot (P#224-248)

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A goring bull, one of the most common causes of damage in ancient times.

Summary: Mitzvot #224-231 deal with meting out various forms of punishment for sins and crimes, including both corporal punishment and four kinds of capital punishment. The next four mitzvot deal with laws of slavery. Mitzvot #236-246 all have to do with laws of damages, including the four main categories of damages which are a goring ox, a hazardous pit, grazing animals, and fire (as discussed at length in the Talmud, tractate Bava Kamma). Mitzvah #247 is to save a person who is being pursued. The final positive mitzvah deals with the laws of inheritance.

Insight: Although the Torah commands four kinds of death penalties, in reality the death penalty was quite rare in ancient Israel. The Mishnah (Makkot 1:10) states that a Sanhedrin that put someone to death even once in seventy years was called a “destructive” or “bloodthirsty” court, and was looked upon unfavourably. Great sages like Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon said they would never rule to put anyone to death. Ultimately, the Sages found a way to abolish the death penalty altogether. Similarly, while the Torah does allow for servitude, the laws are so favourable towards the slave that our Sages stated “one who gains a slave, gains a master!” Among other things, a slave was required to eat the same meals as his master, and sleep in the same kind of bed. The Torah prohibits owning a slave for more than six years, as every seventh year all slaves were freed. Interestingly, the Torah speaks of the procedure when a slave wishes to remain in servitude to his master beyond the seven years. Such a possibility exists only because the slave was treated so well.