Meaning in Mitzvot - Introduction

  • Rav Asher Meir
Most of us are conscious that our halakhic obligations are more than a game of "Simon Says" - more than an arbitrary collection of actions meant to test our alertness and prove that we know how to "play the game."  Every action required by the Torah should have meaning, and depth, for the Jew who performs it, and we on our part should have intention in our mitzva performance - we should mean what we do.
Ideally, meaning in each individual observance is created and informed by an understanding of the source of the obligation; by a familiarity with the rich Jewish literature which explores its meaning - such as the Midrashim, Zohar, and commentaries; and finally by experiencing the practice and integrating it into one's own life context.  This is relatively easy if you know the whole Talmud and Shulchan Arukh with their legal commentaries; the entire Midrash, Zohar and rabbinic commentaries; and have been living a halakhic lifestyle for years.
However, someone who is still on the way to this level may experience a frustrating gap in his or her living and learning of Torah.  This person has a commitment to performance expressed in a shelf full of quick reference books - ranging from the classic "Kitzur Shulchan Arukh" of Rav Shlomo Ganzfried through the many excellent and exhaustive subject-oriented books published today.  And he or she has a commitment to meaning inspired both by a private, conscientious vision of what "Torah" means and also by some great Torah figure whose words and life exemplify for this individual the ideal existence which Torah is meant to inspire us to.  But between these distinct commitments there is a gap: at the level of each individual action - washing hands, reciting blessings, etc. - a "Simon says" aspect may still be present.
A few books have been written which try to bridge this gap, to unite the source text for the specific performance of the laws with the midrashic vision of providing our actions with meaning - ethical, religious, historical, cognitive.  The classic work is, of course, the 13th-century "Sefer Ha-Chinukh," which gives both the details and the message of every single Torah commandment, following closely the enumeration of the Rambam.
More recently, another excellent example is "Likutei Halakhot" of Rav Natan of Breslav, in which various explanations of the deeper meaning of halakhot found in the oeuvre of Rav Nachman of Breslav are summarized and arranged according to the order of the Shulchan Arukh.  However, the work is not comprehensive and, on the whole, it suits someone who is already rather far along the road to having the ability to erect his or her own edifice of Torah meaning.
A fine contemporary example is Rav Chaim David Ha-Levi's comprehensive "Mekor Chaim," which is widely used in the schools here in Israel.  Yet, the mature and educated reader may find that he or she is seeking a little more depth and vision than Rav Ha-Levi's book can provide.
I cannot pretend to the scholarly stature nor to the depth of experience which would make me an ideal figure to bring the meaning of our everyday practices close to the hearts of readers anxious to close their "meaning gap."  However, I have taken upon myself to make a thorough study of the sources of our most important practices in the Talmud and the codes, together with explanations of their meaning in selected works of Jewish thought (especially when these expositions affect the way we carry out our obligations - a very common case with the Zohar), and to think hard about how to make these practices MEANINGFUL for a modern-day educated and committed Torah Jew (especially myself).
The main OBJECT of the explanations is to help the reader CONNECT with the mitzvot - to help create a feeling of direct relevance of the mitzva to one's experience.  The APPROACH of the work is to present explanations which conform to the detailed performance of the mitzvot.  For example, the explanation of washing the hands in the morning attempts to give meaning not only to the washing of the hands in general, but also to the fact that the washing should be done three times, from a vessel and into a vessel.  The explanation of the priestly blessing per se encompasses also an explanation why this mitzva is performed only on Yom Tov in most Diaspora congregations, but all year round in Israel.
In order to make these insights accessible, I have arranged them according to the order of the most popular halakhic summary work, the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh of Rav Ganzfried.  Ultimately, I would like to publish them as a commentary on Rav Ganzfried's monumental work.
Even though this is NOT a halakhic work, I have not refrained from including purely legal comments in the following cases: if the ruling may be unclear from the text of the Kitzur; if custom differs from the Kitzur's ruling; if a ruling significant for everyday practice is missing from the Kitzur.  Of course, my legal comments should not be considered binding.
If I were to assert that the explanations in this shiur are my own, I would be disrespectfully hiding my debt to the traditional sources which I constantly consult for guidance and inspiration.  These include our canonical sources such as the Talmudic Aggada, the Midrash, and the Zohar, as well as later sources such as Likutei Halakhot.  But if I were to assert that I am only transmitting the supernal insights of these works, I would be arrogantly presenting myself as someone who has plumbed the depths of their meaning, whereas in fact I am just as likely to find myself out of my depth in trying to understand the profound words of our holy Sages.
The best characterization of my explanations is that they reflect the way that I personally have put together legal sources, commentary literature and personal experience to connect with the sacred commandments and customs which define Jewish life.  I personally perceive that my explanations are based on the traditional sources, but I cannot claim that I am merely transmitting and translating them.
The shiur is intended for anybody who wants to see "meaning in mitzvot" exemplified.  This mainly includes the average intellectually-curious mitzva-doer, but may also include students of Judaism who recognize that nuts-and-bolts halakha has been neglected as a vital component of a Jewish lifestyle.  (A Torah-true Jew would call it the defining component, but it seems to me that even a dry, sociological definition of Jewish culture must recognize it as vital.)  As students of Jewish Philosophy plow diligently through dense works of Jewish thought, they are occasionally oblivious to the fact that the primary orientation of the authors and readers of these works alike was towards the Talmud and halakhic authorities.  This work may help them give proper context to their old subject matter and may even give them new horizons.  I have no doubt that hundreds of Ph.D. theses in Jewish philosophy have been written on "The Guide for the Perplexed;" perhaps this work, or one like it, may inspire someone to write a thesis on the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh!
Those readers who have been following my Mishna Berura shiur for the past year have seen many examples of my efforts to make a meaningful fusion of the halakhic sources and their midrashic expositions; if these readers have been happy with my efforts, then they will be a natural audience for this new shiur.
Unlike the Mishna Berura shiur, this new shiur will not demand adherence to an additional course of textual study; each shiur is meant to be a self-contained unit.  The subject matter is arranged according to the order of the Kitzur, but familiarity with the text of the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh itself is not necessary.
Many educators who teach from the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh have strongly encouraged me in this work, assuring me that there is a great need for such a book.  In order to meet the needs of the readership which will benefit from the book, I am very anxious to receive feedback on my work.  Such input can consist of anything from general comments on the structure of the work as a whole to criticism of some specific explanation brought.
For the same reason, I am anxious that this shiur should reach the widest possible audience.  Please try to bring it to the attention of anyone you think is interested in learning and teaching how to unite the theory and practice of Torah at the level of each individual daily custom.