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Naturalness in the Worship of God

Harav Yehuda Amital

L'iluy nishmat Yosef ben Aharon Shmuel H"YD, Grandpa Joe.


1.         Naturalness In Ritual Objects


The Gemara in Sukka (45b) states:


Chizkiya said in the name of Rabbi Yirmiya in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai: Regarding all the mitzvot [involving plants], a person fulfills his obligation only [when the plants are positioned] as they grow. As it is stated, "Shittim wood standing up" (Shemot 26:15).


Regarding the shofar blown on Rosh Ha-shana, the Gemara states (Rosh Ha-shana 27b):


If one plated it with gold on the inside, it is disqualified. On the outside – if its sound has changed from what it had been, it is disqualified; if not, it is fit.


In tractate Arakhin (10b), it is related:


Our Rabbis taught [in a Baraita]: There was a flute in the Temple, which was smooth, fine, made of a reed, and from the days of Moshe. The king issued an order, and it was plated with gold, and its sound was no longer pleasant. They removed the plate, and its sound was pleasant, as it had once been.


            These sources teach us about the importance of naturalness regarding ritual objects used in the fulfillment of mitzvot or in the Temple service. Is it legitimate to infer from here about the worship of God in general, that it should be performed in a natural manner, that is to say, out of inner desire and motivation, rather than external coercion?


2.         Fulfilling Mitzvot Out Of Natural Inclination


Rambam partially touches upon this issue in his Shemona Perakim (chap. 6).[1] He asks: Who is superior, one who is naturally perfect or one who must combat his desire to sin? Rambam cites the view of the philosophers that one who is naturally perfect, i.e., one who experiences no internal struggle whatsoever, is superior to one who is challenged by inner opposition yet succeeds in overcoming it:


For one who controls his desire, even though he performs excellent deeds, does those good deeds while yearning and craving for evil deeds. He struggles with his evil inclination, and opposes in his actions what he is aroused to do by his drives and desires and by the qualities of his soul. He performs good deeds, but grieves while he is doing them.

However, the [naturally] perfect person is drawn in his actions to what he is aroused to do by his desires and qualities. He performs good deeds, yearning and craving to do them. The philosophers agree that the [naturally] perfect person is better and more virtuous than one who controls his inclination.


            Rambam also adduces support for this approach from the book of Mishlei, which states: "The soul of the wicked desires evil" (Mishlei 21:10). In other words, a wicked man is one who desires evil, while, on the other hand, "It is a joy to the righteous to do justice" (ibid. 21:15). According to this approach, a person who is naturally inclined to do good is superior to one who must rule his soul in order to overcome his desires.


            Countering this approach, Rambam cites the following statement of Chazal (Torat Kohanim, Kedoshim, parasha 10, 11):


From where do we know that a person should not say: I do not wish to wear sha'atnez, I do not wish to eat pork, I do not wish to engage in illicit sexual relations. Rather, I wish [to do all these things], but what can I do, when my Father in Heaven has forbidden them to me?


This statement implies the opposite: it is preferable that a person should fulfill mitzvot and refrain from sin out of an internal struggle!


            Rambam reconciles the contradiction between these two approaches. Regarding rational mitzvot – "those things that are generally acknowledged by all men to be evil, like murder, theft, burglary, fraud… they are the mitzvot about which the Sages said that had they not been written, it would be fitting to write them" – "there is no doubt that the soul that yearns and craves for them is deficient, and that the perfect soul will not yearn for any of these evil things at all, and will not grieve when it abstains from them." However, regarding the non-rational mitzvot – those that have no logical reason understandable to man – on the contrary, "a person must let his soul remain attracted to them, and recognize that he abstains from them only because of the Torah." For that reason, the examples brought by Chazal in Torat Kohanim are, indeed, non-rational mitzvot - sha'atnez, pork, illicit sexual relations. They never said that "a person should not say: I wish not to murder, I wish not to steal, I wish not to lie."


            Rambam distinguishes here between two extreme types of mitzvot. Regarding the rational mitzvot, it is better for a person to fulfill them out of internal motivation, whereas regarding the non-rational mitzvot, it is better for him to fulfill them through struggle and external coercion. There is, however, a large realm of mitzvot, for which Rambam provides a rationale in his Guide of the Perplexed, even though they are chukkim (whose rationales are generally regarded as unknowable). It is not clear to which category they belong – should they be fulfilled out of internal identification or out of external coercion? As examples of non-rational commandments, Rambam mentions a number of prohibitions, and only two positive commandments that fall upon the community – the red heifer and the scapegoat. But to which category do mitzvot such as Shabbat, Pesach, and sukka belong?


            It may be suggested that any mitzva that can be understood through reason falls into the category of rational mitzvot. Rabbi Kook says (Orot Ha-Kodesh III, mussar ha-kodesh, 90):


When reason illuminates with all its light, there is then no need for the special guidance of chukkim and mishpatim (i.e., rational and non-rational laws). The absolute good in the action follows from the light of reason, and all of life's stumbling blocks straighten out on their own. The chukkim and mishpatim exist not as imperatives, but as natural actions for those greatly illuminated by the light of reason.


            In the ideal situation, when the mind understands everything, chukkim and mishpatim cease to exist, and everything works naturally. Although Rambam did not relate to the intermediate category of mitzvot, he did assign rationales to mitzvot designated as chukkim, indicating that they can be understood through reason. From this we can infer that we should aspire to fulfill all mitzvot out of internal identification.


            Furthermore, we have already cited (in Chapter 3) the Maharal's opinion that the service of God must always be motivated by internal desire – even regarding mitzvot that appear to have no reason.


            It seems, therefore, that observing the mitzvot out of one's natural inclination does not diminish the value of one's acceptance of the yoke of Heaven. On the contrary, there is value in fulfilling mitzvot in a natural manner, one that matches the personality of the individual.


            Rashi, however, may disagree with Rambam and Maharal. The Gemara in Sanhedrin (76b) states:


Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav: One who marries off his daughter to an old man or takes a wife for his minor son or returns a lost object to a gentile – about him the verse states: "To add drunkenness to thirst; the Lord will not spare him" (Devarim 29:18-19).


Rashi (ad loc.) explains:


"Or returns a lost object to a gentile" – He likens and joins a gentile to a Jew, demonstrating that he does regard the return of lost objects as a mitzva imposed by his Creator, for he does the same thing for the gentile, about whom he has not been commanded.


            Rashi implies that if a person acts on the basis of personal morality, rather than in fulfillment of God's commandment, there is a flaw in his conduct. Rashi's understanding contrasts with that of Rambam, who writes (Hilkhot Gezela va-Aveda 11:3):


One who returns [the lost object of a gentile] commits a transgression, for he strengthens the hands of the wicked in the world.  However, if he returned the lost object in order to sanctify God's Name … then [returning it] is praiseworthy.


            The source for Rambam's ruling is found in a story related in the Yerushalmi (Bava Metzia 2:5). Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach purchased a donkey from a gentile, and found that there was a jewel attached to it.  When he returned the jewel to the gentile, his disciples asked him: "Surely it is permissible [to keep] the lost object of a gentile!" Rabbi Shimon answered them: "What do you think, Shimon ben Shetach is a barbarian?" Rabbi Shimon then added that he wanted to sanctify the name of Heaven. It would appear from the comment of Penei Moshe that these are two separate arguments – a moral argument and an argument based on the sanctification of God's name.


            It is possible, however, that even according to Rashi, returning a lost object to a gentile is problematic only when the Jew returns it because of his inclination to preserve the social order or some other pragmatic reason. But Rashi would agree that a person does nothing wrong if he returns the lost object because of fundamental moral principles.[2]


3.         The Importance of Spiritual Struggle In Refraining From Sin


As was stated above, Rambam maintains that the non-rational mitzvot should indeed be fulfilled out of struggle – "a person must let his soul remain attracted to them, and recognize that he abstains from them only because of the Torah." But we have never heard of Torah authorities or Mussar masters who would educate their students to love pork and refrain from eating it only after overcoming their desire to do so. Moreover, the Mishna (Terumot 6:3) states:


One who feeds his workers or guests teruma [instead of giving it to a kohen] must pay the principal, and they pay the added fifth; these are the words of Rabbi Meir. But the Sages say: They pay the principal and the added fifth, and he pays them the value of their meal.


Basing himself on the Yerushalmi (ad loc.), Rambam rules as follows (Hilkhot Teruma 10:10):


If one feeds his workers or guests teruma, they must pay the principal and the added fifth, because they [ate the teruma] inadvertently, and he pays them the value of their meal, for the value of non-consecrated food is greater than the value of the teruma that they ate, because that which is forbidden a person loathes.


The implication is that when a person eats forbidden food, he is not considered as eating something of value, because a person loathes eating that which is forbidden to him – even though this is illogical and seems to run counter to what Rambam himself says in his Shemona Perakim.


            Rabbenu Bachye ibn Pekuda writes as well that a person must recoil naturally from those things that are forbidden, even when the prohibitions have no logical rationale (Chovot ha-Levavot, Sha'ar Ha-perishut, chap. 5):


It is proper for you, my brother, to train yourself in abstinence, to abstain from all that God has forbidden to you, so that you will abhor and regard all forbidden pleasures and prohibited lusts with equal disgust, so that what is naturally disgusting among forbidden things and what is desirable among them shall be equally abhorrent to you.  Thus, forbidden intercourse, eating forbidden food in forbidden ways and seeking honor by humiliating a person and holding him up to contempt, which people are naturally fond of doing, should be as repellent to you as eating mice, blood or pork, which is abhorrent to your nature and which your soul hates.


            It may be suggested, however, that even according to Rambam, it is possible for a person to be overcome by different emotions at one and the same time. On the one hand, one can crave a prohibited food, but on the other hand, one can also loathe it because it is forbidden. Nevertheless, it would appear from here that there is no value in yearning after forbidden foods and overcoming that desire through awareness of the prohibition.


            Indeed, Maharal offered a different explanation to the aforementioned rabbinic dictum: "A person should not say: I do not wish…" Chazal are not dealing here with a person's emotions, saying that one should crave forbidden foods and the like. Rather, they are addressing a cognitive issue. A person should not abstain from eating forbidden foods because he thinks that they are bad for his health (for example, that pork is forbidden because pigs are unclean). Rather, he should recognize that they are forbidden because the Torah has prohibited them. Thus writes Maharal in Tiferet Yisrael (chap. 8):


This is what they meant when they said: "A person should not say: I do not wish…" They taught thereby that a person should not say that the Torah is natural, for were it natural, there would be no Divine reward for something that is natural.


According to this approach, there is no room to say that there is any value in a person's craving pork, or the like. All that the Gemara means is that these prohibitions have no medical or other pragmatic basis.


            It stands to reason that Rambam also did not mean that yearning after forbidden foods has positive value. All that he meant to say is that greater reward awaits one who must make greater efforts to observe the mitzvot – "According to the effort is the reward" (Avot 5:23). Rambam understood that Chazal are saying that a person is not obligated to say, "I do not wish to eat pork…," but there is no special virtue in lusting after pork. In any event, greater reward awaits one who is forced to invest greater effort in order to overcome his desires.


4.         "Purify Our Heart To Serve You Sincerely"


Naturalness is valuable not only in contrast to coerced observance of mitzvot, but also in contrast to artificial observance. The importance of serving God naturally is included in our prayer, "Purify our heart to serve You sincerely." Artificiality constitutes a flaw in sincere worship of God. The meaning of this prayer is that a person's performance of mitzvot should correspond to his internal state of loving God, fearing Him, and seeking His closeness. There should be no disproportion between the quantity of his actions and his internal values. The prayer is directed at filling in what is missing, not in the execution of God's service, but in its spiritual backing.


Rambam (Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, positive precept 8) understands that the verse, "And to serve Him with all your heart" (Devarim 11:13), is the source for the mitzva of prayer. Ramban (in his strictures, ad loc.) disagrees, arguing that prayer is a mitzva of rabbinic origin. He offers a different interpretation of the verse:


The essence of the verse, "And to serve Him with all your heart," is a positive commandment that all of our service of God, may He be blessed, should be with our entire heart, that is to say, with perfect, desirable intention, directed to His name, and without evil thoughts. We should not perform the mitzvot without intention or based on the uncertain premise that perhaps they will lead to benefit… Since He commanded us something new in the verse, "with all your heart," namely, that our hearts should be directed exclusively to Him, may He be elevated, in the performance of the mitzvot, as I have explained – it is possible that this mitzva should be included among the 248 positive precepts.


In other words, according to Ramban, there is a separate mitzva that a person should have full spiritual backing for his performance of the mitzvot.


            Thus, simplicity and wholeness are also values in mitzva observance; there should be no difference between a person's service of God in the privacy of his own home and his worship in the public arena. These are connected to the trait of modesty, for a person whose outward behavior does not match his conduct at home suffers from the flaw of external pride.[3] There is a famous saying that it is lucky for the Jews that the mitzva of lulav and etrog is fulfilled in public, whereas the mitzva of maror is fulfilled in the privacy of a person's home. Were the opposite true, then many people would not be so fastidious about their lulav and etrog, and instead they would make special efforts to fulfill the mitzva of maror in the best possible manner.


            While one should always aspire to the deepest truthfulness and sincerity, there is obviously value to the performance of mitzvot in and of themselves, even without all the accompanying internal baggage. Yet it important always to bear in mind that our actions should have spiritual backup.


            The Gemara in Chullin (105a) states:


Mar Ukva said: Regarding this matter, I in relation to my father am like vinegar derived from wine. For if my father would eat meat, he would not eat cheese until the same time the next day. But as for me, in this meal I would not eat [cheese], [but] in another meal, I would.


            I once heard from my teacher, Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer zt"l, that the Mussar masters would ask: Why indeed did Mar Ukva not conduct himself like his father? They answered that he felt that he was not on the same spiritual level as his father, and therefore he did not want to conduct himself with a stringency that was not in accord with his spiritual level.


            This principle also follows from the words of the Ba'al Shem Tov (Bereishit, no. 176, in the name of Ben Porat Yosef):


Everyone must act in accordance with his level, but one who seizes a level that is not his, neither this nor that will remain in his hand. This is what they meant when they said:[4] "Many did like Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai and were unsuccessful." They meant to say that these people were not at that level; they only acted like Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, seeing that he was at that level, and therefore they were unsuccessful.


In other words, many attempted to follow in the path of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai – to learn Torah and rely on others to do their work – but did not succeed, because they adopted for themselves a norm of behavior that was beyond their level.


The aspiration for spiritual backing comes to special expression in one's prayer. Thus the Jewish sage says in Kuzari (III, 5):


The tongue agrees with the thought, and does not overstep its bounds, does not speak in prayer in a mere mechanical way as the starling and the parrot, but every word is uttered thoughtfully and attentively.


In prayer, too, the goal is that there should be no gap between words and thoughts. The entire beginning of the third part of the Kuzari describes the pious man as one who acts out of internal motivation, rather than coercion.


            The importance of sincerity in prayer follows also from the Gemara in Yoma (69b), which notes that while Moshe referred to God as "a great God, mighty and awesome" (Devarim 10:17), the later prophets omitted some of these designations:


Yirmiya came and said: "Gentiles are dancing in His sanctuary! Where is His awesomeness?" So he did not say "awesome."

Daniel came and said: "Gentiles are enslaving God's children! Where is His might?" So he did not say "mighty."


The Gemara then asks: How can it be that Yirmiya and Daniel rejected the prayer formula that had been established by Moshe?  It answers:


Rabbi Elazar said: Since they knew that the Holy One, blessed be He, is truthful, therefore they could not lie.


            Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk said (Peri Ha-Aretz, letter 22) that when a person engages in prayer, he ascends to the heavenly worlds. But if he pushes himself into a world that is above his level, they cast him out by filling his mind with foreign thoughts. He means to say that this is the test to see whether a person's prayers are natural or artificial.[5]


            The same holds true of authenticity – the importance of truthful conduct, without posturing or putting on shows. This is especially important regarding the ability of parents and teachers to exert educational influence. Children do not always know how to express their criticism, but they can almost always sense whether their parents are speaking honestly to them or just putting on a show. One of the main problems in education is that parents demand from their children norms of behavior that they themselves do not live up to. Authenticity has enormous power and is likely to have great educational impact.


5.         Halakhic Stringencies


We mentioned earlier the problem of a person accepting upon himself stringencies that are beyond his true station. Sometimes stringency regarding the mitzvot leads to other problems as well. Some authorities relate to unnecessary stringency as being a mere step away from heresy. The Shulchan Arukh (Yore De'a 116:7) rules: "An animal that threatens to die, even though it becomes permitted through slaughter, the meticulous are stringent and refrain from eating it." Rema adds: "An animal regarding which a Torah sage issued a lenient ruling based on his own reasoning, but nowhere is it explicitly permitted – a conscientious person will not eat of it." Pitchei Teshuva (ad loc., no. 10) cites the Issur ve-Heter, who writes in the name of his grandfather that it is also fitting to be stringent about other things that involve an element of prohibition, even though they are permissible. Examples of this include forbidden food cooked a "second utensil" (that had received food from a utensil that had stood on the fire), or in a "first utensil" (that itself stood on the fire) that contains sixty times as much permitted food as forbidden food. But he continues with the following:


I saw later in Solet Le-mincha (76:8) that Torat Ha-asham writes that someone who wishes to be stringent and forbid something regarding which there is no indication that the Amoraim practiced stringency, e.g., something that was nullified in sixty parts of permitted food, or cooked in a "second vessel" – it is like heresy, and his reward is cancelled out by his loss.


We see, then, that the halakhic authorities disagree about whether it is fitting to be stringent about things that are permissible, or whether such conduct is "like heresy."[6]


I wish to mention one additional problem – the appearance of arrogance. The Gemara in Bava Kama (59a-b) states:


Eliezer Ze'era once put on a pair of black shoes and stood in the market place of Neharde'a. When the attendants of the house of the Exilarch met him there, they said to him: "What ground have you for wearing black shoes?"

He said to them: "I am mourning for Jerusalem."

They said to him: "Are you such a distinguished person as to mourn over Jerusalem?" 

Considering this to be a piece of arrogance on his part, they took him and placed him in prison. He said to them: "I am a great man."


            Here, too, we see that certain stringencies are appropriate only for people of particularly high spiritual standing. Eliezer Ze'ira's justification for acting stringently in this case was that he was "a great man." Were this not the case, his stringent conduct would have been tainted with "arrogance."


            I was once asked by one of my students why I do not observe a particular stringency, about which the Mishna Berura writes that one who fears Heaven should practice this stringency. I replied: "When you read a section in the Mishna Berura that is directed at one who fears Heaven, you are convinced that he is referring to you. I have no such presumptions." It should also be noted that the Mishna Berura says that it befits one who fears Heaven to practice stringency; but he does not say that such stringency leads a person to fear of Heaven!



(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] For a further discussion of Rambam's position, see above, Chapter 2, "Natural Morality."

[2] See also Rashi, Ketubot 15b, s.v., lehachazir lo aveda, where he seems to explain the prohibition in a different manner.

[3] There are times, however, that a person can grow in strength by accepting upon himself to act in a certain manner when he is in public. Such conduct is certainly not flawed, even though it is clearly not the ideal situation. The problem arises when a person conducts himself in a particular manner in public for external motives.

[4] He is referring here to the Gemara in Berakhot (35b):

Our Rabbis taught: "And you shall gather in your grain" (Devarim 11:14). What is to be learnt from these words? Since it says: "This book of the law shall not depart your mouth" (Yehoshua 1:8), I might think that this injunction is to be taken literally. Therefore it says: "And you shall gather in your grain," which implies that you are to combine Torah study with a worldly occupation. This is the view of Rabbi Yishmael.

Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai says: Is that possible? If a man plows in the plowing season, and sows in the sowing season, and reaps in the reaping season, and threshes in the threshing season, and winnows in the season of wind, what is to become of the Torah? Rather, when Israel perform the will of the Omnipresent, their work is performed by others… And when Israel do not perform the will of the Omnipresent, their work is carried out by themselves… Nor is this all, but the work of others also is done by them…

Abaye said: Many followed Rabbi Yishmael's opinion, and were successful; others followed Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai's opinion, and were unsuccessful.

[5] This issue will be discussed at greater length in Chapter 10.

[6] For additional problems regarding excessive stringencies, see Encyclopedia Talmudit, vol. V, s.v., ga'ava, in the section chumrot yeterot.

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