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The Rambam (Shemoneh Perakim, end of Chapter 6) deals with different types of mitzvos. He says one type are logical, and thus a perfected person shouldn't want to transgress them. He says some call these mitzvos sichliyos, logical mitzvos. He lists murder, theft, robbery, overcharging, and damaging others as examples. The Rambam writes that these are mitzvos that Chazal describe as שאילו לא נכתבו ראוים הם ליכתב, if they weren't written in the Torah (as prohibitions), they would have deserved to have been written. Meaning, they would have been forbidden because of logic.

He then describes mitzvos that are beyond human logic. These mitzvos a perfected person can desire to transgress, yet won't because G-d dictated not to. If the Torah hadn't forbidden them, they wouldn't have been considered evil. These are commonly referred to as chukim. He lists milk and meat, shaatnez, and forbidden relations as examples of this latter type.

My edition of Shemoneh Perakim has a note (from הגהות בד"ו, my guess is that stands for a marginal note in the Venice printing) that the Rambam's source for his first category is Yoma 67b. It points out that we find a contradiction there to the Rambam's words. There, the gemarra teaches:

ת"ר (ויקרא יח, ד) את משפטי תעשו דברים שאלמלא (לא) נכתבו דין הוא שיכתבו ואלו הן עבודת כוכבים וגלוי עריות ושפיכות דמים וגזל וברכת השם

The Sages taught with regard to the verse: “You shall do My ordinances, and you shall keep My statutes to follow them, I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 18:4), that the phrase: My ordinances, is a reference to matters that, even had they not been written, it would have been logical that they be written. They are the prohibitions against idol worship, prohibited sexual relations, bloodshed, theft, and blessing God, a euphemism for cursing the Name of God.

We see that the Rambam's source for logical mitzvos includes forbidden relations, but he included those in his list of mitzvos that are beyond human reasoning. This is a glaring contradiction.

The note suggests a partial answer from the Maharsha there. He understands the gemarra differently than I explained above. The gemarra doesn't mean that if they weren't written, they would have been self evident. Rather, it means if they hadn't been written, they would have been forbidden anyways, since they are forbidden to benei Noach. The Rambam could mean that even before forbidden relations were forbidden to benei Noach, they would have been considered permitted. The problem is, seemingly the Rambam's source for his first category of mitzvos is this very gemarra, and he doesn't seem to be understanding it like the Maharsha.

Edit: I just saw that in Rav Kafih's edition of the Rambam's commentary on Avos (fn. 14) that he writes it is clear that the Rambam didn't have the words גילוי עריות in his gemarra. His suggestion is hard to accept, as eight manuscripts/versions of the Talmud we have list it, as well as many geonim and rishonim.

Are there any other resolutions to this contradiction?

  • Maybe it depends on the society. – Heshy Aug 12 at 13:54
  • @Heshy but the Rambam says he's quoting Chazal, who say otherwise – robev Aug 12 at 13:55
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    Maybe different kinds of arayot (adultery vs incest)? – Joel K Aug 12 at 14:00
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    I don't know about שמנה פרקים, but often "בד״ו" stands for "in the Venice printing". – msh210 Aug 12 at 14:49
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Listing arayot as one of the commandments that one only abstains from because God said so is not Rambam's invention. His statement here is more or less a direct quote from a Midrash Halacha:

Sifra 4:9

ר' אלעזר בן עזריה אומר מנין שלא יאמר אדם אי איפשי ללבוש שעטנז אי אפשי לאכול בשר חזיר אי איפשי לבוא על הערוה אבל איפשי מה אעשה ואבי שבשמים גזר עלי כך ת"ל ואבדיל אתכם מן העמים להיות לי נמצא פורש מן העבירה ומקבל עליו מלכות שמים

The question then becomes how Rambam reconcile the Sifra with the Talmudic passage in Yoma. There are two basic structural possibilities here:

  1. Rambam simply disagrees with the Talmud's inclusion of arayot in the list of self-evident commandments, or considers it a matter of dispute among the Sages.

  2. The Talmud and the Midrash are discussing different types of arayot.

If we choose the first method the question falls away on its own. Rambam didn't include arayot in the first category, because it isn't part of the first category despite the Talmud saying that it is.

If we choose the second option we have to come up with a distinction between the Arayot discussed in the two passages. If we look at Rambam's writings elsewhere where he explains the reasons for the sexual prohibitions, we can see that they are of varying levels of self-evidentness. For instance, his explanation for the forbidden relatives:

Guide for the Perplexed 3:49

The female relatives whom a man may not marry are alike in this respect – that as a rule they are constantly together with him in his house: they would easily listen to him, and do what he desires; they are near at hand, and he would have no difficulty in procuring them. No judge could blame him if found in their company. If to these relatives the same law applied as to all other unmarried women, if we were allowed to marry any of them, and were only precluded from sexual intercourse with them without marriage, most people would constantly have become guilty of misconduct with them. But as they are entirely forbidden to us, and sexual intercourse with them is most emphatically denounced unto us as a capital crime, or a sin punishable with extinction (karet), and as there is no means of ever legalizing such intercourse, there is reason to expect that people will not seek it, and will not think of it. That the persons included in that prohibition are, as we have stated, at hand and easily accessible, is evident. For as a rule, the mother of the wife, the grandmother, the daughter, the granddaughter, and the sister-in-law, are mostly with her; the husband meets them always when he goes out, when he comes in, and when he is at his work. The wife stays also frequently in the house of her husband's brother, father, or son. It is also well known that we are often in the company of our sisters, our aunts, and the wife of our uncle, and are frequently brought up together with them. These are all the relatives which we must not marry. This is one of the reasons why intermarriage with a near relative is forbidden. But according to my opinion the prohibition serves another object, namely, to inculcate chastity into our hearts. Licence between the root and the branch, between a man and his mother, or his daughter, is outrageous. The intercourse between root and branch is forbidden, and it makes no difference whether the male element is the root or the branch, or both root and branch combine in the intercourse with a third person, so that the same individual cohabits with the root and with the branch. On this account it is prohibited to marry a woman and her mother, the wife of the father or of the son; for in all these cases there is the intercourse between one and the same person on the one side and root and branch on the other.

Friedlander translation

Here it seems that for some of the forbidden sexual relationships the prohibition is essentially just a "fence" to keep people away from doing something that is actually bad. It makes sense that those would not be included in the category of self-evident commandments. It is not a "defect of the soul", as Rambam calls it, to desire those sins. Thus, when it comes to those, one could truthfully say "I want to lie with that woman, and I'm only refraining because God commanded me to". On the other hand, some of the other forbidden relationships are apparently inherently repugnant, such as a man and his daughter. In such a case one could indeed argue that it is a defect of the soul to desire that. One should not say "I want to lie with my daughter but God's commandment prevents me"; rather, he should not want to lie with his daughter.

Thus, it is possible that Rambam understands the Talmud in Yoma to be talking about the self-evident arayot, while the Midrash in Sifra is talking about the non-self-evident arayot.

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