So according to Rambam and other Rabbis, such as R' Hirsch, the mitzvoth are supposed to give us some ideas, some philosophies, to refine our ethics, or to achieve some practical objective.

What about the Kabbalah's views? Are we just doing magic rituals?

Is there a way to 'reconcile' the two kind of views?

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    Why do you assume that the Kabbalists don't allow for rational reasoning in thr performance of Mitzvos, or focus on magical rituals? Any source in Kabbalistic literature to back that view?
    – Chaim
    Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 19:13
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    Why can't there simply be multiple benefits to performing mitzvos?
    – LN6595
    Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 19:32
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    Although some kabbalsists attacked Rambam's taamei hamitzvoth, others (re)interpreted them as being consistent with them. For example, Rambam holds that the incense in the Temple was to mask to bad smell of slaughter. Some kabbalists were incensed that he portrayed the holy and mysterious ritual of incense as a mere deodorant. Others, however, claimed that he meant not a physical bad smell, but the spiritual effects of slaughter which are rectified with the ritual of incense.
    – mevaqesh
    Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 23:01
  • I'm sure they must have a method of reasoning about Taamei Hamitzvoth, I really don't believe they regard mitzvoth as magic rituals, so the question is, what is that method? and, how does it relates to the more rational methods? Are both methods not so different (like it would seem from @mevaqesh's comment)? Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 23:34
  • @mevaqesh what is the source for that reinterpretation of the Rambam? It's not very plausible given his ontology in the moreh. Commented Jan 20, 2016 at 2:09

4 Answers 4


According to Dayan Grunfeld's lengthy introduction to Horeb (pp. cxx-cxxix), R' Hirsch's approach to mitzvos starts from notes in the margins of his Zohar. (I spoke to an eye-witness of those notes, who saw them when RSRH's Zohar was auctioned off in 2008.)

The difference is that to Rav Hirsch, the Zohar speaks in metaphor, not of metaphysical ontologies.

The Nefesh haChaim, to pick one example, (sec. 1) takes mitzvos as realigning the physical forces of the world with loftier metaphysical ones, (sec. 2) prayer as drawing down holiness to the world, and (sec. 3) learning as a means of bringing Hashem's presence to the studier, and thereby into the world. to him, the acts actually move around qabbalistic "things". To R' Hirsch, all of this is to change one's attitude toward the world by manipulating representations, symbols, of loftier ideas.

The Ramchal, as he explains in the beginning of Qela"ch Pichei Chokhmah, also saw the Zohar and the Ari's Qabbalah as speaking in a symbol system.

I left the Rambam out of that comparison because I believe that his system of explaining mitzvos does not speak to us anyway. It contradicts Qabbalah, Chassidus, Mussar, Rav Hirsch, etc... Now to justify that seemingly bold claim:

According to the Rambam, redemption lays in theological knowledge; not knowledge of G-d, which he believes is impossible, but knowledge about G-d, the philosopher's sort. (See last chapter of Moreh Nevuchim; his words are translated: "דעות אמיתיות באלוהיות" -ibn Tibon, "השקפות אמיתיות בעניני האלוהיים" -el Qafih ["Kapach"], "דעות אמיתיות במטפיזיקה" -Schwartz, "true metaphysical opinions as regards God" -Fraedlander)

It is this knowledge which gives prophets their prophecy (2:12) and earns one individualized Divine Providence (3:18) and to be truly called a person (idid & 3:54) This return from emotion and moral calling to intellectual clarity is undoing the effects of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (1:1-2). Moral decision-making is less significant than determining Truth. (ibid, 3:54 -- ie the Moreh opens and closes with it.)

Therefore, the Rambam sees all of the mitzvos as serving one of three goals (3:27, tr. Fraedlander):

THE general object of the Law is twofold: the well-being of the soul, and the well-being of the body. The well-being of the soul is promoted by correct opinions communicated to the people according to their capacity. Some of these opinions are therefore imparted in a plain form, others allegorically: because certain opinions are in their plain form too strong for the capacity of the common people. The well-being of the body is established by a proper management of the relations in which we live one to another. This we can attain in two ways: first by removing all violence from our midst: that is to say, that we do not do every one as he pleases, desires, and is able to do; but every one of us does that which contributes towards the common welfare. Secondly, by teaching every one of us such good morals as must produce a good social state. Of these two objects, the one, the well-being of the soul, or the communication of correct opinions, comes undoubtedly first in rank, but the other, the well-being of the body, the government of the state, and the establishment of the best possible relations among men, is anterior in nature and time. The latter object is required first; it is also treated [in the Law] most carefully and most minutely, because the well-being of the soul can only be obtained after that of the body has been secured. ... The second perfection of man consists in his becoming an actually intelligent being; i.e., he knows about the things in existence all that a person perfectly developed is capable of knowing. This second perfection certainly does not include any action or good conduct, but only knowledge, which is arrived at by speculation, or established by research.

It is clear that the second and superior kind of perfection can only be attained when the first perfection has been acquired; for a person that is suffering from great hunger, thirst, heat, or cold, cannot grasp an idea even if communicated by others, much less can he arrive at it by his own reasoning. But when a person is in possession of the first perfection, then he may possibly acquire the second perfection, which is undoubtedly of a superior kind, and is alone the source of eternal life.

Also I would note that the Rambam says that ta'amei hamitzvos can only be explored about the big picture. He writes (3:26):

All of us, the common people as well as the scholars, believe that there is a reason for every precept, although there are commandments the reason of which is unknown to us, and in which the ways of God's wisdom are incomprehensible. ... The repeated assertion of our Sages that there are reasons for all commandments, and the tradition that Solomon knew them, refer to the general purpose of the commandments, and not to the object of every detail.

For example:

Those who trouble themselves to find a cause for any of these detailed rules, are in my eyes void of sense: they do not remove any difficulties, but rather increase them. ... You ask why must a lamb be sacrificed and not a ram? but the same question would be asked, why a ram had been commanded instead of a lamb, so long as one particular kind is required. The same is to be said as to the question why were seven lambs sacrificed and not eight; the same question might have been asked if there were eight, ten, or twenty lambs, so long as some definite number of lambs were sacrificed.

This focus on intellect, reducing character (middos, ethical behavior, etc...) to its handmaiden was the topic of major condemnation by many in consequent generations. Rav Hirsch cites the Rambam's inability to apply his philosophy to such details as a symptom of the Rambam's whole system being off. To quote the 19 Letters of Ben Uzziel (Letter 18):

The age gave birth to a man [R’ Drachman’s footnote: Maimonides], a mind, who, the product of uncomprehended Judaism and Arabic science, was obliged to reconcile the strife which raged in his own breast in his own manner, and who, by proclaiming it to the world, became the guide of all in whom the same conflict existed.

This great man to whom, and to whom alone, we owe the preservation of practical Judaism to our time, is responsible because he sought to reconcile Judaism with the difficulties which confronted it from without instead of developing it creatively from within, for all the good and the evil which bless and afflict the heritage of the father. His peculiar mental tendency was Arabic-Greek, and his conception of the purpose of life the same. He entered into Judaism from without, bringing with him opinions of whose truth he had convinced himself from extraneous sources and he reconciled. For him, too, self-perfecting through the knowledge of truth was the highest aim, the practical he deemed subordinate. For him knowledge of God was the end, not the means; hence he devoted his intellectual powers to speculations upon the essence of Deity, and sought to bind Judaism to the results of his speculative investigations as to postulates of science or faith. The Mizvoth became for him merely ladders, necessary only to conduct to knowledge or to protect against error, this latter often only the temporary and limited error of polytheism. Mishpatim became only rules of prudence, Mitzvoth as well; Chukkim rules of health, teaching right feeling, defending against the transitory errors of the time; Edoth ordinances, designed to promote philosophical concepts; all this having no foundation in the eternal essence of things, not resulting from their eternal demand on me, or from my eternal purpose and task, no eternal symbolizing of an unchangeable idea, and not inclusive enough to form a basis for the totality of the commandments.

He, the great systematic orderer of the practical results of the Talmud, gives expression in the last part of his philosophic work to opinions concerning tlie meaning and purpose of the commandments which, taking the very practical results codified by himself as the contents of the commandments, are utterly untenable cast no real light upon them and cannot go hand in hand with them in practice, in life, and in science…

What then is RSRH’s complaint? That the Rambam was too Aristotelian, and it led him to study Judaism from the outside, casting upon it the Hellenic philosopher’s priority of knowledge rather than morality.

Anyway, to answer the Rambam part of the question... Yes, the Rambam and Qabbalah's explanation of mitzvos contradict, but most of us would be demanding the burden of proof from the Rambam.

  • The Rambam was a rishon with the mesorah of the babylonian academies, while Hirsh was much much later, and the Qabbalah is contradicted by the gaonin and its mesorah has some very strong challenges. Why do you place the burden on the Rambam? Commented Jan 20, 2016 at 21:21
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    I think you skipped section 3 of Nefesh Hachaim in your brief summary and replaced it with section 4. Commented Jan 21, 2016 at 1:09
  • (1) Actually I had meant that as a sociological statement... Because the Rambam's hashkafah is so far from what most of us were taught when young (or when first becoming observant), most of us would put the burden of proof on the Rambam's position. But I am willing to say what you thought I did, so... (2) This whole business about the centrality of intellect comes from Aristo's chain-of -intellects metaphysics. Not mesorah. There is nothing in Chazal about one's humanity resting on their theological knowledge, rather than their moral refinement. Nor of the Rambam's redefinition of angels. Commented Jan 21, 2016 at 1:11
  • Nevu'ah through the Active Inellect is mesoretic? Etc... (3) The Rambam's tradition from the gronim runs throgh the Rif, from whom we see none of this. Meanwhile, the Rif and the Rambam are far from unique... R Sherira and R Hai Gaon taught Rabbeinu Gershom Meor haGolah, who taught the Ri ben Yaqar, who taught Rashi. (4) As for Qabbalah, the Bahir was published 11 years before the Rambam was born. And the Sefer Raza Rabba (which the Bahir may be an adaptation of) is quoted by said geonim. Yes, the geonim discuss 10 sefiros in the sense we usually associate with the Zohar. Commented Jan 21, 2016 at 1:20
  • (5) [and last] Surely you know that R' Hirsch's objections were raised by the Rambam's contemporaries. Rejection of the Rambam's hashkafah as being more Aristotle than Torah is far from R' Hirsch's -- it has a long and popular mesorah. I intentionally chose someone who simultaneously acknowledges the Rambam's central role in halakhah. Commented Jan 21, 2016 at 1:22

Your conception, that the two schools of thought you enumerate (if you can call it that) are at odds with each other is not accurate.

Both the written Torah and it's complete explanation, meaning all parts of the oral Torah, were given to Moshe at Sinai.

In the Mechilta on Yitro, Rabbi Akiva says the entire Torah (everything that is contained in both the written and oral) was said in a single word by HaShem directly to Israel. This concept, although stated extremely briefly, is to emphasize that the Torah is one (תורה אחת).

We repeat this every Shabbat when we say the Lecha Dodi prayer which states, "Shamor v'zachor b'dibur echod hishmi'anu E-l hameyuchad. HaShem echod u'shemo echod l'shem, u'letiferet v'litehillah." As the Vilna Gaon teaches, the Torah is G-d's name. (See Sefer Orot HaGra, section on Torah at the beginning for details.)

This same concept is repeated with more detail by Rabbi Akiva's student, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai to his son, Rabbi Eliezer in the Zohar, Section 3, 73a which says:

וע"ד ישראל בתרין דרגין אינון סתים וגליא דתנינן ג' דרגין אינון מתקשרן דא בדא קב"ה אורייתא וישראל.


That aspect of the Torah that appears divided relates only to the lower aspect of each Jew, the Yaacov aspect of their soul. But the true, revealed unity of the whole Torah is what corresponds to the aspect of Yisroel within each Jew. And like the Rashbi emphasizes in this Zohar cited, the Torah informs us explicitly in Bereshit 32:29,

לא יקרא שמך עוד יעקב וגו'

Your name will no longer be called Yaacov, rather, we are to be called Yisrael.

The Holy One One, blessed be He, the Torah and Yisrael are all one, bound together. The hidden and revealed are all one. The unity of the Torah is a manifestation of G-d's unity, His oneness. So too, the unity of the Jewish people, that we are "Am echod b'aretz" is a manifestation of G-d's unity.

Ultimately this will be revealed in the entire universe like it states at the end of the second paragraph of the Aleinu prayer, "On that day, G-d will be one and his name one.". We help to bring about this manifestation by learning the whole Torah, all its various aspects and revealing its unity. Not, G-d forbid, the opposite.

This same teaching is also repeated by Rav Sherira Gaon near the beginning of his famous letter beginning with the words, "דהא תנו רבנן בפרק יש נוחלין כו״". Rav Sherira emphasizes how even the least among the students of Rabbi Hillel HaZaken knew virtually all areas of the Torah, both the revealed and the hidden, including Ma'aseh Merkava (the great matter) and Ma'aseh Bereshit (the small matter, According to some 'the small matter' refers to the discussions between Abaye and Rava). Nothing was an innovation, not even the discussions of Abaye and Rava. It all came ultimately from Moshe Rabbeinu at Har Sinai and Yehoshuah after him, in Sherirah Gaon's words, "from earlier Sages".

And Rav Sherira goes on to point out that up until Hillel and Shammai, the entire Torah, meaning the revealed and hidden parts of the Torah, Niglah and Nistar, was viewed as completely consistent without conflict or disagreement, with the sole exception of the 'semicha controversy' (Remember that after Moshe died, Yehoshuah forgot hundreds of halachot and had to work to recover them.) Sherira Gaon explains that disagreements and argument only grew out of a lack of sufficient study. As the level of study decreased, like with the students of Hillel and Shammai, it appeared that the Torah was more divided and inconsistent. But that is only the result of the immature understanding of the students.

This same teaching, that the Holy One One, blessed be He, the Torah and Yisrael are all one is repeated by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato in his commentary to Idra Rabba. It is also found in the introduction to Sefer Pi Chocham by Rabbi Yehudah Ashlag.


It is a consistent teaching, generation after generation by all the gedolei Yisrael going back to Moshe Rabbeinu at Har Sinai.

Concerning the question about "What is the Kabbalistic view in regard to Ta'amei HaMitzvot?", it is far too broad a subject to address in a few paragraphs on this forum.

A very good book that addresses this subject in systematic way is Sefer Shomer Emunim by Rabbi Yosef ben Emmanuel Ergas. Ergas was dealing with the fallout from Shabbtai Tzvi and wrote this book to make clear the authentic roots of genuine Kabbalah. For anyone trying to understand this subject, Shomer Emunim is a very good introduction.


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    Source for first paragraph?
    – mevaqesh
    Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 23:01
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    This answer provides only an unsourced claim that the OP's assumption is wrong, and a link to a book that may or may not contain relevant information. Very poor quality answer.
    – mevaqesh
    Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 23:03
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    An answer which requires the reader to read an entire book to assess its quality is by definition a poor answer.
    – mevaqesh
    Commented Jan 20, 2016 at 3:38
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    Questions that are too broad, like this one, don't fit the guidelines of the site in general. How do you expect to present 'the view of the Kabbalists' in a few sentences? Or for that matter, 'the view of the Talmudists'? I made that comment to start. Commented Jan 20, 2016 at 3:48
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    Public service announcement: If you feel that a question doesn't fit the site (too broad, off-topic, whatever), you can vote (3k rep) or flag (<3k) to close the question. Commented Jan 20, 2016 at 4:11

Kabbalistically, the levels of atzilus, beriah, yetzirah and asiyah exist in all levels of abi'a.

I.e. there are levels even in asiyah that are impenetrable to us.

So the Rambam is asiyah she'beasiyah looking towards atzilus she'beasiyah. Whereas kabbala is atzilus looking towards asiyah.

Therefore they traverse different dimensions and are not contradictory.


The Shela Hakadosh wrote a commentary on the Torah which has three parts. First is on the practical understanding, second is a Kabbalistic explanation, and third is Mussar. So we see that the Mussar approach doesn't contradict the Kabbalistic one.

The Ramban as well gives multiple reasons for one Mitzvah.

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