Communications: Hukkim & Aggadot

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To the Editor:

Menachem Schrader presents a very thoughtful analysis of the changing definition of hokin his article “What is a Hok?” (Tradition 51:2, Spring 2019), noting that different authorities and commentaries have slightly nuanced differences in both their roster of hukkimand their definition of the essential quality that makes something into a hok.

Rabbi Schrader focuses primarily on the variance between the Talmudic text and the discussion of Maimonides. In his view, the Talmud’s distinction between hukkim and mishpatim is grounded in whether the mitzva “follows logically from the foundational principles we accept,” while for Rambam the mishpatim are so categorized because they are “ethically obvious and based on universally accepted social norms.” This view echoes that of R. Isadore Twersky zt”l in his 1980 analysis of Meila 8:8.

A similar analysis could also be undertaken of Rashi’s commentary. Despite Rashi having access to the list of hukkim in the Talmud and in Midrash (Torat Kohanim Aharei Mot 9:10, Tanhuma Hukkat 7, and the quoted Yoma 67b), Rashi consistently narrows the list of hukkim to a mere three commandments: the red heifer, forbidden mixtures, and the consumption of pork (Leviticus 18:4, 19:19, and perhaps 20:26; Genesis 26:5, Proverbs 25:2, Sanhedrin 21b). Just as strikingly, while the Talmud and Midrash have lengthy lists of mishpatim, Rashi intentionally refrains from giving examples of such, intimating that it is a far wider category that should not be limited by a small number of examples.

In the above sources (and in Yoma 67b), Rashi highlights the polemical conflict around the hukkim, focusing on how their lack of easy and apparent reason serves as fodder for the other nations to criticize the character of the laws. Thus, Rashi’s understanding of the underlying nature of hukkim is closest to the way R. Schrader has understood the Talmud: hukkim are the mitzvot which are least likely to be understood by an outsider even given the assumptions of Judaism; yet, Rashi has significantly narrowed the roster of mitzvot in this category, removing the ones that were comparatively easier to understand.

I am not aware of any systematic analysis of Rashi’s view to date, including both the philosophical underpinnings and the role the Biblical key words play in his view (see Numbers 19:2, red heifer, and Leviticus 19:19, forbidden mixtures), but Rashi’s consistent and ubiquitous system of hukkim would be a worthy counterpoint to R. Schrader’s interesting analysis of the views of the Talmud and Rambam.

Yaakov Jaffe
Rabbi, Maimonides Kehillah
Dean, Maimonides School, Brookline, MA


Congratulations on a wonderful first issue under Jeffrey Saks’ editorship (51:3, Summer 2019). In the introduction to the “Sources and Resources” feature, my dear friend, Yitzchak Blau, notes the work of an impressive list of scholars and talmidei hakhamim in the academic and traditional yeshiva worlds who have enriched our literary and theological understanding and learning of the aggadot of the Talmud in the last century.

To that list, I would also add the important work of Prof. Joseph Heineman z”l and his premier student, Prof. Avigdor Shinan, whose historical studies of aggada and targumim have added important and crucial elements to a complete understanding of this rich and multi-faceted enterprise of Hazal.


Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot


Published Aug 19, 2019  

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