Rabbi Bernard Fox


“And you should make a Breast-plate of Judgment of a woven design. Like the design of the Ephod you shall make it.  You shall make it of gold, blue, purple, scarlet wool and twisted linen.”  (Shemot 28:15)

The Kohen Gadol wore eight garments.  These consisted of the four garments worn by every kohen and an additional four special vestments.  One of the special vestments was the Choshen Mishpat – the Breast-plate of Judgment.

The Choshen hung from the shoulders of the Kohen Gadol.  The vestment was made of woven cloth.  Embedded into the Choshen were precious stones representing the shevatim – the tribes of Bnai Yisrael.

The Choshen had a unique function.  Questions could be posed to the Kohen Gadol. He would respond by consulting the Choshen.  Maimonides explains this process based upon the Talmud.  The question would be brought to the Kohen Gadol.  He would immediately be overcome with the spirit of prophecy.  The Kohen Gadol would look at the Choshen.  The response would be transmitted to him in a prophetic vision.  The answer was expressed through the letters engraved upon the stones of the Breast-plate.[1]

According to Nachmanides the process of posing a question to the Kohen Gadol for a response from the Choshen is included in a positive command.  What is this positive command?

In order to answer this question and understand Nachmanides’ position, we must consider a set of pesukim at the end of Chapter 18 of Sefer Devarim.  These passages begin with an admonition to not emulate the practices of the nations that lived in Canaan.  The Torah then outlines various mystical practices and routines used by these nations to predict the future.  Then, the Torah tells us that we must wholeheartedly follow Hashem.  The section ends with laws regarding prophets.  We are commanded to obey true prophets and to punish false prophets.[2]    The overall message of these passages is fairly clear.  The people of Canaan had developed various primitive rituals and procedures for influencing their environment and predicting the future.  Hashem commands Bnai Yisrael to not adopt these heathen customs.  Hashem tells Bnai Yisrael that He will provide them with prophets.  These prophets will communicate with Hashem and the people should rely on the prophets for guidance and leadership.

However, one passage is difficult to understand.  After Hashem admonishes Bnai Yisrael against adopting the practices of the nations of Canaan and before commanding the people to obey His prophets there is a transitional pasuk.  In this passage, Bnai Yisrael are told that they must wholeheartedly follow Hashem.  What is the meaning of this passage?

Nachmanides contends that this passage is designed to connect the preceding and following passages.  We are not to rely on fortune tellers and heathen rituals designed to predict the future.  Instead, we are to follow Hashem wholeheartedly.  How do we fulfill this requirement?  We fulfill it though our obeying His prophets.

How is obedience to Hashem’s prophets an expression of wholehearted commitment to Hashem?  Nachmanides explains that all of the methods used the nations of Canaan to predict the future were based on the premise that this future is fixed and predetermined.  He uses astrology and an example.  Astrology is based in the assumption that the configuration of the stars appearing in the nighttime sky exercises an absolute casual influence on the event in this world.  Astrology posits that by understanding this influence – or reading the stars – we can predict with certainty events in this world.  If the predictions of astrologers are sometimes incorrect, this is because they have not correctly read the signs in the heavens.  But the information is in the heavens for the astrologer that can properly unravel the message.

Nachmanides explains that this premise is inconsistent with the outlook of the Torah.  According to the Torah, the events that occur in this world are not predetermined.  Hashem is omnipotent.  He rules over the universe and our world.  He has the ability to suspend or disregard the laws of nature.  According to Nachmanides, the astrologer does not fail simply because he has not correctly read the signs in the heavens.  He fails because these signs are not absolute indications of the future.  The stars may influence events in this world but they do not determine the future.  Ultimately, only Hashem’s will determines the future.  No astrologer or fortune teller can know Hashem’s will. 

However, Hashem does reveal His will to His prophets.  Therefore, only these prophets can actually know the future.  If we must seek knowledge of the future, we are to turn to these prophets and not to astrologers and fortune tellers.

Based on this analysis, Nachmanides concludes that relying on astrology or other portents of the future is a denial of a fundamental tenet of the Torah.  This is because reliance on these methods of predicting the further is predicated on the assumption that the future is fixed and that it is not ultimately determined by Hashem’s will.

Now the meaning of the admonition to wholeheartedly follow Hashem emerges.  We are required to accept the proposition that only Hashem’s will determines the future and that only through His prophets can we truly know the future.  According to Nachmanides this admonition to wholeheartedly follow Hashem – to accept the proposition that His will alone determines event in this world – is a positive command.[3]  According to his reasoning it follows that by turning to Hashem’s prophets or by posing our questions to the Kohen Gadol wearing the Choshen, we fulfill the mitzvah of wholeheartedly following Hashem.[4]

Maimonides does not regard this passage as a positive command.  In other words, according to Maimonides, the admonition to wholeheartedly follow Hashem is not a mitzvah.  Why did Maimonides not regard this instruction as a mitzvah?  Nachmanides suggests a possible explanation.  According to Maimonides, general admonitions to observe the commandments of the Torah are not in themselves mitzvot.  In order for an admonition to be counted as a commandment, it must engender a specific obligation or prohibition.  General admonishments do not meet this criterion and therefore cannot be counted among the 613 mitzvot.[5]  Nachmanides suggests that according to Maimonides, the admonition to wholeheartedly follow Hashem is directing us to observe the commandments of the Torah.  Because it is a general admonition, Maimonides does not include it in his enumeration of the 613 mitzvot.[6]

Meggilat Esther suggests a similar explanation for Maimonides’ position.  According to Meggilat Esther, the admonition to wholeheartedly follow Hashem is a positive formulation of the negative commandments in the preceding pesukim.  As noted above, the preceding passages command Bnai Yisrael to not resort to and rely upon fortune-telling and other portents.  These passages include a number of negative commandments that prohibit specific practices.  The directive to wholeheartedly follow Hashem reiterates these prohibitions in a positive formulation.  Maimonides maintains that in instances in which a positive directive merely reiterates the substance of a prohibition, the positive formulation is not generally counted as a separate mitzvah.[7]  Meggilat Esther suggests that Maimonides applies this principle to the admonition to wholeheartedly follow Hashem and therefore, does not count it as a separate mitzvah.[8]

However a careful analysis of a related issue suggests an alternative explanation of Maimonides’ position.  In order to develop this explanation, it is necessary to return to Nachmanides’ comments.  As explained above, according to the Torah it is prohibited to rely on portents, fortune-tellers, and even astrology.  According to Nachmanides, this prohibition is fundamentally an assertion that the events of this world are ultimately determined by Hashem.  But Nachmanides is careful not to assert that astrology and other methods of predicting the future are baseless.  Instead, he asserts that these methods are flawed.  They are predicated on the belief that the future is solely controlled by the stars or natural forces.  They assume that by understanding and “reading” these forces the future can be predicted.  They do not acknowledge that such predictions are not absolute and can be overridden by Hashem.  In other words, Nachmanides accepts that natural forces influence events in this world and that the affect of these forces can be predicted.  However, he asserts that such predictions are not reliable because they do not account for Hashem’s ability to override the natural laws.

In contrast, Maimonides contends that the methods utilized by the nations of Canaan were nonsensical and nothing more than superstitions.  Maimonides asserts that one who believes that these methods have some validity and contain an element of truth is a fool.  He does not attribute any credibility to these methods of predicting the future.  Maimonides does not regard the study of portents and signs as a flawed approach to predicting the future.  He emphatically declares that they are utter foolishness.  It is this context the Maimonides makes reference to the admonition to wholeheartedly follow Hashem.  According to Maimonides, this admonition tells us to be completely committed to the truth and to not revert to superstitions and their implicit primitive outlook.[9]

We can now appreciate Maimonides’ decision to not count this admonition as a commandment.  According to Maimonides, the admonition tells us to act intelligently and not regress to the superstitious and foolish beliefs of the heathen nations of Canaan.  The admonition does not engender or prohibit a specific performance.  Instead, it directs us to adopt a general outlook and to be completely faithful to this outlook.  Accordingly, Maimonides does not count this general directive as a commandment.

[1] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Klai HaMikdash 10:11.

[2] Sefer Devarim 18:9-22.

[3] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 18:13.

[4] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Critique on Maimonides’ Sefer HaMitzvot -- Positive Commands that Maimonides Neglected to Include.

[5] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Sefer HaMitzvot, Principle 4.

[6] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Critique on Maimonides’ Sefer HaMitzvot -- Positive Commands that Maimonides Neglected to Include.

[7] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Sefer HaMitzvot, Principle 9.

[8] Rabbaynu Yitzchak DeLeon, Meggilat Esther, Commentary on Maimonides’ Sefer Hamitzvot, Comments on Nachmanides’ Critique.

[9] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Avodah Zarah 11:16.