Fundamentals of Judaism


Moshe Ben-Chaim



Many times when studying Torah, we notice parallels between our currently studied topic, and another we learned previously. At times, these parallels are not central to the compared areas. However, when studying the laws of the Jewish court system – Bais Din – we come across an idea, which seems quite central to its laws, and to other areas. I will list the areas, which seem to contain this parallel, but will allow you the reader to try and detect this parallel I am hinting to, and think into the underlying concept.


1) Maimonides writes in his Laws of the Chosen House as follows:

Law 2:2: “And the transmission is in the hands of all, the place where David and Solomon built the Altar in the threshing floor of Arnan, it is the (same) place that Abraham built the altar and bound on it Isaac. And it is the (same) place that Noah built (his altar) when he exited the Ark. And it is the (same) Altar that Cain and Ebel sacrificed upon. And on it Adam the First sacrificed a sacrifice when he was created, and from there, was he created. The Rabbis stated, ‘Adam, from the place of his atonement was he created.”


2) Bais Din (Jewish courts) cannot rule on capital punishment cases unless they are convened in Lishchas Hagazis. This is where the great Sanhedrin sat in judgment. In Talmud Avodah Zara 8b, Tosfos explains that this location was “next to God’s presence” in the Temple area. In other words, capital punishment cases cannot be ruled upon unless the Great Sanhedrin is in session. This also applies to other courts: they too cannot rule on such matters unless the Great Sanhedrin is in session in Lishchas Hagazis. This seems odd, as what difference does it make to other, outlying areas courts, whether Bais Din is in session in the Temple near God’s presence? This would seem to be an issue for only the Great Sanhedrin. However, as Tosfos state, “the place is causative”. Meaning, this place is indispensable.


3) In Parshas Shoftim (judges) we read as follows (Deut. 17:8-13):

“When a matter will be hidden from you in judgment, [whether in distinguishing] between blood to blood, between judgment to judgment, between plague to plague, words of contention in your gates, and you shall rise and ascend to the place that God your God has chosen. And you shall come to the priests, the Levites and unto the judge who will be in your days, and he will discern and will tell you the matter of the judgment. And you shall do in accord with the word that they from that place which God has chosen, and you shall guard to do as all they instruct you. In accord with the Torah that they instruct you and [in accord with] the judgment they say to you, do. Do not veer from the matter they tell you, [to turn] right or left. And the man who acts wickedly, not listening to the priest who stands to minister before God, your God, or unto the judge, and you shall kill that man and vanquish the evil from Israel. And all the people shall hear and fear and not act anymore wickedly.”



4) God states that He will instruct man from between the two cherubs upon the ark (Exod. 25:22):

“And I will appoint My word to you there, and I will speak to you from above the Kapores (Ark cover) from between the two cherubs that are on the Ark of testimony, all that I command you to the Children of Israel.”


5) Moses received his prophecies from between the two cherubs mounted on the ark’s cover (Numbers 7:89):

“And when Moses came into the Tent of Meeting to speak with Him, and he heard the voice speaking to him from above the Kapores (Ark cover) that was on the Ark of Testimony, from between the two cherubs, and it spoke to him.”


6) The cherubs themselves were structured as looking downwards towards the ark. (Exod. 25:20, Exod. 37:40)



7) Isaiah 2:3:

“…for from Zion comes forth Torah, and God’s word from Jerusalem.”


8) When praying, we face the direction of the Temple.


9) Prophecy was given only in the land of Israel.


10) Ethic of the Fathers (3:6) states that when people study Torah, God’s presence is with them.



Are you starting to see any parallel? Think into these areas for a bit before continuing, and then proceed to read our questions and answers below.



In his Laws of the Chosen House, Maimonides stresses the significance of the Temple mount. For what reason did all of these great individuals value this location?

Why is the Bais Din’s proximity to God’s shechina – His presence – essential for rendering judgments?

Why, in Parshas Shoftim, is the phrase “the place that God has chosen” repeated? What is its significance?

Why is it necessary that God deliver His address, and that Moses hears his prophecy from between the cherubs?

What is the idea behind the cherubs looking at the Ark? What about the Ark is capturing the cherub’s attention?

What is the necessity for Jerusalem - the “seat of Torah” - to exist as stated by Isaiah, and that our prayer must be directed there?



Wisdom, Prophecy & Prayer

In Torah study, or any area for that matter, our method of analysis is crucial to our results. Therefore, it is wise to take small steps, positing only those ideas which we are confident are well supported. We need not answer the ‘big question’ immediately. Rather, as we proceed in our analysis, we hope each step paves the path to the next. We never know what the outcome will be, but we can be sure that if our gradual observations are solid truths, our final discoveries have a better chance of being true. But if we build on unsupported premises, we may veer completely off track.


What is the first step we may take here? The parallel in all of these cases is one thing: a precise location. Why is “place” so essential in all of these cases, and can we distinguish between these cases?


We note three, distinct institutions: 1) judgment, 2) prophecy and 3) prayer. What these three institutions share can be summed up in one word: wisdom. In all three, man either approaches wisdom, or is approached by it.


When man studies Torah to render a judgment, he is the one who approaches the world of knowledge, or wisdom. This is also true when one prays or sacrifices to God: he approaches the concepts contained in prayer and sacrifice, reviewing his own values as they compare to what is truly correct and good. Making such a comparison, man must weigh his values and realign himself with God’s Torah system. However, prophecy is the institution where God approaches man. It is the reverse of study and prayer. But in all three cases, man is “interacting with knowledge”. In all three cases, we are directed by God’s precisely formulated laws to recognize a “place”: be it Jerusalem as the seat of prophecy, prayer and in Bais Din’s judgments; the cherubim during prophecy; the Temple Mount in sacrifice; or the Ark which the cherubs focus upon.



The First Fundamental

It appears that the idea permeating all these areas of knowledge is man’s need to be cognizant of a “source”: God. We learn this first fundamental: Nothing in creation is responsible for knowledge - God is the exclusive Source.


Although highly elevated existences, over and above man, angels too are part of creation, and recognize God as the source of all knowledge and wisdom, displayed by the cherubim facing downwards at the Ark which contains God’s knowledge, i.e., the Torah contained therein. In all of our cases, we are directed to a location, which is identified exclusively with God. Be it Jerusalem, the Ark, or the cherubim on the Ark…these all refer to God’s selected city, His Torah, or His presence.


But we must ask: why is it essential that man be cognizant that nothing in creation is responsible for knowledge? Meaning, knowledge is not embedded in creation, rather, creation merely “displays” God’s knowledge and wisdom.


Man’s perfection and fulfillment are achieved when he arrives at a love of God. This appreciation functions in two spheres: 1) to promote man’s interest in study and propelling his curiosity, and 2) to result in man’s renewed and advanced love for his Creator.


The two commands, which underscore all others, are the Love and Fear of God. Fear of God is the prerequisite for man’s initiation into study of the universe. It is only when man possesses the fear and awe of God, that his studies will be driven by this conviction. He knows there is immense and immeasurable knowledge awaiting his discovery. This causes man to greatly anticipate his studies, seeking what he knows must be brilliant and highly pleasurable concepts. This realization does not allow the Torah student to be satisfied with inconsequential findings, but he seeks profound ideas, new categories of thought, and new vaults of wisdom. He knows the Creator of the universe works with majestic ideas, and this is what he seeks. This fear and awe of God promotes our study.


How does Love of God fit in? Love of God is the ‘result’ of our study. When we arrive at new knowledge, we are fascinated by this knowledge. However, we must not stop there. We must realize and be drawn to the Source of this knowledge. This attachment to the source of all knowledge is what the “Love of God” means. So both fear and love of God, serve to drive our learning, and act as the focus of our love, respectively.


What Obscures this Fear and Love of God? If man were to assume a source exists other than God that is responsible for wisdom, our appreciation that God is the exclusive source, would no longer be. Our life’s objective would be lost. Therefore, in all areas where man either approaches or is approached by God’s wisdom, we must have something on which to focus. And this focal point must be exclusively identified with God. Therefore, “place” is essential. In our discussed areas, each one makes use of a location tied to God’s existence: Jerusalem is His chosen city, His Ark houses His Torah, and the cherubs recognize God.


But it is interesting, even with regards to Jerusalem and the Ark, these have a center, and function not of themselves. These locations or objects have the Torah as their underlying distinction. “For from Zion comes forth Torah, and God’s word from Jerusalem.”  Jerusalem is distinct only because of its seat of Torah. The Ark too is merely a housing for the Tablets and the Torah.



The Second Fundamental

Torah is proof of God’s revelation at Sinai. We have the Torah only because God demonstrated His incontrovertible existence to millions, and gave us His Torah at that event. We then arrive at the next fundamental: our relationship to God (judgment/prayer) and Him to us (prophecy) must never be divorced from the proof of His existence. The absolute truth of His existence must be constantly reiterated in these specific institutions. The Ark’s contents – Torah – point to Sinai, from where we received Torah. Revelation at Sinai was the single event proving God’s existence.


Unlike other religions, Judaism demands mankind live by proven truths, not accepted beliefs. And the most essential truth is God’s very existence: the Sole Cause for all that exists. Being mindful of this primary tenet, we understand that all the answers in life lie with God. We turn to Him alone through His Torah.




Creation vs Creator

We live in a physical, sensual world. We are subject to attachments to beauty, wealth, approval, insecurity and numerous earth-bound drives and emotions. We may become more physically oriented, than spiritual. We easily forget that which is not visible. The Temple - a physical location associated exclusively with God’s existence - keeps us mindful of our goal: to strive for truth and recognize there is a Creator.


We learn according to Sforno, the Temple exists only as a response to the sin of the Golden Calf. In that sin, man demonstrated his inability to relate to God abstractly. Therefore, God created the institution of Temple so man may have a location through which he may satisfy his need for physical worship. Temple strives to redirect man to the truth, although conceding to his needs as a sensual being.


Man may erroneously assume knowledge is derived from something other than God. Man may be astounded at creation, to the point, that creation completely obscures the Creator. Many scientists arrive at theories like evolution with no God. The world to them takes on a life of its own, and they are satisfied that it exists and even came into being…without a Creator. But those with intelligence conclude that the very universe we witness, and all of its precise laws, could not have created itself. In our relationship to wisdom, we are constantly reminded to focus on this idea, that God is the only source of wisdom. Wisdom in not “in us” or “in creation.” Wisdom is God’s alone. We simply perceive it. Rashi on Exodus 25:22 states that when Moses heard his prophecies, a voice first emanated from heaven, and then descended in between the two cherubs. Rashi enunciates this idea. Knowledge is from God “in heaven”. This idea is compounded with the realization we too are “created”.


What about mankind pre-Sinai? Before Revelation at Sinai, rare individuals like Abraham realized God from His created universe. Nothing more was required. Maimonides actually states that if one wishes to fulfill the command to Love God, he should study the physical universe. Creation alone affords the intelligent man all that is needed to recognize God as the sole Source of all the wisdom that exists.


One may ask whether the pre-Sinaic life afforded those generations the same opportunities we have been gifted through Torah. However, the patriarchs too possessed knowledge of the Torah’s fundamentals, although not via a written Torah. Similarly, as Genesis commences with creation, we too possess both directives: to study Torah, and understand creation as the indisputable evidence of the Creator. Both, pre-Sinai and now, knowledge of Torah truths and the physical universe have been available.



The Third Fundamental

We have posited that, 1) Nothing in creation is responsible for “knowledge”. God is the source of all knowledge. 2) Regarding institutions wherein man relates to wisdom and God is the ‘subject’ of that institution (prayer, prophecy and study) it is crucial that we are absolutely convinced by proof of God’s existence. This is why these institutions refer back to Sinai: the one event precisely orchestrated to serve as proof of God. For if God is not a reality to our minds, our approach to Him cannot take place. The very act of “relating to God” demands that we possess the accurate idea of God, and that idea is the absolute need for His very existence: all that exists requires a Creator. If we don’t view God’s existence as essential, our idea of God is false. Therefore, all of our cases listed at the outset contain references to Sinai. But this is not the end of the line.


As I reviewed these ideas, I felt unsatisfied. I am certain of these first two fundamentals, but felt there was more to be discovered. I felt some idea was still concealed. Then this morning, a profound thought occurred to me.  In all of our cases, there is yet another more primary idea.


The essence of prayer culminates in the “Atah Kadosh” blessing, which means that God is removed from our minds - we cannot know Him. “Kodesh” or “holy” means “removed”, or separated. As a Rabbi once taught, we commence prayer (Shmoneh Essray) describing God’s relationship to our forefathers, the patriarchs. We then move to the blessing where we praise God for His future miracle of resurrecting the dead. While in this blessing we still refer to God as relating to man, the personalities of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are not mentioned. So we have moved from the first blessing, which is more identifiable with known individuals, to a less personal relationship with God. We culminate these primary blessings with our third blessing, “You are removed from all we know”. There is a clear progression: we are moving away from a familiar view of God, to an admission of complete ignorance. This idea is also found in the Temple’s central focus: the Holy of Holies. It is forbidden to enter this room. This demonstrates that man cannot approach God. It is not that God can be “in” a room, but it displays this idea of our ignorance of God’s nature. And again with regards to prophecy, Rashi states that the voice emanated from heaven: an unreachable location. We arrive at the third fundamental: man is ignorant of God’s true nature.


Man must be humble enough to admit his ignorance. We must also know that we cannot fathom the extent of God’s knowledge: since we do not know what God is, we cannot know other aspects, like His knowledge. God is beyond human comprehension. God told Moses, the greatest prophet, “Man cannot know me while alive.”



The Temple Mount’s Significance

Returning to our initial idea, “location”, can we add to what we have established? We understand that man requires a location to relate to. This is a concession. But is there another idea here? I believe so. Let us ask why “this” location was selected. We learned that all of the patriarchs and kings maintained this location’s significance…but when was this location initially “given” its significance? We learned that it was the place where God created Adam. This was the initial event, imbuing this place with its significance. What is the significance of Adam’s creation, and Creation in general?


The Torah teaches that God created the universe “yashe m’ayin”, “out of nothing”. Prior to the physical, by definition, there was nothing physical. Therefore, God’s very Creation of the universe was “matter made from nothing.” We do not know, nor will we ever know how this was achieved. This is God’s knowledge. This very point is our third fundamental in this paper.


Now, in order to demonstrate this ignorance, what does man do? By retaining this location for all future prayers, sacrifices, prophecy and the Temple’s site, the patriarchs demonstrated an important idea: we mimic God’s selection of this location, thereby admitting that we cannot choose a “better” location. This means to say that we subjugate our knowledge to His. We cannot know better than the Creator. So this act of “copying” His designated place is the Torah’s method of admitting our inferiority to God and His knowledge. As King Solomon said, “Do not be excited on your mouth, and (on) your heart do not hurry to bring forth a matter before God, because God is in heaven, and you are on Earth, therefore let your words be few.” (Proverbs, 5:1)


This now explains another point. We do not claim, “God is there” at this site. Although we build His Temple there, we know He takes up no space - He is not physical. So it is not said that we relate to Him in that sense. In what sense do we relate to Him through a location? It is as we are saying: we relate to God with our demonstration of our complete admission of His unfathomable nature. Subjugating all of our decisions to His Torah demonstrates our conviction that His knowledge far surpasses that of man. As a Rabbi once taught, this act of aligning ourselves with this most fundamental truth, makes us a reality before God, and He then relates to us.




We conclude: 1) Nothing in creation is responsible for knowledge - God is the exclusive Source. 2) Our relationship to God (judgment/prayer) and Him to us (prophecy) must never be divorced from the proof of His existence. 3) Man is ignorant of God’s true nature.


Remaining firm in daily Torah study, we will ever more appreciate God’s knowledge, how it is perfectly in line with our nature, to strive towards the most enjoyable and rewarding life. With honesty and continued Torah study, with every new idea, we step closer to appreciating the Source of all wisdom, although never scratching the surface.


And as we progress, we must reach out to those unaffiliated with Torah knowledge. The Torah demands that we must learn, do, and teach. We must recognize that all people – Jew and Gentile alike – are God’s creations, and as such, deserve our attention and education. We do a great harm when we remain silent, not taking a concern in humanity’s primary objective: to study Torah and love God. We are to be a light to our own, and to the other nations. Do not let your fear of rejection prevent you from educating others. For in time, the truth can change a person. And then, you will have given a person the greatest gift: the eternal life of his soul.


To many, the mere idea of a life pursuing wisdom does not register. They are confident in their life’s decision over God’s instructions. Many people are trapped by the allure of physical pleasures. They are further convinced of their decision’s correctness by the pristine fantasies they create. To them, the life of the physical is the only life perceived. However, as we continue to study, we will again see more parallels throughout Torah. These parallels will imbue us with the realization that they are truly the work of a Designer. Man could not have created such a system. We must share our knowledge, and our humility towards God.


Let today be the first day of many, where you start a Torah class, take a friend out to dinner, invite a family to your home, email someone, or simply call another person…enabling those unaffiliated or with incorrect ideas to benefit from your knowledge.