There's More than 613

Moshe Ben-Chaim

A reader asked that I explain why luminaries such as Maimonides and Rabbi Karo didn't prohibit singing Torah verses in their codes of Halacha. He said that although Rabbi Feinstein may have prohibited singing all verses, this does not conclusively indicate that this is, in fact, the "Law." My response follows...

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zt"l "clearly" prohibited the singing of verses (Yoreh Daya 2:142).  It's not a gray issue. This great mind completely understood this clear Talmudic portion: it is prohibited to sing a verse. Rav Moshe expressed that although the practice of singing scriptural verses is widespread, and even respected men engage in this practice, he states that it is certainly prohibited and he does not see a just reason for those who violate. Rav Moshe added that some might read Rashi as singling out Shir HaShirim "alone" as the only prohibited text. But Rav Moshe makes it clear that Rashi means to say that if Shir HaShirim is prohibited, which is a song…certainly all other scriptural passages are prohibited.

It may well be that if Maimonides and Rabbi Karo didn't prohibit singing Torah verses in their codes of Halacha, perhaps the reason is that those codes are restricted to matters pertaining to the 613 commands and associated Rabbinic safeguards. But there is more that is incumbent on us, than just the 613. There are matters of Jewish "law," and then there is Torah "principle" and Torah "ideals." 

Some are surprised to learn that there are real Torah "obligations," although not codified as one of the 613 "mitzvahs." A wise rabbi once taught that besides technical "mitzvah", Torah contains many fundamental, ideals and requirements. 

In the opening of his Sefer Hamitzvos, Maimonides' Fourth Rule for categorizing something as "mitzvah" is to exclude general commands. "Guard all which I tell you…(Exod. 23:13)" and "And you shall watch all My statutes…(Lev. 19:37)"  Maimonides states, do not qualify as part of the 613 since these commands do not have a specific act. 

His Tenth rule is not to count as one of the 613, any introductory or preparatory information, like "taking" the flour to make the Showbread. Placing the Showbread on the Table is the command, but it obviously requires "taking" the flour and baking it first. 

Other types of mandates that are not included in the 613 include ideals. God told Abraham "Walk before me and be complete (Gen. 17:1)." God teaches us too, to aim towards this level, as He included His mandate to Abraham in the Torah that He gave to all generations. Thus, the lesson is equally applicable to all of us, that we should seek to reach a level of complete devotion to God. This, of course, is of much greater importance than waving a lulav. Despite its not being counted as one of the 613, it is a level for which to strive. In our regular strides for Torah's perfection, it is as "obligatory" (if not more), to be complete with God, as it is obligatory to keep kosher. 

Wherein lies the difference in obligation between law and principle? Well, both target a benefit. Not fulfilling either, we equally forfeit the perfection of our souls. Laws or mitzvahs, are distinct in that their performance contributes to the general structure of Jewish practice, to Torah's identity, something essential to Judaism's continuation. In contrast, principles and ideals, like striving to be perfect, trusting God and others, are more subjective and even internal. They are not communally practiced. Yet, they are more important to one's soul than failing to eat meat on holidays, a mitzvah.

Therefore, to view the prohibition of singing verses as "less", as it may not form part of "law," but rather "principle," is akin to saying 10 is less than 5. 

King David spoke of his tremendous trust in God, and God included David's words in His Torah. This means that this ideal of trusting God is of great value, even though it is not a mitzvah, for there is no specific mitzvah or "way" to trust in God. This takes on many expressions. 

Being truthful is another most primary ideal or principle.

Rav Hai Gaon said "Anochi Hashem Eloheca", "I am God", written at the opening of the Ten Commandments, is not a "command." His reason: a command to recognize God belittles the obvious nature of God's existence!

The Talmud cites a case where a merchant was in the midst of his prayers, when a customer offered him $X.00 for a gem he had on sale. As he was praying, the merchant could not speak, making the customer assume the silence meant the price was too low. To this, the customer raised his price. When the merchant completed his prayers, he told the customer he would accept the initial, lower price; for in his heart, he accepted it when first offered. This level of perfection is not a mitzvah, yet the story is recorded for the purpose of aiming man towards this to level of truth.

Singing Torah verses belittles the purpose of Torah. This is why the Talmud says, "Torah garbed itself in sackcloth and stood before God and said, 'Your children have made me like a harp that is sung to by scorners'." There is no dispute in the Talmud about tragedy in treating Torah as a tool for emotional gratification through song. This explains why Nemukei Yosef, Maharsha, Rash and Raav Moshe Feinstein zt"l all cite this prohibition. Rabbi Akiva goes one further, saying one forfeits his afterlife for violating this prohibition (Tosefta Sanhedrin, 12:5). We conclude that a principle need not be in the Shulchan Aruch, for our great Rabbis to call it "prohibition." Additionally, it is no less harmful to violate a principle, than a law. Therefore, if the soul is equally or more severely harmed, we are wise to treat such violations of principle as "violations." That something is not found in the Shulcha  Aruch, we must not view it as a "lighter" matter. In fact, Rabbi Akiva said one loses everything for singing Torah verses…his afterlife is taken from him.

Prohibition does not refer to law alone, as Torah and Talmud are replete with lessons based on Medrash and morality too; not just mitzvah. It doesn't matter that these Torah ideals are not found in the Shulchan Aruch. What matters is God's inclusion of such lessons, and the Rabbis' warnings. Pirkei Avos is not Halacha, yet it contains such vital truths as recalling our responsibility for our sins and uncountable values. There is no "mitzvah" to recall our sins. Yet, it is at the forefront of perfection; our objective. To suggest something is not prohibited, simply because it is not located in the Shulchan Aruch, is a false statement.

We must adjust our perspective. Talmud is more authoritative than those who comment on Talmud. If the Talmud cites a case – even in metaphor – where the Torah is garbed in sackcloth and mourning due to the Jews' disgrace of her by singing the verses and not studying them, a real prohibition is being taught.

I will end with a lesson I recently heard from a old friend. A wise Rabbi lectured on Emunas Chachamim, trust in our wise Rabbis. We should not treat someone like Rav Moshe Feinstein as an "independent view", and suggest we need not follow him due to his sole position on this issue. First of all, I cited many Rishonim who agree with him. Second, Rav Moshe was an unparalleled mind. It is wise to investigate his reasoning and sources. Perhaps it is the very wise Rabbis who are lightyears ahead off anyone today, who voice independent positions due to their brilliance, not due to — God forbid — their ignorance.