Second Temple Period Rationales for the Torah’s Commandments: Conclusion

Second Temple

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We have observed rudimentary attempts to provide rationales for commandments in Second Temple literature written in Hebrew. In Jubilees, real rationales were very rare and most of what we encountered was simply etiologies, the claim that since the Patriarchs had observed a certain commandment, their descendants should continue to observe it. Similar lack of emphasis on rationales for commandments is observable in Dead Sea Scrolls texts. Here we found reasons being given for certain legal prescriptions that were actually not direct Torah commandments. In a few cases, rationales for commandments were indeed found. We do need to remember that the legal texts in the Qumran corpus, with the exception of the Temple Scroll, are exceedingly fragmentary. Further, the Temple Scroll masquerades as a Torah and for this reason would not be replete with such reasons. Nonetheless, we see here or there that reasons were occasionally given, showing evidence of the beginnings of the quest to explain the commandments rationally to those expected to practice them.

From our study of Philo and Josephus it would certainly appear that the full-fledged attempt to provide rationales for commandments—ta`amei ha-mitzvot–seems to stem from the inherent and, in fact, directly acknowledged polemics that these authors waged against both Jewish extreme allegorists, in the case of Philo and in both cases against non-Jews who saw little meaning in Jewish observance and who, in fact, often ridiculed it. One can imagine that such rationales were necessary for the Jewish people, and that many Greek-reading Jews looked to the works of Philo and Josephus for support in their maintenance of the Torah’s commandments. We have not discussed here all the examples that we could gather, since in the case of Philo and Josephus such a study would have to be book-length for each. But taking into consideration the tremendous amount of such discussion in Philo and the virtually consistent provision of such rationales in Josephus’s exposition of Scripture’s legal corpus, it seems clear that this approach had its origins in Hellenistic Jewish literature composed in Greek.

While such a conclusion is certainly warranted for the material at hand, and is well demonstrated by the examples that we have discussed here, let alone from the many more that could have been added, we still need to be somewhat cautious in light of the fragmentary nature of Second Temple literature, especially those texts composed in Hebrew and Aramaic. Despite that caveat, and until evidence can be adduced to the contrary, we will stick with the conclusion that emerges from our work: that seeking explanatory rationales for the commandments as a consistent approach and fostering the conception that such rationales can, in fact, be offered for almost all the commandments, is a product of Hellenistic Judaism in the Second Temple period. What we cannot know and may never know is whether medieval developments were in any way influenced by the Second Temple trend. This is part of the enigma surrounding the transmission, or usually non-transmission, of Second Temple literature to medieval Jewish communities. It is really possible that medieval Jews reinvented the wheel, or did the Hellenistic Jewish trend we have observed play some role in the later interest in ta`amei ha-mitzvot?

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