“Adding or Subtracting”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Parashat Re’eh is a rich and colorful parasha that contains 55 mitzvot, 17 positive and 38 negative.

Among the most intriguing of the mitzvot found in this parasha is the opening verse of Deuteronomy 13: “Ayt kol ha’davar ah’sher ah’no’chee m’tza’veh et’chem, o’toh tish’m’roo la’ah’soat,” You shall observe everything that I command you to do. The verse concludes: “Lo toh’sayf ah’lahv, v’lo tig’ra mee’meh’noo,” You shall not add to it and you shall not subtract from it. In essence, Moses admonishes the people, in G-d’s name, of the uselessness and impropriety of any human attempt to improve upon or detract from Divine perfection.

In rabbinic literature, the prohibition of not adding to the words or commandments of the Torah is known as “Bal Toseef,” do not add. Perhaps the best known example of how adding to the Torah leads to trouble are the fateful words uttered by Eve in the Garden of Eden when the serpent tried to seduce her to eat of the forbidden fruit.

Eve tells the serpent (Genesis 3:3) that G-d had told her that she and Adam “must not eat or touch the trees in the center of the garden, lest they die.” G-d, however, did not say “touch.” Adding the words “or touch” leads to Eve’s downfall. According to the Midrash, the serpent simply pushed Eve against the tree saying to her: “As you did not die from touching the tree, so you shall not die from eating of the tree.”

Rabbinic literature cites numerous examples of unwarranted and improper additions to Jewish law such as a fifth fringe on the four cornered tallit, sounding extra sounds on the shofar or sounding the shofar a second time on Rosh Hashanah for no reason, taking more than the four standard species for the lulav and etrog on Sukkot, or making up a new mitzvah, as is attributed to the evil Jeroboam, the son of Nevat, King of Israel.

There are many reasons given by the rabbis and the commentators as to why adding or subtracting from the Torah is prohibited. The Da’at Z’kenim (collection of comments on the Pentateuch by the Tosafists of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries) states that when one adds something that is superfluous to a mitzvah, that addition disqualifies even those elements that are valid. Therefore, adding an extra fringe to a tallit, or adding an extra species to the lulav, disqualifies the existing tallit and the fringes, as well as the original four species of the lulav. Thus, any mitzvah performed using these altered ritual items is rendered invalid.

Both the Ibn Ezra (1098-c.1164, Spanish Bible commentator) and the Sforno (Obadiah ben Jacob, 1470-1550, Italian Bible commentator) claim that the Torah is concerned that any new additions might smack of idolatry, and, therefore, it is necessary to be wary. The author of the Sefer Ha’Chinuch (the classic work on the 613 commandments, their rationale and their regulations, by an anonymous author in 13th century Spain) states that G-d is perfect and all that emanates from G-d is perfect. Therefore, anyone who adds or subtracts anything from the Torah is challenging the doctrine of Divine perfection.

The prohibition of adding or subtracting from the Torah raises a major question that requires elucidation. If it is prohibited to add or subtract anything from the Torah, how is it possible that the rabbis added festivals and practices that are not included in the Torah? How is it possible for the rabbis of the post-biblical period to institute the festival of Chanukah or to create fences around mitzvot in order to guard against the infringement of biblical laws? Is this not a violation of the prohibition against adding or subtracting from the Torah?

The rabbis explain that the celebration of Chanukah and other post-biblical holidays are not a violation of the prohibition of “Bal Toseef,” but rather reflect the Jewish people’s need to express their gratitude to G-d for deliverance from great danger.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888, the great Bible commentator and leader of German Jewry) explains that as long as the change is motivated by a need to preserve rather than the desire to “reform,” change is permitted. Thus, adding additional days to the holidays in the Diaspora does not violate the prohibition of “Bal Toseef,” since they are added because of a doubt regarding the actual day.

Nachmanides (Ramban, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spanish Torah commentator) responds to the question by saying that safeguards and fences around existing mitzvot are not considered additions, but rather a protection of the mitzvot. So, for example, while the Torah forbids incest with one’s mother, the rabbis added to this the prohibition of having relations with one’s grandmother. That is an enhancement of a mitzvah, not an addition to the mitzvah.

The Radbaz (David ben Zimra, 1479-1573, spiritual leader of Egypt for over 40 years) suggests that the Torah is primarily concerned with additions and subtractions that might lead to changes and alterations in the written text of the Torah. If additions and omissions were permitted, it is conceivable that the Torah would become an object of debate and controversy. This would lead to a diminution of the Torah’s credibility and challenge its claim of being of Divine origin.

There is a well known story concerning production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream that was presented with much fanfare in a Yiddish theater on Second Avenue in New York City many years ago. The advertising posters appealed to the people to come to see this “far’bessert un far’gressert” presentation of Shakespeare, claiming that the Yiddish production was actually an improved and expanded version of the original Shakespearean script!

It is highly unlikely that any Yiddish translation could have improved on Shakespeare. Similarly, it is highly unlikely that any mortal philosopher or interpreter could improve on the laws of the Torah. Good intentions are not enough reason to mess with perfection.

May you be blessed.