“Do Not Add…and Do Not Detract”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Va’etchanan, we learn of the fascinating and complex mitzvah of not adding or detracting from the mitzvot of the Torah.

The Torah, in Deuteronomy 4:2 states, לֹא תֹסִפוּ עַל הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם וְלֹא תִגְרְעוּ מִמֶּנּוּ, לִשְׁמֹר אֶת מִצְו‍ֹת השׁם אֱ-לֹקֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם, You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor shall you subtract from it, to observe the commandments of the L-rd, your G-d, that I command you.

The book of Deuteronomy repeats many laws that were recorded in previous books of the Torah. In this manner, Moses, in the last days of his life, hopes to inspire the people of Israel to faithfully observe the entire Torah. He, therefore, reviews some of the commandments with the people, and introduces a number of new laws that had never before been taught.

One of the new concepts introduced by Moses is the prohibition of not adding or detracting from the Torah. Since the Al-mighty is perfect and His Torah is perfect, adding or subtracting from the commandments of the Torah implies that the Torah is, in some way, deficient.

In parashat Re’eh, this same mitzvah is repeated, but there it is articulated in the singular (see Re’eh 5766-2006). In Deuteronomy 13:1, the Torah states, אֵת כָּל הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם אֹתוֹ תִשְׁמְרוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת, לֹא תֹסֵף עָלָיו וְלֹא תִגְרַע מִמֶּנּוּ, The entire word that I command you, that shall you observe to do; you shall not add to it and you shall not subtract from it. Once again, G-d states that the Torah is complete and perfect and that it is offensive in G-d’s eyes for anyone to seek to improve it by adding new commandments, or by removing any of His commandments.

Some commentators suggest that the plural version in parashat Va’etchanan is intended for the judges of the Sanhedrin–the Supreme Court of Israel. Even these important leaders, with all of their knowledge and authority, dare not add or subtract from the words of the Torah. On the other hand, the singular version, in parashat Re’eh, is directed at individual Israelites.

Perhaps the best-known instance of “not adding” and its consequences, is found early in the book of Genesis. When the cunning serpent tries to seduce the woman to eat of the forbidden fruit, the woman replies to the serpent, Genesis 3:3, וּמִפְּרִי הָעֵץ אֲשֶׁר בְּתוֹךְ הַגָּן אָמַר אֱלֹקִים לֹא תֹאכְלוּ מִמֶּנּוּ וְלֹא תִגְּעוּ בּוֹ,  פֶּן תְּמֻתוּן, Of the fruit of the tree which is in the center of the garden, G-d has said: “You shall neither eat it or touch it, lest you die.” While the command from the Al-mighty was only not to eat of the tree, Eve added the prohibition of not touching the tree.

Rashi citing the Midrash, says that after hearing the woman’s reply, the serpent pushed Eve against the tree, and said, “Just as you did not die from touching it [the tree], so shall you not die from eating it.” In this way the serpent convinced Eve that she would not die, making her believe that the threat of death was merely G-d’s attempt to intimidate her not to eat. The Talmud in Sanhedrin 29a, sums up this principle with the pithy statement, כָּל הַמּוֹסִיף גּוֹרֵעַ, anyone who adds, actually detracts.

The prohibition of adding is known in Rabbinic literature as, בַּל תּוֹסִיף, “Bal Toh’sif,” not to add. The prohibition against detracting is known as בַּל תִּגֽרַע,“Bal Tigrah.” Prominent examples presented in the Talmud are that priests are not permitted to publicly bless the people and add an additional blessing of their own to the tripartite blessing that was given by Moses. One may not add a fifth parchment scroll to the Tefillin, a fifth species to the Lulav and Etrog or a fifth fringe on the corner of one’s garment. Similarly, prominent examples of “Bal Tigrah” are that one may not omit one of the priestly blessings or reduce the parchment scrolls of the Tefillin or eliminate one of the species of Lulav and Etrog or one of the fringes on one’s garment.

However, it is not a violation of the prohibition of “Bal Toh’sif,” to sleep in the Sukkah for an eighth day, unless it is done in order to observe an additional day of Sukkot. Similarly, it is not a violation of the prohibition of adding, to eat Matzah after Passover is over. It is even permissible to have one etrog to use for the blessing on Sukkot and a second Etrog for display and for beauty.

Similarly, it is not a violation of the mitzvah of “not adding,” for those who live in the diaspora to observe an additional “diaspora day” on the festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. Even though today we know the actual time of the festival, the additional day is intended to strengthen the meaningfulness of the festival and intensify the level of holiday observance outside of Israel.

In his analysis of this mitzvah, Rabbi Yehudah Nachshoni suggests the following hypothetical conversation: A person is asked by his neighbor, “Why do you need so many mitzvot?” He responds, “Why do you need such long intestines?” While we may not know the exact details of the physiology of the human body, we believe that the body is created in a proper way, so too is the Torah created complete and perfect.

The Ramban, noted by Nachshoni, states that תַּקָּנוֹת, “Takanot,” decrees and גְּדֵרִים, “Gedayrim,” fences, established by the rabbis to prevent Jews from violating the Torah, are also not included in the prohibition of not adding to the Torah.

The Dubno Maggid, the most famous of the Eastern European maggidim–itinerant preachers) offers a charming parable to better explain this prohibition. A person lent a wooden spoon to a neighbor and when the neighbor returned the spoon, he brought an extra little spoon. When the lender asked why the extra spoon, his friend responded that while the spoon was in his possession it gave birth to a baby spoon.

Each time the neighbor borrowed a utensil, he would return the utensil with a miniature version of the original utensil, claiming that the utensil had given birth. Finally, on one occasion the neighbor borrowed a very valuable silver candelabra. The owner was only too happy to lend the candelabra, hoping that he would gain a valuable baby candelabra when the original was returned.

When the neighbor did not return the candelabra, the owner came to him demanding his candelabra. The neighbor then told him the sad news that the candelabra had died while it was in his possession. Incredulous, the owner says, “How can a candelabra die?” The neighbor responded, “Well if a spoon can give birth, then a candelabra can die!”

The Dubno Maggid explains that the Torah is a gift from the Al-mighty. If one is able to add to it, he can also detract from it. However, if a person believes that the Torah is truly Divine and originates from Heaven, he will not dare change it, by adding or detracting.

May you be blessed.

The Shabbat after Tisha b’Av is traditionally known as Shabbat Nachamu, in deference to the first of a series of seven Haftarot (prophetic messages) of consolation, drawn from the book of Isaiah, and read between Tisha b’Av and Rosh Hashana. נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ עַמִּי, “Nachamu, nachamu amee,” be comforted My nation, are the opening words of Isaiah 40.

Please note: This year, the joyous festival of Tu b’Av, the fifteenth of Av, is celebrated on Thursday night and Friday, July 30th and 31st, 2015. Happy Tu b’Av (for more information, please click here)