Project Genesis

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The Jewish Legal System

The Synonyms of “Law”

Question: Could you please explain to me the difference between – precept, commandment, ordinance and statute? With all the translations I have found, I can’t tell anymore which is what. Thank you for your time

Answer: The question you asked is actually quite a complex one. The categorization of “mitzvot” (commandments) is a very difficult topic, and has been dealt with extensively over the centuries.

I think that a lot is lost in the translation from the original Hebrew, (for example, ‘precepts’ and ‘commandments’ seem to be different names for the same word “mitzva”) so I will just give a very brief definition to the major types of mitzvot:

MITZVAH - this is the overarching name for all commandments. (Stemming from the root “Tzav” – command.)

EIDOT - “testimonial commandments”; where we perform certain commandments to so-to-speak give testimony to a fact or to an event that occurred in history. For example, we wear Tefilin (Exodus 13:9), we wear Tzitzit (Numbers 15:37), we keep Shabbat (Exodus 20:8).

MISHPATIM - “social/moral commandments”; where we abide by certain laws that allow a society to function, for example the payment of damages, injunctions against lending with interest, injunctions against kidnapping, murdering and stealing (all in Exodus chapters 21, 22 and 23).

CHUKKIM - “statutes”; laws where we don’t understand why they exist, for example ‘not eating milk and meat together’ (Exodus 23:19), not wearing ‘wool and linen together’.

[On Seder night the Wise son asks; “what are all these EIDOT, CHUKKIM, and MISHPATIM that G-d has commanded you to do?” – clearly, he is referring to a large gamut of commandments; but his question is a different discussion…]

If you are very interested in the mitzvot, I found a tremendous book that explains mitzvot and perhaps some of the deeper, less obvious reasons for them – the book is called RAMBAN: KABBALIST AND PHILOSOPHER by HENOCH. The Ramban or “Nachmanidies” was an important medieval Jewish thinker (12th/13th Cent.) – and in this book the author discusses his reasons and systems in organizing the mitzvot.

All the best,
Shmuel Kimche

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