People Of The Book:
Classic Works Of The Jewish Tradition
By Dr. Henry Abramson
Written with a deep humility that nevertheless could not disguise the author’s brilliance, SeferHaChinuch remains one of the most thought-provoking halachic studies some 800 years after it first appeared in the Iberian Peninsula. The deceptively simple title, “The Book of Education,” alludes to the anonymous author’s intent: to provide his young son with a basic introduction to the Torah and its commandments. Sefer HaChinuch is therefore an example of the medieval genre of “counters of the commandments” (monei ha’mitzvot), books that list the precise number of positive and negative commandments to add up to the 613 as reported in the Talmud. Many rabbis participated in this scholarly quest, often differing with each other with regard to which act was actually a full commandment, which was only a corollary action, and so on.
Sefer HaChinuch, however, was distinguished by one highly unusual feature: unlike the other monei ha’mitzvot, the Book of Education attempted to answer why each commandment exists. Other scholars, Maimonides and Nachmanides among them, relegated this crucial question to more-sophisticated philosophical works. The Sefer HaChinuch, on the other hand, sought to satisfy the basic curiosity of an adolescent youth. In so doing, he left an intellectual legacy for generations.
The book is often attributed to a well-known 14th-century rabbi named Aharon of Barcelona, but most scholars estimate it was written over a century earlier by an unknown scholar, possibly with the same name and hailing from Barcelona. The author’s attempt to hide his identity is betrayed by a few details in the text, such as the emphasis he places on telling his son to pay special attention to commandments relevant to their family tribe of Levi. He was likely a student of Nachmanides, and possibly wrote the text before the great scholar was banished from Spain in the 1260s.
The book is organized according to the sequential appearance of the commandments in each Torah reading, making it ideal for weekly study. After describing the scriptural basis of each commandment, the text briefly describes how it is observed, who is responsible for performing the commandment (men, women, kohanim, etc.), and under which temporal and conditional circumstances it takes effect (while the Temple was standing, or levirate marriage when the widow is childless, etc.). Finally, each mitzvah concludes with a remarkably concise and often boldly philosophical description of the “roots of the mitzvah,” meaning its purpose in the Divine Plan.
Some of my favorite sections include the author’s discussions of forbidden mixtures (wool and linen, meat and milk, etc.) that draw upon Kabbalistic ideas about the quality of energies that make up material entities and the spiritually deleterious effects of combining them improperly. The author was also sensitive to the psychological implications of the mitzvot, and is perhaps best known for a theme that runs throughout his work: a person is shaped by his or her actions, not vice versa. By training ourselves in the performance of mitzvot, even in the absence of a clear awareness of their purpose, we purify ourselves and prepare for ultimate understanding. The Sefer HaChinuch’s purpose as a guide for young people thus retains its evergreen status even for adults living in spiritually and intellectually troubled times.
Henry Abramson is a specialist in Jewish history and thought, serving as dean at the Avenue J campus of Touro College. He may be reached at email@example.com.