To Fear God

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Ekev

Last week, I made reference to whether halakha can cover all of what it means to serve God, and this week’s mitzvah gives a good test case. Rambam’s Obligation Four says we are commanded le-ha’amin yir’ato yit’aleh, to believe in His fear, He should be exalted, and to fear Him, not to be like the denier who walk be-keri.

Our View of Providence is Part of Yir’ah

To unpack before we go further: Sefer HaMitzvot is translated from Arabic, which I neither read nor speak [thanks to a misdiagnosis of hepatitis the summer I was nineteen, but that’s a different story], so I cannot be sure le-ha’amin yir’ato is an accurate translation [update: since I wrote the first draft of this, I heard a shiur by R. Aviyam Levinson at the Young Israel of Riverdale, who pointed out Rambam in Moreh Nevukhim says the Arabic word he uses means to assert something is true]. The mitzvah is more than to fear God, it is to absorb the belief system that fuels the fear of God, to be sure God does indeed punish [R. Levinson used an example I often have, that we think of the truth that God punishes in the same way as we think of gravity].

The next phrase gives an example, one I understood only because I have paid attention to it in the beginning of Rambam’s Laws of Fasts. There, he says times of trouble are supposed to lead Jews to introspection, as we saw back in Be-Ha’alotekha, the mitzvah to blow the trumpets and call to God. Should Jews instead say the trouble is happenstance, the natural way the world, Rambam thought they would be acting in the way the tokhacha describes, va-halakhtem imi be-keri, if you walk with Me be-keri, deciding that events of this world do not come from God.

How Rambam viewed hashgacha, God’s Providence over the world, has been debated for centuries, and I am not going to try to resolve it here. I only note this is the second mitzvah where Rambam requires Jews to have a sense bad times come from God, and demands we react to them as such.

The Fear of Fear and the Fear of Awe

Many, including me, prefer to translate yir’ah as “awe,” but Rambam insists there is a fear element as well. We are to fear the approach of God’s punishment at all times, says Rambam here in the Sefer HaMitzvot, citing a verse from last week’s parsha, et Hashem Elokekha tira (it’s also in our parsha, 10;20, perhaps why Sefer HaChinukh put it here), you shall fear Hashem your God. To support the claim further, he turns our attention to Sanhedrin 56a, where the Gemara seeks a warning verse for not blaspheming (because every punishable sin has a warning verse, according to the Gemara) and points to our, the verse that says to fear God.

While tussling over whether it can really be the warning, the Gemara makes clear it takes this to be an ‘aseh, an obligation. [In theory, the yir’ah that stops us from blaspheming might be yir’at ha-romemut, awe of God’s Exaltedness, rather than yir’at ha-onesh, fear of punishment. Rambam does not distinguish the two here.]

By the time he wrote Mishneh Torah, his focus, yir’ah-wise, was more on the higher form. Twice in Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah, 2;1 and 4;12, he describes yir’ah as the experience of recognizing one’s lowliness compared the Creator of the vast and intricate universe. The more we see and understand our puniness, the more yir’ah of the One Who created all this we will feel. Without mention of fear of consequences or punishment.

Punishment Is a Deterrent

Sefer HaChinukh 432 focuses on the fear, says the mitzvah is to bear the fear of God on our faces always, so we not sin. While I can imagine those who would say a recognition of God’s greatness stops us from sinning, too, Sefer HaChinukh opts for the more direct, fear of punishment residing with us all the time will stop us [because, in all honesty, if some activity is bad for us, which is more effective, an immediate shock every time we do it, or knowledge it makes us less excellent]?

He says the idea is obvious to all living beings, the best way to stop sin is by fear of punishment. [In our times, when someone debates everything, many claim otherwise, say knowledge of the likelihood of prison or death, e.g., will not stop certain hardened criminals. We can argue educational and public policy other times; I’m just reviewing what was said here, which I think is true in the general case, being sure we will suffer for doing something will stop us from doing it.]

The Intuitive Nature of the Mitzvah

His laws of the mitzvah trouble me, along with Minchat Chinukh’s comment on them. He says the laws are included in the simple sense of the verse, meaning to fear God in the colloquial meaning of the word. Minchat Chinukh points out the difference of focus between Mishneh Torah, where Rambam presented yir’at ha-rommemut, the awe of God’s Exaltedness, and Sefer HaChinukh who, like Sefer HaMitzvot, stressed fear of punishment. Then he writes: “and all the sifrei mussar (loosely, books of Jewish ethics) have gone into this at length, fortunate is anyone who is yerei Hashem, may God put our place with them.”

Certainly nothing negative about the mitzvah, but he relegates it to a different realm or mode of thinking than the majority of mitzvot he discusses at length, perhaps because he accepts Sefer HaChinukh’s claim, it is mostly intuitive.

I am not convinced. First, Rambam’s idea that it takes belief of a certain type to achieve fear of punishment already calls for more discussion than Minchat Chinukh gives, although he may have thought those faith commitments too obvious to merit discussion. They do, today.

Second, I trust people’s intuition less than theyseem to, and I think Arukh HaShulchan can show us why. With God’s help through the vehicle of Bar-Ilan Responsa Project, I found thirteen times throughout the work where he speaks of it. Just by listing them, without commentary, I think we will see yir’at Hashem might not be as obvious as we might like to think.

Yir’ah in Arukh HaShulchan: Orach Chayim

In Orach Chayim 1;8, he gives basics of the mitzvah, the version in the Sefer HaMitzvot and in Mishneh Torah, Sifrei’s noting this is one place where ahava and yir’ah, love and fear, seeming opposites, can co-exist, work together. Arukh HaShulchan thinks that’s only true of yir’at ha-romemut, because the more we appreciate God, while it inspires awe, it also inspires love.

In 2;10, Arukh HaShulchan concedes there are places a Jew is not required to cover his head, such as when he is in non-Jewish courts. The courts of his time required bareheadedness, so it was allowed, as many today allow it where a Jew could not hold a job if he insisted on a head covering. However, he adds, whoever wants to merit fear of God will avoid situations where they go bareheaded.

In 24;1, he quotes Menachot 43b, R. Eliezer b. Ya’akov says whoever is wearing tefillin on head and arm, tzitzit on clothing, and has a mezuzah on his door, will not soon sin, with one of the prooftexts referring to Hashem residing around those who fear Him.

While Arukh HaShulchan knows good reasons to add requests to Shemoneh Esrei, in 119;2, he objects to anyone who formulates a text to include regularly, thinks it impudent towards those who wrote the prayers, Anshei Knesset HaGedola, and is confident all Torah scholars and those with yir’at Hashem in their hearts will agree.

Perhaps not an obligation, all those who fear Hashem stand for the repetition of the Shemoneh Esrei, 124;9, barring health concerns. Similarly, all yir’ei Hashem wash mayim acharonim, wash hands after a meal before Birkat HaMazon, 181;5.

In Orach Chayim, yir’at Hashem expresses itself in covering one’s head, wearing tefillin and having mezuzot on one’s doors, knowing to respect Anshei Kenesset HaGedola enough not to try to improve their prayer, standing for the chazzan’s repetition of Shemoneh Esrei, and washing mayim acharonim.

Our Food and Yir’at Hashem

When we move to Yoreh De’ah, much of yir’at Hashem expresses itself in food. Before certifying a shochet, the person qualified to kills animals in the halakhic way that allows their meat to be kosher, the rabbi must check the candidate’s fear of God as well, particularly in our generation (he says) of heresy, leniencies, and tendencies to doubt Chazal, Yoreh De’ah 1;23.

Should the candidate pass but later be lax about smoothing his knife of all issues, he will show himself either unqualified or lacking in fear of God, because it is well known the big cities have factories where such knives are readily available.

While strict law does not care about a nursemaid’s religion or observance, we prefer a child nurse only from those who keep kosher, 81;34, because non-kosher food is considered to damage the soul, lead to bad character. Arukh HaShulchan references a leading Torah scholar of his time who thought that led to children leaving observance, to their lack of yir’at Hashem.

The need for kashrut symbols on food seems obvious today, but was new to Arukh HaShulchan 119;9. Anyone who has been touched by yir’at Hashem will only eat that which has been certified kosher, not just trust the Jew who brings it from elsewhere.

Yir’at Hashem is a characteristic we seek in those who produce our food, is revealed by their assiduous care to use the best possible shechita knives, means even infants should be given only kosher food, and is part of why we should look for kosher symbols. All good ideas, but would we intuitively think of that as part of yir’at Hashem?

Choshen Mishpat Gets Into the Action

While courts allow litigants and witnesses to sit for verdict, Arukh HaShulchan Choshen Mishpat 17;5 thinks the litigants and witnesses themselves, if yir’at Hashem has touched their hearts, if their forefathers stood at Sinai, will know to stand out of honor for the Torah. About to hear God’s justice from the mouths of the judges, standing is the proper position.

For many issues, we no longer treat even our greatest Torah scholars as the kinds of talmidei chakhamim the Gemara thought warranted special treatment, but the idea that such a person could retrieve a lost item just by saying he recognized it still works, 262;25. The Gemara confers the right to invoke tevi’at ayin, his clear recognition of his lost object without any describable identifying signs, on a talmid chakham, Torah scholar, where Arukh HaShulchan says it is really a matter of yir’at Hashem—the fear of God that would mean this person would never falsely take what did not belong to him. The Gemara only spoke of a talmid chakham, he says, because one who spends all his time studying Torah will presumably also be a yerei Hashem, one who fears God [and only claim he recognizes his lost item if he really does].

Four simanim later, paragraph two, he contrasts yir’at Hashem to various types of sinners, who do not have such fear of God. In Choshen Mishpat, fear of God presents itself in our dealings with courts,  our recovery of lost objects, and to whom we decide to return such objects.

Even HaEzer

In 17;139, on evaluating problematic witnesses regarding testimony a woman’s husband has passed away, Arukh HaShulchan urges the judge to include other scholars, who fear God, in the decision process, not rely on his own judgment. In 25;10, he recommends busha, a quality that is closer to discretion and chastity than its usual translation of embarrassment, because it fosters fear of sin.

For 55;1, his topic is women with whom a man already has some kind of marital connection, engagement (shidukhin) or betrothal (erusin). In both cases, the man himself still may not have conjugal relations with the women, and therefore may also not be secluded with her, let alone live together, and one who fears the word of God will stay away from many such arrangements. [Surprisingly to me, I know of Orthodox shuls today which have couples who just live together, outside the sanctions of marriage.]

Lastly, in 165;14, Arukh HaShulchan accepts the possibility of yibum, although Ashkenazic tradition strongly preferred yibum. If the couple’s purity of motivation is clear, or even if they are just known to be God-fearing, and said they were planning on chalitzah, the unshoeing ceremony that frees the widow to marry others, yibum could be allowed.

Even HaEzer’s yir’ah: including other judges on difficult cases, cultivating busha, avoiding yichud, seclusion, even with one’s future wife, and being the type of person whose good intentions are clear and to be trusted.

Yir’at Hashem can come from the wonders of nature, as we saw in Rambam, and in Arukh HaShulchan from our conduct in ritual religion, our concern with getting our food in the way God wanted, our attitudes towards money, marriage, and marital relations. Probably more, if we look. Not, apologies to Sefer HaChinukh, from just thinking about it ourselves and deciding we know what it is.

About Gidon Rothstein

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