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by Dr. Avigdor Bonchek


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Parashas Va’eschanan (5762)

In his review of the mitzvos, Moses teaches the law of Bal Tosif – “do not add “ to the mitzvos.

Tosafos sheds light on a basic concept.

Deut. 4:2

“Do not add to the word which I command you nor may you subtract from it.”


Do not add: Rashi: As five parshios (sections) in Tefillin, five species in the Lulav and five Tzizis; and likewise “you shall not subtract.”

What Is Rashi Saying?

The Torah tells us not to tinker with the mitzvahs. This is referred to in Hebrew as Bal Tosif. Don’t add to them, means don’t “improve” upon them. The phylacteries contain four different sections of the Torah, which are placed in black boxes, one for the head and one for the arm. The four Torah sections are chosen because in each section there is mention of the mitzvah of Tefillin. One should not add another section and put it inside the Tefillin. Likewise, the mitzvah of Tzitzis, which requires fringes on the four corners of a garment, should not be “improved” upon to have five fringes. And certainly one must not subtract from the requirements of these, or other, mitzvos.

Questioning Rashi

Although Rashi’s comment is quite straightforward, yet when we examine his examples we can perhaps begin to question his approach.

A Question: Why were just these examples of “adding to the mitzvos” chosen? Aren’t there other ways that one can add to the mitzvos ?

Can you think of other examples?

Your Suggestions:

Tosafos Explains the Concept of Bal Tosif

An Answer: Tosafos asks (Talmud Rosh Hashanah 16b) why aren’t the Shofar blasts that we hear on Rosh Hashanah considered as adding to the mitzvahs. The Sages taught that the basic Torah command on Rosh Hashanah is to blow a sum total of nine Shofar blasts. Yet, in fact, in all synagogues today we blow one hundred blasts! Why is this not considered “adding to the mitzvahs” ?

If a person ate matzos on Passover for eight days, one more than the Torah requirement of seven days, would he be transgressing the command of “adding to the mitzvahs”? The halachic answer is, no, he wouldn’t be committing Bal Tosif

Can you see a difference between these cases and the ones that Rashi cites?

Your Answer:

Understanding Rashi

An Answer: Tosephos answers this question. He says that one does not transgress this command by doing a mitzvah twice (or more times); one transgresses it by changing the essential make-up of the mitzvah itself. Adding a species to the required four in the Lulav, is a change in the mitzvah itself; while taking the four species more than once a day, is not. Adding a Torah section to the Tefillin is a change in the essential make-up of the Tefillin and is prohibited, whereas putting the Tefillin on more than once a day, is not. Likewise, eating matzah an extra day, on the eighth day or hearing one hundred Shofar blasts – much more than the Torah’s requirement - is not a transgression of Bal Tosif, because the essential mitzvah has not been tampered with. Because while we have added to the mitzvah, we have not actually changed the make-up of the mitzvah itself.

Now let us examine the latter part of Rashi’s comment and question it.

“And likewise ‘You shall not subtract’”

This additional phrase in Rashi’s comment is strange. The Torah itself says clearly “you shall not add…and you shall not subtract..” Why does Rashi need repeat this for us? By this time you certainly realize that Rashi does not make such seemingly un- necessary, self- understood comments for no reason. What is his reasoning here?

Can you think of what he intends to tell us with these words?

Your Answer:

A Fuller Understanding

An Answer: Actually, when given a little thought, the prohibition of subtracting from the commandments is strange. If this means that one should not cross off one of the 613 commandments, one would think that is obvious. If, for example, the Torah says “You shall not steal” and I cross that off my “don’t –do-list” and proceed to steal, of course I have transgressed the prohibition by stealing. I need not be told so again by telling me “do not subtract from the mitzvahs.” So that can not be the Torah’s meaning here.

If, on the other hand, it means I shall not subtract from a mitzvah itself, for example, by subtracting one of the four species from my Lulav-mitzvah, then I might think that although I have not fulfilled the mitzvah completely, I have fulfilled ľ of it, after all I did take a Lulav and a Estrog. So, perhaps, I should get partial credit for the mitzvah.

Rashi’s comment teacher us that this is not so. By likening the prohibition of subtracting from a mitzvah to the prohibition of adding to it, Rashi shows us that just as we have not fulfilled the mitzvah of Lulav at all, if we have added a species to it, likewise we have not fulfilled the mitzvah at all if we subtract any part from it.

Shabbat Shalom
Avigdor Bonchek

What’s Bothering Rashi?” is produced by the “Institute for the Study of Rashi.” The Institute is in the process of preparing the Devorim volume of “What’s Bothering Rashi?” This volume will feature Rashi and the Ba’alie Tosephos. Readers interested in sponsoring a sedra in this volume are encouraged to contact us for further details at msbonch@mscc.huji.ac.il Thanking you in advance.

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