Do Not Add to the Torah
There is what seems like a pretty clear-cut and straightforward verse in the Torah:
“You shall not add to that which I command you and you shall not subtract from it, to keep the commandments of the L-rd your G-d...” (Deut. 4:2)
G-d made the world. He gave us a Torah with the instruction manual for living. Just read the manual and do what it says. Don’t add anything. But wait a second! No adding stuff? What about all the decrees added by our Sages? For example, the Torah instructs us not to eat meat and milk cooked together, but the Sages added a prohibition not to eat even chicken or fowl together with milk. And what about Chanuka? There’s no verse for that in the Torah. It happened a thousand years after the Torah was given. Didn’t the Torah say “no adding”?
Well, as you have probably guessed by now — as with all things in Judaism, it’s not quite that simple.
Rashi, our indispensable aid to understanding the Torah, paraphrases our Sages’ comments on our verse:
“You shall not add; for instance, by putting five scrolls into tefillin, using five species for the lulav or wearing a garment with five tzitzit — and similarly you shall not subtract.”
These are very specific examples, where the problem is with adjusting parameters of a single mitzvah. Clearly Rashi was bothered by our issue. How can it be that the Torah forbids adding and yet we add things? The very simple answer is that the Torah never forbade adding extra things to do. The verse is simply saying, “Don’t think that the details are not specific. If G-d says four He means four, and not five or three. This is a very neat answer. The only weakness is that really the Torah could simply have said “Don’t add.” Once G-d says that He doesn’t even want more, then surely you would know He doesn’t want less!
There is another approach. The famed kabbalist, the Ramban(Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, Nachmanides, 1194-1270) holds that the verse is actually forbidding adding new things, as we first understood. It’s just that the Torah itself gave the Sages the right to introduce new decrees, with one very important caveat. A person must know that these are additions and have not come directly from the Torah. They may be good additions, even indispensable, but they must never be confused with the actual commands G-d wants or doesn’t want according to those written in the Torah. The Rambam(Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, Maimonides, 1135-1204) says pretty much the same thing, in more detail (Hilchot Mamrim 2: 9).
Actually, this is one way to understand the sin of Adam and Chava (Eve) in Gan Eden. G-d’s words to Adam were, “Don’t eat from that tree.” Chava told the snake, “If we eat from that tree or touch it, we will die.” So the snake, seeing an opportunity, pushed her into the tree. Of course, when she touched it, nothing happened. “You see,” said the snake, “it’s all a lie. Adam made it up.” So Chava ate. And we all know what happened next. Where did she get the idea that it was forbidden to touch the tree? Some commentators say that Adam made the first ever addition to G-d’s command. Reasoning that it would be better to refrain from even touching the tree, to avoid any possibility of eating from it, he told Chava that even touching was forbidden. Adam’s mistake was not in wanting to safeguard Chava by keeping her away from the tree, but rather that he should have trusted her enough to explain to her what G-d really had said and what had been added. The first sin, the most cosmically disastrous event in history, was caused by a man underestimating a woman. Let that be a lesson to all of us.
The wording of the verse, which was problematic according to Rashi’s explanation above, is easier to understand according to this approach of the Ramban. Why say both “you shall not add” and “you shall not subtract”? The answer: the meaning of the verse is “You shall not add and therefore you shall not subtract.” What you may think is more and better is actually less and worse. Adam thought he was doing holy work by telling Chava not even to touch the tree, and he may have been, had she been aware of the reason. But he actually made matters a whole lot worse.
In order to do what G-d wants of us we must be aware of the details, the whys and the wherefores of everything we do. That takes a lot of learning, which is one of the reasons Jews have always valued education and scholarship so highly. In fact, even our word for a syngagogue, a shul, really means a school. Learning is all and knowledge is power. Because to do the right thing, you first have to know what the right thing is.