Rabbi Dr. Meir Tamari
We read in the Mechilta that Rabbi Matia ben Charash taught that when the
time came for the G-d to fulfil His promise to Avraham Avinu, Israel had
no mitzvot to justify their redemption, G-d then gave them the mitzvot of
the Brit Milah and the Korban Pesach. How then are we to understand the
words of Rabbi Elazar Hakappar, that it was in the merit of the four
mitzvot that they had, that they were redeemed? After all, they had four
mitzvot on which the World stood. There was no suspicion that they were
guilty of sexual immorality and of loshan harah, and they did not change
their names and their language. We could say that these four are negative
mitzvot and there is not a reward for negative mitzvot as the Maharal
teaches. That would explain Rabbi Matai’s statement.
However, in Kiddushin (39a) we learnt that there is reward for one who was
able to overcome the temptation to do an averah. Therefore, Israel in
Egypt where they were constantly faced with the possibility to sin but did
not, surely didn’t need the extra two mitzvot?
The four negative mitzvot that they already observed by being able to
withstand them, were concerned with sexual immorality, murder, idolatry
and needless hatred. Since the First Temple was destroyed because of the
first three and the Second Temple because of loshon hara and needless
hatred, we see that lashon harah is equal to the other three combined.
However, they are all 3 punishable by karet or by the death penalty of the
bet din, while needless hatred is not; it is only a transgression of the
negative mitzvah of, “thou shall not hate thy brother in thy heart”
(Vayikrah, 19:17). How then can it be considered equal to the other three?
Its equality lies in the fact that needless hatred, in all its various
forms, is actually the cause of the other three, while not actually being
part of them. A person can, through his efforts prevent this happening and
do teshuvah for the lason harah and needless hatred before committing the
other sins. That is why there is no karet or mitat bet din. Israel in
Egypt was able to overcome all the powers that tried to bring them to
commit these four sins.
Furthermore, the four negatives which they avoided correspond to the
perversion of body, mind and nefesh, with that of lashon harah and sinat
chinam to the Tzelem Elokim which should bind the other three together.
Since lashon harah causes the disintegration of society and of social
ties, it weakens the unifying power of the Tzelem Elokim. Sexual
immorality perverts the body; that they did not change their names
prevented the perversion of their minds; since the name of something is
its essence and the essence of man is his mind. That they did not change
their language prevented the perversion of the nefesh; the Targum
translates “And man became a living nefesh” as a speaking spirit. By
keeping apart from these four things, Israel preserved the purity of body,
mind, and nefesh integrated by the Tzelem Elokim.
However keeping away from these sins was not sufficient, as there still
remained the choice of actually sinning, as we see in the saying of the
Avnei Nezer with regard to the Metzorah. After the signs of the Metzorah
had departed, a sacrifice was still necessary in order for the tsuvah to
be complete. So what was required of Israel in Egypt was, in addition, the
complete eradication of the sin. For that they required the Milah and the
The Brit Milah has three mitzvot: the actual milah, the priah, and hatafat
dam. The actual milah brings completion to the body, like the Midrash
says “When a fig ripens, the only waste is the little stem connecting it
to the tree, in the same way that the wound of the brit is all that
remains.” The priah brings about the completion of the mind, as the word
mean “to uncover”: in the same way as the mind uncovers the unknown. The
hatafat dam is the completion of the nefesh, “For the blood is the
The Korban Pesach, as the Tzelem Elokim, unites nefesh, body, and mind.
That is why the mitzvah of Pesach is fulfilled by taking a lamb for each
family, and it is as though the whole of Israel fulfilled it with one
lamb. All the commentators saw in the fact that the lamb had to be whole-
head, body and feet intact- a sign of the unity of all Israel.
Together, with their avoidance of sin, as shown by the four merits which
Israel had, they now two mitzvot, to complete their rejection of the sins.
Shem Mi Shmuel, Haggadah shel Pesach.
Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Meir Tamari and Torah.org.
Dr. Tamari is a renowned economist, Jewish scholar, and founder of the Center For Business Ethics (www.besr.org) in Jerusalem.