The Sages instituted numerous rabbinic decrees to prevent violations of Torah law. For example, they extended the Torah’s prohibition of eating milk and meat together to include fowl, since people failed to distinguish between fowl and true meat.
There are, however, several cases in which the Sages went even further and authored new mitzvot. The mitzvah to light Chanukah lights, to read Megillat Esther on Purim, and to wash hands before eating bread - these are rabbinic enactments with no direct basis in Torah law. They are not extensions of Torah legislation or protective measures, but brand-new mitzvot. By what right could the Sages innovate these mitzvot?
Even more audacious, the rabbis decreed that we recite a blessing when performing these rabbinic innovations: “Blessed are You, the Eternal our God, Ruler of the universe, Who has commanded us to...”
When did God command us to light Chanukah candles or read Megillat Esther on Purim?
The Talmud responds to this question, noting that there are not one but two sources in the Torah that empower the rabbis to enact legislation:
Rav Kook explained that God-given commandments will naturally promote the goal of absolute good. This is understandable, as God knows the future and is aware of all implications of any decree. Man-made laws, on the other hand, even those designed by the most prescient legal scholars, will never be able to achieve the same results as a Divinely-decreed mitzvah.
Of course, the Talmudic Sages were blessed with Divine inspiration, in addition to the logic and reasoning that are an integral aspect of the Oral Law. They used these gifts to attain results similar to God-given mitzvot, to further the Jewish people’s perfection in both spiritual and material realms.
The Sages examined two aspects when formulating a new law:
It is insufficient to take into account only the generation’s immediate needs. If the nation becomes estranged from its spiritual foundation, it has in fact become a different nation. Its unity and continuity are no longer assured.
Now we may understand why there are two sources authorizing the Sages to legislate new laws.
Regarding the need to address the current needs of society, the Torah commands: “Do not stray to the right or left from the word that [the high court] declares to you.” This refers to decrees of the high court, which institutes legislation dictated by the state of the people. These laws are designed to uphold observance of Shabbat, kashrut, and so on.
But other rabbinic enactments are new mitzvot, designed to maintain our ties with our spiritual heritage. These include kindling lights on Chanukah, reading the Megillah on Purim, and washing hands before a meal (which recalls the purity of the kohanim before they ate terumah).
Regarding the authority to enact these new mitzvot, the Torah says, “Remember the days of old, reflect upon the years of each generation. Ask your father and he will tell you; question your elders, and they will respond.” Israel’s past was elevated and holy, and is the source of our future success.
(Adapted from Ein Eyah on Shabbat 23a, vol. III, p. 73)
Illustration image: ‘The Torah Scribe’ (Maurycy Gottlieb, 1876)