Note: On Tuesday, March 31, at 8 PM Eastern Time, and JNet will be hosting an online talk by Rabbi Freeman on this maamar. Click here for the video page, which includes a chat box for your questions and discussion with other viewers.

Whether you’ve just read the foreword/synopsis or studied the whole thing, bookmark this page and set a reminder on your calendar to come back here that night.

Foreword and Synopsis

The maamar “When Your Child Will Ask” of 5738 (1978 in the secular calendar) is a classic work of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory. In it, the Rebbe asks the sort of questions that many would say are not to be asked, and proposes solutions that some would say are radical, even outrageous—all the while remaining thoroughly grounded in tradition, faith and reason.

The Rebbe here deals with the wise child of the Haggadah, understood as the archetype of wisdom. Wisdom, strangely enough, is epitomized not by its answer, but by its question.

Wisdom Asks

What is that question?

“What are the testimonies, the decrees and the judgments that G‑d our G‑d commanded you?”

What sort of wise question is that? It’s a question that a “wise” person, a person who believes in the inherent and complete superiority of the spiritual over the material would ask, isn’t it?

And yes, at first, the question seems to be challenging something very fundamental to Jewish practice: the performance of mitzvot. Mitzvot are not just good deeds. They are literally “commandments”—instructions from Above to be carried out in our material world. Do this, don’t do that. Almost entirely oriented toward some sort of physical action in a physical world.

And so the question of the wise child—the paradigm of wisdom—would seem to be, “Wouldn’t it be better that we sit and meditate on this night of Passover?”“What’s the point? Wouldn’t it would be better for us to sit and meditate on this night of Passover upon the oneness of G‑d, chanting and singing to enhance our spiritual state, until we attain such enlightenment that our souls can experience a true exodus from the prison of the body and its material form?

“Why,” the wise child seems to be asking, “this obsession with doing, with actions performed within the limitations and darkness of the physical realm? What sort of enlightenment am I supposed to get out of this?”

The Rebbe, however, rejects that interpretation of the wise child’s question—on compelling evidence from the wording of the question itself. If this interpretation were correct, the Rebbe asserts, the wise child should have simply said, “What are these mitzvot? Tell me the point of them.” He doesn’t. Instead, he categorizes the mitzvot. And a categorization not according to types of action, but according to the type of mental focus demanded by each mitzvah. Some are testimonies, some are decrees, some are judgments. It’s not just “Do these in the manner of automatons, just because I want them done.” It’s also “Do these, and make sure to understand what each one of these is about as you do them. Do them with mental focus.”

The wise child’s question, then, is quite the opposite of the interpretation suggested above. True wisdom has no problem understanding that G‑d can be found wherever He desires to be found. G‑d is not a subjective experience, a conception of my mind or a titillation of my spiritual aspirations. G‑d is the ultimate reality, both of heaven and of earth. If He desires to be found in these particular physical activities that we call mitzvot, then that is where He is found—in the physical realm where those mitzvot are performed. And at Sinai, He expressed this to be His innermost desire. Everything else is but background—including the entire world of the spirit.

What emerges is that the wise child seems to be asking, “Who needs spirituality? “Who needs spirituality? How do you expect to find G‑d there?”How do you expect to find G‑d there, in your subjective experience of Him? Why should we pretend to have any understanding of what we are doing and why we are doing it? Can a created being understand its Creator? As long as you’re in the picture, can you expect G‑d to be there as well? Step out of front stage center, off the stage altogether, into the oblivion of just getting it done. And where do you get it done? Down here on earth!”

A counterintuitive question, indeed. Nothing less could be expected from the wise child of the Rebbe’s maamar.

And then the paternal character of the Haggadah answers Wisdom, saying, “This is the power of Torah. If, as you say, you will put yourself entirely to the side, G‑d can be present not only in these actions, but even in your subjective awareness of Him. G‑d desires more than for His quintessential Self to be drawn into this material world. He desires to found here, openly, by all His creatures."

G‑d desires to dwell in light.

Mitzvot in Three Parts

Along the path to this paternal response to Wisdom, the Rebbe takes us on a fascinating exploration of the three categories by which the wise child divvies up the mitzvot—testimonies, decrees and judgments.

In his classic commentary to the Torah, Nachmanides explains each of these as follows: “Testimonies” are mitzvot such as Passover, Sukkot, Shabbat and tefillin. In keeping these, Jews testify both to the birth of our people in the Exodus, and to the origin of heaven and earth in the six days of creation.

“Decrees” are those mitzvot which appear to have no utility or benefit—such as the prohibition against eating pork, or against wearing a mixture of wool and linen. And with this absence of utility is how the mitzvah is to be fulfilled. As Maimonides instructs, a person should not say, “I don’t like pork; I can’t stand the feeling of wool and linen together.” Rather, he should say, “I would like to taste some; I’d like to try some on. But what can I do? My Father in Heaven has decreed that I should not.”1

“Judgments” are quite the opposite. “If we had not been commanded, we would have learned not to steal from the ant, and modesty from the cat.” Judgments are laws in which we readily recognize a benefit to society, laws that we would likely have legislated ourselves even if we had not been commanded. When it comes to these mitzvot, you cannot say, “I would like to steal, but what can I do since my Father in heaven has decreed I should not.” No, when it comes to these mitzvot, a person has to understand and feel for himself that this is the way it must be.

But the Rebbe points out that this tripartite categorization is more than a filing system for mitzvot. Every mitzvah serves as a pathway by which divine light enters into this world, and that pathway has three essential steps.Every mitzvah contains to some degree an aspect of all three categories. And the reason? Because every mitzvah serves as a pathway by which G‑d’s light enters into this world, and that pathway has three essential steps.

G‑d in Three Steps

First, all mitzvot are testimonies. Every Jew is testimony that there is a G‑d in the world. In every mitzvah he or she does, a Jew must know, “I am doing this because I am a Jew. G‑d is my very life and being. There is no other reason we could be here.” The mitzvot are the means by which we openly declare that testimony.

What is this G‑d? What is His relationship with the world? Such questions must remain, at this point, unanswered and untouched. Testimonies are but the first step of making G‑d available to an open, subjective experience for all of humanity. But there are still two more steps remaining.

All mitzvot are decrees. Decrees are defined as those mitzvot that defy reason—matters such as the prohibition against eating pork, wearing a mixture of wool and linen, or most of the sacrifices in the Temple. Even when we do come up with some sort of reason for them, it never really satisfies a pragmatic, down-to-earth mentality. To such a mindset, G‑d says, “This is my decree. You aren’t meant to understand. You are meant to just do.”

Why would G‑d make such decrees? Within the unreasonableness of decrees, the Rebbe finds a kind of reason: Decrees are a revelation of transcendence, of G‑d insofar as He has no need for this creation of His, or for any creation whatsoever.

But the Rebbe is also quick to point out what is lacking in such a posture: The very need to negate the utility of our world is, to a certain degree, a recognition that it is something worthy of negation. Which means that to some degree, the world does have its own reality. Which is a compromise. It places G‑d in a relationship with His creation, thereby creating a kind of dualism. But G‑d is one. If there were a duality here, we are no longer speaking of G‑d in His quintessential self.

Furthermore—and still more compromisingly: With supra-rational decrees, G‑d is locking Himself out of a vital aspect of his creation—namely the minds of His creations. In His supra-rational decrees, G‑d is locking Himself out of a vital aspect of his creation—namely the minds of His creations. If G‑d is everywhere, as paradoxical as this may seem, He should be accessible within reason no less than to the degree by which He transcends it.

And, as we saw, all mitzvot testify to the fact that G‑d is here now—only that the testimony is void of information, of any hint of what and how. Indeed, testimonies enter the realm of the human mind—we wouldn’t have come up with them ourselves, but neither do our minds reject them. In testimonies, G‑d is truly found everywhere. In the decree-element of mitzvot, G‑d abandons the realm of the intellect—thereby providing us an awareness of His transcendent, infinite light, but compromising His omnipresence.

Yet all mitzvot are to some degree decrees—all carry this transcendental, supra-rational element in them. Even when we perform a mitzvah that makes sense to us, that provides real utility in this world, that we would do even if we were never commanded to do it—we don’t do it for any of those reasons. We do it as a mitzvah—as the command of our Creator. Yes, we understand that honoring parents, loving your fellow and refraining from murdering him makes sense. And we understand that we are meant to do these things with an understanding that they make sense. But why is that? Because our Creator has so decreed that we should do these with an understanding that they make sense.

G‑d Within Reason

So, at their final destination, all mitzvot are judgments. Judgments are those mitzvot we described above as having utility and making sense to the pragmatist in this world. And, in a way, all mitzvot really do have sense to them—even those that make no sense. First of all, because we can always attempt to find some sort of purpose behind them; and even if we don’t, we can rest assured that the One who decreed them has designed His world in such a way that these decrees will somehow prove beneficial—even if we have no idea how that works. But furthermore, we can understand that we human beings need laws that transcend our intellect. Because we human beings grasp, if only tacitly and implicitly, that there is something beyond us, that our very bounded reality is not the sum total and the end-all of all that is. We need wonder, we need awe.

Judgments, then, are those aspects of the mitzvot that present G‑d as immanently relevant to our world. Judgments are those aspects of the mitzvot that present G‑d as immanently relevant to our world.He is the very life-force, the form and the being of all that is. Quite in contrast to decrees, judgments demonstrate that the Creator cares for His creation. And He desires that His creation care for His world, care for Him, and know Him as a caring Being.

All of which makes for a grand process of drawing G‑d’s presence openly into His world: first, without compromise, by means of the testimony of just being a Jew who is doing mitzvot; and second, by revealing Him as an all-transcendent Being beyond this world, and then drawing Him openly into this world in which we live and understand.

Wisdom Resolved

All of which the wise child cannot understand. “G‑d has been compromised,” he argues. “There’s no way out. Even to say that G‑d is beyond understanding is a compromise. He just is. If there are steps, if reason and subjective human emotion is involved, then it’s not G‑d. It may be His light, it may be a sense of closeness or divine energy, but it’s not Him in His quintessential Self. That can only be found by just doing—by just performing the physical action of the mitzvot that He desires.”

When the father of the Haggadah answers the wise child, when he says that, no, Even to say that G‑d is beyond understanding is a compromise. these steps can bring G‑d Himself within the world of your understanding and your subjective feelings, he points out that they can work for the very same reason that the wise child rejects them. They can work because when the Jew performs a mitzvah, no matter what intent he or she may have in mind, there is always that one underlying factor and true intent: “I am doing this because I am a Jew, because my soul is one with G‑d, and this is what G‑d wants me to do.”

And that applies not only to those decrees for which we can find no apparent reason, and not only to those testimonies that we would probably never have come up with ourselves, but even to the reasoning, the understanding and intuition that Torah demands. Why must I understand? Why must I feel? Because this is what G‑d wants me to do.

Isn’t there something paradoxical about this? Indeed, it is a paradox. G‑d is found in His most absolute, objective and uncompromised oneness within the relative and subjective experience of a finite human mind. That is a paradox. And in order to experience G‑d firsthand with all our being, we must put ourselves aside entirely. Another paradox. At least, from the perspective of a created being. But Torah does not begin from the perspective of a created being. It begins from the view of the Creator.

A Final Note on Paradox

Is the question of the wise child ever answered in the end? Yes and no. After all, he keeps coming back year after year with the same question. Every year—even every day—he is again a child, discovering anew this fresh wonder. He listens carefully to the answer, his eyes open wide, and his mind never ceases to continue in its wonder.

Wisdom accepts paradox, but keeps turning it over and over again nonetheless. That is its very essence, that is what makes it wisdom—its fascination with a truth it can never contain, namely a reality which would seem to leave no place for anything at all, not even the wisdom that perceives it. It is and it is not. And it is both. And it is neither. It is perceived, but lies beyond perception. It is wonder. It is G‑d.

Paradox runs incessantly through everything the Rebbe taught. It appears in varied forms and iterations, yet we sense beneath it all an ineffable singular theme. Always, there is a common denominator: It can neither be ignored or dismissed, seeing that it is everywhere and in everything. It lies both at the foundation of faith and at the foundation of reason, within the core of the human psyche and spread throughout the vast macrocosmos beyond us. Like two parallel lines that never meet, it is a paradox that deftly escapes all resolution.

All but one: Faced with inescapable paradox, forced to surrender to a reality entirely beyond our own.We are forced to surrender to a reality entirely beyond our own, beyond the possibility of any paradox at all—because it is beyond any sort of duality—to a perspective that forces us to re-examine and redefine everything that we know, down to the very meaning of reality itself.

And to how we are to go about living within that reality: With awe and wonder.

Maamar: When Your Child Will Ask


Photo by Oneinfocus.
Photo by Oneinfocus.

Chabad: An approach to inspired living through engaging the mind in the contemplation of the divine. Relies heavily on Lurianic Kabbalah and the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples and successors.

Maamar (pl. maamarim): A spoken meditation on matters of the divine. Meant to be memorized and pondered, especially before morning prayers.

Deuteronomy 6:20–25

כ. כִּי יִשְׁאָלְךָ בִנְךָ מָחָר לֵאמֹר מָה הָעֵדֹת וְהַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה י‑הֹו‑ה אֱלֹהֵינוּ אֶתְכֶם:

20. If tomorrow your child asks you, “What are the testimonies, the decrees and the judgments which G‑d our G‑d has commanded you?”

כא. וְאָמַרְתָּ לְבִנְךָ עֲבָדִים הָיִינוּ לְפַרְעֹה בְּמִצְרָיִם וַיּוֹצִיאֵנוּ י‑הֹו‑ה מִמִּצְרַיִם בְּיָד חֲזָקָה:

21. You shall say to your child, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and G‑d took us out of Egypt with a strong hand.

כב. וַיִּתֵּן י‑הֹו‑ה אוֹתֹת וּמֹפְתִים גְּדֹלִים וְרָעִים בְּמִצְרַיִם בְּפַרְעֹה וּבְכָל בֵּיתוֹ לְעֵינֵינוּ:

22. And G‑d gave signs and wonders, great and awesome, upon Egypt, upon Pharaoh and upon all his household, before our eyes.

כג. וְאוֹתָנוּ הוֹצִיא מִשָּׁם לְמַעַן הָבִיא אֹתָנוּ לָתֶת לָנוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֵינוּ:

23. And he brought us out of there, so that He might bring us and give us the land which He swore to our fathers.

כד. וַיְצַוֵּנוּ י‑הֹו‑ה לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת כָּל הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה לְיִרְאָה אֶת י‑הֹו‑ה אֱלֹהֵינוּ לְטוֹב לָנוּ כָּל הַיָּמִים לְחַיֹּתֵנוּ כְּהַיּוֹם הַזֶּה:

24. And G‑d commanded us to perform all these decrees, to revere G‑d our G‑d, for our good all the days, to keep us alive, as of this day.

כה. וּצְדָקָה תִּהְיֶה לָּנוּ כִּי נִשְׁמֹר לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת כָּל הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת לִפְנֵי י‑הֹו‑ה אֱלֹהֵינוּ כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּנוּ:

25. And it will be for our merit that we will be careful to do all these commandments before G‑d our G‑d, as He has commanded us.”


The wise child, what does he say?
“What are the testimonies, the decrees and the judgments which G‑d our G‑d has commanded you?”

The wicked child, what does he say?
“What is this service to you?”
He says you, excluding himself.
By so excluding himself from the community, he has denied the main principle . . .

The Maamar

The problem with the wise child

If tomorrow your child asks you, “What are the testimonies, the decrees and the judgments which G‑d our G‑d has commanded you?”

Deuteronomy 6:20

The Haggadah identifies this child as the “wise child”:

The wise child, what does he say?

“What are the testimonies . . .”

The rebbes of Chabad ask a simple question: Since he’s called wise—and true wisdom is Torah wisdom—he certainly must know about mitzvot. If so, what is he asking when he says, “What are the testimonies, the decrees and the judgments . . .”?

We can take this question a little further. From the answer to the wise child, we can determine what his question was. Look at how the passage continues:

You should tell your child . . . And G‑d commanded us to perform all these decrees . . . for our own good . . .

The prescribed answer explains to the child the advantage of fulfilling mitzvot—that they are for our own good, etc. That tells us that the child’s question, “What are the testimonies . . . ,” means, “What good are these mitzvot?” But how is it possible that a wise child should ask such a question?

Taking this yet further, we find an even greater puzzle. Looking more carefully at the prescribed response, we find two general themes:

  1. “G‑d took us out of Egypt . . . and commanded us . . . to do all these decrees.”
    In other words, since He freed us from Egyptian bondage, we are now bonded to Him, to fulfill His mitzvot.

  2. That fulfilling these mitzvot is “for our own good.”

It seems that both these ideas are new to him. So, if he doesn’t know what mitzvot are about—not only that mitzvot are for our own good, but even that we are required to do the mitzvot with the “yoke of heaven” upon our shoulders—how, then, can we call him wise?

Another question to ask—and this is also a common question asked by the rebbes of Chabad. Look at the last words of the child’s question:

“. . . which G‑d our God has commanded you?”

Note the you—and not us. Compare this to the account in the Haggadah of the wicked child:

The wicked child, what does he say?

“What is this service to you?”

He says you, excluding himself.By so excluding himself from the community, he has denied the main principle . . .

The wicked child is condemned for having excluded himself from the community by saying “you” rather than “us.” Yet the wise child uses the same language—and is still considered not wicked, but wise!

True, the wise child has prefaced that you by saying our G‑d. That precludes any conclusion that he is excluding himself from the community. Nevertheless, it’s still puzzling: Why does he throw in that word you. Why not say, “. . . that our G‑d has commanded us”? Or simply say, “that G‑d has commanded,” and stop there?

1b. The classic response

Here’s the essential point of explanation provided by the previous rebbes of Chabad. It relies on a distinction between the way the forefathers performed mitzvot and the way we perform them post-Sinai:

For the forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, fulfilling mitzvot was principally a spiritual activity. Whatever physical activity was involved was meant only to assist the spiritual.

For us, after the Torah was given at Mount Sinai, the main focus is on actually doing something. Doing a mitzvah is not simply a preparation or a means to assist in the mental focus necessary for spiritual ascent—on the contrary: the main thing is to get the mitzvah done.

This doesn’t mean that mitzvot have no content to them other than a simple action. On the contrary, a mitzvah draws G‑d’s presence into the world. The difference is that pre-Sinai, this was achieved exclusively through meditation and such. After Sinai, G‑d’s presence is drawn into the world principally by physical action.

Take an example from a Passover-related mitzvah, eating matzah on the Seder night. If a person will sit and focus his mind on all the Kabbalistic secrets of eating matzah but, G‑d forbid, leave out the actual eating, he has not fulfilled the mitzvah and he hasn’t drawn anything new into the world. If, on the other hand, he just eats the mitzvah—even if he had no mental focus at all—he has fulfilled the mitzvah and he draws divine light into the world.2

The wise child’s question, then, is, “How can you possible draw Infinite Light into open presence in this world through a physical action (i.e. doing a mitzvah)?”

That explains why he says, “What are the testimonies . . . which G‑d our G‑d has commanded you?” By saying you, he is specifying that he is asking about the mitzvot after Sinai. He is saying that since your job after the giving of the Torah is principally one of just doing—unlike the job of the forefathers—how can you draw Infinite Light into the world this way?

The response is to explain that “we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and G‑d took us out from Egypt . . . to do all these decrees . . .” Meaning: The Egyptian exile and the Exodus were a preparation to the giving of the Torah. Once the Torah was given, we were empowered that through physically doing mitzvot (“. . . to do all these decrees . . .”), we will draw from higher than that which the forefathers could reach through their spiritual service. We will reach all the way to drawing G‑d to be openly present in His very essence.

2. Four questions on the classic response

A few things here require explanation. We seem to have explained why, after including himself with the rest of us by saying “which G‑d our G‑d commanded,” the wise child uses the word you instead of us. This is because he is asking about the mitzvot as they are after the Torah was given, and not about the mitzvot of our forefathers. Yet you would think that this would have been understood just as well if he had used a more inclusive term, saying, “that G‑d our G‑d commanded us.”

We also need to explain why the wise child goes into the details: “What are the testimonies, the decrees and the judgments . . .” Since his question pertains to mitzvot in general, what’s his point in categorizing them?

This becomes yet more puzzling when you consider that he’s categorizing them according to the mental focus (kavanah) of the mitzvah:

  1. Decrees (chukim חוקים) are mitzvot about which G‑d says, “I have instituted a decree, decreed a decree, and you have no permission to deliberate over it.” In other words, your intent in fulfilling them is simply that they are G‑d’s command.

  2. Testimonies (eidot עדות) are mitzvot that provide testimony to an event of the past. For example, Shabbat testifies to G‑d’s creation of the world, as well as to our liberation from slavery in Egypt. Passover testifies to the events of that liberation. Sukkot testifies to the divine protection afforded us in our exodus from Egypt through the Sinai Desert. Tefillin are a sign that since G‑d liberated us from Egyptian bondage, we are bonded to Him. Obviously, all of these are meant to be performed with that understanding in mind—otherwise, why would they be called testimonies?

  3. Judgments (mishpatim משפטים) are mitzvot that have an obvious utility to them. For example, honoring and respecting parents and elders contributes to a stable society, as does respect of private property and refraining from belligerence towards others. Even more than eidot, these are to be performed not just because G‑d commanded them, but also because of their apparent reason.

For the wise child to use this categorization of the mitzvot here is puzzling, since, as we said, his question is about how the physical act of the mitzvah can have any effect—as opposed to the mental or spiritual focus that goes along with it. If so, why categorize them by the intent they require?

Another puzzling issue is that, while the wise child asks about all three categories of mitzvot—testimonies, decrees and judgments—the prescribed response, “. . . so G‑d commanded us to do all these decrees,” mentions only one: decrees. What happened to the other two?

Yet another puzzle: The categories are out of order!

Let’s examine again the three categories of mitzvot used by the wise child. We said that mishpatim are mitzvot that the human mind would obligate even had they not been commanded—such things as robbery, theft, and honor due to parents. Eidot are those that are a symbolic memorial—such as Shabbat, Passover, Sukkot and tefillin. Concerning mishpatim, the sages said, “If they were not commanded, we would learn modesty from the cat and respect of another’s property from the ant.”3 But let’s say we had not been commanded to do the eidot. Even if we would choose to commemorate them, it’s doubtful that we would choose these particular rituals. Yet, nevertheless, once we have been commanded to do things this way, we can rationally accept them.

Chukim, on the other hand, are those mitzvot for which human intellect can find no place even once the Torah has commanded them. They are performed in the way we are told: “I have instituted a statute, decreed a decree.”

If so, you would expect the order in which the wise child places these categories to be “mishpatim, eidot and chukim,” thereby ordering them from most rational to the most obedient; or “chukim, eidot and mishpatim,” the other way around. But the order of “eidot, chukim and mishpatim” that he uses does not seem to satisfy any criteria. What is he trying to say with such an order?

3. A key from another maamar

We can gain some understanding of all this by first prefacing something my honored teacher and father-in-law, the rebbe, said in a maamar that began with this same verse. (He said this maamar on his first Passover in America, after he settled here.)

He also dwelt on this issue of the wise child’s reference to you rather than us, and how this seems to render him similar to the wicked child. He adds a point in that maamar: True, the wise child says “G‑d our G‑d” and thereby includes himself in the Jewish community, accepting upon himself to do whatever he must do as a Jew. Yet this is only when it comes to the mainstay. When it comes to the specific issues of chukim, eidot and mishpatim, there he says you.

From the language used in the maamar, we have an insight into our question. We also asked why the wise child says you and not us. But the question here is more specific: Why is it that when it comes to general principles—accepting the yoke of heaven along with his fellow Jews—the wise son doesn’t leave us any room to err? There he explicitly includes himself. Why only when he refers to specificseidot, chukim and mishpatim—only then does he leave us room to wonder why he leaves himself out of the picture?

3a. The seed of the explanation

Phrasing the question this way will allow us to solve the puzzle. It seems that the problem of the wise child is not with mitzvot in general, but with their division into categories.

To explain: In all mitzvot, there are two elements:

  1. All mitzvot have the equal and common denominator of being commands from G‑d.

  2. Mitzvot are divided into three categories of eidot, chukim and mishpatim.

These two elements are also factors in our mindful intent when performing mitzvot. In that intent, there are also two elements:

  1. A general intent that by doing this mitzvah you are fulfilling G‑d’s command. This intent is the same no matter what mitzvah you are doing.

  2. A specific intent dependent on the mitzvah—either because it testifies to some event (eidot), or because G‑d has so decreed (chukim), or because even if I hadn’t been commanded it would make sense to keep this (mishpatim).

The question of the wise child, “What are the eidot, the chukim and the mishpatim . . .” is, then:

“Since all mitzvot are G‑d’s will and command, what does it matter that some are eidot, some chukim and some mishpatim? G‑d is there just by you doing them!”

That’s why my father-in-law points out that even once the wise child has said our G‑d concerning the generalities, we might still err to think that he excludes himself from the community when it comes to the details—and therefore should have said us instead of you: What he is pointing out is that it is possible to parse these two sections of his statement, one referring to the general focus of every mitzvah (in which he includes himself), and the other referring to the specific intent (from which he excludes himself, because he doesn’t see their relevance).

But now we have to understand what exactly is the problem the wise child has with this categorizing of mitzvot by specific intent.

4. Three elements in every mitzvah

A clue to the solution is another key issue discussed in that maamar of my father-in-law. He points out that these three categories of eidot, chukim and mishpatim are not just categories of mitzvot, but elements of every mitzvah:

  1. The mitzvot of chukim and mishpatim are also called eidot—as it says in Psalms, “He established eidot in Jacob . . .”4

  2. The reasons provided for eidot and mishpatim apply only to the general whole of the mitzvah, but not to its details.5 When it comes to details, we’re back to “I instituted a decree, I decreed a decree.” In other words, chukim.

  3. Similarly, in the mitzvot of eidot and chukim there is also an element of mishpatim, as we will see later.

There’s a larger idea behind this. You see, when mitzvot draw G‑dliness openly into the world, that occurs on three general levels:

  1. The light (or energy) that is invested within each world to sustain its existence and vitalize it. In general, we call this “ohr hamemallei אור הממלא”—meaning “the light that fills everything.” Think of this as G‑d’s immanent presence within the workings of His world.

  2. The light that transcends investment into any world, but still has some relation to them. In general, we call this “ohr hasovev אור הסובב”—meaning “the light that encompasses everything.” Think of this as G‑d’s presence as a Creator who utterly transcends His creation.

  3. The quintessential Infinite Light (atzmut ohr ein sof עצמות אור אין סוף) that absolutely transcends any relationship to worlds. G‑d just as He is.

The light that is invested within our world—ohr hamemallei—can be grasped rationally as well. Any thoughtful person can understand that there must be a unified force that sustains and vitalizes everything about us in a harmonious order. That’s why it can be drawn into the world openly through the element of mishpatim—the rational side of mitzvot.

When it comes to the light that encompasses all—ohr hasovev—this can no longer be grasped through inductive reason. The only way to approach this is through a kind of negative, deductive reasoning—you deduce that the source of this worldly energy must be something that entirely transcends the world, but you have no idea of what that is.

Knowing of something that your mind cannot directly approach is a kind of surrender of the mind to something greater than itself. Therefore, the way the ohr hasovev is drawn openly into the world is through the fulfillment of chukim—since chukim are all about surrendering your intellect, “you have no permission to deliberate over them.”

Once we get to the quintessential Infinite Light, however, we are talking about something that is not relative to any world or level. If so, it makes no sense to say that this is outside the realm of intellect.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman, the first rebbe of Chabad, explains this in the second volume of Tanya. He writes that someone who says about G‑d that He is impossible to understand is like someone who says about some lofty and deep concept that it’s impossible to touch it with his hands. “Anyone hearing such a statement,” he continues, “would laugh at it.”6 Even a negative simile—saying that one thing is not at all like another—is useful only when those two things have some relationship with one another. The tactile world and the world of intellect are two distinct realms that are entirely unrelated.

All the more so intellect and G‑d. In the analogy of intellect and tactility, there still must be some sort of relationship, since both are finite creations. But Creator and created are not just two different realms—the Creator has no bounds, whereas a created being is bounded by its definition. Saying that G‑d cannot be understood is far more absurd than saying that an idea cannot be touched.

Now we understand why the quintessential Infinite Light cannot be drawn through chukim—surrendering our sense of reason: When it comes to the quintessential Infinite Light, the statement “intellect has no place” is not applicable. The reason that mitzvot are able to draw the quintessence of the Infinite Light into the world is not because they transcend intellect, but simply because they are the will and dictate of that quintessence.

Mitzvah Relationship Brings . . .
Eidot עדות Reasonable Quintessential Infinite Light
Chukim חוקים Beyond reason Light that encompasses all
Mishpatimמשפטים Rational Light that fills all

4b. Eidot

This brings us to the mitzvot that are called eidot—testimonies. The reason all the mitzvot (even chukim and mishpatim) are called by the name eidot is because they elicit and reveal something that is inherently closed off and hidden, namely the quintessence of the Infinite Light, which is yet higher than the encompassing, transcendental light.

This makes the term “testimonies” yet more appropriate. A court requires testimony only on something that is unknown. When it comes to something obviously apparent, testimony is superfluous—it’s there before us.

Even when it comes to the sort of matter that the Talmud says will inevitably become public knowledge, testimony is not required. In such cases, the court only requires sufficient evidence. 7

The same applies with the non-physical: The ohr hamemallei (light that fills all) is something obviously apparent and intellectually understood.

The ohr hasovev (encompassing light) transcends investment in created worlds—similar to something that will “inevitably become public knowledge.” We could say that it is a kind of concealment that is liable to disclosure. Why? Because once we grasp the ohr hamemallei that is invested within our reality, we realize that it must be only a reflection of something much greater. After all, it is invested in a particular instance, namely this world. So we come to a knowledge that there must be a force that transcends this world, and ultimately, any world. We call this the ohr hasovev: the source of the glimmer of light invested within our world.

The idea of eidot, on the other hand, relates to the quintessence of the Infinite Light, beyond even sovev. It is that which is not relatively concealed, or liable to disclosure, but concealed absolutely and inherently. Mitzvot are called eidot, then, because they draw down and reveal the quintessential Infinite Light that transcends even the encompassing light—much as the testimony of witnesses reveals facts that could otherwise not be known.

Mitzvah Equivalent Below Above
Eidot עדות Testimony The unknowable G‑d Himself
Chukim חוקים Evidence Events liable to disclosure G‑d’s transcendence
Mishpatim משפטים Nothing Common public knowledge G‑d’s immanence

5. Chukim and engraving

A few more concepts and definitions

Term Direct Translation Meaning
Etzem עצם Bone. Also the Greek atom, which originally meant an indivisible and fundamental substance of all things. an essence, the thing itself
Ohr אור Light information or energy that emanates from a thing
Gillui גילוי Disclosure, revelation the perception of the thing externally
Otiot אותיות Letters articulations of information
Keter כתר Crown intermediary stage between Etzem (see above) and creation
Bittul ביטול Nullification The dissolution of some element when entering a greater context. For example, the bittul of the light of a candle when held up against the sun. Or the bittul of a small mind before a great intellect.

Here we’ll go much more in depth concerning the advantage of eidot over chukim. [This section may be skipped on the first time through the maamar.—Editor]

Generally we say that the advantage of chukim is that they are undiluted and uncompromised expressions of divine will. Providing reasons for a mitzvah makes it more palatable, but also conceals the raw desire inside. In chukim, we are not distracted by reason—since chukim are openly super-rational desires. What, then, is the advantage of eidot in expressing G‑d’s innermost will?

We can understand this through something else my father-in-law explained in his maamar. He writes that “chukim are of the same etymology as chakikah.”

Chakikah means engraving. If you follow that maamar through, you will see that there are two things he wants to bring out with this:

The first is the advantage that engraved letters have over written letters. Letters written with ink upon a page are extrinsic to the page. Not so engraved letters—they are one with the stone into which they are engraved.

The maamar relates this to the aspect of keter—which is interchangeable with the ohr hasovev (the encompassing light). What is the connection between the two? Perhaps because they are both unbounded.

When the ohr hamemallei is revealed, it is a bounded revelation, and therefore almost as though it were something foreign and extrinsic to the absolute, uncompromised essence from which it extends—much like ink on a page. But when the ohr hasovev is revealed, since it is unbounded just as the absolute Infinite Light is unbounded, it is not extrinsic—much like the engraved letters are to the stone.

Then there’s another idea of the relationship of chukim to engraving:

Through the chukim, an engraving is made in the world. This is cited in the Midrash8 as an interpretation of the verse, “If it were not for my covenant day and night, I never set the decrees (chukim) of heaven and earth.”9 The Midrash relates this to the chukim of Torah, saying that they are “the decrees with which I engraved the heavens and the earth.” The maamar explains this engraving of heaven and earth as the sense of not-being (bittul) achieved in the world through drawing within it the ohr hasovev—which is itself the engraving above.

This is similar to what we discussed, that chukim demand that we surrender our intellect to something beyond intellect.

5b. The problem with chukim

Now, although we said that engraving does not add anything to the thing itself, nevertheless we can’t deny that there has been a change in the engraved material. What was originally a simple stone is now decorated with letters. This is particularly so when engraving upon a luminous, sparkling stone. In the place where it is engraved, that stone no longer sparkles quite the same.

Another issue, aside from the change (degradation) of the stone by the engraving, is that engraving is all about creating an empty space. Something is now missing from the stone. In other words, the engraving itself is in a way the opposite of the stone.

Let’s apply these two ideas to the analog of the ohr hasovev, a light that extends from the absolute Infinite Light to become a light that transcends and encompasses the created worlds:

Firstly, we can say that the degradation of the light to become a light that encompasses the worlds is like the change and degradation effected in the stone—that it is no longer simple (and neither does it shine and sparkle as much). It’s no longer in its original, pristine state.

Further, we can say that by this occurring, there is now a possibility for a world to exist (and, in fact, the world’s existence is through the medium of the ohr hasovev). The word “world” in Hebrew, olam, is directly related to the word he’elem, which means concealment—because the very existence of a world is the opposite of revealed light. This parallels the point made about engraving—that something of the stone is lost.

Perhaps then, all this can be applied to the chukim: They are called chukim, related to chakikah (engraving), for both of the reasons above:

Firstly, these are called chukim in consonance with the statement of our sages, that G‑d says, “I have instituted a decree, decreed a decree, and you have no permission to deliberate over it.”10 There are two things going on here. One is that the will for chukim is not as it is at His very quintessence, but rather in a posture of descent, so to speak, stepping down to dismiss reason (“you have no permission to deliberate over it”). That is like the change and degradation in the stone caused by the engraving.

Then there is another way of looking at it: There is now a mind (the one that this will for chukim is dismissing) that exists in such a way that its understanding and comprehension is the opposite of this will—to the point that it is necessary to dismiss it and say that you do not have permission to deliberate over this. There is now a place where, so to speak, G‑d does not belong—namely, your mind. This is similar to the idea that engraving creates a hollow that is the opposite of the stone.

Accordingly, we have a better understanding of the advantage of eidot over chukim: Chukim are the divine will for mitzvot in a posture of descent, negating something (namely intellect) that is its opposite. Eidot, on the other hand, are the will for mitzvot as they exist within His quintessential being. Therefore, nothing need be negated.

Chukim and Transcendence

Engraving Intrinsic Compromised
Chukim Effect bittul Create negative space

6. Applied

We’ve discussed the distinction between eidot on the one hand, and chukim and mishpatim on the other in cosmic terms: Chukim and mishpatim deal with the forms of light that exist in relationship to the cosmos—mishpatim with the light that is invested within the created worlds (memallei), and chukim with the light that transcends investment (sovev). Eidot are related to the essential Infinite Light that entirely transcends any relationship with the cosmos.

Now we can apply this same scheme to our personal mission in life to serve G‑d:

Chukim and mishpatim lie within the realm of human intellect (at least, that level of the soul that relates to intellect). In other words, contemplation.

The distinction is only in the form of contemplation: With mishpatim, the contemplation is on the reasons for mitzvot. This includes the contemplation that even the mitzvot that are chukim have reasons, only that the reasons for these mitzvot remain G‑d’s own wisdom. They don’t extend from there to the intellect of created beings.

But with chukim, the meditation is that all the mitzvot—even those that are called mishpatim—are G‑d’s will, a will that transcends reason, even the reason that exists in G‑d’s own wisdom.

The idea behind eidot, on the other hand, lies not in any contemplation, but in the person himself. As the verse says, “You are My witnesses.”11 “You” doesn’t just mean that you bear testimony, but that you yourselves are both the testifier and the testimony. Since the soul of every single Jew is an “actual share of G‑d Above,”12 being rooted in the quintessence of G‑d Himself (higher than the root of Torah and mitzvot), therefore the very existence of a Jew testifies to that quintessence. It’s just that the this root of the soul needs the eidot aspect of the mitzvot in order to be brought out into a revealed state.

7. Hamshachah versus gillui

Device Translation Deals with . . .
Hamshachah drawing or extending something from one place to another. the thing itself
Gillui disclosing or opening up something so that its effect is felt (by human perception or otherwise). information about the thing

Two important notes here: First, although G‑d is found everywhere, nevertheless we can speak of Him being drawn into our world. A simple comparison would be when we say that a person is in a situation where he does not feel comfortable, and we attempt to draw him into the situation. In other words, to bring all of him there.

Another point: It’s crucial to the understanding of this maamar to realize that these two—hamshachah and gillui—should be mutually exclusive when dealing with “the thing itself.” Once something is having an effect on the place to where it is drawn, it no longer remains its quintessential self. It takes on a meaning defined by its relationship and effect upon this place. On the other hand, if it remains uncompromised by the relationship, that would seem to imply there is no gillui.

The maamar continues here to point out that despite all the above, mitzvot accomplish both hamshachah and gillui of the quintessential self of G‑d without compromise. And this is where the question of the wise child lies.

It could be said, then, that the most fundamental idea of mitzvot is that they are eidot—an extension of the quintessence of the Infinite Light. If so, what is the point of the chukim and mishpatim aspects of the mitzvot which draw the ohr hasovev and the ohr hamemallei into our world? Their purpose is that when this quintessential Infinite Light is drawn into the world, it should be there openly (gillui). Since that quintessential Infinite Light transcends gillui, therefore it must go through the process of being drawn into the ohr hasovev and into the ohr hamemallei (chukim and mishpatim).

So first off, there’s the eidot—drawing the quintessence itself. Then—so that it can be there openly—there’s a gillui of the ohr hasovev through the chukim concept of mitzvot. Then—so that the gillui can be absorbed—there’s a gillui of the ohr hamemallei through the mishpatim-concept of the mitzvot.

Now, returning to the question of the wise child: We said that his question was, “Since the mitzvot are all G‑d’s commands, why this division of eidot, chukim and mishpatim?” Now we see that this is closely related to the question we cited from the maamar of my father-in-law: “How is it possible to bring G‑dliness into the open (gillui) through the post-Sinai mitzvot, since their whole focus is just getting it done?”

Here is the explanation:

7a. Explanation of the wise child’s question

The wise child understands that for G‑dliness to be drawn into the world by doing mitzvot is not so wondrous—they are, after all, G‑d’s innermost will. If His will is being done here, He is here, in all His essence. The wise child’s question is, “How, through doing mitzvot, do we draw a gilui of G‑dliness?” Gilui would seem to be related to a spiritual service, not physical action.

That’s why he enumerates eidot, chukim and mishpatim. He doesn’t just say, “What are these mitzvot?” Mitzvot draw G‑dliness into the world because of their common denominator—that they are G‑d’s dictate and will. The wise child has no problem with that. The division into eidot, chukim and mishpatim is another idea—gillui, disclosing G‑dliness openly (through eidot, subliminally; through chukim, transcendentally; through mishpatim, a gillui that is absorbed inwardly).

In other words: The wise child has no problem with the idea of finding G‑d through physical action. The wise child can even fathom this miracle of Torah that allows the quintessential revelation of raw, uncompromised G‑dliness through a spiritual service. The problem he has is when both these two coincide.

The question of the wise child, then, is, “These mitzvot of post-Sinai, their main focus being just getting done—their whole point is to bring G‑dliness here. So how are eidot, chukim and mishpatim relevant, since that’s all a process of gillui? How is it possible that mitzvot could effect both at once: That the Infinite Light is here in all His absolute quintessence, and yet openly at the same time?

8. The answer to the wise child

We answer the wise child, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. And G‑d took us out from there . . .”

What we are telling him is that at the giving of the Torah (to which the Egyptian exile and the Exodus were a prelude), we were given the capacity to draw G‑d into His world in the highest, most absolute and essential way. But not only that: We were given the capacity that whatever we draw into this world through physical-action mitzvot will be here openly—with gillui.

That’s why we say, “And G‑d commanded us to do all these chukim, to revere . . .” The word “revere” is is yirah, which has the same letters as re’iyah—meaning “seeing” (as the maamar states). We are saying that when we bring G‑d’s presence into His world by doing the mitzvot (“commanded us to do”), it will be open and apparent to the point of being actually visible to our eyes.

The main gillui through our action of mitzvot will be in the time to come. Then the vision will be on the highest level, to the point of “seeing G‑d our G‑d.” That means seeing the essence of the Infinite, blessed be He.

Now we understand why we say to this wise child that G‑d “commanded us to do all the chukim . . .” Here, the word chukim doesn’t refer to a specific form of mitzvot. It refers to the general intent we have in every mitzvah—that we do it because it is G‑d’s will.

We are saying this because this intent is vital to the process of gillui. If we would do the mitzvot only because of their reasons, that alone cannot draw G‑dliness into the open. Yes, they are still G‑d’s mitzvot no matter how you do them, but nevertheless, whatever we elicit through such mitzvot will remain subliminal. The only way that the mitzvot can draw G‑dliness openly into the world is when we do them—even the eidot and mishpatim—with this in mind: We are doing them because they are G‑d’s will.

Yes, we are meant to recognize that there is reason behind this mitzvah, and to do it with a sensitivity to that reason. Someone who says, “I don’t like people, but what can I do, G‑d says I have to like them” is not fulfilling the mitzvah of loving his fellow.

But even that, that very sense that we are doing this mitzvah with understanding and feeling, even that must be out of a surrender to G‑d’s will. It is G‑d’s will that I understand. It is G‑d’s will that I must feel; that I must be human.

It turns out that the answer to this paradox that the wise child perceives is quite simple: Yes, it is a paradox. You are asked to be and not be at once, and G‑d in all His unbounded, uncompromised quintessence will be found within your tightly bounded, subjective world. But that is the power of this Torah we were given at Sinai. It is a Torah of a G‑d who knows no bounds, not even those of unboundedness, a G‑d to whom all opposites are a singularity.

9. Why is a wise child asking this?

Nevertheless, after all we’ve said, we still need further explanation why a child who is called wise by the “Torah of Truth” asks this question. Since he is wise, it’s reasonable to assume that he is aware of the revolution that the giving of the Torah caused in the world. He knows that when the Torah was given, the power was given to draw from the absolute highest into this world by doing action-mitzvot, and that even this can be open, with gillui. So what is his question, “What are the testimonies . . .”?

We can explain this with the help of an idea discussed elsewhere, concerning the stories of the forefathers that are written in the Torah. The question is: what are these stories doing there? However the forefathers served G‑d was only a preface to what we accomplish in a post-Sinai world. Post-Sinai, their form of serving G‑d would seem to be outdated and irrelevant.

It must be that even now, in some way, our service of G‑d must have something of the forefathers to it. What is that? It is that every day the Torah must be like new—or even more: actually new in our eyes. This doesn’t simply mean valuing Torah and mitzvot and holding them precious. It’s about how we learn that Torah and how we fulfill those mitzvot. Every day they have to be on a yet higher level, following the maxim “In matters of holiness, you must always go higher and never lower.” Not just higher, but incomparably higher, to the point that you look at the Torah and mitzvot you did previously and they are at least as though they were insignificant—or, optimally, truly insignificant relative to the Torah and mitzvot of this day today.

That’s the pre-Sinai relevance to post-Sinai divine service: The giving of the Torah happens every day. That’s why we say, “Blessed are You . . . giver of the Torah” in present tense, and not “who gave the Torah.” If so, each day we have to reach a yet higher level. Which explains why we have to serve G‑d in the same modality as the forefathers did as we prepare for the giving of the Torah of this day.

That is the answer to the peculiar wording of the question of the wise child, “What are the testimonies . . . which G‑d our G‑d commanded you.” Since the Torah and mitzvot of the wise child are actually new each day, therefore he is perpetually in a pre-Sinai state. That’s why he says you and not us—because he himself still stands before the giving of the Torah.

10. The night of Passover

There’s a connection here to be made with the wise child’s question and the night of Passover. Although the question “What are the testimonies . . .” is quite simply a question on all of Torah and mitzvot, nevertheless, the night of Passover is the principal day for this question. This is because Passover is the birth of the Jewish nation.

This fact is used to explain the connection between the night of Passover and the mitzvah of chinuch—to raise children, educating them in the Jewish way. That education, after all, begins the moment the child is born.

So there is our connection: Since the wise child is rising higher and yet higher continuously, he asks, “What are the testimonies,” because he stands perpetually prior to the giving of the Torah, at a point where he can’t relate to anything at all, like a child who was just now born.

11. The Response

This is the meaning of the response, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. And G‑d took us out of Egypt with a strong arm . . .”: This is speaking to someone who is at the level of a child just born—not just as the wise child, who is at this level through all the ascents he has made, but even in the most simple sense. More than that, it is speaking to someone who is in a situation where he is a slave to Pharaoh in Egypt, standing before the birth process of the Exodus. And G‑d takes out even that person with a mighty hand.

“A mighty hand” means a tremendous degree of revelation, to the point that “then the King of kings of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, was revealed to them in all His glory, He Himself, and He redeemed them.” This is a leap from one extreme to another—from the lowest depth, of being slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, to the highest heights, the revelation of G‑d Himself in all His glory.

11a. Signoff

And so it should be for us, that “As in the days that you left Egypt, so I will show them wonders”13 in an exodus that leaps from one extreme to the other, out of the multiply intense darkness of exile. And especially in the generation that is called the “heels of the Moshiach,” when the darkness is even greater. This is the time when we should come immediately to the revelation of “The glory of G‑d will be revealed, and all flesh will see . . . ,”14 “And sovereignty will be G‑d’s” 15, with the coming of the righteous Moshiach, speedily in our days in actuality.