The following essay is an excerpt from the just-released final volume of the 5-volume series of essays on parshat hashavua, The Three Pillars, written by Rav Milston and produced by the Midrasha. To read more about the series, or to order volumes or the set, please see our website at www.harova.org/three-pillars or be in touch with Leiba at email@example.com.
No More. No Less.
“When the Lord your God shall cut off the nations from you, when you go to dispossess them, and you do inherit them and dwell in their land. Take care of yourself that you are not ensnared into following them, after their destruction from before you; and that you do not enquire after their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods? So I will do likewise. You shall not do so to the Lord your God, for they have performed to their gods every hated abomination to the Lord. They have even burned their sons and daughters in fire to their gods.
Observe to implement every matter I command you. Do not add to it, or remove anything from it.
If a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams, arises amongst you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder he spoke of comes to fruition, saying ‘let us go after other gods, which you did not know, and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams. Because the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” (Devarim, 12:29 – 13:4)
Rashi, on “Observe to implement every matter I command you. Do not add to it, or remove anything from it”, offers examples to illustrate how to fulfill the commandments exactly as they are meant to be fulfilled:
1. Do not add a fifth compartment to the four placed in the Tefillin.
2. Do not add a fifth species to the Four Species on Sukkot.
3. Do not add to the priestly blessings.
The verse actually appears to be self-explanatory, so why does Rashi deem it necessary to give us three very similar examples?
Maybe we can suggest he is alluding to three very different areas of Avodat Hashem.
Only one of our two tefillin has four compartments for separate parshiot – the tefillin shel rosh. The tefillin shel yad has only one compartment. The rosh serves to direct our thoughts whilst the yad serves to sanctify our actions. By specifically using tefillin as an example here, Rashi is perhaps implying we should think about exactly what we were commanded to do, and not only do it by rote.
The Four Species used on Sukkot symbolize parts of the body. The Lulav is parallel to the spine, the myrtle to the eyes, the willow to the lips and the Etrog to the heart. By adding this example, Rashi is perhaps stressing how careful we must be to use our physical faculties in exactly the way the Torah requires.
Birkat Kohanim are the blessings recited by the priests on a daily basis in Eretz Yisrael. Here is an example of a mitzvah involving speech, and again the message is to say exactly what God commands us to say.
Thoughts, speech, and action. A common theme of ours. Here again, we see an obligation to train ourselves in these three areas to perform exactly as the Torah requires. No more and no less. But why is it so crucial to follow the law to the letter?
Rav Hirsch explains our verse: “Only by faithfully and conscientiously carrying out the commands He has given you, do you render the homage He expects from you. The Mitzvot which He has commanded you, and precisely as He has commanded you, are the expression of His will for you, and what you have to do to arrange your life on earth in accordance with His satisfaction. As they are not your own ideas of what is right and befitting but the dictates of your God, you must not try to improve them in any way, nor to add to them or subtract from them. By doing more or less they would no longer be the dictates of your God.”
On the one hand, we do not want to appear to be blindly serving the King of kings. We are constantly being taught to achieve above and beyond the letter of the law. We do not see the Torah as a mere book of technical instruction but more as an educational ethos, a way of life. And we are inspired to serve God out of love; to go that extra mile in performing His Will.
A loving son does not simply agree to his father’s wishes. Ideally, he knows his father’s wills and wants, and aims to honor him by pre-empting any request or commands. He knows his father would want it, because their deep mutual love has created a relationship in which the son does not need to be told what to do. Moreover, the loving son will also go out of his way to do more than is necessary.
Yet on the other hand, our verses tell us the opposite. There is real value in simply doing exactly what we are told to do. Because we remove our egos from the equation. We are not supposed to add our subjectivity to our Divine service. We learn the Torah instruction and aim to precisely translate the Almighty’s Will into the world. By adding our own extras or omitting elements that do not fit our lifestyles, we are presumptuously claiming to know the will of God. Even worse, we run the risk of actually becoming god by inadvertently diluting His original command with our own sub-conscious desires.
Can we reconcile these two very legitimate values, doing what you’re told and wanting to do more?
Let us see them as rungs on the spiritual ladder of Avodat Hashem. If we attempt to add or subtract before mastering the exact parameters, we run the risk of failure. However, if we first train ourselves to do exactly what He commands us to do – in thought, speech and action – we will eventually reach the level of loving God. This will ensure that our desire to perform beyond the letter of the law is not a reflection of egocentricity, but rather a sincere sign of our unabated love and commitment to the Almighty.
That is why the Ramchal, in his introduction to Messilat Yesharim, is quick to point out we must first aim to be Tzaddikim (righteous individuals) before moving on to the holy realms of Chassidut.
Alternatively, we could always suggest that the value of going beyond the letter of the law has nothing to do with adding instructions to Torah. It is more to do with enhancing our mitzvah performance. No true lover of the Almighty would aspire to add to the priestly blessings, but they may well work a little harder in their performance of the mitzvah.
Having defined and refined our understanding of this verse, we are left with one more question. We were told this at the beginning of the sefer,  so why again here?
Our question is compounded by the fact that the earlier verse seems to be in a more relevant context than our verse, which appears between two very different issues.
Perhaps it is exactly this point that will enable us to answer our difficulty.
Here, we are not speaking of adding or taking away from specific Mitzvot as Rashi suggests, because that was already dealt with at the start of the sefer. Here we are talking about taking from other cultures and assimilating them into our service of the Almighty. The verses immediately preceding our verse warn us against assimilation:
“When the Lord your God shall cut off the nations from you, when you go to dispossess them, and you do inherit them and dwell in their land. Take care of yourself that you are not ensnared into following them, after their destruction from before you; and that you do not enquire after their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods? So I will do likewise. You shall not do so to the Lord your God, for they have performed to their gods every hated abomination to the Lord. They have even burned their sons and daughters in fire to their gods.”
Our verse tells us there is yet another danger awaiting us even if we manage to avoid following foreign cultures and idolatry: the infiltration of pagan and worthless elements of non-Jewish culture into our Avodat Hashem. This is what we must not add to our lives. As the Seforno says in his commentary to our verse:
“Lest you add something which is repugnant, as it may well be if you add certain kinds of service to God, the Blessed One. The addition of which, at times, might be repugnant to Him, such as the burning of children.”
Our verse carries both a novel and important message. When we talk of assimilation, we are normally referring to Jews leaving the fold, particularly intermarriage. However, less extreme manifestations of assimilation – depending on one’s religious outlook – could involve clothing, music, theater and the like.
All these examples reflect the dangers of a Jew leaving his normative, halachic terra firma in search of foreign ‘treasures.’
On the other hand, our verse speaks of a different threat – the infiltration of pagan and non-Jewish ideas into the very fabric of our Judaism. The Torah tells us not to add or take away from our commandments, not only in a technical sense, but in a spiritual sense too. The Seforno’s example of child sacrifice in pagan worship is extreme but perfectly illustrative of this point.
Therefore, our verse not only forbids us to become idolaters, but also to take their customs and add them to our religious agenda. We are not to serve the Almighty with foreign forms of worship.
This theme potentially opens up a Pandora’s Box for discussion. Where do we draw the line when using our halachic knowledge to “Kasher” non-Jewish activities?
Are our Chassidic concerts meant to resemble non-Jewish rock fests? Is this a legitimate form of entertainment or is it unnecessary immodesty inviting an element of non-Jewish culture into Machane Yisrael? Is it a spiritually fulfilling objective to open as many different types of Mehadrin cuisine as possible, or should we rather stay with a healthy, basic diet and devote our knowledge, time and effort to more important things?
It is an intriguing discussion and each of us would do well to think through the issues. Obviously, our verse is not referring to the kind of examples we have just listed above, yet the principle is the same.
The Torah is perfect. Our perfect guide to life. It is not only a list of what and what not to do; there is also a way things should be done, and we must not add to that either.
Just as we have explained our verse in light of the preceding verses, we could do the same by noting the verses immediately following:
“If a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams, arises amongst you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder he spoke of comes to fruition, saying ‘let us go after other gods, which you did not know, and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams. Because the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.”
The Torah has been in existence since creation. Its authenticity is unquestionable, but every so often, a “dreamer” emerges with new ideas of worship. “The outdated, ancient Torah should be replaced or at least revised to accommodate modern changes.”
They change things that must not be changed and demand that we agree. Here too, our verse clearly informs us to stand firm. Do not add or diminish. It is not “more or less” but “no more and no less.” The eternal Torah will keep us up with the times, don’t you worry.
So we see a qualitative difference between the instruction at the beginning of Sefer Devarim and our verse here. There the Torah alludes to the risks of over-zealousness or over-cautiousness. Here we are warned of outside forces coming to mutate the Torah by adding or removing elements of Avodat Hashem.
However we choose to understand our verse, the underlying theme is the same. Our Torah was made in Heaven, and is thus the epitome of perfection. Our role in life is to use this Divine manual to strive to achieve our own perfection. No more and no less.
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 See Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim Siman 32.
 See Vayikra Rabbah 30:14.
 Devarim, 4, 1-2 – “And now O Israel, listen to the statutes and the social regulations I teach you to fulfill, so that you may live and go into and take possession of the Land which God, the God of your fathers, gives to you. You shall not add unto the word which I command you neither shall you diminish anything from it to preserve the commands of God, your God, which I command you.”