Shaya Cohen -


What Kinds of Commandments Are There?

The Torah tells us of three broad categories of commandments: chok, mishpat, and torah.

A chok is a simple command. These commandments are the most common, and they deal with the widest range of “dos” and “don’ts”. We are forbidden to eat certain animals. The priest cannot drink on duty. Don’t mingle certain threads. Observe the Holy Days. Essentially, a chok is a statute, something that does not change, an ordinance. These commandments are all symbolic, and they exist to connect us.

Every chok can be explained as a commandment that connects man to G-d, or man to himself. It is good to be able to explain a chok: understanding why we do something certainly can enrich the experience and relevance to our lives. But we do not need the explanation. One could think of a chok, perhaps, as good hygiene: the benefits confer to practitioners, even if the person who washes their hand does not know that microorganisms exist. Nevertheless, understanding the symbolism gives it meaning.

A mishpat, on the other hand, deals solely with interpersonal relationships: the laws concerning family, of torts, of servants. Because every person is different, a mishpat is meant to be a guideline for how we should behave, but it is not “strict” law like a chok. A mishpat may, for example, tell a court how to deal with a thief, but the court has significant discretion when it pursues justice and mercy. A mishpat is thus a signpost, a direction of travel for how people are supposed to relate to one another, to handle and massage all of the imbalances and inequalities in our connections to each other.

In order to perform a mishpat, it is necessary to have a grasp of the reasons for the commandment. If a chok represents the letter of the law, a mishpat is all about its spirit, and so knowing why the law exists is essential to intelligently and sensitively applying it.

A torah, on the other hand, is quite different. A Torah is a recipe, a guide. It is a pathway or a means to growth. Hence we have “The Torah of a Chok” in the Torah. And it means that the document is itself a guide, a how-to manual for growth and holiness.


Comments are welcome!