From NISHMA UPDATE, December 1991

Something To Think About with Rabbi Benjamin Hecht


In a recent lecture, delivered under the auspices of NISHMA, Rabbi Sheldon Steinberg, (Director of Chaplaincy Services, Jewish Family and Child Service of Metropolitan Toronto) introduced a most interesting idea in the name of his rebbe, Rabbi Joseph. B. Soloveitchik. The Rav presented the following distinction between mitzvot bein adam l'Makom, commandments between man and G-d, and mitzvot bein adam l'chavero, commandments between man and his neighbour. The former, Rabbi Soloveitchik contends, are exact in nature; the principles and demands of the law are precise. The time that Shabbat begins and ends is marked by a micro-second (see Rashi, Bereishit 2:2 ). The necessary rules of shechita must be followed to the letter or the meat will not be kosher. Although there exists machloket, disagreements between the poskim (those who are called upon to decide Jewish Law) these differing viewpoints relate to what is universally demanded; each position declares what is the precise obligation equally set upon all.

The laws between man and man, however, the Rav argues, present options. While we are commanded to give tzedaka, the Halacha leaves it to each individual to decide how to give, who to give to. One person may decide to give all his charity to a specific cause; another may decide to give a little to many different needy recipients. The choice is left to the individual who is called upon to do what is personally correct within the spectrum of options. Bein adam l'Makom - exact laws demanding universal adherence to a specific action. Bein adam l'chavero - laws that present a spectrum of options from which the individual must choose the action that is most correct for him or her (recognizing that one is still responsible to G-d for his/her choice - attempting the best personal option).

The categorization of mitzvot into those that are concerned with matters between man and G-d and those that deal with issues between man and man is well known. What is less known and actually presents a matter for investigation is the significance of this distinction. The Rav presents a novel and most interesting consequence inherent in the difference between these two categories of commandments. Can we identify others? Aside from the obvious descriptive distinction between these two groups of mitzvot, are there important Halachic or philosophical ideas that are derived from or connected to this distinction in laws?

The issue is a highly sensitive one. The Reform movement used this distinction as a basis for their theological stand that the Torah's ritual laws (i.e. bein adam l'Makom) were no longer binding but its ethical guidelines (i.e. bein adam l'chavero) were still applicable. The reaction of Orthodoxy to the Reform distinction has been to downplay this categorization of mitzvot. All commandments originate from the Divine decree and all are equally binding and equally important. As evidenced by the actions of the Reform movement, any attempt to distinguish between laws can result in one group of mitzvot being perceived as more important than another. Yet hidden in these distinctions may lie important principles of Torah.

One important Halachic ramification of whether a law fits into one or the other of these two categories involves teshuva. Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuva, chapter 2, halacha 9) states that Divine forgiveness for transgressions between man and his fellow is subject to a request for forgiveness from the injured party and the payment of compensation. This seems to be straightforward. Interestingly however, from Maimonides words, another question arises. What specific commandments fall into one or the other of these categories? Rambam defines immorality as a law between man and G-d. The prohibition of adultery, however, is found in the second half of the Aseret HaDibrot, the "Ten Commandments", which is considered to consist of laws between man and man. How we define a law is itself an issue.

Finally, there is the question of whether there is also a third category - bein adam l'nafsho (or l'atzmo), between man and himself. What does this further category add to our understanding of mitzvot? What difference is there in our view of Torah whether we apply two or three categories within this context?

We may also wish to compare these categories and the classifications of chok - laws beyond our rational understanding, and mishpat - laws that parallel the logical.

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