I f the Torah is meant to be applied to real life in a dynamic society how can that work if the Law remains eternally frozen? Shouldn’t it be able to bend with the times? And isn’t change the basic principle of human development?

In his parting speech to Bnei Yisrael on the plains of Moav Moshe Rabbeinu warned them against the philosophy that would later give rise to the Reform movement: “You shall not add to the word that I command you nor shall you detract from it to keep the commandment of Hashem” (Devarim 4:2).

Several questions arise from a quick reading of this pasuk.

In those emotionally fraught moments preceding his passing Moshe’s final address focuses largely on upholding the law in the Jewish commonwealth soon to be founded in Eretz Yisrael. Again and again he seeks to impress upon them that law justice and mitzvah are essential to their spiritual and physical survival in the land of the Patriarchs. As he continues “And now Israel hear the statutes and the judgments that I teach you to do them so that you shall live and you shall come and inherit the land” (ibid. 4:1).

Indeed the people knew that the “statutes and judgments” referred to the entire body of Torah law. They knew that in the Torah’s eyes and in Moshe’s eyes there was no difference between mitzvos that might be considered matters of religious ritual and those pertaining to civil matters and social justice. The mitzvah of shemiras Shabbos doesn’t differ qualitatively from the prohibition of damaging property and harming animals. Immersing in a mikveh for purification preparing cities of refuge for accidental killers setting up a functional legal system that includes such matters as ordinances for building cities and environmental protection laws — all of these are under the Torah’s jurisdiction and each law makes its contribution to the quality of life in Eretz Yisrael.

Nevertheless even in this context the wording “you shall not add… nor shall you detract” is surprising: What sort of adding or detracting is meant here?

“For example placing five parshiyos in tefillin five species in a lulav or five tzitziyos on a garment. And likewise you must not have fewer” (Rashi on the pasuk based on the Talmud).

This makes it seem quite simple. The batim (“black boxes”) of the tefillin contain four passages from the Torah written on separate strips of parchment and we are not to add a fifth even a passage we might personally find particularly meaningful and inspiring. By the same token we must not omit any of the required passages even one we might personally find objectionable. We must do exactly as the halachah prescribes. A set of tefillin contains four specific passages no more and no less; anything that deviates from this requirement is not considered tefillin.

The same principle applies to the mitzvah of tzitzis and to every other mitzvah be it kibbud av v’eim laws governing sanitation and environmental protection or any other matter addressed by the Torah. In every case do not add and do not subtract. Do the mitzvos as the halachah prescribes.

Yet at the same time we know that Torah law is meant to be applied to real life in a thriving dynamic society and therefore a thinking person might well ask “How can a society be based on a legal system that remains eternally frozen? Civilization is continually developing; change is the most fundamental principle of human life. The legal system that keeps a civilization running in an orderly fashion must adapt itself to that civilization’s constant changes. How is it possible to keep things running without ever adding to or subtracting from the existing laws? Can’t Moshe Rabbeinu see the contradiction in what he’s saying? How can he demand adherence to the law while keeping it artificially frozen? That’s what makes the Torah antiquated out of date and irrelevant to modern society!”

But one who is willing to think further and not stop at the question itself will find that the principle of bal tosif actually reveals the depth of authentic Jewish Law.

Yehoshua Heschel Yeivin (1891–1970) a nationalist author journalist and Bible-criticism basher who promoted the idea that the fate of the Jewish People is irretrievably linked to the affirmation of the unity of the Torah at a time when such ideas were considered intellectually antiquated argued in his Bishvilei Emunat Yisrael that

the claim by our intellectuals that the Torah is obsolete stems from a very superficial view of the matter. The truth is that the concept of obsolescence applies only to technical and external aspects of our experience; for example the clothing we wear changes according to the dictates of fashion; our means of transportation change with advances in technology — our grandfathers traveled by horse-drawn vehicles our fathers took trains and we fly in jet planes.

But regarding that which is essential principle changing fashions have no force. We wake up in the morning as the sun rises and our soul sings with joy at the brightness that floods our room; our ear is attuned to the morning chorus of the birds just as Adam Harishon rejoiced on the first day of his creation. Never for a moment would we think that when we enjoy the light of the sun which is so old we are not in step with modernity and that it’s about time we replaced that ancient obsolete sun with some sort of man-made cubist creation.

At every moment we breathe the same air that ancient man breathed and we are never disgusted with boredom at this old-fashioned system; we never feel a desire to replace our ‘antiquated’ air with some modern synthetic substitute.

Accordingly we are enjoined not to add to the Torah’s laws nor to subtract from them. This ancient law remains forever relevant as long as the human heart endures. It is the true yardstick by which to assess our attributes and the solution to apply when we fail to measure up. It sets the boundaries for a heart that loves and hates that can be jealous cruel and vengeful or merciful and ardent; a heart that longs to purify itself; a heart that can sink to the depths of despair and sin. This heart beats and pushes human beings to act just as it did thousands of years ago. The tools at its disposal have become more sophisticated but the human heart itself has not changed and its emotions are just as primal. Are the feelings of a murderer more refined if he uses a missile with an electronic guidance system instead of a stone-tipped arrow?

Then as now Torah law seeks to rejoin the torn pieces of the heart to bring serenity and happiness to the whirl of contradictory urges that storm in the human soul today as in the past.

This is the lesson of bal tosif which Moshe Rabbeinu included in his vigorous admonition to the Jewish People that they must keep and preserve Torah law in Eretz Yisrael. The idea goes even deeper. If it is prohibited not only to omit part of a mitzvah but also prohibited to add a new part however small or innocent it might seem then Moshe is also teaching us that the Law he is giving us is as complete as can be:

“That which is perfect will not accept either an addition or a subtraction just as a living body cannot be called perfect unless it has all its parts and no extra parts; otherwise it is deformed. Similarly with Hashem’s mitzvos — nothing may be added to it or subtracted from it.” (Malbim on the pasuk)

This Law is perfect and coherent because its source is Divine above the boundaries of time and its changing modes and mores. Therefore it cannot ever be “outdated ” and anyone who thinks he can create a new and improved version is actually making an immeasurably inferior product. (Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 671)