What Does Do Not Add or Take Away Really Mean?

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There are many times within the Bible, from Genesis through to Revelation, that we are told we are not to add to or take away from the commandments we are given. The most specific commands I could find regarding this can be found in Deuteronomy 4:2; 12:32; 13:1; and in Revelation 22:18-19.

Too often I have noticed that people use these admonitions as a means of denying the validity of both Jewish and Christian traditions, rites and holidays that are not specifically commanded in the Torah. They believe the words “do not add to or take away from” as universally encompassing any and all words, ceremonies, activities or regulations outside exactly what is written in the Torah.

This is a form of legalistic interpretation, and although their heart is in the right place, their understanding is incorrect.

When Moses warned against adding to or taking away from the instructions God gave us he meant not to change only those things which he just instructed us to do. Rabbi Rashi gave an example by saying that we are told to use 4 species for the Lulav, so we shouldn’t use 5 or 3. The idea is that we are not to make arbitrary changes to the laws; that, however, does not mean we cannot make new additions to the Mosaic laws, as conditions require. Obviously, with the advent of new technology and moving from an agrarian economy to a service economy, the Mosaic Laws, taken in a stoic and unbending literal meaning, in many cases cannot be applied.

Let us consider that we do not change anything in the Torah at all- literally, not one word is to be added or taken away. If that is the case, then the only way we can be sure we obey that command is to read the Torah in the original Hebrew it was written in. For example, if we are not to add to the words in the book, then English cannot be used to translate the Bible because we would have to add many, many words.

Here’s an example: in Hebrew, the possessive is usually the noun with the ending having a “-nu” added. “Adonai” means “Lord” but when we write “Adonainu” it means “our Lord” The Hebrew is a single word but the English translation requires the use of two words, which is a violation of the command not to add anything to the words in the book. Imagine how many uses of the possessive we find in the Bible, and how many words will have to be added just to interpret the Hebrew correctly. Not to mention that the Torah has been translated into scores of different languages, each of them having their own need to add or remove certain words to make the translation fit.

Can you see how ridiculous it becomes if we insist on an absolutely literal interpretation of that command?

The Torah is a book of instruction- it is the ultimate User’s Manual for worshiping God and treating each other. Torah doesn’t mean “law”, it means “instruction” and the instructions we are given are to be performed as God said to. That means we are to do what God said to do the way God said to do it, but it does NOT mean we cannot adjust to a changing world. R. Maimonides has said that the sages (Sanhedrin) are allowed to temporarily suspend some requirements or allow that which is forbidden under extreme circumstances. These are not to be permanent changes, but under extreme conditions and only to allow what needs to be done only while there is a need for it.

And under no circumstance can additional requirements be considered as Divine instructions- that is what it really boils down to when Moses said do not add to or take away from what God gave us:  the instructions in the Torah are not to be changed, deleted, altered or modified in any way. However, what new “fences around the law” are required (aka, Talmudic instruction) are acceptable so long as they are not presented as Divine instruction. 

This is where Judaism has violated the Torah- the Talmud is studied and revered as scripture by some of the more Orthodox sects of Judaism, and that is what Moses said we should not do. There is nothing wrong with traditional forms of worship if they do not nullify or over-rule God’s commands, AND if they are recognized as man-made and not presented as Divinely ordered.

Here is an example: the Divine order in Torah is that we are not to boil a calf in its mother’s milk; the fence around that law (given in the Talmud) is that we are not to even mix meat and dairy. I, myself, will never boil a calf in its mother’s milk but I will go to Steak and Shake and order a cheeseburger, fries and a milkshake (Oy! Now I’m hungry.) I am not violating God’s commandment, and the truth is even if I never mix meat and dairy, I am not violating God’s commandment, and I am not sinning- I am simply doing a little more than the minimum to ensure I do not violate the Divine order. That is really what the Talmudic/Rabbinic traditions are designed to do- they are to help us perform God’s commandments properly and not accidentally violate them (hence the term “fences around the law”, i.e. a way to prevent us from accidentally trespassing the law.)

So, here is how I look at “traditional” rites and holidays: do they change what God has said? Is celebrating Hanukkah (not specified in Lev. 23) a violation of God’s commandments? In my opinion, it isn’t because God couldn’t include it when he gave the Moedim to Moses simply because it hadn’t occurred yet. Is thanking God for a miraculous military victory which saved Judaism wrong? How could it be? How can anything that is a loving and worshipful celebration of the Lord and what he has done for us ever be wrong?

On the other hand, is failing to honor the Sabbath OK? Certainly not! Or if we decided we wanted to celebrate Sukkot for only 5 days, would that be OK? Certainly not! But what if I want to have a party and read the Magillah of Hadassah on Purim, is that OK? It certainly is!

God gave us the Torah so we can know how he wants us to live. It is not all-encompassing, it does not cover everything we will run into as the world changes, and it is not absolutely the exact words God gave to Moses. There is no way we can know that. So, nu? What is it? It is a collection of instructions that are the minimum we should do to obey God. Anything outside of the Torah that is required by our religious leadership is not a sin as long as that requirement is in accordance with God’s instructions; they must not nullify, overrule or change them, and they must not be presented as a Divine instruction.

What we are given in the Talmud and Constantinian Christian dogma is man-made instruction. It is not Divine, it is not absolutely required, and if it goes against what God said (such as changing the day we celebrate the Sabbath) it is a sin.

So, celebrate the Lord, give thanks in every way you can and don’t restrict your thankfulness to only what is in the Torah.

Parashah Emor (Speak) Leviticus 21 – 24

There is enough in here to fill a book. I could write a whole chapter of a book just on Leviticus 23, the designations of the Holy Days…oh wait! I already did- it’s Chapter 7 in my book.

God tells Moses and Aaron the requirements for priesthood: about who they can marry, keeping clean (ceremonially) and who may eat of the holy foods. He also tells them those who serve must not have a blemish or an unnatural (today we would say challenged) physique.

It also, as I mentioned above, designates the Festivals of the Lord, the 7 Holy Days (not holidays, but Holy Days- read my book) that God has separated and commanded us to observe:

The Sabbath

Passover Passover is not 7 days long: it is just from the evening meal until midnight, when the angel passed over.

Hag Ha Matzot The next seven days are called Hag ha Matzot, the Festival of Unleavened Bread. First Fruits is also celebrated the first day after the first Shabbat after Passover starts.

Shavuot Festival of Weeks, which includes the counting of the Omer and is celebrated by Christians as the Pentecost (50 days). For Jews it celebrates also the giving of the Torah, although that is civil, not biblical.

Rosh HaShanah The bible declares this day as Yom T’Ruah, the memorial celebration with sounding of trumpets. The civil holiday it has become is a new year celebration. According to God, the new year begins 14 days before the Passover, with the month of Aviv (now called Nissan)

Yom Kippur The Day of Atonement is when we ask God to move from the Seat of Judgment to the Seat of Mercy and forgive us for our sinfulness and the sins we have committed. Of course, we are to ask forgiveness every day, but this was a special time, and the only time that the Cohen HaGadol, the High Priest, was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies.

Sukkot The Festival of Tabernacles is when we build small tabernacles, or open roofed shelters and live in them for a week, to recall the way we lived in the desert for 40 years. Today (not from Torah but a Rabbinical add-on) we also celebrate Sh’mini Atzeret, the Eighth Day, also called Simchat Torah (Joy of Torah). On that day we read the final lines of the Torah, then while the congregation sings (and dances in some synagogues) the Torah is turned back to the beginning, and the cycle of reading starts all over again.

The one thing I want to discuss today is at the very end of this parashah. Leviticus 24:22, where God says:

Ye shall have one manner of law, as well for the stranger, as for the home-born; for I am the Lord, your God

This command is one of the most important of all commandments in the Torah, as far as I am concerned, because it signifies clearly that God makes no distinction between your geographic origin, your parent’s beliefs, or whether you are white, black, or multi-colored: as far as God is concerned, His laws are for everyone and it doesn’t matter where you are from or how you were raised. There is only one God, Adonai; there are only His rules and laws; like them or not, you are subject to them if you say you worship Him.

If you profess to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob then these laws are for you. Period.

Most, if not all, Christian religions teach differently, and any religion that says these Holy Days do not need to be observed or that any part of the Torah is not necessary, by definition that religion cannot be worshiping the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

If you are being told the Torah, the holy days in Leviticus 23, or that the Old Covenant is all just “Jewish” stuff, then you need to find out who you are worshiping, because it ain’t the God Moses worshiped!