When I taught Middle School, I found out that it was extremely important to clarify exactly what I wanted from my students in any given assignment. For major projects, I would explain the requirements verbally while writing them on the board, afterward handing out written instructions, and, then, also sending an email repeating all these details. Phew! It was often exhausting. So, I can understand why many Torah laws get similar treatment. Be exactly accurate. Monty Python made fun of this Biblical exactitude with the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch skit (Then shalt thou count to three. No more, no less. ‘Three’ shall be the number of the counting, and the number of the counting shall be three. ‘Four’ shalt thou not count, and neither count thou two, excepting that thou then goest on to three. Five shall be right out.) Ignoring the hilarious cynics, this very serious demand for precision, of course, comes up in this week’s Torah reading.
Here are the pertinent verses: And now, O Israel, hearken to the statutes and to the judgments which I teach you to do, in order that you may live, and go in and possess the land which the Lord, God of your forefathers, is giving you. Do not add to the word which I command you, nor diminish from it, to observe the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you (Devarim 4:1-2). Rashi brings the normative thinking on these verses: Do not add: for instance, by inserting five sections into the TEFILLIN instead of four, by using five species for the Mitzva of LULAV instead of four, or by attaching five fringes instead of four to one’s TALIT. And so too, nor diminish from these mitzvot, with three instead of four.
The Ramban famously expands upon this vision taught by Rashi, and states: In my opinion, even if someone devised an independent commandment rather than altering an existing one such as establishing a festival in a month which he had devised of his own accord, (Melachim 1 12:33). as Yeravam the evil king of the Northern Kingdom did.
Yes, there can be Mitzvot D’Rabbanan, but it must be clearly understood to be Rabbinic, not Biblical, like Chanuka. The evil king Yeravam was trying to replace the Torah with his own sinister devises. Such innovations are clearly being prohibited.
Rabbeinu Bechaye is less concerned with explaining the technical parameters of this Mitzva and begins the process of explaining its spiritual meaning for us: This is a warning for man not to try and be smarter than God by saying that he will do more than God commanded, by thinking that the addition will be considered part of his serving the Lord. This is why Moshe had to point out that the Torah is perfect. Not only does it not need additions or subtractions but any addition is in fact a subtraction.
Obviously, any attempt to ‘fix’ or ‘improve’ upon perfection is ludicrous. And in the case of the Torah ASSUR, prohibited. This reasonable approach assumes that there is a philosophic or, perhaps, even aesthetic explanation for our dual prohibition, neither add nor subtract. However, SHADAL (Shmuel David Luzatto) suggests there’s also a pragmatic approach. He suggests that often idolatrous practices mimic Torah practices with a few variations. Lack of precision in our mitzva performances could, theoretically, lead us to practices very foreign, or even antithetical, to Judaism.
I think that this idea could be applied to the logic of Enosh, grandson of Adam, in the birth of idolatry: They said that since G-d created the stars and the heavenly spheres to govern the world, placed them on high, and apportioned them honor so that they would serve before Him as attendants, it would accordingly be fit for us to praise and glorify them and apportion them honor as well. It would be the will of the blessed G-d that we should magnify and honor those whom He has magnified and honored, just as a king desires that those who stand before him in service should be honored, for that would be honoring the king (Maimonides, Laws of Idolatry 1:1). For a positive but wrong-headed purpose, Idolatry entered the world.
But I believe that the best understanding of our prohibition against adding or deducting from the Torah is best understood by jumping two verses forward, ‘And you who hold fast to the Lord your God are all alive today’ (verse 4). How do we ‘hold fast’ or cling, DAVEK to God? By heeding every word and letter of this Divine communication from God, called Torah.
If we really desire to remain constantly connected to God, preserve carefully our Torah, this precious missive from our Beloved. Tinkering with it can only diminish our interface with Infinity. And, BTW, it’s CHUTZPA!