Rabbi Dr. Sperber has just added another outstanding volume to his always-interesting and thought-provoking collection of books. In stating the purpose and thesis of this newest book, On the Relationship of Mitzvot Between Man and his Neighbor and Man and his Maker, Rabbi Sperber attempts to show the superiority in Judaism of man to man mitzvot over man to G-d mitzvot.
The dichotomy of these two categories of commandments is as old as the Ten Commandments themselves, which were given on two separate tablets (they could have been given on one long tablet), in order to demonstrate these two distinct types of commandments within Judaism (commandment number 5, honoring one’s parents, is a bit problematic within this framework, but serves as a bridge commandment with elements of both categories). Saadia Gaon further elaborates on these two classes of mitzvot, and many other great rabbis throughout Jewish history have gone even further in explaining and differentiating these categories. Rabbi Sperber reveals, through many halachik sources and Torah logic that the man to man category is clearly the morally superior one in Judaism. Whenever there is a clash between two commandments, the man to man mitzvot almost always takes precedence.
An additional reason that this sefer is unique and enjoyable is that it operates on three different levels, almost simultaneously. In the main section, the author takes 15-20 examples of clashes between the obligation to perform commandments and shows through Jewish law that the man to man mitzvot are preferred or are to be performed first. At the same time, literally “below the line” of these explanations, Rabbi Sperber goes into much greater detail and depth in his explanations of these sources. This section is of particular interest to any Jewish scholar.
Finally, rather than leave the volume as a purely halachik sefer, which some might find too esoteric or dry, the author, in the final section of the book, shows how these concepts were put into practice by great rabbis, with many stories and practical examples, which are not only very interesting but also emotionally satisfying. Thus, there is something in this book for everyone.
Alas, no book is perfect, and this reviewer has a few suggestions that might have improved this volume. First, Rabbi Sperber is wont to often write in first person. I believe that the use of the style of “I suggest” or “I cannot refrain myself from relating” a particular story is a bit out of place in a book of halachik analysis and of such magnitude. Some might find the pictures he inserted to be extraneous at best, or in the way, although this reviewer found them quite interesting. One or two of Rabbi Sperber’s proofs seem a bit forced, where the sources could have been interpreted in more than one manner. Because there are so many clear-cut examples to conclusively prove his thesis, Rabbi Sperber could have omitted these debatable examples. On the other hand, some famous sources proving the thesis of the book were not included.
For example, in Parshat Noach, Rashi asks why it is that the generation of the Tower of Babel, who sinned against G-d and were guilty of idol worship, were not killed, while the generation of Noach, who were guilty of man to man crimes, such as stealing, were destroyed totally. Rashi answers that the people who built the Tower had the redeeming value of working together, showing some positive man to man activity. This is an example, omitted from the volume, showing that man to man positive activity is held in higher esteem by G-d, which saved the Tower-builders from death.
All of these minor critiques are relatively inconsequential when the magnitude and importance of this book is viewed in its entirety. The concepts, ideas and halachot are especially significant in an era today when many observant Jews sometimes trample upon some of the man to man commandments, while strictly observing man to G-d mitzvot. Rabbi Sperber’s ability to find, explain and use important but obscure sources that would be almost impossible for the average reader to obtain, is yet another reason to read this important work.
All in all, On the Relationship is a book that is both significant, enjoyable and a pleasure to read.
This review first appeared in The Jewish Press