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Doing or Understanding – Which Comes First?

by Rabbi Dovid Dubov


Library » Philosophy » Torah vs. Science | Subscribe | What is RSS?


Should one place one’s understanding before one’s doing? Should a Jew ever make his understanding of the commandments or of G–d’s ways conditional on their observance?

When we received the Torah and mitzvahs at Mt. Sinai, the Torah states clearly that we accepted them on the basis of Naaseh – “we will do” – first, and then, V’Nishmah, – “we will hear and understand”. In other words, on the basis of unconditional obedience and readiness to fulfill G–d’s mitzvahs, regardless of our understanding them rationally. While we must learn and try to understand as much as possible, prior knowledge and understanding must never be a condition to living up to the guidelines which G–d has given us in regard to our conduct and our actual way of life.

First it is necessary to start observing the mitzvahs and eventually we will almost certainly come to a better appreciation of their significance and truth. To approach this matter from the opposite direction; that is, to understand first and only then to do, is wrong on two scores. First, the loss involved in not performing mitzvahs cannot be retrieved. Secondly, the very observance of the mitzvahs, which creates an immediate bond with G–d, develops additional powers, the sooner to understand and appreciate them. Take, for instance, a person who is ill and for whom medicine has been prescribed by a specialist. Would it not be foolish to say that he should not take them until he knew how the medicine could restore him to good health? In the meantime, he would remain weak and ill and probably get even worse. It is senseless because the knowledge of how the medicine does its work is not necessary in order to benefit from it. Moreover, while taking it he will get a clearer head and better understanding to learn how the prescription helps him.

To expand on this theme, the world is a well coordinated system created by G–d in which there is nothing superfluous or lacking. There is one reservation, however: for reasons best known to the Creator He has given man free will, whereby man can co-operate with this system, building and contributing to it, or do the reverse and cause destruction even of things already in existence. From this premise it follows that a man’s term of life on this earth is just long enough for him to fulfill his purpose; neither a day too short nor a day too long. Hence, if a person should permit a single day, or week, let alone months, to pass by without his fulfilling his purpose, it is an irretrievable loss for him and for the universal system at large.

The physical world as a whole, as can be seen clearly from man’s physical body in particular, is not something independent and separate from the spiritual world and soul. In other words, we have not here two separate spheres of influence as the pagans used to think, rather we are now conscious of a unifying force which controls the universal system which we call monotheism. For this reason it is possible to understand many things about the soul from parallels with the physical body.

The physical body requires a daily intake of certain elements in certain quantities obtained through breathing and consuming food. No amount of thinking, speaking and studying about these elements can substitute for the actual intake of air and food. All this knowledge will not add one iota of health to the body unless it is given its required physical sustenance; on the contrary, the denial of the actual intake of the required elements will weaken the mental forces of thought and concentration. Thus it is obvious that the proper approach to ensure the health of the body is not by way of study first and practice afterwards but the reverse, to eat and drink and breathe which, in turn, will strengthen the mental powers.

Similarly, the soul and the elements which it requires daily for its sustenance are known best to its Creator. A healthy soul is first and foremost attained by the performance of mitzvahs, and understanding of them may come later.

The conclusion from all the above is clear enough. For a Jew, every day that passes without living according to the Torah involves an irretrievable loss for him and for all our people, inasmuch as we all form a single unity and are mutually responsible for one another. It also has an effect on the universal order and any theories attempting to justify it cannot alter this in the least.


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Naase Ve'Nishma

Posted by: Ran Warcel, Antwerp, Belgium on Jun 21, 2006

I already read that quote, and i think in order to "DOING" You have to understand! so Naase Ve nishma symbolises Our love and devotion towards god, but doesn't Litteraly mean We will do and then hear, cause if u didn't hear how could u know what to do.

Editor's Comment

You need to understand WHAT to do -- but not necessarily WHY to do it.


Mitzvot » Should I do them?

(pl. Mitzvot). A commandment from G-d. Mitzvah also means a connection, for a Jew connects with G–d through fulfilling His commandments.
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Moses son of Maimon, born in Spain in 1135, died in Egypt in 1204. Noted philosopher and authority on Jewish law. Also was an accomplished physician and was the personal doctor for members of the Egyptian royalty. Interred in Tiberius, Israel.
Foundation text of Chabad chassidism. Authored by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of the Chabad movement, and first published in 1796. Considered to be the "Bible" of Chassidism.
First Jew, and first of our three Patriarchs. Born into a pagan society in Mesepotamia in 1812 BCE, he discovered monethieism on his own. He was told by G-d to journey to the Land of Canaan where he and his wife Sarah would give birth to the Jewish People.
Acronym for Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, widely known as Maimonides. Born in Spain in 1135, died in Egypt in 1204. Noted philosopher and authority on Jewish law. Also was an accomplished physician and was the personal doctor for members of the Egyptian royalty. Interred in Tiberius, Israel.