The power of the Rabbinic decree was employed by the nation’s leadership as part of the national effort to preserve the Law. In many situations, when the nation’s spiritual sensors realized that the people were losing touch with the spirit of a given law they implemented a Rabbinic decree to reinforce the nation’s hold on the Law. These decrees are psychological tools calculated to produce a specific effect in the minds of the people. The observance of the decrees in the context of a living society creates an atmosphere that enables the people to connect with the Law.
The three daily prayers stand as an illustration of the Rabbinic decree. God had enjoined the people to offer Him two lambs every day. The practical application of this commandment had the priests in the Temple acting on behalf of the nation at three specific points during the day (Numbers 28:4, Leviticus 6:2 [6:9 in the KJV]). If we look beyond the letter of the Law we see much more than the burning of two animals. We see the nation as a whole standing as one entity before God. Israel is directed by God to stand before Him and express her subservience to Him and total dependence upon Him. This commandment brings Israel’s special relationship with God into conscious focus, for it is in the Temple built by Israel and the offerings brought by Israel that God graciously accepts. The fact that the same offerings were repeated continuously since Sinai (Numbers 28:6), instilled in the nation a sense of standing before God together with their ancestors. These lofty concepts and many more are inherent in the daily offerings. When the spiritual leadership of the nation realized that many people are losing touch with these foundational impressions, they formulated the daily prayers. These prayers unite the Jewish people of all times in worship of God. By practicing this Rabbinic enactment the Jewish people preserved much of the holiness that was implicit in the daily offerings.
Another prominent Rabbinic decree is the hand-washing enactment. The purity laws take up many chapters in the Law of Moses. On a practical level these laws affect certain groups of people in specific situations. These laws pertain to all who partake of the offerings or who enter the Temple precincts, those who eat the second tithe in Jerusalem, and to the priests whose bread is holy. The impact that the purity laws had on these people was tremendous. Once one underwent the purification process it was necessary for them to maintain a much heightened sense of alertness. Any contact with an individual or with an object, no matter how slight is liable to negate the status of purity (depending on the status of the person or object). These laws had a powerful disciplinary effect for they forced the people to keep a high level of mental and physical consciousness and alacrity. Observance of these laws instilled in the people the sense that every action, no matter how slight, is significant before God. On a spiritual level, these laws inspired an awareness that the activity of eating with the appropriate frame of mind is an act of devotion towards God. Eating with the recognition that one is sitting at God’s table is an experience that is central to the Jew’s relationship with God. The laws of purity guided the people in the realization that the food they eat is holy. All of the moral discipline and the spiritual benefits of the purity laws were encapsulated by the Rabbis, in a miniature format, in the hand-washing decree. For more than 2000 years now, the hand-washing decree served to keep the nation in touch with the spirit of the biblical purity laws.