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Is the verb ist ("is") omitted in the first clause of the following:

Wozu eine so feierlich auftretende Vorschrift, wenn ihre Erfüllung sich nicht als vernünftig empfehlen kann? (Freud, Das Unbehagen in der Kultur, ch 5, par 4)

My clumsy attempt at a close translation: "For what (good/purpose) [is] a so solemnly appearing precept, if ...." Strachey's (Norton edition) translation is "What is the point of a precept enunciated with so much solemnity if ...."

If the verb is omitted, is its omission common in this sort of construction (a question introduced by an interrogative adverb)?

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Yes, this is an ellipsis. The phrase that is used is likely zu etwas gut sein (Duden 4 Nr 1405).

Wozu (ist) das alles (gut)?
Wozu (ist) eine so feierlich auftretende Vorschrift (gut), wenn...

A good alternative (although maybe a bit informal) for zu etwas gut sein is etwas bringen, with no omission:

Was bringt das alles?
Was bringt eine so feierlich auftretende Vorschrift, wenn...

From my experience, the ellipsis is common. Another example:

Warum (sollte man) den Abwasch machen, wenn man es auch verschieben kann!
Wofür (sollte ich) kämpfen? Es gibt nichts, was ich verteidigen will.

Of course, you have no idea what exactly is omitted. I just filled in "sollen" and a pronoun because they fit from context.

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  • There are quite a few alternatives to gut sein, as dient (my favourite, since just one word and fitting the style of that time), aufgestellt werden, existieren, etc.
    – guidot
    May 30, 2023 at 10:51

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