By Rabbi Dr. Hillel ben David (Greg Killian)
As I was teaching a class on the Rambam’s Sefer Yad ha-Hazaka (ספר יד החזקה) “Book of the Strong Hand”, I realized that I had never written about the important subject of the Taryag (תרי”ג) mitzvot, the 613 commands (or connections) contained in the Torah. This paper is an attempt to correct that oversight.
It is well known that there are six hundred and thirteen mitzvot (commandments), or connections to HaShem, contained in the Torah. These 613 mitzvot consist of two hundred and forty-eight (248) positive mitzvot, which are active commands to perform specific deed. The other three hundred and sixty-five (365) are “negative commandments”, commands to abstain from certain actions.
Although there have been many attempts to codify and enumerate the commandments contained in the Torah, the traditional view is based on Maimonides’ enumeration. A complete list of these 613 mitzvot, according to Maimonides, can be found here: CMDS613.
According to Chazal, the 365 negative mitzvot (“Thou shall not...”), represent 365 different tendons and veins in our bodies. Therefore, practicing each mitzva, or in the case of “negative” mitzvot, negative commandments which instruct us to abstain from certain acts, or help a specific part of our body to remain strong, physically and spiritually. Over the years, our Hakhamim would recommend specific mitzvot to people who sought healing for specific ailments affecting specific organs.
Three types of negative commandments fall under the precept that “One should let himself be killed rather than violate them”. These are murder, idolatry, and forbidden sexual relations. These apply to those situations where we are forced by another man to perform these acts. As we shall see, there are times and circumstances where one can voluntarily violate one of the above and still perform a mitzva.
The 613 mitzvot are divided into three general categories. The first category of mitzvot are called mishpatim. These include commandments that are logical and make sense, such as not killing or not stealing. The next category of mitzvot are called Eidut. These stand as testimonies in Judaism. For example, the Sabbath testifies to the fact that HaShem created the world in six days and rested on the seventh day and declared it holy. A third category of mitzvot are called chukim whose logic is not discerned by most people.
To answer this question it is necessary to understand that HaShem put us in the world to accomplish a task. Each of us has a general mission and a specific mission. The general mission is to perform what is known as Tikkun Olam, the correction of the world. This mission is to restore the world that Adam HaRishon crashed. The specific mission is bound up in our name and its meaning. Since we are here to do a job (general), we need a set of requirements that define this general mission. The positive mitzvot form these requirements.
The positive mitzvot contains some requirements that pertain only to women, some that pertain only to the Levites, some that pertain only to priests, some that pertain only to the High Priest. Thus we understand that to any one individual, there are fewer than 613 commandments.
The performance of the mitzvot, that apply to us, have general principles that guide us in the performance of these mitzvot. Lets begin by examining these principles and then look at some examples to help us understand the principles.
In general, Tikkun Olam (תיקון עולם) demands that we ‘do’ something to rebuild or correct the world. These are the 248 positive commandments. It is the performing of these mitzvot that will correct the world and restore it to the state it was in, before the sin of Adam. The negative commandments have the effect of causing a blemish in the world. However, our mission is not to ‘not blemish’ the world. We are not here to preserve the status quo. We are here for a purpose! We have a job to do! We were not put here to sit back and do nothing. We are supposed to ‘do’ something. It is our job to repair the world.
An amazing thing happens when we perform the positive mitzvot, besides the repair of the world. When we perform these positive mitzvot we learn to love HaShem and to draw near to Him. It is the performance of the mitzvot which allow us to bask in His presence and light. Thus we understand that there is more to the mitzvot then performing religious obligations by rote. There is something marvelous and mystical about these mitzvot which change us into human beings who can have a relationship with HaShem. When we repair the world, we repair ourselves. It is no wonder that Chazal teach that man is a microcosm of the world!
To seek out the mitzvot and run to perform them is the right of every Jew. We can now understand why HaShem gave us so many mitzvot: HaShem seeks to give us as much reward as we are willing to gather in. Instead of just giving us a few different kinds of valuables, He gave us a great number, as numerous as the seeds in the pomegranate. HaShem greatly desires that we find reward in every mitzvot we do in order that we can obtain the fantastic reward that He has planned.
Because there is great reward for the mitzvot, it behooves us to understand ‘how’ and ‘when’ to perform them. The Written Torah and the Oral Torah were put together so that we could discern ‘how’ and ‘when’ to perform these mitzvot. Never the less, because we have so many mitzvot with varying degrees of reward, we have some general principles to guide us in our performance of the mitzvot.
In general, we need to repair the world with our deeds.
Simply doing nothing, in order to avoid sinning, is unacceptable!
Do we concern ourselves with the removal of tons of rock in our desire to extract diamonds from the earth? No! In the same vein, when we keep our eyes on the prize set before us, then we will understand the value of diligently pursuing these fantastic mitzvot!
Therefore, when we have a mitzva in front of us and a minor negative mitzva hindering us, then we should perform the positive mitzva and ignore the minor negative mitzva. (Please be aware that there is no substitute for Torah study to help us discern what is a minor transgression.)
To reinforce this idea, lets take a look at a few examples.
After the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s daughters believed that they were the last people on earth. They resolved to perform a mitzva that would allow them to repopulate the world, as we can see from the Torah.
Bereshit (Genesis) 19:30-31 And Lot went up out of Zoar, and dwelt in the mountain, and his two daughters with him; for he feared to dwell in Zoar: and he dwelt in a cave, he and his two daughters. 31 And the firstborn said unto the younger, Our father is old, and there is not a man in the earth to come in unto us after the manner of all the earth:
It is well known that most women would find it repulsive to sleep with their fathers. How much more so those who were of Avraham’s household! Did the daughters derive pleasure from sleeping with their father? G-d forbid! So, why did they sleep with him? They slept with their father only in order to “multiply and fill the earth”.
Nazir 23b R. Hiyya b. Abin said: R. Joshua b. Korha said: A man should always be as alert as possible to perform a precept, for as reward for anticipating the younger by one night, the elder daughter [of Lot] was privileged to appear in the genealogical record of the royal house of Israel, four generations earlier.
Thus even though they found it disgusting, never the less they performed the mitzva even though it meant committing the sin of incest. Our Sages teach that this was a sin for the sake of heaven. This sin for the sake of Heaven can only be carried out by a woman because they are the only ones who could do it without any personal benefit.
Jael made love seven times to Sisera in order to weaken, exhaust, kill him. This sin for the sake of heaven had a great reward. The Gemara teaches us that a sin for the sake of heaven can cause one’s name to be written in the Tanach as being greater than the Matriarchs.
Horayoth 10b R. Nahman b. Isaac said: A transgression with good intent is more meritorious than the performance of a commandment with no intent; for it is said, Blessed above women Jael be, the wife of Heber the Kenite, above women in the tent shall she be blessed.
The results of the sexual intercourse, between Lot’s daughters and Lot, were two boys: Amman and Moab. From these two would descend the peoples who would be known as the Ammonites and the Moabites. From these two people would descend two women who would become a part of the messianic line. From the Moabites we would find Ruth, and from the Ammonites we would find Naamah. The Tanach teaches about these two good doves:
Ruth 4:21-22 And Salmon begat Boaz, and Boaz begat Obed, 22 And Obed begat Jesse, and Jesse begat David.
Naamah the Ammonitess was the wife of Solomon and the mother of Rehoboam. Rehoboam was also a part of the messianic line.
I Melachim (Kings) 14:21 And Rehoboam the son of Solomon reigned in Judah. Rehoboam was forty and one years old when he began to reign, and he reigned seventeen years in Jerusalem, the city which HaShem did choose out of all the tribes of Israel, to put his name there. And his mother’s name was Naamah an Ammonitess.
Thus these two doves who were ‘found’ in Sodom would become great in Israel and would become so great that they would become a part of the Tanach and of the line that would produce the Mashiach! This was the result of that ‘sin for the sake of Heaven’ that took place after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Midrash Rabbah - Genesis XLI:4 HAD FLOCKS, AND HERDS, AND TENTS. R. Tobiah b. R. Isaac said: He had two tents, viz. Ruth the Moabitess and Naamah the Ammonitess. Similarly it is written, Arise, take thy wife, and thy two daughters that are found (Gen. XIX, 15): R. Tobiah said: That means two ‘finds’, viz. Ruth and Naamah. R. Isaac commented: I have found David My servant (Ps. LXXXIX, 21): where did I find him? In Sodom.
If one were to look carefully throughout the Tanach, he would never find a condemnation of Lot’s daughters. From this result we can understand that performance of a positive mitzva can have positive consequences in the world despite have a minor negative consequence. Thus we understand that when we have the opportunity to perform a positive mitzva at the expense of a negative mitzva, we should do the positive mitzva.
Chazal also teach that the positive mitzvot take precedence over the minor negative mitzvot in some ways that are not easily discerned at first blush. For these difficult cases Chazal have attempted to clarify the issues so that we can collect the reward for these mitzvot.
Consider the case of a man who can fulfill the mitzva to wear tzitzith, but only if he wears a garment of wool and linen, which is forbidden. In this case we are faced with the choice of fulfilling a positive mitzva, but only at the expense of transgressing a negative mitzva.
Devarim (Deuteronomy) 22:11 Thou shalt not wear a garment of divers sorts, as of woolen and linen together.
Bamidbar (Numbers) 15:38-40 Speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them fringes (tzitzith) in the borders of their garments throughout their generations, and that they put upon the fringe (tzitzith) of the borders a ribband of blue: 39 And it shall be unto you for a fringe (tzitzith), that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of HaShem, and do them; and that ye seek not after your own heart and your own eyes, after which ye use to go a whoring: 40 That ye may remember, and do all my commandments, and be holy unto your G-d.
In addition, the Torah puts these two mitzvot together in the Torah. They are put together so that we can use an hermeneutical rule which will bring clarity to these mitzvot. hermeneutical rules were given to us to allow us to use them as tools to mine the fantastic rewards which are bound up in the mitzvot. Consider them to be like the pick, the shovel, and dynamite that a miner uses to extract the gold from a mine.
Devarim (Deuteronomy) 22:11-12 Thou shalt not wear a garment of divers sorts, as of woolen and linen together. 12 Thou shalt make thee fringes (tzitzith) upon the four quarters of thy vesture, wherewith thou coverest thyself.
Rashi, on Devarim 22:11-12, quoting from the Gemara in Yevamot 4a, says that the positive mitzva of tzitzith supersedes the negative mitzva of shatnez. Therefore, in the case of a linen garment, the mitzva to put tzitzith, with the Techelet (Blue String of wool), overrides the prohibition of Shatnez.
Thus we understand that if we are faced with a circumstance where we can wear tzitzith only by wearing them on a garment of shatnez, then we should do the positive mitzva and wear the tzitzith even though we are transgressing the negative mitzva of shatnez.
Jewish tradition teaches that being nice to other people is extremely important. In Hebrew, this value is known as shalom bayit - שלום בית, which means “peace in the home.” Shalom bayit means that we should always work hard to create shalom (peace) in our bayit (home). Parents should be loving to each other and to children, children should be loving to each other, to parents, and friends.
The value of shalom bayit is so important that sometimes, in very difficult situations, we should break other rules in order to keep peace between people. In the Torah (Genesis 18), there is a story about Avraham and Sarah when they were quite old, old enough to be grandparents. An angel comes to tell them that soon they are going to have a baby! Sarah was very surprised. She laughed, and whispered to herself, “Could it really happen that I will have a child, when Avraham is so old?” Later, HaShem told Avraham what Sarah said, except that HaShem changed her words around. HaShem told Avraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying ‘Could it really happen that I will have a child when I am so old?’”
We find this amazing event in the earliest book of the Torah.
Bereshit (Genesis) 18:1-13 And HaShem appeared unto him in the plains of Mamre: and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day; 2 And he lift up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him: and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself toward the ground, 3 And said, My Lord, if now I have found favour in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant: 4 Let a little water, I pray you, be fetched, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree: 5 And I will fetch a morsel of bread, and comfort ye your hearts; after that ye shall pass on: for therefore are ye come to your servant. And they said, So do, as thou hast said. 6 And Abraham hastened into the tent unto Sarah, and said, Make ready quickly three measures of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes upon the hearth. 7 And Abraham ran unto the herd, and fetcht a calf tender and good, and gave it unto a young man; and he hasted to dress it. 8 And he took butter, and milk, and the calf which he had dressed, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree, and they did eat. 9 And they said unto him, Where is Sarah thy wife? And he said, Behold, in the tent. 10 And he said, I will certainly return unto thee according to the time of life; and, lo, Sarah thy wife shall have a son. And Sarah heard it in the tent door, which was behind him. 11 Now Abraham and Sarah were old and well stricken in age; and it ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. 12 Therefore Sarah laughed within herself, saying, After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also? 13 And HaShem said unto Abraham, Wherefore did Sarah laugh, saying, Shall I of a surety bear a child, which [Sarah] am old?
Note that Sarah laughed because she told HaShem that Avraham was old. Yet, when HaShem retold the event, He said she laughed because she was old. For the sake of peace (shalom Bayit) between Sarah and Avraham, HaShem changed her words.
Shalom bayit is considered so fundamental to Jewish life that even HaShem Himself told a lie to make sure that Avraham and Sarah would have shalom bayit. After being told by angels that they will conceive a child in their old age, Sarah laughs, not believing that it can be true. She says, “After I am old shall I have pleasure, my husband being old also?” When HaShem speaks to Avraham, He says, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I have a child, now that I am old?”.
Yevamot 65b R. Ile’a further stated in the name of R. Eleazar son of R. Simeon: One may modify a statement in the interests of peace; for it is said in Scripture, Thy father did command etc. so shall ye say unto Joseph: Forgive, I pray thee now, etc. R. Nathan said: It is a commandment; for it is stated in Scripture, And Samuel said: ‘How can I go? If Saul hear it, he will kill me’, etc.
At the School of R. Ishmael it was taught: Great is the cause of peace. Seeing that for its sake even the Holy One, blessed be He, modified a statement; for at first it is written, My lord being old, while afterwards it is written, And I am old.
Midrash Rabbah - Leviticus IX:9 Bar Kappara said three things: Bar Kappara said: Great is peace, for the Scriptures reported in the Torah a prevarication which was used in order to maintain peace between Abraham and Sarah. This is proved by what is written, And Sarah laughed within herself, saying:... and my master is old (Bereshit 18:12); but [when He repeated this] to Abraham, He said: [Sarah said]: And I am old (ib. 13). Bar Kappara said another thing: Great is peace, for in the Prophets, too, did Scripture report a prevarication which was used for the purpose of maintaining peace between husband and wife, as it is said, And the angel of the Lord appeared unto the woman, and said unto her: Behold now, thou art barren, and hast not borne; but thou shalt conceive, and bear a son (Judges 13:3). When he spoke to Manoah, the angel did not say thus, but: Of all that I said unto the woman let her beware (ib. 13) For all that, she needs medicinal drugs. Bar Kappara said yet another thing: Great is peace. If celestial beings among who there is neither jealousy, nor hatred, nor rivalry, nor strife, nor lawsuits, nor dissension, nor the evil eye, have need, nevertheless, of peace, as it is written, He maketh peace in His high places, how much more so then do earthly beings, among whom all those dispositions exist, [have need of peace].
Why did HaShem change Sarah’s words? Our Hakhamim teach us that HaShem did not want to hurt Avraham’s feelings and cause Avraham and Sarah to fight, so HaShem told a small lie. This story teaches that shalom bayit, peace among families, is so important that sometimes it is better to tell a small lie than to say something that will cause a big fight.
(Don’t get carried away here. A minor changing of words is permitted, not the cover-up of wicked or evil deeds.)
The second principle is found delineated in our prayers as described in the siddur and machzor. In the prayer book we find that whenever there is mention of the festivals and the sabbath, we always mention the Sabbath before we mention the particular festival.
Vayikra (Leviticus) 23:1 And HaShem spake unto Moses, saying, 2 Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, Concerning the feasts of HaShem, which ye shall proclaim to be holy convocations, even these are my feasts. 3 Six days shall work be done: but the seventh day is the sabbath of rest, an holy convocation; ye shall do no work therein: it is the sabbath of HaShem in all your dwellings. 4 ¶ These are the feasts of HaShem, even holy convocations, which ye shall proclaim in their seasons. 5 In the fourteenth day of the first month at even is HaShem’s Passover.
That which occurs more often is more important!
This is not always so easy to do. We often have conflicting issues that impinge on this second principle. Consider, for example, that we sometimes have things which are invested with greater sanctity which come less often then mitzvot of lesser sanctity. Which takes precedence? The answer is, despite our tendency to the contrary, is to give priority to that which comes more frequently. The second principle remains our guide. We will look at a few examples later on, that will help to clarify this important principle.
The second principle also has an important corollary: When you give charity, give first to those who you encounter more often. For example, we give first to our immediate family, then to our extended family, then to those in our Esnoga, then to those in the local community, then to those in the extended community throughout the world, finally we give to the nations.
Let me restate and emphasize the corollary:
Give priority to the mitzvot that present themselves more often or are closer to you from a people perspective.
Many mitzvot force us to choose to do one before another. The order in which we perform these conflicting mitzvot is very important. In our prayers and offerings we have very little discretion as the Torah lays down the precedence in a fixed way. As we shall see, tzedaka, charity, allows an individual much greater freedom than an organization. Never the less, there is an order of priorities that are logical and straightforward. In order to properly perform these mitzvot we must study the Written Law and the Oral Law to perform these mitzvot in the proper sequence.
To reinforce this principle and its corollary, lets take a look at a few examples.
Consider that those days which come more often take priority over those which come less frequently. Even though the festivals are endowed with greater sanctity than the Shabbat or New Moon, never the less HaShem wants us to give priority to those days which come more often.
The Gemara gives us a few examples:
Zevachim 91a GEMARA. It was asked: That which is more constant and that which is more sacred, which takes precedence? Does that which is more constant take precedence, because it is more constant; or does that which is more sacred take precedence, because it is more sacred? — Come and hear: The continual [burnt-]offerings precede the additional offerings. [Now this is so] notwithstanding that the additional offerings are more sacred! — [No:] does then the Sabbath affect the additional offerings and not affect the continual-offerings?
Come and hear: The additional-offerings of the Sabbath precede the additional-offerings of New Moon! — Does then New Moon affect its own additional offerings and not affect the additional offerings of the Sabbath?
Come and hear: The additional offerings of New Moon precede the additional offerings of New Year, although New Year is holier! — Does then New Year affect its own additional offerings and not affect the additional offerings of New Moon?
From this Gemara we learn that just because a day is invested with greater sanctity that does not give it priority over those days which occur more frequently.
By examining the priority given to Shabbat and Rosh Chodesh we can discern that these festivals are exceedingly important and bring us a greater reward than the other festivals. For this reason we should concentrate our studies on Shabbat and Rosh Chodesh in order to serve HaShem in the best possible way. While there is GREAT reward in performing the mitzvot, never the less, it is better to perform the mitzvot because of our love of HaShem and our desire to do His will. Serving for the reward is not the desired goal. Serving HaShem and doing His will is the desired goal.
It is worth noting, at this point, that when one examines the mitzvot in the Torah, one will never see a reward for the performance of the mitzvot. Occasionally the Torah will make a promise in regards to a mitzva, but this is NOT the reward, this is the ‘expense account’ which allows us more opportunity to fulfill a particular mitzva. This begs a very interesting question:
Why are we not told about the reward for the mitzvot?
The answer is quite profound. If we were told about the reward, then we would be obligated to perform the mitzva for the reward. This is not what HaShem desires. HaShem desires that we love Him and perform the mitzvot because of our love for Him.
We do not do the mitzvot for the reward!
Notice also that when it comes to the positive mitzvot we often do not skip conflicting mitzvot, but rather we prioritize them and perform them in a particular order. There are, however, times when we will skip a positive mitzva because we have passed the time for its performance. We will look at this idea in an example later on.
In addition to our offerings, we will also see that we give priority to those days which occur more frequently in our prayers.
Since the destruction of the Temple we have been unable to perform many of the mitzvot that could only be performed in the Temple. There are some Temple based mitzvot that we can still perform. These mitzvot also follow the second principle, as we shall see.
We have several positive mitzvot to bring offerings to the Temple. The tamid offering is a lamb in the morning and a second lamb in the evening. However, without a Temple we can bring neither the tamid offering nor any of the other offerings. How do we fulfill mitzvot that depend on the Temple for their completion?
Our prayers, as a substitute for the bulls, rams, goats and lambs, are efficacious in helping us to draw near to HaShem. Because they are a substitute for the actual sacrifices, they must be offered at the correct time. However, once time becomes involved, we have the potential for prioritizing. When we must prioritize, then we give priority to the one whose time has just arrived. Afterwards we make up the one whose time has past.
When we have the prayers of the Shabbat and the prayers of a Festival, then the prayers of Shabbat take precedence because Shabbat comes more often. This principle is carried out throughout the siddur. When our prayers speaks about the musaf offerings, for example, we say the Shabbat offering followed by the Festival offering.
The law is that, although the musaf prayers can be said in the morning, if someone arrives to pray the mincha prayers and hasn’t said the musaf yet, he must start with mincha, the more frequent, and only then do the musaf prayers, the more sacred. The response of the Gemara mirrors the previous ones: The sanctity of Shabbat covers both musaf and the mincha said that day, meaning that neither outweighs the other for sanctity.
Zevachim 91a Come and hear, for R. Johanan said: The halachah is that one must recite the mincha [afternoon] service and then recite the additional service! — Here too, since the time for the mincha service has come, it is as though they were both slaughtered.
From the priority of our prayers we learn the priority of the services in the Temple. The services in the Temple reflect the Torah’s commands. These ‘Temple’ mitzvot follow the principle that we laid out in the beginning of this paper:
That which occurs more often is more important!
I encourage everyone to pay attention to the prayers in the siddur and notice the priorities. If we follow the priorities, the siddur will put us in the right place, at the right time, doing the right things. Not a bad idea, if you ask me.
We have a positive mitzva to give Tzedaka, charity. Within this mitzva we often have conflicting requests and needs. For example, if I have two people to receive tzedaka, in front of me, who should get tzedaka first?
The Shulchan Aruch has mapped out detailed systems of priorities for recipients of tzedaka. These priority systems run along a variety of issues including:
Thus we see that this positive mitzva also has a level of priority and precedence which must be applied in order to properly fulfill the mitzva. We can also see that the mitzva of tzedaka follows the corollary that we laid out earlier:
Give priority to the mitzvot that present themselves more often or are closer to you from a people perspective.
The priority of the taryag mitzvot is not so easy. In fact, it is easy to get caught up in what we want and thereby forget what we should be doing. To help us get this important issue correct, HaShem sent His Mashiach ben Yosef to clarify these issues.
We have explained elsewhere that each individual is given challenges and tests suited to his current spiritual level. What kind of test would be suitable for Adam’s level before the sin, when both good and evil were not yet intermingled in his mind?
His test was not choosing between good and evil, as we understand them, but between two kinds of good.
In the beginning, he was given one mitzva: not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. This meant that he was not to lower himself to the level of knowing good and evil as realities, but to remain on his unique level, seeing the world purely in terms of truth and falsehood. There was a certain tension inherent in this situation, which we shall soon consider.
At this point, we must realize that all the kiddush HaShem which creation was capable of producing was concentrated in this one choice. Had Adam made the right choice, the purpose of creation would have been consummated right then and there. The tension in the situation was that Adam felt he would, like to achieve a much higher level of kiddush HaShem. He had been placed in Gan Eden without any direct contact with evil. He believed that if he lowered his madrega a little and allowed evil - to a small extent - to enter him, and then conquered the evil for the greater glory of G-d - the resulting kiddush HaShem would be incomparably greater. He would be transforming darkness itself into light!
So Adam thought. And it was in this form that temptation came to him. “The woman saw that the tree was...desirable for insight [le’haskil]”- the tremendous insight (into the greatness of G-d) and revelation which would emerge, they thought, from conquering the greater challenges of the lower level. This was the temptation that came from the outside, that is, in the second person in the form of “you ought to do this,” “the truth and the love of G-d require you to do this.” It might be a sin, they thought, but it would be a sin for the sake of Heaven.
The Snake expressed the temptation it was offering with the words “you shall be like G-d, knowing good and evil,” on which Rashi comments “you will be like gods - makers of worlds.” Our Rabbis in the Midrash expressed this in the following form: “It was from this tree that He ate and created the world. He forbids you to eat of it so that you shall not create other worlds.” On the surface, these are very puzzling statements. But from what we have learned above, perhaps we can perceive something of their meaning.
The word olam, which we use for the word world, comes from the root meaning to hide. The creation of the world is in fact a way of hiding and obscuring the light of HaShem. This is because any created being necessarily feels himself separate from G-d, and this in itself is a form of darkness. G-d, in His mercy, decreed that man would be able to exercise his free will by revealing the hidden light in the midst of this relative darkness. [This is the meaning of the puzzling phrase, “He ate from this tree and created the world.” The Hebrew for tree, etz, is related to the word etza, counselor idea. “To eat from the tree” in Midrashic terms means “to conceive of an idea.”] It was this idea - the revealing of the hidden light - which was the basis of G-d’s creation of the world. G-d created Adam in a world of minimum darkness, where there was not much obstruction between the man and his Creator. Adam possibly believed that if he deepened the darkness, he would thus create new worlds of opportunity for kiddush HaShem.
But with all his good intentions, Adam made a mistake. Before the sin, before he knew of the meaning or existence of evil, he was unable to imagine its magnitude. He underestimated the difficulty of the challenge which he was accepting. He could not conceive that the darkness into which he was throwing himself was a place without G-d, without spirituality. What he thought would be relatively easy was in fact overwhelmingly difficult.
Nevertheless, what he did was considered a serious sin. What he had considered “a sin for the sake of Heaven” was in fact a sin disguised as a mitzva. This was his temptation, and with all his good intentions, he surrendered to it.
The key insight the Rabbi Dessler brings out, is:
His test was not choosing between good and evil as we understand them, but between two kinds of good.
Adam’s difficulty was choosing between two mitzvot, or so he thought. He had to prioritize which to do. This same difficulty often confronts a Jew as he seeks to perform the mitzvot. He must constantly choose between two, or more, mitzvot – knowing he can only do one. In Yeshua’s day, the priority of the mitzvot had become distorted and was in need of a tikkun, a correction.
Yeshua’s primary mission to the Jews was to teach about the priority of the mitzvot. In all of His disputes with the Pharisees, He never once told them that they were wrong. Instead, Yeshua simply explained the correct priority of the mitzvot that they were discussing.
A few examples should help to clarify this idea.
Matitiyahu (Matthew) 23:25 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess. 26 Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also.
In this next example, Yeshua is going to give priority to the one with the greatest need. This is in accordance with what we learned about all tzedaka from the Shulchan Aruch, namely that we give priority according to intensity and need.
Luqas (Luke) 7:36-50 And one of the Pharisees desired him that he would eat with him. And he went into the Pharisee’s house, and sat down to meat. 37 And, behold, a woman in the city, which was a sinner, when she knew that Yeshua sat at meat in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster box of ointment, 38 And stood at his feet behind him weeping, and began to wash his feet with tears, and did wipe them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee which had bidden him saw it, he spake within himself, saying, This man, if he were a prophet, would have known who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him: for she is a sinner. 40 And Yeshua answering said unto him, Simon, I have somewhat to say unto thee. And he saith, Master, say on. 41 There was a certain creditor which had two debtors: the one owed five hundred pence, and the other fifty. 42 And when they had nothing to pay, he frankly forgave them both. Tell me therefore, which of them will love him most? 43 Simon answered and said, I suppose that he, to whom he forgave most. And he said unto him, Thou hast rightly judged. 44 And he turned to the woman, and said unto Simon, Seest thou this woman? I entered into thine house, thou gavest me no water for my feet: but she hath washed my feet with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head. 45 Thou gavest me no kiss: but this woman since the time I came in hath not ceased to kiss my feet. 46 My head with oil thou didst not anoint: but this woman hath anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little. 48 And he said unto her, Thy sins are forgiven. 49 And they that sat at meat with him began to say within themselves, Who is this that forgiveth sins also? 50 And he said to the woman, Thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace.
Luqas (Luke) 11:37-42 And as he spake, a certain Pharisee besought him to dine with him: and he went in, and sat down to meat. 38 And when the Pharisee saw it, he marveled that he had not first washed before dinner. 39 And the Lord said unto him, Now do ye Pharisees make clean the outside of the cup and the platter; but your inward part is full of ravening and wickedness. 40 Ye fools, did not he that made that which is without make that which is within also? 41 But rather give alms of such things as ye have; and, behold, all things are clean unto you. 42 But woe unto you, Pharisees! for ye tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass over judgment and the love of G-d: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.
In the first case, Yeshua indicated that washing one’s hands before eating bread is important. Never the less, it is more important to repent of our sins in order to clean the inside of us first, because what is inside is ‘closer’ to us.
In the second example, Yeshua clarifies the importance of tithing versus rendering proper judgments and loving HaShem. Thus He teaches that doing justice and walking humbly with your G-d is more important than tithing un-important things.
Giving priority to the mitzva that is closer, as we stated in the corollary earlier, is exemplified in the Talmud, which spends a fair amount of time helping us discern the priority of one command over another. For example, the Talmud gives us the following principle:
Sukkah 25a MISHNAH. THOSE WHO ARE ENGAGED ON A RELIGIOUS ERRAND ARE FREE FROM [THE OBLIGATIONS OF] SUKKAH. INVALIDS AND THEIR ATTENDANTS ARE FREE FROM [THE OBLIGATIONS OF] SUKKAH. CASUAL EATING AND DRINKING ARE PERMITTED OUTSIDE THE SUKKAH. GEMARA. Whence do we know this? — From what our Rabbis taught: When thou sittest in thy house excludes the man who is occupied with a religious duty, And when thou walkest by the way excludes a bridegroom. Hence they said, He who marries a virgin is free [from the obligation of reading the Shema’], but [he who marries] a widow is bound [by the obligation]. How is this inferred? — R. Huna said, It is compared to ‘the way’ just as ‘the way’ refers to a secular way, so must every act be secular, thus excluding such a man who is occupied with the performance of a religious duty. But does it not refer to where one is going on a religious errand [also]? And does not the Divine Law nevertheless say that one should read? — If so, the verse should have said, ‘When sitting and when walking’; why [then does it say,] ‘When thou sittest and when thou walkest’? [It must consequently mean:] When walking for thy own purpose thou art bound by the obligation, but when walking on a religious errand thou art free. If so, should not even the man who marries a widow also be exempt?-When he marries a virgin his mind is pre-occupied but when he marries a widow his mind is not preoccupied.
In the above passage, we see that the most important prayer, the Shema, takes the back seat when one is a new bridegroom. The bridegroom’s sole priority is to make his bride happy. From this example we can see that HaShem desires that when we are performing a mitzva as a ‘giver’, thereby imitating HaShem, we are exempt from the mitzvot which place us in the position of a ‘receiver’. The Shema is a prayer that changes us into people who can see HaShem as one and who acknowledge that as ‘receivers’ they have obligations to HaShem.
Earlier I said that the Torah never attaches a specific reward to a specific mitzva. Any appearance to the contrary should be understood not as reward, but rather as an ‘expense account’. Consider the following example:
In the above example, the prolonging of our days is not the reward for honoring our parents. The prolonging of our days is what enables us to continue to honor our parents. It is like an expense account which allows us to travel and continue to make sales so that our company will prosper. The expense account is not our reward. Our reward is our salary and commission. The expense account is just an enablement for our mission. The talmud, which is quoted in our prayers, tells us this explicitly:
Shabbat 127a These are the precepts whose fruits a person enjoys in This World but whose principal remains intact for him in the World to Come. They are: the honor due to father and mother, acts of kindness, early attendance at the house of study morning and evening, hospitality to guests, visiting the sick, providing for a bride, escorting the dead, absorption in prayer, bringing peace between man and his fellow, and the study of Torah is equivalent to hem all.”
That said, the Mishna teaches that “a mitzva brings about a mitzva” and that “the reward of a mitzva is a mitzva”. These statements seem to say that the mitzva we just did will bring us to another mitzva, and that this second mitzva is the reward we receive for having done the first mitzva.
Avot Chapter 4 MISHNAH 2. BEN ‘AZZAI SAID: RUN TO [PERFORM] AN EASY PRECEPT, AS [YOU WOULD] IN [THE CASE OF] A DIFFICULT ONE, AND FLEE FROM TRANSGRESSION; FOR [ONE] PRECEPT DRAWS [IN ITS TRAIN ANOTHER] PRECEPT, AND [ONE] TRANSGRESSION DRAWS [IN ITS TRAIN ANOTHER] TRANSGRESSION; FOR THE RECOMPENSE FOR [PERFORMING] A PRECEPT IS A PRECEPT, AND THE RECOMPENSE FOR [COMMITTING] A TRANSGRESSION IS A TRANSGRESSION.
From here we learn the value of training oneself in the performance of mitzvot, since the more we do them, the less we find obstacles in the way to prevent us. The end result is a constant flow of mitzva performance!
As we learned earlier, HaShem does not want us to serve Him for the reward. HaShem wants us to serve Him because we love Him. Never the less, HaShem does not withhold the reward from any of His creatures, the a priori position is for man to act as “a servant serving his master with no regard the issue of reward”.
Avot Chapter 1 MISHNAH 3. ANTIGONUS (A MAN) OF SOCHO11 RECEIVED [THE ORAL TRADITION] FROM SIMEON THE RIGHTEOUS. HE USED TO SAY: BE NOT LIKE UNTO SERVANTS WHO SERVE THE MASTER IN THE EXPECTATION OF RECEIVING A GRATUITY, BUT BE LIKE UNTO SERVANTS WHO SERVE THE MASTER WITHOUT THE EXPECTATION OF RECEIVING A GRATUITY, AND LET THE FEAR OF HEAVEN BE UPON YOU.
Avodah Zarah 19a Happy is the man that feareth the Lord: Does it mean happy is the ‘man’ and not the woman? — Said R. Amram in the name of Rab: [It means] Happy is he who repents whilst he is still a ‘man’. R. Joshua b. Levy explained it: Happy is he who over-rules his inclination like a ‘man’. That delighteth greatly in His commandments, was explained by R. Eleazar thus: ‘In His commandments,’ but not in the reward of His commandments. This is just what we have learnt. ‘He used to say, Be not like servants who serve the master on the condition of receiving a reward; but be like servants who serve the master without the condition of receiving a reward.’
So one should never attempt to evaluate and weigh up the relative importance of mitzvot based upon their perceived level of reward. Insofar as both function to successful bring man closer to HaShem, the Jew truly has no way of knowing the exact reward within each mitzva. Whether it is classified an ‘easy’ compared to ‘harder’, he has to scrupulously perform both with the same vigilance and zeal. This comes out of cognizance that their defining objective, i.e. to draw close to HaShem by obeying His will, lies at the heart of each and every mitzva.
This beautifully explains why, apart from some occasional side benefits (the ‘expense account’), the principal of man’s reward is not within this world. Fundamentally flawed, the physical, fleeting world lacks the currency to adequately reward the righteous. Such a person’s reward is reserved, instead, for the world to come. How pathetically inadequate any reward in this world is, is memorably explained by Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler.
“All the happiness and pleasure of a lifetime coupled with the joy of every person in every city and country who have ever lived, if it was possible to concentrate them into one moment; could still not provide reward even for the smallest mitzva compared to the delight man will experience in connecting with HaShem in the world to come”.
There is much to learn concerning the details of the taryag mitzvot. As I mentioned earlier, the oral law is replete with examples of the priority and precedence that we must give to the various mitzvot. To help you get started in this arena, I present the following areas for study:
Extrapolating priority from the juxtaposition of mitzvot in the Torah: Kiddushin 29b.
Whether the holier entity has precedence: Menachot 49a.
Honoring one’s Father and Mother – Rules:
Whether a child is responsible to spend his own funds: Kiddushin 31b-32a.
Whether a father may forgive his honor: Kiddushin 32a, 32a-b.
Requirement on both sons and daughters: Kiddushin 29a, 30b-31a, 34b, 35a.
Requirement on a married/divorced daughter: Kiddushin 30b.
Which parent has precedence: Kiddushin 31a; Keritot 28a.
Which parent has precedence, post-divorce: Kiddushin 31a.
Choosing between listening to parents and the prohibition for a kohen to become impure: Bava Metzia 32a.
Choosing between listening to parents and the requirement of returning lost property: Bava Metzia 32a.
Whether a Rebbe should stand before his father who is also his student, and whether the father stands for him: Kiddushin 33b.
Learning Torah vs. honoring one’s Parents: Megillah 16b-17a.
Honoring a sinful parent: Bava Metzia 62a.
* * *
Michtav MiEliyahu – Strive for Truth, by Rabbi Eliyahu E. Dessler.
* * *
This study was written by
Rabbi Dr. Hillel ben David
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 This is another name for the Mishneh Torah - מִשְׁנֶה תּוֹרָה.
 TaRYaG is the gematria for the number “613” (tav - ת = 400, resh - ר = 200, yod - י = 10, and gimel - ג = 3).
 Our Sages.
 Sephardi Rabbis.
 Sanhedrin 74a
 Nazir 23a
 Shoftim (Judges) 5:24.
 Baba Kama 38b
 Chazal = Our Sages.
 Wearing a garment of wool and linen together.
 Bereshit (Genesis) 18:12-13
 see Yevamot 65b; Vayikra Rabba 9:9.
 The Tanach
 Bereshit (Genesis) 50:16ff. It is nowhere found that Jacob commanded it; but the brothers attributed the request to him for the sake of preserving the peace between themselves and Joseph.
 Modification of a statement in the interests of peace.
 I Samuel 16:2. In response to this, Samuel was advised by God to say that he came to sacrifice to the Lord (ibid.) though his mission, in fact, was the anointing of David (v. ibid. 1 and 13).
 Bereshit (Genesis) 18:12, a slight on Avraham,
 Ibid. 13. Thus HaShem, when speaking to Avraham, modified Sarah’s expression concerning him, which he might have resented, to one in which the slight of ‘crabbed old age’ was directed towards Sarah herself.
 Thus hiding from Avraham the fact that Sarah had called him ‘an old man’.
 But he did not tell Manoah that his wife was constitutionally barren, which might have made him despise her.
 I.e. apart from and in addition to the negative precautions.
 Implying that she was not barren but could be made to bear by these means.
 Job 25:3
 Prayer book used on the festivals.
 For they are brought on Sabbath and Festivals, whereas continual offerings are brought on week-days too.
 Just as it invests the former with greater sanctity, so it invests the latter too, seeing that we are now treating of the continual offering brought on the Sabbath.
 Shemot (Exodus) 29:39.
 The afternoon prayers which are said everyday of the year.
 Although the time for the additional service came first.
 Aruch HaShulchan 251.10,11, Blau pp. 52ff.
 Strive for Truth! (Mictav Me’Eliyahu), volume III parts 5-6, Rabbi Eliyahu E. Dessler.
 Strive for Truth! I, pp.87-90.
 The sanctification of HaShem’s name.
 A step. From the verb dereg, to rise in grade, step by step. Plural = madregot.
 Bereshit (Genesis) 3:6
 Bereshit (Genesis) 3:5
 Bereshit Rabbah 19:4
 Bereishit Rabba 19:4
 The Shulchan Aruch (Hebrew: שׁוּלחָן עָרוּך, literally: “Set Table”) [Also spelt Shulhan Aruch; Shulhan Arukh.] also known as the Code of Jewish Law, is the most authoritative legal code of Judaism.
 Even when they stay for a rest.
 I.e., but not a set meal.
 Our Hakhamim.
 Berachot 11a
 That those engaged in a religious act are exempt.
 Devarim (Deuteronomy) 6:7, dealing with the duty of reading the Shema.
 Or, ‘optional. It is now taken to mean that one is walking by the way to pursue his normal occupations.
 The performance of which must not interfere with the duty of reading the Shema’.
 Apparently it does.
 How then is it inferred that those engaged in a religious act are exempt?
 That Devarim (Deuteronomy) 6:7 refers also to one engaged in a religious act.
 Which would have included all forms both secular and religious.
 That the performance of a religious act exempts one from the obligations mentioned.
 Who also is performing a religious duty.
 And he cannot, therefore, perform another duty at that time.
 The mitzva outlined in Devarim (Deuteronomy) 6:4-9.
 Show eagerness, carpe diem - seize the opportunity!
 Cf. Psalm 69:60. One is more liable to be slack and procrastinating with regard to an easy task, and thus forget it entirely; to obviate this one should hasten to perform it as soon as it presents itself.
 Not merely avoid, but as quickly as you can, put as long a distance as possible between transgression and yourself (L.). In both cases (i.e. of fulfillment of a precept and of avoidance of transgression) Ben ‘Azzai advocates quickness of resolve and action (Buchler, Sin and Atonement, p. 309).
 Automatically (Buchler, ibid).
 This saying has been explained variously: (i) Virtue is its own reward, and sin its own penalty. (ii) The spiritual joy one derives from the performance of a divine precept, (mitzva) is in itself a mitzva, i.e., a valuable religious experience. (iii) The practical gain from the carrying out of a precept, is the new precept which it automatically brings in its train. See Buchler, ibid., for a fine analysis of the dictum.
 Pirke Avot 1:3
 ‘Gratuity’ rather than ‘reward’ since a servant may rightly and without reproach expect and accept his wage (v. M.).
 Tehillim (Psalms) 42:1.
 [Enjoying the full vitality and energy of youthful manhood.]
 Cf. Ab. IV, 2. ‘The reward of a precept is the precept.’
 Avot 2:1
 Kiddushin 29b
 Michtav MiEliyahu I, p 4-5