How Many Mitzvot?
Perhaps, I am making progress in my studies. For the past thirty years, a certain piece of Talmud has baffled me, but now I think I’ve arrived at an understanding of the matter.
In the last pages of Gemara Makkot, Rabbi Simlai states that there are 613 commandments (mitzvot) in the Torah. Since it’s our job to keep them, that means that there’s quite a large burden upon our shoulders.
Yet, then Rabbi Simlai states: King David came and established the 613 mitzvot based on eleven mitzvot, as it is written: “A Psalm of David. Lord, who shall sojourn in Your Tabernacle? Who shall dwell upon your sacred mountain? He who walks wholeheartedly (1), and works righteousness (2), and speaks truth in his heart (3)…(See Psalm 15 for the rest)
Rabbi Simlai then says, Isaiah came and reduced them to six, as it is written: “He who walks righteously (1) speaks fairly (2), he who despises the gain from oppression (3), who shakes his hands from holding of bribes (4), who stops his ears from hearing blood (5), and shuts his eyes from looking upon evil (6)” (Isaiah 33:15). And it is written with regard to one who performs these matters: “He shall dwell on high; his fortress shall be secure; his bread shall be given; his waters shall be sure.” (Isaiah 33:16)
Furthermore, the prophet Micah came and established them upon three, as it is written: “It has been told to you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord does require of you; only to do justly (1), and to love mercy (2), and to walk humbly with your God (3)” (Micah 6:8)
So, are we to strive to observe all 613 Mitzvot or be content with just three?
I’m flummoxed every time I read our parsha or others in Deuteronomy that constantly reinforce keeping all the mitzvot:
וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם֙ אֶת־כׇּל־הַמִּצְוָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֛ר אָנֹכִ֥י מְצַוְּךָ֖ הַיּ֑וֹם לְמַ֣עַן תֶּחֶזְק֗וּ וּבָאתֶם֙ וִֽירִשְׁתֶּ֣ם אֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַתֶּ֛ם עֹבְרִ֥ים שָׁ֖מָּה לְרִשְׁתָּֽהּ׃
Keep, therefore, all the Instruction that I enjoin upon you today, so that you may have the strength to enter and take possession of the land that you are about to cross into and possess
אֵ֠לֶּה הַֽחֻקִּ֣ים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים֮ אֲשֶׁ֣ר תִּשְׁמְר֣וּן לַעֲשׂוֹת֒ בָּאָ֕רֶץ אֲשֶׁר֩ נָתַ֨ן יְהֹוָ֜ה אֱלֹהֵ֧י אֲבֹתֶ֛יךָ לְךָ֖ לְרִשְׁתָּ֑הּ כׇּ֨ל־הַיָּמִ֔ים אֲשֶׁר־אַתֶּ֥ם חַיִּ֖ים עַל־הָאֲדָמָֽה׃
These are the laws and rules that you must carefully observe in the land that the LORD, God of your fathers, is giving you to possess, as long as you live on the earth
What is really expected from us?
There’s a beautiful story that took place in the early 1800’s involving the Rebbe R’ Pinchas from Koretz and the local tailor (schneider), Shmuel, that I believe sheds light on this question.
One day, R’ Pinchas noticed the gabbai talking to a bunch of people in the front of the shul. He asked, “What’s going on?” The gabbai replied back, “Nothing special, just arranging the funeral for Shmuel the tailor”.
Reb Pinchas replied, “Why didn’t you tell me? I must go to R’ Shmuel’s funeral”. And all along the way, following the tailor’s casket, Reb Pinchas was weeping and urging people to join Shmuel’s funeral.
After the funeral was over, one of R’ Pinchas friends accosted him and said, “R’ Pinchas why are you so moved by this simpleton’s death? We all know he wasn’t such a tzaddik, so why are you making his death out to be such a loss?”
R’ Pinchas replied back, “You never know, my friend, you never know. Two months ago I was marrying off my adopted daughter Channah to the orphan Yaakov. Just hours before the wedding, Yaakov comes up to me and says ‘Rebbi, you didn’t buy me a tallis. How can I get married and not have a tallis?’ I replied back, ‘But Yaakov, I have no money left over, I’ve spent it all on the wedding and Channah’s needs.’ Yaakov left broken-hearted. I decided I’ll make some last-minute efforts. The first house I knocked on turned out to belong to Shmuel the tailor. I begged him, ‘Shmuel I’m marrying off Chanah’la but I need ten more rubles to buy Yaakov a tallis, can you spare some money?’
Shmuel looked embarrassed, ‘Rebbi, you know I’m not a rich man. I don’t have much saved, but I can give you a ruble’. He reached into his chest and gave me the ruble. I was so relieved, ‘Shmuel you don’t know how much this means to me.’
I was only a few feet out into the street, thinking where should I turn to next when I hear Shmuel running after me. ‘Rebbe, I know I haven’t always been the best Jew, but if I give you the nine other rubles, my whole life’s savings, can you promise me a place in the world to come?’ With an elated heart, I told him, ‘Shmuel, if you do this for me, I’m sure there’ll be a very special place for you in the next world.’
Today, as I was walking behind Shmuel’s casket, I saw he was wrapped in Yaakov’s tallis. That tallis, that mitzvah was escorting Shmuel into the next world.”
I believe Rabbi Simlai was delineating the theoretical and the practical. Ideally, there are 613 different ways to connect to God. Yet, individually, we are never able to keep all of them. Some are just for kings, priests (Coheins), Levites, men, or women. No one person could keep all of them. The Talmud is telling us to model ourselves like the later prophets and grab on to those smaller number of ideals, those that our personal passions, the ones our desires dictate.
Rabbi Pinchas shared that whatever we sacrifice for in this world, whatever we maximize our potentials upon here, accompany us to the next world. Certainly, that tallis will follow Shmuel, but you can be sure all the hems and stitches he performed for people that couldn’t pay full price tagged along as well. Ditto for all the coins that he struggled to earn, but used to support his needy family.
I’m constantly amazed as I sit among the volunteers of our many committees. The huge efforts, the calls, the shopping trips, the repairs, the sacrifice of family and relaxation time, all for the growth of our synagogue and the benefit of Judaism and Jews and all people in our area and beyond. These 11, 6, or 3 principles and sacrifices will adorn them as well.
Even if you’re not on a committee, I’m sure you have your own set of charities and sacrifices, we all do.
The Torah adjures us to be all committed, but perhaps that’s just setting the bar high. The convictions we sacrifice for – they make us what we are and accompany us to the end.
Have a great week,