Dear Rabbi Fried,
Why do the Jewish people have such a large number of mitzvot? I recently learned in religious school that the gentiles only have seven mitzvot, while the Jews have 613. Why such a huge discrepancy? Is God out to make life difficult for his “chosen people”?!
— Leah G.
Excellent question! There are many reasons why God chose to give us the number of mitzvot He did. We examine a few of them in the limited space of this column.
The Mishna says: “The Holy One, blessed be He, desired to bring merit (“lezakos”) to Israel (the Jews) therefore he increased to them Torah and mitzvahs, as it is written (Isaiah 42) ‘God desired to bring them righteousness so He expanded the Torah and glorified it’” (Mishna Makos Ch. 3).
This Mishna seems counterintuitive, based on your question. If more mitzvot are difficult, how is this, then, a merit for the Jews? It would seem to be a punishment, as you have suggested!
Maimonides, the 13th century commentator, says the following: “It is a core Jewish concept that if a person observed one mitzvah out of the 613 properly and respectably without tainting it with any personal motivation, rather purely for its own sake out of love; that person will have merited, from this one observance, to the world to come. This is the meaning of the Mishna. The mitzvahs, by them being many, make it extremely likely that during a Jew’s entire lifetime at least one of them will be fulfilled with perfection of thought and deed. With that perfect mitzvah the person’s soul will attain eternal life…” (Ramba’m Commentary to Mishna end of Makkos).
We see from this Maimonides that the increased number of mitzvot is not a penalty, but rather, an expression of God’s immense love for His people and His desire for them to merit His ultimate, eternal goodness.
Another, deeper explanation is given to the number of mitzvot. The word “lezakos” in the Mishna, besides meaning “merit”, also means “to purify.” Every mitzvah one performs brings the body and soul to a greater level of spiritual purity and perfection; a tikkun for that person. The person’s personal tikkun also brings about a tikkun to the world. There are numerous areas in which each person, and the world, needs a tikkun. Each mitzvah affects the person and the world in a different way. The Midrash compares this to a royal orchard planted by the King’s botanists. Each of the varied trees gives off a different fragrance, diverse fruits and colors with no two alike, provided abundant and manifold pleasures. God’s providing His children with this opportunity is a demonstration of His great affection and desire to provide us with a wide range of diverse and distinct pleasures.
Lastly, the Kabbalists explain that the 613 mitzvot, made up of 248 “positive” and 365 “negative” mitzvot (do’s and don’ts), correspond to the same count of parts in a person’s body. Each mitzvah matches up precisely to its bodily counterpart, providing it light and life. These sages elucidate an even deeper understanding: our bodies were actually created by God to fit the mitzvot! This is based partly on the statement of the “Book of the Zohar” (“Book of Illumination,” the key text of the Kabbalah): “God peered into the Torah and created the world.” This means the Torah was not introduced into the world once it was created; rather it is the blueprint of creation itself. A part of the soul also corresponds to the same body parts. In this way the body and soul very precisely achieve their perfection, their tikkun, through the mitzvot.
How fortunate we are to be the recipients of so many special, unique mitzvot! May we be open to the possibilities of growth and joy they can provide.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Rabbi Fried,