Hi. You wrote last week about the many mitzvot that we keep and why that is good for us. I thought a lot of the mitzvot can only be performed in Israel and some only with a Temple. So aren’t there actually hundreds of mitzvot we cannot even do?
— Steve B.
You are correct; out of the 613 total mitzvos, many of them apply only when most of the Jewish people are in Israel, and when the holy Temple in Jerusalem is standing. This includes many mitzvos which apply to the Land itself, such as laws of tithing the produce and gifting certain amounts of it to the Cohanim (priests) and Levites, to the poor during certain years, and many other mitzvos.
It also includes the mitzvos performed in the Temple, the offerings, the Temple service, the songs of the Levites, and many others too numerous to enumerate in the limited space we have. In fact, out of the 613 mitzvos, only 270 of them apply to us today in the Diaspora (still not an insignificant number!).
One of the early classical works of Jewish thought is called the Sefer Hachinuch (Book of Education, published anonymously in the 13th century; some attribute the authorship to R’ Aharon Halevy of Barcelona). In this epic work the author enumerates, elucidates and explains the 613 mitzvos in great depth and with much meaning. In the preface, the author offers a cryptic hint by which we should remember the number of 270 mitzvos which apply to us today. He tells us that this number is implicit in the verse “ani yesheina v’libi er,” or “I am sleeping but my heart is awake” (Song of Songs 5:2).
The word for awake, “er,” spelled ayin reish, carries the numerical value of 270, hence the hint in remembering the number of mitzvos which apply today.
A key principle in the study of the early commentaries is that when they offer a hint in a verse, through numerical value (gematria) or otherwise, one must realize that they are not simply suggesting an arbitrary memory device. Rather, they are showing us a profound insight in the matter at hand. There is a lesson in the verse they quote for understanding more deeply the matter at hand.
In this case, the lesson is clear. The Jewish people are only truly alive and awake in the fullest sense when we are dwelling in our Land and fulfilling the Torah in its entirety. Each and every mitzvah corresponds to a different limb or organ of our bodies, infusing them with holiness, making us “awake” or connected in the deepest way to the Al-mighty through our every thought and action.
All the mitzvos could never apply to any one Jew (some apply only to women, some only to men, some only to priests or Levites, some only to common Jews, etc.). Nevertheless, since all Jewish souls are connected into one great body called the Jewish people, the sum total of the body fulfills all the 613 mitzvos through the fulfillment of the others that they directly apply to.
In this way all the Jews are considered to be fulfilling all the mitzvos.
King Solomon in his amazing Song teaches us that in the Diaspora “ani yesheina,” “I am asleep.” Without all the mitzvos, the great body of the Jewish people is in deep slumber, lacking that vibrant connection of every part of our existence to the Al-mighty.
We should not, however, despair, because “libi er,” “my heart is awake!” Although my extremities may be in a state of slumber, my heart, the core of my existence and life, is still awake. I am still alive! Like the prophecy of the “dry bones” of Ezekiel, hinting to the Jewish people in Diaspora, they come back to life through the spark of life which never left them.
That spark of life, the awakened state of our hearts, derives its energy from the remaining connection we have to the Al-mighty, the Source of life.
That connection is the 270 mitzvos which remain with us throughout our travels, our trials and tribulations. They are our lifeline to remain connected to our Land and our past; they are our future and define us as a nation.
We may be dreaming, but, if we remain connected to those mitzvos, we are not truly sleeping!