By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Dear Rabbi Fried,
What is the reason for there being so many mitzvot? I recently learned that according to the Torah, the gentiles only have seven mitzvot. Jews have 613. Why such a huge discrepancy? Wouldn’t 10 commandments be enough? 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 that He did. We’ll try to look at a few of them.
Our sages state: “The Holy One, blessed be He, desired to bring merit (lezakos) to Israel (the Jews); therefore He increased for them Torah and mitzvot” (Mishnah, Makos Ch. 3).
This Mishna seems counterintuitive, based on your question: If more mitzvot are difficult, how is it, then, a merit for the Jews to increase the number of mitzvot? It would seem to be a punishment.
Maimonides (13th century) explains this statement: “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 Mishnah. The mitzvot, 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 Mishnah, end of Makos).
We see from this that the increased number of mitzvot is not a penalty, but rather, an expression of God’s immense love for His people — to grant them as many opportunities as possible to merit His ultimate, eternal goodness.
Another, deeper explanation is given for the number of mitzvot. The word lezakos in the Mishnah, 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 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; no two are alike, providing abundant and manifold pleasures. God, in providing this gift to His children, demonstrates His great affection and His desire for us to have a wide range of diverse and distinct spiritual pleasures and opportunities for growth.
Lastly, the Kabbalists explain that the 613 mitzvot, made up of 248 “positive” and 365 “negative” (do’s and don’ts) correspond to the same count of body parts contained in a person’s body. Each mitzvah matches up precisely to its body-counterpart, providing it light and life.
Thus, the sages provide an even deeper understanding, that 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 after the world 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. For this reason the number of 613 is very precise, and couldn’t be any other way.
How fortunate we are to be the recipients of so many special, unique mitzvot! We should only 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.