Dear Rabbi Fried,
What is the reason for there being so many mitzvos? I recently learned that according to the Torah, the gentiles only have seven mitzvos, the Jews 613; why such a huge discrepancy? Wouldn’t 10 commandments be enough? Is God out to make life difficult for his “chosen people?”
Excellent question! There are many reasons why God chose to give us the number of mitzvos 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 mitzvos;” (Mishna, Makos Ch. 3).
This Mishna seems counterintuitive, based on your question: If more mitzvos are difficult, how is it, then, a merit for the Jews to increase the number of mitzvos? It would seem to be a demerit.
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 Mishna: The mitzvos, 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 Makos).
We see from this that the increased number of mitzvos is not at all a penalty, 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 to the number of mitzvos, 613. 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 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, providing 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 spiritual pleasures and opportunities for growth.
Lastly, the Kabbalists explain that the 613 mitzvos, made up of 248 “positive” and 365 “negative” (do’s and don’ts). These 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.
These sages elucidate an even deeper understanding: Our bodies were actually created by God to fit the mitzvos! 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 mitzvos. 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 mitzvos!
We should only be open to the possibilities of growth and joy they can provide!
Dear Rabbi Fried,