613 Mitzvos

An impossible task?

By Rabbi Dovid Samuels

At Har Sinai, we all famously proclaimed: “Na’aseh v’nishmah!” – “We will do and we will learn!” We received 613 mitzvos – 613 ways to connect to our Creator, and every single one is necessary. The Sh’lah[1] – one of the most famous Kabbalists from the 17th Century – teaches us an important concept that has become very well-known: the human body is made up of 248 limbs and 365 sinews. The 613 mitzvos of the Torah are made up of 248 positive commandments, and 365 negative commandments. When we perform the 248 mitzvos, we energise each one of our 248 limbs with spiritual power, and rectify our whole body so that when we ascend to Heaven our spiritual make-up will be pristine and perfect. As wonderful as this idea is, it should immediately evoke a question in every one of us: Can we really do it?

If we go through the 248 positive mitzvos in the Torah, we will quickly realise that it is apparently impossible for any one of us to fulfil all of them. For example, at the time of writing, the Holy Temple had still not been built. With the absence of the Beis Hamikdash is the inability to fulfil many of the commandments pertaining to the sacrifices and Temple service. Unless you are a Kohein, you are unable to fulfil many mitzvos. Levirate marriage and being a King are not applicable to everyone. Some mitzvos only apply to men, and some only to women. Many mitzvos only apply inside Eretz Yisroel. So, in our quest to perfect our physical and spiritual composition, have we bitten off more than we can chew?

So, let’s go back about 2 000 years, to a famous event[2] with one of our most holy Sages, and we will find amazing answers to our question. Hillel and Shammai were approached by a prospective convert who made a bizarre request: “Covert me, on one leg (regel).” Shammai refused, but Hillel taught the convert, “What you do not like, do not do to your fellow. That is the main part of the Torah, the rest is commentary, go and learn it.” The Yetev Lev[3] offers an inspiring explanation of this strange episode. He says that this prospective convert was bothered with our very question: how is it possible for one person to be able to fulfil all of the mitzvos in the Torah? He himself had an answer: through gilgulim – reincarnations. If a person was alive in the time of the Temple, he could fulfil those mitzvos, and in another life, another embodiment, he could be a Kohein, and then afterwards perhaps a woman. After a few gilgulim, he could have fulfilled all of the 248 mitzvos in the Torah, reaching a physical and spiritual perfection. But this convert wasn’t satisfied with that option, so he asked Hillel and Shammai to teach him the whole Torah on one “regel”, which we normally translate as a leg, but it can also be translated as a time period or event[4]. In other words, he was requesting: “Teach me the way to fulfil the entire Torah in one lifetime, without having to rely on reincarnations for those mitzvos I cannot fulfil in this lifetime.”

So, what advice did Hillel give this man, and thereby teach us how we should approach this daunting task of complete mitzvah observance? Firstly, the wise Hillel said: “What you do not like, do not do to your fellow.” This idea teaches us a primary concept in the entire Torah and our service of Hashem: Unity of the Jewish people. What Hillel was saying was that it is not possible for everyone in one lifetime to fulfil all of the mitzvos, but when one Jew acknowledges his intrinsic connection to other Jews, he becomes a partner with them in their mitzvah observance. Just like each limb of the body is limited to its role and abilities, and relies on other limbs of the body to function properly, so too each Jew needs his fellow for his full functionality. So if, for example, a Jew finds a way to unite with a Kohein, perhaps through an act of chessed or tzedakah, they fuse together and through this unity the mitzvos can be fulfilled through partnership. The more a person unifies himself with the greater body of Klal Yisroel, the more the mitzvos of some affect everyone else.

But Hillel didn’t stop there. He added, “Go and learn the rest.” He was explaining to the convert that even uniting with the Jewish people might not suffice, like in our times when there is not Temple, so no matter how much we join together, there are still no Jews offering up sacrifices for us to partner with. So Hillel gave a fantastic solution to this problem: “Go and learn.” He was teaching the convert, and all of us, that the act of learning Torah can be considered as if we have actually fulfilled the mitzvah itself. In the event where a person cannot fulfil a mitzvah, learning the Torah serves as a substitute.

With this idea we can understand a strange statement of our Sages[5]. They asked, which is better: performing mitzvos or learning Torah, and they answered: Torah is greater, because it leads to performance of mitzvos. The answer is peculiar, because it seems to imply that actually performing the mitvzos is more important, just that Torah leads to it. But now we understand what our Sages were really saying: Learning Torah is greater, because when we learn, not only are we performing the great mitzvah of learning Torah, but it is also considered as if we are fulfilling the mitzvos we are learning about.

The Tiferes Shlomo[6] takes this idea even further. He teaches us that when Hashem gave us His Torah, He gave us two avenues of fulfilling its precepts. One way is to actively perform the mitzvos. The other way is to learn about them, and delve into the Torah behind the mitzvah. He says that while both are totally necessary, the second way is much greater than the first. The reason is that when someone is interacting with the mitzvos in a purely performance-based and perfunctory way, he is completely limited by time and space and his own physical abilities. A person can’t, for example, perform the mitzvah of sitting in a sukkah during Pesach. Nor can he do the mitzvah of eating matzah at Chanukah. But when a person engages in limmud haTorah, learning Torah, he transcends physical limitations. He can delve into the laws of sukkah in the middle of Rosh Hashanah, and it’s as if he’s there! He can learn about the mitzvah of shofar on Shavuos, and it’s as if he is hearing it! And, where the performance of a mitzvah is limited by the short amount of time spent doing it, a person could be learning about it for hours and hours, even weeks or months, and it is considered as if he was continually performing that mitzvah.

This great gift and opportunity that we have, to be able to transcend all physical limitations and connect to Hashem in the most intimate way through learning His Torah, is on condition that a person would be willing to perform the mitzvah physically if he was given the opportunity. The reason is, because if a person would forgo performing the mitzvah and instead only learn about it, he is showing that there is an aspect of the mitzvah that he is not concerned about: the active performance of it. If, however, a person would learn about the mitzvah and also perform it when it presents itself, he is showing that every aspect of this connection with Hashem is important to him, but he will not be limited to the transient action. Instead he will have experienced both the body and the soul of the mitzvah.

Hashem says to us[7]: “If you will listen to my voice and guard my covenant, you will be an am segula from all of the nations…” In other words, if we take up this task of continually accepting Hashem’s Torah upon us, we will be a most precious and outstanding people, among all the other nations. But is this really the greatest praise? When we accept and fulfil the Torah, we are, in fact, better than even the angels! So why is Hashem praising us as being greater than the nations of the world? But we now know the answer. Our receiving the Torah was not simply a list of dos and don’ts. It transported us into a new reality whereby we could connect to our Creator not only through action, but through His words. By learning and cleaving to every word of His holy Torah, we can relate to Hashem in the most sublime way, without any restrictions of time or space. This was offered to the Jews, not to the nations of the world. When we keep the Torah, of course we are greater than angels! But what Hashem is reminding us of is that when we keep the Torah, and we learn it, we are greater than any other nation of the world; for they are limited to their practical performance. They are constrained by space and time. But the Torah we received, and continue to receive, sets us free from all of those constraints, and lets us relate to the Infinite.

At Har Sinai we proclaimed: “Na’aseh v’nishmah!” – “We will do and we will learn!” For this we received two crowns on our heads. For both of these statements we thank Hashem: for we can do; we can actively perform His great mitzvos and connect to Him through our bodies. But when we cannot do; when we find ourselves in a situation where we cannot fulfil all of the mitzvos – like the concern of Hillel’s convert – we can learn. And our learning will energise and perfect all of our 248 limbs and 316 sinews, as if we have actually done them ourselves. Blessed are you, Hashem, who chose us from all of the nations, and gave us your Torah.

  1. Rabbi Yishayahu Horowitz (c. 1555-1630). Named the Sh’lah as an acronym of his famous work: Shnei Luchos Habris.
  2. Shabbos 31a
  3. Rabbi Yekusiel Yehuda Teitelbaum (1808-1883). The Sigeter Rebbe.
  4. The three festivals are referred to as the shalosh “regalim”.
  5. Kiddushin 40a
  6. Rabbi Shlomo HaKohein Rabinowicz (1801-1866). The first Rebbe of Radomsk.
  7. Shmos 19:5

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