Excerpted from the just-published book Jewish Wisdom in the Numbers.
There are 613 commandments in the written Torah.1 Torah is the blueprint of Creation.2 It is the “plan of action” conveyed as the word of God. The 613 Commandments are how the Torah finds expression in the practical realm – they are the action or inaction itself that must be observed by man.
The 613 Commandments have their source in the infinite dimension of Torah. Because every mitzvah has its foundation within Torah, there is nothing that is equal in importance to Torah study.3 Nevertheless, learning Torah is insufficient if it does not naturally result in mitzvah observance. Studying Torah must therefore see the transfer from theory into practice.4 This means that Torah, in addition to its own merit, carries within it the merit of the mitzvah observance that it helps bring about.5
Every mitzvah is likened to an individual lamp that emerges from the unified light of Torah. A mitzvah is specific and often time-bound; Torah is a single general unified whole.6 Consequently, the protection afforded by a mitzvah lamp is temporary compared to the continuous protection offered by Torah.7
613: By Royal Appointment
At the core of every mitzvah is the meaningful relationship that it creates between man and God. This element is borne out by the Hebrew word “mitzvah,” commandment, associated with the Aramaic word “tzavta,” meaning connection or togetherness.8 Man as the metzuveh, one who is commanded, becomes one with God, his Metzaveh, Commander. Where man submits his will to the Will of God, he is now able to go beyond himself and become part of something infinitely greater: he now experiences togetherness with God. 9
The basis of the 613 Commandments is that they must be faithfully executed as decrees of the King. This means that a Jew lovingly accepts the Sovereignty of God upon himself; he yields himself as a loyal subject.10 He obeys the royal edict because this is what God wants. The Jew confirms to God: “Your command is my wish.” This stands as the exclusive reason of why I want to do it. There is no other intention or ulterior motive attached whereby man questions, “What is in it for me?”11
This does not imply that a Jew does not benefit from mitzvah observance – he does. But he sees the resultant good as incidental; it should not feature as his original objective.12 This acceptance of God’s Kingship means that a Jew is prepared to fulfill not just 612, but all 613 Commandments in their entirety.13
613: The Living Law
The Divine decrees of the 613 Commandments encompass every area of a Jew’s life. They pertain to every situation in which man may find himself. They have universal application: from arising in the morning to retiring at night, from a Jew’s birth until his dying breath, from the lowly servant to the powerful king. Every sphere of human activity – without exception – comes under the umbrella of Torah.
In the end, the one who benefits most from mitzvah practice is man himself. It would be a travesty for a Jew to view the 613 Commandments as painful, restrictive impositions that impede man’s enjoyment of life. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Actually, the 613 Commandments are not dissimilar to the definitive set of instructions issued by the manufacturer of an appliance for the benefit of the recent purchaser to get the most out of the product. So, too, did God give the 613 Commandments as the complete manual of living to teach a Jew how he can effectively get the most out of his life, draw close to God, and earn eternity in Olam Haba, the World to Come. This is why the 613 Commandments are also termed “613 pieces of advice.”14 They are the best directives for how to effectively live a fulfilled, meaningful life. A life of Torah is perfectly suited to the identity of a Jew.15
613: Getting Close
Every mitzvah is a glorious opportunity to connect to God. Due to Israel’s higher spiritual level, they are given hundreds more commandments than the non-Jews.16 Even in the most desperate set of circumstances when all seems lost, the Jew will discover some mitzvah opportunity that will throw him a lifeline. Imagine someone falling overboard from a ship into the churning, chopping seas; he will desperately cling for dear life to a rope connected to the vessel.17 The 613 Commandments are the rope that lifts man from the depths of the physical world and elevates him to the higher world to return him to God.18
Every single mitzvah – without exception – is empowered to create an inner relationship with God. The ability to achieve closeness to God is exclusively achieved through loyally fulfilling His Torah and 613 Commandments.19 A Jew is more in touch with the spiritual, Divine intellect association within every mitzvah, which marks him as a worthy receptacle to receive Torah.20 Together, the 613 Commandments are characterized as 613 pathways of the Torah.21 The relationship with God formed by the mitzvot comes to define the life of a Jew.
In every relationship, there are rules that define what to do and what not to do. First, there must be an area in which to establish the bond between the parties through deeds. Every act positively solidifies the relationship. This is manifest in the 248 Positive Commandments. Through fulfilling the Divine Will, man actively builds up his relationship and draws close to his Creator. These Positive Commandments provide man with the medium to go from potential to actual and attain a measure of perfection.22 Second, there is the imperative to prevent any deviation that may negatively fracture the relationship. This is manifest in the 365 Prohibitive Commandments. Their purpose is to ensure that man does not depart from the right pathway.23
613: The Human body
Man is categorized as an “olam katan,” a world in microcosm.24 Everything God wishes to reveal in the universe can be viewed in miniature within man. Man was not created complete; he was created to complete himself. There is the famous principle, man is formed according to his actions.25 Just as creation finds expression through the physical world, so too, man’s potential is realized in the actual through the practical enactment of the 613 Commandments. The commandments, which relate to the Divine intellect of Torah, enable man to connect with his spiritual self. He is then not pulled down by his coarse physical composition.26
Strikingly, the 248 Positive Commandments have their parallel in 248 limbs,27 while the 365 Prohibitive Commandments match up with the 365 ligaments/sinews.28 Together, they parallel the 613 Commandments such that every mitzvah has its living expression via its corresponding physical component.
The human body is the tailored garment of the soul. Because there are 613 spiritual components of the soul, it is appropriately clad in the 613 parts of the body. The essence of man, his soul, operates by means of his limbs and ligaments, which find expression through the 613 components of the body. Parallel to the food needed by the physical body to sustain itself, the 613 Commandments are the spiritual sustenance of the soul.29
Every single mitzvah, like its physical equivalent, is unique. No two are precisely the same. A Jew must relate to God using every facet of his biological anatomy. Here the resounding message is that the physical makeup of man’s body is purposely designed to fulfill the Divine Will.
It is the Godliness within the 613 Commandments that refines man’s soul from his coarse physical side: “God wanted to purify Israel – which is why He gave them Torah and commandments in abundance.”30 They sanctify the 613 parts of the human body to truly become a vehicle for spirituality in achieving closeness to God.31
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1. Makkos 23b. Some of the greatest Torah scholars through the ages (including Rav Saadiah Gaon in Sefer HaMitzvos, Sefer HaMitzvos HaGadol, Sefer HaMitzvos HaKatan, Sefer Yere’im) have fiercely debated which laws are to be included in the 613 Commandments. Perhaps the most famous listing is the Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvos, which the author of the Sefer HaChinuch used in his codification of the 613 Commandments arranged according to the weekly portion in which they appear. (The Rambam uses 14 rules to determine the criteria necessary for a mitzvah’s inclusion as one of the 613 Commandments. See Rambam’s Introduction to Sefer HaMitzvos).
2. Zohar, Terumah 161b.
3. Mishnah, Pe’ah 1:1.
4. R’ Chaim Volozhin, Nefesh HaChaim 4:29-30.
5. Maharal, Nesiv HaTorah 1. Torah study conveys merit. The absence of merit from Torah study is not as great as the deficiency caused by neglecting to fulfill a mitzvah obligation. It is for this reason that where a mitzvah cannot be performed by others, it takes precedence over Torah study. See ibid. for how, because a man learning Torah uses his intellect to study the word of God, his study is on a far more superior level than mitzvah performance enacted through the lower medium of the physical body.
6. Vilna Gaon, Mishlei 1:9, 4:2.
7. Sotah 21a.
8. Shelah HaKadosh, Yoma, Derech Chaim Tochachas Mussar (16).
9. This casts light on the axiom, “Greater is the one who is commanded and acts than the one who is not commanded but acts” (Kiddushin 31a). The sincere self-expression of man is admirable, but it is never more than his will. However, where man submits himself to the Divine Will, he proceeds to touch and link with infinity.
10. See Mechilta, Shemos 20:3.
11. Maharal, Tiferes Yisrael 6.
12. The intrinsic nature of the 613 mitzvos as “Divine decrees” leads them, in turn, to provide many benefits. This is how the saying, “God wanted to merit/purify Israel – which is why He gave them Torah and mitzvos in abundance” (Makkos 23b), should be interpreted according to the Maharal (op. cit. 6).
13. See Rabbeinu Yonah, Sha’arei Teshuvah 1:6, for the ruling that a servant is obliged to accept all his master’s instructions – without exception. Should he accept only 612 rules but not the 613rd, he is not a true servant. He continues to be the arbiter of what he does and what he does not accept.
14. Zohar 2, 82b.
15. See Maharal, Tiferes Yisrael 1, 5, 56.
17. Bamidbar Rabbah 17:6; Tanchuma, Shelach 15.
18. Maharal, op. cit. 4.
19. Ibid. 9.
20. Ibid. 1.
21. Zohar 3, 136a.
22. Maharal, Tiferes Yisrael 4, 7. See “248: In Action.”
23. Maharal, ibid. See “365: For Your Protection”. See Sfas Emes, Vayishlach 5658, who characterizes the 248 as the limbs that are vessels to receive holy influence from the soul while the 365 are safeguards for this light not to dissipate elsewhere.
24. Tanchuma, Pekudei 3; see also Rabbeinu Bachya, Bereishis 1:27; Rambam, Moreh Nevuchim 1:72; Malbim, Introduction to “Allusions of the Mishkan.”
25. Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 16.
26. Maharal, Tiferes Yisrael 2-4.
27. See Mishnah, Oholos 1:8, for the computation of the 248 limbs. See also Makkos 23b and “248: In Action.”
28. Zohar 1, 170b.
29. R’ Chaim Vital, Shaar Kedushah 1:1.
30. Makkos 23b. See Maharal, op. cit. 5, for how just as a loving father will coerce his son to do something that will eventually be to his benefit, God compels Israel to perform the Commandments that will ultimately be for their benefit.
31. Maharal, op. cit. 7.