The Torah enumerates 613 mitzvot – 613 different ways to develop spiritually and to connect to God. Most of these mitzvot are limited by time, person or opportunity. For example eating matzah only applies on Passover.1 Brit Milah only applies to a baby boy. And so it is with almost all the mitzvot.
However, there are six special mitzvot that we observe at all times and under all circumstances.2
Rather than requiring the performance of a certain action, these mitzvot are a "state of being," a reality of living with God's existence. The degree to which a person fulfills these mitzvot, determines the closeness of his relationship with God.
This essay is based on the series, "Six Constant Mitzvot," by Rabbi Noah Weinberg.
1) Know there is a God
The first of the Ten Commandments declares: "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt."3 This is the mitzvah to "know there is a God." Awareness of God is the foundation of Judaism.4
The underlying logic of this commandment seems difficult to understand. Someone who already observes God's commands obviously believes in His existence, so what need is there for a command to do so? And if someone doesn't know that God exists, he probably won't accept such a commandment in the first place!
So exactly who is this mitzvah for?
The Torah is telling us that our belief in God should not be based on "faith" alone, but also on investigation and knowledge.5 In order to strengthen faith, one should research, study and analyze the philosophical evidence6 of God as Creator, Sustainer and Supervisor of the universe.
Beyond intellectual knowledge that God is in charge of everything, one must also know it in his heart. As the verse says: "You shall know this day, and understand it in your heart, that the Almighty is God."7
This emotional knowledge is more profound, because it affects a person's actions. A child will jump off a ledge into his father's arms, with complete confidence that his father will catch him. That is the level of trust and awareness we should have in God.
One way to develop trust in God is to appreciate how much the Almighty loves us.8 The closest thing we can compare this to is the love a parent has for a child. Yet our Almighty Father in Heaven has a love for us that exceeds all the love in this world.
Trust in God means understanding that God knows what's good for us, and that everything happens for the best. By seeing how much He's already done for you, you know He is providing all your needs, as the verse says, "Open your mouth and I [God] will fill it,"9 and "You [God] open Your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing."10
2) Don't Believe in Other Gods
The second of the Six Constant Mitzvot (and the second of the Ten Commandments) instructs us not to believe in other gods, i.e. ascribing power to anything other than God.11 In ancient societies (and some modern ones), this prohibition manifests itself in the worship of idols. Likewise, accepting any being as a mediator between God and man is a denial of the very essence of Judaism.12
The Torah13 says: "There should not be a strange god inside of you." What type of strange god lies inside a human being?
The Talmud14 identifies this strange god as the Yetzer Hara – the human inclination to be distracted from God.
Today, it's not uncommon to believe that money, fame or a fast computer is the source of happiness and success. As such, this denies God as the only power in the universe, and is a form of idolatry.
Another violation of this mitzvah is to ignore God's role in our accomplishments and instead take credit for ourselves. As the verse says, "Perhaps you will eat and become full... you will become very rich and will have plenty of everything. And then you might become arrogant, forgetting the Almighty... saying, 'My power, the strength of my hand, made me all this wealth'."15
Of course, to achieve results, a person has to invest effort. But the materials, circumstances, and ultimate result are all provided by God. As the verse says, "Remember the Lord your God, because He gives you the power to accomplish anything."16
The question is: How much of an effort should we make, versus relying on God to make it happen? The precise amount of effort is a sliding scale, varying according to each individual's level of trust in God.
3) God is One
Everyone is familiar with the Shema, the Jewish declaration of God's unity: "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one."17 This verse is found inside the tefillin, is inscribed on the mezuzah, and is recited twice each day.
One of the greatest contributions that Jews gave the world is the idea of monotheism. The difference between one God and many deities is not simply a matter of quantity. Rather, one God implies one absolute truth, and one system of justice and morality. Further, "God is one" means that He is totally unchanging. He created time and is not subject to it.18
Maimonides writes that the greatest wisdom a human being can attain is to comprehend the oneness of God. Included in this mitzvah is to reject any notion of plurality or parts of God. Hence, the concept of a trinity is antithetical to Judaism.19
What about the role of evil in the world? In Jewish thought, evil is not an independent force. All the challenges are designed only to bring out the best in you. Something "bad" is a chance to make the right choice and bring us closer to God. And God never gives a challenge which is too difficult to overcome.20
In the afternoon service on Shabbat, we say, "You are one, and Your Name is one, and who is like Your people Israel." This prayer speaks about the idyllic End of Days, when the Jewish people will be harmoniously united, and all humanity will recognize how everything comes from God.
4) Love God
The Torah says: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your hearts, with all your soul, and with all your possessions."21
Love is the emotional pleasure of perceiving another's virtues. Maimonides writes: "A person can only love according to the degree he knows the object of his love. If he knows a little, he can love a little. And if he knows a lot, he can love a lot."22
In one respect, the mitzvah to "love God" is easy, since everything about God is virtuous.23 Yet the challenge is to develop the means by which to "know" Him.
One means of becoming more in touch with God is to study the wonders of nature. Maimonides writes: "When one ponders God's great and wonderful acts of creation, and sees in them a genius that has no comparison, then automatically a person will love, praise, glorify, and deeply desire to know the greatness of God."24
Further, when a person considers all the good that God constantly does for him, he will naturally be overcome by feelings of love.25 God created the universe only for our benefit.26 He gives you every strength and ability. He helps you get a job, find a spouse, and build a home. He keeps you breathing27 and gives you life itself.
The Sages instituted blessings to help facilitate this pursuit.28 We praise God when eating, when doing mitzvot, and when experiencing lifecycle events.
On a national level as well, we appreciate how God has made the Jews the eternal nation, and brought that precious heritage to each of us.
Another way to love God is through Torah study.29 The Torah is God's handbook for humanity, the ultimate repository for wisdom. The more one studies Torah and observes the mitzvot, the more one appreciates the perfection, consistency and harmony of God's system.30
Loving God is a constant mitzvah, because one should be constantly preoccupied with the pursuit of closeness to God. Maimonides compares this to the intense yearnings that a man feels for a woman.31 We should be so totally involved with the desire for God that there's no room for anything else. And we should be willing to sacrifice anything for God.32 This doesn't mean we should deny our love for family, beautiful things, etc. But we need to take those desires, build upon them, and plug them back into the ultimate Source.
5) Fear God
The Torah tells us to be constantly in fear of God.33
Imagine hidden cameras monitoring your progress through life. You will be accountable for every action and choice. Are you maximizing life's opportunity, or wasting it? With God, everything is recorded, and sooner or later, we'll have to answer for our actions. This serves as a check against unthinking mistakes.34
Fear is often misunderstood to be a solely negative emotion. Actually, fear is only negative when one person is trying to be fearsome and controlling over another. But fear of reality – the possibility of missed opportunities – is a motivation to get us where we want to be. We often say: "I want to be good, but I don't want to make the effort." Fear motivates you to get the job done.
When a person dies and goes to heaven, the judgment is not arbitrary and externally imposed. Rather, every decision and every thought, all the good deeds, and the embarrassing things done in private are all replayed without embellishment.35 That's why the next world is called Olam HaEmet, "the World of Truth," because there we clearly see our strengths and shortcomings, and the true purpose of life.36
Walk with that constant awareness. It can motivate you to greatness.
6) Don't be Misled by Your Heart and Eyes
Our world is filled with sensory stimulation: TV, radio, billboards, Internet – all expertly designed to tap into our visceral drives.
Yet the Torah says: "Don't be misled by your hearts and eyes."37 The Jewish idea is to follow logic, not whims. And precisely because the sensory pull is so pervasive, we have a constant challenge to strengthen ourselves and not be led astray.38
A close reading of the verse shows: "Don't be misled by your hearts" – in the plural. In Jewish thought, human beings have two "hearts." Our divine soul, the Yetzer Tov, wants to do all the right things: to love humanity, seek justice, be altruistic, sensible, honorable and responsible. It wants to grow, achieve, and fulfill its potential. Ultimately it seeks to emulate and connect with its infinite, eternal source – the Almighty.
Yet we humans also have a body, an "animal soul" that we refer to as the Yetzer Hara. It seeks satisfaction for the moment, to escape into the world of comfort. The body wants to eat, sleep, lust. It is destined for the grave.
At every moment of decision, a person needs to ask: What does my soul want, versus what does my body want?
Consider the metaphor of a car and driver. You have to maintain your car mechanically and fuel it with quality gasoline. If you abuse the car, it won't take you where you want to go. But of course the car is not more important than the driver. Someone who neglects his family and instead spends hours waxing his car has poor priorities.
So too, with the body and soul. Keep the body feeling good so the soul can tackle life's greater challenges. But don't indulge in physical pleasure for its own sake. Use a controlled amount, for the right reasons at the right times. Become a master over materialism, and not vice versa. In this way the physical pleasure becomes a stepping-stone to higher pleasures.
When engaging in any physical activity – eating, working, leisure – ask yourself: Why am I doing this? What's the goal? Will it bring me closer to God, or further away?
Included in this mitzvah is a requirement to avoid all thoughts that may distance a person from God.39 Try to steer away from reading material40 and social situations41 that can harm you spiritually.
The key is to avoid temptations. If you were on a diet, you wouldn't keep chocolate cake around the house. So too, if you want your eyes and mind to stay where they belong, avoid compromising situations in the first place.
- Orach Chaim 18:1
- Bi’ur Halacha 1:1, based on the introduction to the Sefer HaChinuch
- Exodus 20:2
- Rambam (Yesodei HaTorah 1:6)
- Kuzari 5:21; Radak (Isaiah 40:26); Sefer Chassidim #14
- Moreh Nevuchim 3:51; Chovot HaLevavot 1:3
- Deut. 4:39; the Aleynu prayer
- Chovot HaLevavot 4:2 (Sha'ar HaBitachon)
- Psalms 81:11
- Psalms 145:16
- Exodus 20:3; Rambam (Yesodei HaTorah 1:6)
- Rambam (Yesodei HaTorah 1:6, Avoda Zara 1:1); Handbook of Jewish Thought (volume I, 1:14-15)
- Exodus 20:2 with Ibn Ezra and Ramban; Sefer HaChinuch 26
- Shabbat 105b
- Deut. 8:12-17
- Deut. 8:18
- Deut. 6:4
- Malachi 3:6; Rambam (Yesodei HaTorah 1:10-11)
- Emunot V’Deyot 2:5-7; Moreh Nevuchim 1:50
- Rashi – Psalms 147:17; cf. Michtav Me’Eliyahu (vol. 3, pg. 293)
- Deut. 6:5
- Rambam (Teshuva 10:6)
- Psalms 145:17.
- Rambam (Yesodei HaTorah 2:2)
- Reishit Chochma (Sha’ar HaAhava 9 82c); Sefer Chasidim 31
- Derech HaShem 1:2:1
- Devarim Rabba 2:26
- Sefer HaChinuch 430
- Rashi (Deut. 6:6); Reishit Chochma (Sha’ar HaTeshuva 6c 123c)
- cf. Rambam (Yesodei HaTorah 2:2)
- Rambam (Teshuva 10:3)
- Brachot 61b; Sefer Chasidim 14
- Deut. 10:20
- Rambam (Avot 1:3); Tosfot (Sotah 22b)
- Talmud – Kiddushin 39b; Avot 2:1
- Talmud – Pesachim 50a; Baba Batra 10b
- Numbers 15:39
- Sefer HaChinuch 387
- Rambam (Avoda Zara 2:3)
- Rambam (Avoda Zara 2:3)
- Talmud – Avot 1:7