Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 19 July 2008 / 16 Tammuz 5768

Spiritual Anatomy

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Steve in Boston

Dear Rabbi,

Is there an idea that the body is somehow connected to the mitzvot on a metaphysical plane? Of course we do the mitzvot with our bodies, and I imagine the Jewish belief is that the performance of the mitzvah affects the body in general, but is there any basis for the idea I seem to have heard that there is a direct relationship between specific commandments and specific body parts? Maybe it has something to do with the number of mitzvot? Thanks in advance for any thoughts on the subject.

Dear Steve,

There is definitely a relationship between the performance of mitzvot and their effect on the body. One of the meanings of the term “mitzvah” is related to the Hebrew word “tzevet” which means “connected”. The mitzvot are a way of connecting to G-d by performing His will. When we do this we bring out the latent power in the mitzvah originating from His will and draw the light and energy from His essence onto ourselves on both a spiritual and physical level.

Since the system was set up by G-d to work in this way, seemingly insignificant deeds can have a relatively non-proportional effect or outcome. Consider a system of pulleys or cogs where through the ingenuity of the network and interconnectedness of the parts, relatively small movements implemented on the system have major outputs. For example, a crane operator can effortlessly manipulate levers on one end of a system moving tons of weight on the other. So too, small acts of charity, tefillin, Shabbat candles etc. effect great outcomes in the spiritual worlds and all that blessing and goodness in turn affects the one who pulled the levers.

That having been said, the sources specifically link the number of mitzvot to the number of body parts of a person. Here a distinction is made between the positive commandments that are the “dos” and the prohibitions that are the “don’ts”. The idea is as follows: there are 613 mitzvot of which there are 248 dos and 365 don’ts. The 248 dos correspond to what our sources identify as the 248 limbs of the body, while the 365 don’ts correspond to 365 sinews and ligaments. Clearly, there is a connection between the proactive dos and the limbs as instruments of activity, just as there is a connection between the prohibitive don’ts and the restrictive nature of the ligaments.

However, just as there is an organic, holistic relationship between active limbs and limiting sinews such that both seeming opposites are needed for productive movement, so is true regarding both commands and prohibitions. Consider movements of bones and muscle without the restrictive connective tissue. The body parts would just flop about and would not be able to perform any concerted, specific motion or task. It is the very restrictive nature of the tendons, then, which define the context within which action can occur.

On the human plane, we have drives that would propel us in many directions. Unrestricted, these drives lead to recklessness and harm. However, channeling them within the proper restrictive context leads to constructive, productive and beneficial results. This is the relationship between the dos and the don’ts in the Torah. Be fruitful and multiply – but in the proper context of marriage and its purity laws. Consume food – but with compassion for life and in proper measure. Earn a living – but morally and charitably. The list goes on and on and applies to literally everything we think, say or do.

I’ll conclude with an analogy. There’s no greater potential life-giving material than water. However, in order to harness that potential it has to be restricted, protected and preserved. Too much water can at once destroy and also be wasted. Because it’s so inherently valuable, it has to be guarded from misuse. Since it may be depleted it must be preserved. How is this accomplished? By storing it. Again, it is the very nature of the restrictive walls of the container, then, which enable the productive use of the water. Without those restrictive walls, the potent fluid would spill out in all directions and be wasted unproductively. But it is those very same restrictive walls that enable the water poured therein to be preserved and rise to full capacity.

This describes the nature of the relationship between the positive commandments and the prohibitions. Only by pouring our creative powers and energies into the context of Torah will our endeavors be preserved and productive, resulting in spiritual elevation and enabling us to realize our full potential.

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