The Anatomy of a Mitzvah

For the week ending 17 February 2018 / 2 Adar II 5778

The Anatomy of a Mitzvah

by Rabbi Yitzchak Botton
Artscroll Library

The Torah, primarily a book of mitzvot, does not begin with the first command from G-d to the Jewish People. Instead, before being told what to do, the Torah first tells us of G-d’s infinite powers: How He created the world, took notice of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov’s great devotion towards Him, how he redeemed their descendants from Egyptian bondage with great miracles and chose them to be His “nation of priests”. Finally at Mount Sinai, we, the Jewish People, received the Torah, together with all its commandments.

613 Commandments

“Rabbi Simlai expounded: 613 commandments were related to Moshe (in the Torah); 365 negative commandments, corresponding to the days of the solar year, and 248 positive commandments, corresponding to the number of limbs in the human body.” Rashi explains that each of the 365 days urges a person, as it were, not to sin, and each of a person’s organs encourages him to perform a mitzvah. Among the most well-known compilations enumerating the mitzvot are the Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvot and the Sefer HaChinuch (attributed by many to Rabbi Aharon HaLevi of Barcelona).

The Zohar makes a further connection between the 365 negative commandments and the 365 sinews and ligaments found within a person’s body. According to the Zohar, each day of the year matches up with a particular sinew and negative commandment. For example, the day of Tisha B’Av corresponds with the prohibition against eating the gid hanashe, the sciatic nerve, which is the sinew on Yaakov’s body that was struck by the angel in Parshat Vayetze. Accordingly, the Zohar concludes that eating food on Tisha B’Av is tantamount to eating the gid hanashe.

613 Connections

The word “mitzvah” is understood by some to mean “a good deed”. Although true (since doing what G-d asks is by definition a good deed), the word mitzvah is more accurately translated as “commandment,” as we find it appearing numerous times in the Torah in reference to G-d’s commands.

Yet, in a deeper sense, our Rabbis explain that the word mitzvah is related to the Aramaic word “tzavta,” meaning “connection”. The idea can be understood as follows: Mankind’s purpose in this world is to fulfill G-d’s will, as expressed through the 613 mitzvot of the Torah. Thus, by fulfilling the mitzvot, a person transcends his physical limited existence, and connects to G-d.

In this manner we can appreciate Shlomo HaMelech’s closing statement to the book of Kohelet. “The sum of the matter: Fear Gd, and keep His commandments, for this is the totality of man.” Man’s 613 limbs and sinews can only find true and eternal expression through fulfillment of the mitzvot.

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