The Importance of Mitzvos

By Rabbi Naftali Silberberg

 

Question:

Are certain mitzvot more important than others?

 

Answer:

Indeed, there is a pecking order when it comes to mitzvot—with some considered more important than others. For example, our Sages tell us that the observance of Shabbat is “the equivalent of all the mitzvot combined,”[1] and they make similar statements regarding the mitzvot of charity,[2] tzitzit,[3]living in Israel,[4] circumcision,[5] and tefillin.[6] Regarding charity, in fact, the Chassidic masters tell us that “it is the core of all the mitzvot that involve action and surpasses them all.”[7]

The same is true on the flip side: certain sins are more severe than others. For starters, there are three sins—idolatry, murder, and certain sexual sins (e.g., adultery and incest)—for which we are obligated to lose our lives rather than transgress.[8] The same is true with regards to publicly shaming another: “It is preferable to throw oneself into a fiery furnace, rather than disgrace one’s fellow in public!”[9] These sins are the exception, for, generally speaking, human life takes precedence over any commandment.

In addition, our Sages tell us that baseless hatred for others is the equivalent of the three aforementioned cardinal sins combined![10] The desecration of the Shabbat is also considered in many ways more severe than other sins; an individual who willfully and publicly violates the Shabbat is disqualified from performing many ritual practices.[11]

That said, our Sages enjoin us: “Be as careful with a minor mitzvah as with a major one.”[12] A statement that appears paradoxical. On one hand, it acknowledges that there are “minor” mitzvot and “major” ones; but in the same breath, it instructs us to be equally diligent regarding the observance of both. But why? If a mitzvah is major, shouldn’t it be observed with a greater level of care and meticulousness than a minor one?

Chassidic teachings shed light on this issue, explaining that every mitzvah is comprised of two components, or two planes. On one level, every mitzvah is unique, with some more minor or major than others; on a deeper level, however, all mitzvot are exactly equal—which is why we must be as careful with the observance of a “minor” one as we are with a “major” one.

On a most basic level, every one of the Torah’s instructions has a specific reason and accomplishes a particular goal, i.e., a certain refinement of the individual who observed it and the physical objects with which it was preformed (e.g., the leather of the tefillin, or the coin dropped in the charity box). How important a given mitzvah is, as well as the reward it earns, will depend on the mitzvah’s reason and objective.

Similarly, the Torah proscribes certain behaviors and beliefs because they are harmful—to the person who transgresses, the people he wrongs, and/or society as a whole. Here too, the severity of the crime and its consequence will be commensurate to the crime committed.

But there is a whole other dimension to mitzvah observance: the fact that we follow G-d’s instructions simply because He commanded us to do so, because they are what He wills us to do, because we are aware that “I was created only to serve my Creator.”[13]

When approaching mitzvot from this perspective, there really is no difference between one mitzvah and the next. The observance of any and every mitzvah means fulfilling the Divine Will, and the transgression of any mitzvah constitutes an abandonment of our ultimate mandate.

So the answer to the original question boils down to this: what is your primary reason for doing mitzvot? If you are in it for the benefit—personal and/or global—that mitzvot offer, then indeed, certain mitzvot are more beneficial than others. If, however, your mitzvah observance stems from your selfless devotion to G-d and your commitment to your life’s calling, which is to serve Him, then the different mitzvot are simply diverse—but equal—expressions of a singular idea.

(This explains a halachic principle, “One who is involved in the commission of one mitzvah is absolved from performing another.”[14] And this holds true even if the mitzvah that one is performing is “minor” relative to the mitzvah that is being shelved on its account. The reason for this principle is because of the essential unity that encompasses all the mitzvot—as long as one is preoccupied with serving G-d [no matter in which form], he’s released from serving G-d in any other capacity.)[15]

______________

Ironically, the payoff for observing mitzvot as a simple dedicated servant—without any thought of benefit—is much greater than the reward for a “calculated” approach to mitzvot.

We read in Deuteronomy: “And it will be, because you will heed these ordinances and keep and perform them, that G-d, your G-d, will keep for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers, and He will love you and bless you and multiply you…”[16]

The biblical commentator Rashi notes that the unusual Hebrew word that the verse employs for “because,” ekev, is a homonym that also means “a heel.” Rashi therefore interprets the verse thusly: If you will heed the minor commandments which one usually tramples with one’s heels—i.e., those which a person treats as being of minor importance—then G-d will keep for you the covenant, etc.

If we differentiate between different mitzvot based on their relative benefits, we will still be amply rewarded—we’ll get exactly what we’ve earned.

If, however, we approach G-d with simple commitment and devotion, then G-d will reciprocate in kind. His response won’t be calculated—He’ll commit to us, He’ll love and bless us, with infinite blessings that are incalculably greater than anything that a finite human being can aspire to earn.[17]

Note: The above addresses the attitude with which we must approach mitzvah observance. On a practical level, when one is new to mitzvah observance, it is wise to proceed slowly on one’s newfound spiritual path, committing to one mitzvah at a time. When engaged in this process, the relative importance of mitzvot should certainly be a factor in the order in which one commits to observing various mitzvot.

Rabbi Naftali Silberberg is a writer, editor, and director of the curriculum department at the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute.


[1] Rashi on Numbers 15:41.

[2] Talmud, Bava Batra 9a.

[3] Rashi on Numbers, ibid.

[4] Sifri, Re’eh 12:29.

[5] Talmud, Nedarim 32a.

[6] Talmud, Kiddushin 35a.

[7] Tanya, chapter 37.

[8] Talmud, Sanhedrin 74a.

[9] Talmud, Sotah 10b. See Tosafot c.v. Noach, from which it is clear that this dictum is to be understood literally.

[10] Talmud, Yoma 9b.

[11] E.g., see Shulchan Aruch Harav, Orach Chaim 39:1 (with regards to writing tefillin), and ibid., Yoreh De’ah, Laws of Shechitah 2:5 (with regards to ritual slaughter).

[12] Ethics 2:1.

[13] Talmud, Kiddushin 82b.

[14] Talmud, Sukkah 25a. This principle has restrictions and limitations that are beyond the scope of this essay.

[15] Based on the Rebbe’s teachings, Likutei Sichot vol. 15 pg. 137ff.

[16] 7:12-13.

[17] Based on the Rebbe’s teachings, Likutei Sichot vol. 9 pg. 71 ff.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


*