Mission of Orthodoxy Project: 60 Obligations That Characterize Ordinary Jewish Life

By Rabbi Gidon Rothstein, WebYeshiva

Just the six commandments we studied last time carry significant enough policy implications to fuel the discussion of how Orthodoxy ought to change to more faithfully strive to fulfill its mission, but Maimonides gives us material to go one step further. In closing his presentation of the 248 obligations laid out by the Torah, Maimonides lists sixty that apply to all male Jews in all places, at some point in the course of an ordinary life. To remember the number, he offers the mnemonic “ששים המה מלכות,” sixty are the queens, from Song of Songs 6;8.

Forty-six, he notes, apply to women, a number for which he gives two mnemonics, “וגם את בדם בריתך,” and also you in the blood of your covenant (where the word בדם, in the blood, counts for forty-six in gematria, the numerological reading of Hebrew letters) and כי אזלת יד, for hand (יד, or fourteen) has fallen away. We will be able to understand the implications of these two mnemonics better once we have seen how the women’s list of mitzvot differs from the men’s.

Studying the lists will show us, I think, a broader presentation of an essential Orthodoxy (for men and for women) and also offer substantiation of an idea I shared previously about how the religion differentiates men and women. I should note before we start that, as with Behag’s list of death and karet-penalty prohibitions, there are some disagreements about elements of Maimonides’ list—some mitzvot he counts among the 613 that others would not, for example—but not such as to weaken the conclusions we will be drawing from the list itself.

Maimonides’ Sixty Queens

As we have done before when faced with a lengthy text from which we seek to elicit its central and recurring themes, we will forego a mitzva-by-mitzva discussion of this list. I do this, first, because the detail involved in such an effort, which could only build from finding each mitzva’s internal logic and motivations,[i] would obscure our larger goal, finding the essential overall message of this set of commandments

Too, such a study would necessarily involve interpretation of mitzvot in a way that could not stay unequivocal. I mention this to remind readers that while we can accomplish much that is important and necessary by staying with the unequivocal, we are also foregoing other vital projects for a full experience of a personal or communal Orthodoxy.

Staying at a more general level, highlighting unequivocal patterns of the sixty, we can still find an overall perspective these mitzvot mean to inculcate in the Orthodox Jew.

In presenting the sixty, I have chosen to split the list into groups. While I acknowledge that this prejudices the presentation, I hope readers will see the patterns I do, and agree that that they jump out of the list on their own, rather than my imposing them on it.

Building Awareness of God

The first nine mitzvot in Rambam’s list are (the number before each mitzva is where it appears in Rambam’s list of 248): 1) To believe in God (a First Cause); I note that Behag omits this mitzva, an omission Ramban defends by saying that this is a foundation of all the commandments rather than a commandment of its own. For us, the distinction is irrelevant, since they agree that this belief is, as a matter of halacha, necessary to Jewish life. 2) to believe in the unity of God, 3) to love God, 4) to fear God, 5) to serve/worship God (through prayer, Torah study, and in other ways), 6) to cling to Torah scholars as an expression of clinging/cleaving to God, 7) to swear in God’s Name, (Ramban disputes what exactly the verse in question obligates, but agrees that taking an oath in God’s Name is an act of connecting to God, 8 ) to imitate God (or God’s Attributes) to the extent possible, 9) to sanctify God’s Name (to spread belief in God throughout the world).

I have grouped these first nine– fifteen percent of the sixty—because they offer a framework for every adult Jew to build his or her awareness of God. They tell us both that we need to build a life in relationship with God, and much of the how of doing that. While love and fear are perhaps hard to define—some might see Torah study as the highest road to love, others might find appreciation of the universe a more effective method, while yet others might do so through helping others—the obligation to build a relationship with Torah scholars, since they can best guide people on the path to cleaving to God, is more clear. So, too, tradition assumed that Jews imitate God’s Attributes primarily in the realm of human interactions, in their acts of justice and kindness.

Finally, at least for Rambam, the need to spread the knowledge and awareness of God similarly assumes that Jews will be people whose ideas and ways of life will be attractive enough so that they will draw others in to worshiping the one true God. Others, such as the Tosafists, understood the obligation to sanctify God’s Name more restrictively, as a question of Jews’ loyalty to Torah, refusing to abandon it in the face of persecution. As this is debated, we will not elaborate on it here, but push on with the list.

Practical Tools For That Awareness

Seven more mitzvot—another ten percent, bringing us to over a quarter of the list—offer practices that reinforce the ideas and worldview embedded in our first group. They are: 10) to recite Shema morning and evening (this commandment is not incumbent upon women),[ii] 12) to wear head tefillin, (not women) 13) to wear hand tefillin (not women), 14) to wear tzitzit, (not women), 15) to place mezuzot on doorposts, 19) to bless God after eating,[iii] 26) that the male priests should bless the people every day (only male priests).[iv] In all of these, Jews will be continually reminded of the lessons of the first nine, and given frameworks within which to consistently encounter God.

The role of priests is particularly interesting, since much of their function within the nation was lost with the destruction of the Temple. In addition to their continuing obligation to bless the people, two other mitzvot that persist independent of a Temple’s existence suggest that priests’ serve as representatives of God not just as Temple functionaries. Jews are 32) to honor male priests, as an extension of the honor of God, since God chose them to serve in the Temple, and 143) to give to a priest (male or female) certain parts of animals that are slaughtered, suggesting that we treat priests this way less because of their onetime Temple service than because they continue to serve as representatives of God. Three of the sixty mitzvot thus remind Jews of priests’ niche in the Jewish system, and, at the same time, of the loss of the Temple as a continuing lack in the full expression of the system itself.

Torah Study: Solely Informative or Spiritually Illuminating?

Two other commandments, 11) to study Torah and to teach it, and 18) that each man own a Torah scroll of his own, preferably writing it himself (not women), seem focused on awareness of God, but leave enough room for debate that I will not insist on the point.

Before I explain my perspective, I note that I have grouped these two together even though Maimonides does not explicitly see them as related to each other. Rosh (R. Asher b. Yechiel, late thirteenth-early fourteenth century, Laws of a Torah Scroll 1), however, did, which led him to suggest that in a time when Jews study Torah from books other than official scrolls, the mitzva changes into an obligation to own sufficient books (or today, perhaps, CD-ROMs) to support one’s Torah study.

I suspect Maimonides agreed, or would have if faced with Rosh’s logic, since he excludes women from the obligation to write such a scroll, see Laws of Tefillin 7;1. While others have explained this away, it seems to me that the most convincing reason to exempt women from this mitzva is to see it as an extension of the mitzva of Torah study; exempt from one, exempt from the other.

Now for why I think these two mitzvot should also be thought of as geared towards furthering continuous awareness of, and relationship to, God. First, Scripture and tradition’s conception of the need for constant Torah study, expressed in verses such as “לא ימוש ספר התורה הזה מפיך,” this scroll of the Torah shall not leave your mouth, fits best with seeing Torah study as geared to more than just acquiring the necessary knowledge to be a good Jew.

Rambam seems to share that view, since he included the Rabbinic statement that study is a form of worship in his definition of the obligation to serve God. In addition, Kiddushin 30a says that knowledge of the Five Books of the Torah fulfills a father’s basic requirement to teach his son Torah. Since Jewish law resides in the more than just the Written Torah, that the Talmud is satisfied with knowledge of the Written fails to insure students will know how to act. Were the point of the mitzva to foster practical observance, it seems unlikely the minimum requirement would fail it.

Second, as we noted in a previous post, that same Talmudic discussion connects Torah study to the memory of the Giving of the Law at Sinai, with little emphasis on knowing how to act Jewishly. True, that same page of the Talmud speaks of having words of Torah so sharp in one’s mouth as to be able to answer any question asked, but the context suggests that it means knowing how to answer questions about the text of the Torah itself, not its halachic applications.

Depending on how we conceive of the mitzvot of Torah study, writing a Torah scroll, and those relating to priests, then, just over or just under a third of Maimonides’ list either directly mandates building a connection with God or sets up frameworks for it to occur.

The Holidays

Seventeen more mitzvot—almost thirty percent of the list– focus on holy days, Shabbat and the Yamim Tovm, defining them as days to desist from creative labor, presumably and sometimes explicitly to force Jews to set aside time to work on their awareness of God. These mitzvot are:

54) to rejoice on the Festivals, 154) to desist from creative work on the Sabbath, 155) to sanctify the Sabbath with words, 156) to remove leavened bread from our houses on the fourteenth of Nisan, 157) to tell the story of the Exodus on the night of the fifteenth of Nisan, 158) to eat matza on the night of the fifteenth of Nisan, 159) to rest on the first day of Passover, 160) to rest on the seventh day of Passover, 161) to count forty-nine days from the cutting of the Omer (not women), 162) to rest on Shavuot (which Rambam refers to as Atzeret, the Mishnaic term for the holiday), 163) to rest on the first day of Tishrei, 164) to afflict our souls on the tenth day of Tishrei, 165) to rest on the tenth day of Tishrei, 166) to rest on the first day of Sukkot, 167) to rest on the eighth day of Sukkot, 168) to reside in a Sukka for the seven days of the holiday (not women), 169) to take a lulav and celebrate with it before God for seven days (although only one outside the Temple, not women), and 170) to hear the shofar on Rosh haShanah (not women).

Much can be said about the holidays, but not so much that is unequivocal. What we can say unequivocally is that, as a positive element in a Jew’s experience of the year, there are periodic days devoted to withdrawing from the world and focusing on some aspect or other of the Jew’s relationship with God. These days are defined by both general obligations to desist from creative labor as well as specific ritual acts that give a shape and substance to the messages of the day.

Including the holiday commandments, sixty percent of Rambam’s list of the mitzvot that accompany an ordinary Jewish life serve to shape and focus a Jew’s attention on God and his or her relationship to that God. The exact shape might be open to differences of interpretation and nuance, but once again we find ourselves, now in a fully halachic context, seeing just how central the focus on God is in a well-missionized Jewish life.

Next time, God willing, we will see the rest of Rambam’s list and then summarize the basic vision of Judaism we have found by coming at the question from our various and multiple perspectives.

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