They say there are 613 Mitzvoth in the Torah—248 Positive (do’s) and 365 Negative (don’ts). Which are the most important of the Mitzvoth? Which is the most important Mitzvah?
This week’s Parasha tells of “matan Torah,” the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. We hear specifically the articulation of the Ten Commandments, more accurately the “Aseret Hadibrot”—the Ten Utterances. This is considered the “Revelation” experience. So obviously the Ten Commandments are the most important of the Mitzvoth, right? Not so fast.
Have you noticed that no matter how important the Ten Commandments are, they are nowhere to be found in any of our prayer services? They have certainly become important to the world, but they can scarcely be found in our prayer books, if at all. Interestingly, they say that the Ten Commandments used to be recited daily in the Temple before the Shema, however the Rabbis changed that after the destruction of the Temple and in developing prayers and rituals for a Judaism that would need to survive without the Temple or ritual sacrifices.
Our Sages were very concerned that the Aseret Hadibrot would, by virtue of the special nature in which they were identified, come to occupy too prominent a place in our theology. Our Sages debated this, but it is actually NOT normative Jewish belief that the Ten Commandments are the most important Mitzvoth. We are familiar with the famous story of Rabbi Hillel who said to someone who mockingly asked to be taught all of Torah “on one leg,” “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man. That is the whole Torah; the rest is just commentary. Go and study it.” (Talmud Shabbat 31a). So is the Torah mitzvah to “love thy neighbor as thyself” Leviticus 19:18 and 19:34 the most important mitzvah? That one is not even in the Ten Commandments.
In fact, the idea is for the Mitzvoth to be a way of life, to be interwoven and NOT to pick and choose between them except in matters of extreme urgency—the preservation of life. Mere observance of the Ten Commandments alone is also not vastly different from observance of the Seven Noachide laws that bind all humanity and would not distinguish the Jewish people from virtually any modern faith.
This was also a concern of the Rabbis.
Do you think that was a valid concern? Is the performance of more Mitzvoth important? Does it matter why we perform them? Do Jews have any more obligation than others? What does it mean to be a Jew?
As we rise when the Aseret Hadibrot are recited (a practice that is not without criticism among our scholars), it is worth reflecting on them as representative of the entire Torah and asking ourselves what it means to each of us for Torah to have literally been given by God.
This Shabbat morning at Adat Shalom Synagogue, we learn with Melissa Ser, PhD, our Director of Congregational Learning. Together we will be examining, “ideal leadership, as well as the Ten Commandments and their relevance today.” 10:00 a.m. Come as you are. Stay as long as you like.