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Levels of Mitzvot

  • Harav Yehuda Amital




As observant Jews, we are committed to observing the Torah in all its details and particulars.  Our determination to fulfill all the mitzvot must not, however, blur the distinctions between the various levels of mitzvot found in the Torah. 


One of the fundamental principles of Halakha is the distinction between different levels with regard to various realms.  For example, the first chapter of tractate Kelim opens with a list, in order of ascending severity, of sources of ritual impurity.  Later in that same chapter, we find the ten levels of sanctity of location: the Land of Israel, Jerusalem, etc.  A similar list of ascending severity is also found in another context – the allowance given to a sick person to eat on Yom Kippur (Yoma 83a):


Our Sages have taught: If someone is overcome by ravenous hunger, we give him to eat [if only forbidden foods are on hand] that which is of comparatively minor import.  [If he has before him] untithed produce and the meat of an improperly slaughtered animal – we give him to eat the meat of the improperly slaughtered animal; untithed produce and sabbatical produce – [we give him] the sabbatical produce; untithed produce and teruma (produce set aside as a priestly gift), this is the subject of a Tannaitic dispute…


The underlying assumption in all these and similar lists is that in the world of Halakha it is important to distinguish between different levels.


We find different levels in the aggadic realm as well: "Torah study is greater than the building of the Temple" (Megilla 16b); "Hospitality is greater than receiving the Shekhina" (Shabbat 127a); and so on.


A similar phenomenon exists with respect to the severity of the mitzvot, both positive and negative.  In the case of transgressions, the various levels may be distinguished according to the severity of punishment: the four different modes of capital punishment, karet [excision], death at the hand of Heaven, flogging, and the like.  Regarding the positive precepts as well, we find various references in the words of Chazal to "light" mitzvot in contrast to "grave" mitzvot.  For example, the Gemara (Yevamot 47a) says that when a non-Jew comes to convert to Judaism, "we tell him some of the light mitzvot and some of the grave mitzvot." The obligation to publicly sanctify God's name and suffer martyrdom applies even in a case of a "light" mitzva, examples of which are offered by the Gemara (Sanhedrin 74b).


The Mishna (Avot 2:1), however, states:


Be careful of a light precept even as of a grave one, for you do not know the reward for the commandments.


We might have inferred from here that we should relate to all commandments as if they were of equal rank.  Rambam, however, implies otherwise in his commentary to that mishna:


Regarding all the negative precepts, we know from their punishments which of them is more severe, and which less so, there being eight levels…

Regarding the positive precepts, however, [God] did not explicitly state the reward for each of them, so that we may know which are grave and which are less so.  Rather, He commanded us to observe this one and that one, without informing us which one's reward is greater…

Even though the value of one mitzva in relation to another was never stated explicitly, there is a way to evaluate the matter.  That is, any positive precept regarding which you find that its violation carries a grave punishment - you know that its fulfillment will bring great reward.  For example, circumcision, the paschal offering, resting on Shabbat, and the construction of a parapet [on the roof] are all positive precepts.  But one who performs forbidden labor on Shabbat is liable for stoning, and one who fails to perform circumcision or bring the [paschal] offering at their appointed times is liable for karet, and one who creates a potentially life-threatening situation in his home [is guilty of violating] an ordinary negative commandment… From this you learn that the reward for resting on Shabbat is very great, more than that for circumcision, and that the reward for circumcision is greater before God than that for building a parapet…


            Rambam implies that even though a clearly graded scale does not exist for the positive precepts as it does for the negative commandments, this does not mean that all the mitzvot are of equal importance.


            The gradation of mitzvot is of paramount significance.  First of all, a person occasionally faces situations in which he must decide between two mitzvot, the practical observance of which is mutually exclusive.  Someone who fails to distinguish between the various levels is liable to come to serious mistakes.


            In one place, Chazal refer to someone who is unable to correctly distinguish between the various levels of mitzvot as a "pious fool" (Sota 21b):


Who is a "pious fool?" For example, a woman is drowning in the river, and he says: "It is improper for me to look upon her and rescue her."


In the Yerushalmi (Sota 3:4), this designation of "pious fool" is applied to an even more extreme case of erroneous stringency:


Who is a "pious fool?" One who sees a child struggling in a river, and says: "After I remove my tefillin, I will save him." But by the time he removes his tefillin, the child is already dead.


            The halakhot recorded in the Shulchan Arukh are also not all on the same level.  For example, the Halakha states that the Shema must be recited in its proper time, and it also teaches how one is to tie his shoes (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayyim 2:4).  The situation may arise that a person wakes up late in the morning, and if he ties his shoes in the halakhically approved manner, he will miss the designated time for Shema.  In such a case, someone who recognizes the difference in importance between these two halakhot will immediately understand that he must give more meticulous attention to reciting the Shema in its proper time.  But someone who relates to all the mitzvot as sharing equal importance is liable to fall into serious error.


            This issue also touches upon certain fundamental questions.  From time to time, the situation arises in which there is a clash between two values, for example, between the people of Israel and the land of Israel.  Which of these two values outweighs the other? We learn from Chazal that the value of the Jewish people takes precedence over the value of Eretz Yisrael.  In the midrash, Tanna deBei Eliyahu Rabba, it is stated (chap.  14):


He said to me: "O my master, I have two things in my heart, both of which I love dearly, Torah and Israel.  But I do not know which of them takes precedence over the other."

I said to him: "It is the way of men to say that Torah comes before all else, as it is stated (Mishlei 8:22): 'The Lord created me at the beginning of His way.' But I say, the holy people of Israel come first, as it is stated (Yirmiyahu 2:3): 'Israel is holy to the Lord, the first fruits of His increase.'"


We learn here that the value of the Jewish people is greater than the value of the Torah.[1] This implies that the Jewish people come before the land of Israel as well, for, halakhically speaking, the sanctity of the land stems from the Torah and mitzvot, as is evident from the Mishna in Kelim (1:6) mentioned above:


There are ten [levels of] sanctity: Eretz Israel is holier than all other lands.  What is its sanctity? That we bring from it the omer offering, first fruits, and the two loaves, none of which are brought from any of the other lands.


            Over and above the practical issues, distinguishing between the various levels of commandments is of fundamental importance.  This distinction allows a person to observe the Torah with a deeper appreciation of the source, nature and status of each mitzva.  Relating at the same level to all our obligations is liable to lead to superficiality, as well as to a blurring of the value and significance of the world of Halakha and mitzvot.


            This distinction follows from the words of Rambam as well.  In several places, Rambam emphasizes the importance of a particular mitzva, for example, the mitzva of giving charity (Hilkhot Matanot Aniyim 10:1):


We are required to be more careful about the mitzva of giving charity than about any other positive mitzva.  For charity is the sign of the righteous descendents of Avraham Avinu… The throne of Israel is not established, nor does true faith stand except through charity… And Israel will only be redeemed through charity…


In another context, Rambam writes (Hilkhot Megilla ve-Chanuka 4:12):


The mitzva of a Chanuka candle is extremely precious…


It was only because he recognizes that the mitzvot do not all share similar status that Rambam can relate to the special prominence of specific mitzvot.


            This principle follows also from the well-known words of Chazal (Makkot 23b and elsewhere) regarding the correspondence between the 248 positive precepts and the 248 limbs and organs found in the human body.  This comparison suggests that just as the organs are not all at the same level of importance, so too the mitzvot.


            The blurring of the distinction between the various levels of mitzvot is liable to lead in the end to a dimunition of the value of the mitzvot located at the highest level.  The Torah relates that God commanded man: "But of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it" (Bereishit 2:17); Chava, however, told the serpent that the command had been: "You shall not eat of it, neither shall you touch it" (ibid.  3:3).  Chazal said about this (Bereishit Rabba 19:4):


Thus it is written: "Add not to His words, lest He reprove you, and you be found a liar" (Mishlei 30:6).

Rabbi Chiyya taught: This means that you must not set the fence higher than what it comes to protect, lest it fall and destroy the plants.  Thus, the Holy One, blessed be He, said: "For on the day you eat of it you shall surely die" (Bereishit 2:17).  [Chava], however, did not say that, but rather: "God has said, You shall not eat of it, nor shall you touch it" (Bereishit 3:3).  When [the serpent] saw her passing before the tree, he thrust her against it.  He then said to her: "See, you have not died; just as you were not stricken when you touched it, so will you not die when you eat it."


Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains this as follows (Bereishit 3:2-3):


They warn us never to lose sight of the origin and the importance of these "fence-laws" ordered by Jewish conscientiousness, always to keep in mind that they are man-made and not God-made.  Only as long as we remember this do they serve us as warning and protection.  If we forget that this is their character, then transgressing them will just lead more easily to transgressing the real God's law too.  This danger the sages always bear in mind themselves, and always take great care to make it evident that their fences and decrees are only such, and to differentiate them from the mitzvot which are by Torah law.  Adam erred therein that he transmitted the touching of the tree with the eating thereof as being equally forbidden by God.




The Gemara in Kiddushin (40a) states:


Rava said: Rav Idi explained to me, "Say about a righteous man that [he is] good, and that he will enjoy the fruits of his good deeds" (Yeshayahu 3:10).  Is there a "righteous man" who is "good" and a righteous man who is not good? Rather, he who is good to Heaven and good to man, that is a righteous man who is good; good to Heaven but not good to man, that is a righteous man who is not good.


Rabbenu Asher ben Yechiel (Rosh) learns from this (at the beginning of his commentary to tractate Pe'a):


For the Holy One, blessed be He, has greater desire for those mitzvot with which one also pleases other people than for the mitzvot between man and his Maker.


            This is a very important and novel principle.  We all know the famous words of the mishna in Yoma (85b):


For transgressions against God, Yom Kippur atones; but for transgressions of one person against another, Yom Kippur does not atone until the one has appeased the other.


These words, however, were said in the context of a person's obligation to appease his fellow, and do not necessarily imply that there is a difference in importance between the two types of mitzvot.  On the other hand, the words of Rosh teach us that - contrary to people's tendency to be more concerned about their relationship with God than with their relationships with their fellow human beings – it is the interpersonal mitzvot which have greater value.


            This also follows from the words of Rambam.  The Gemara (Bava Batra 88b) discusses a person who deceives others with his weights and measures, and states: "The punishment for [false] measures is more severe than the punishment for illicit sexual relations." Rambam (Hilkhot Geneva 7:12) explains the reason:


The punishment for [false] measures is more severe than the punishment for illicit sexual relations, for the latter is between man and God, whereas the former is between man and his fellow.  And anyone who rejects the laws of [fair] measures is as if he rejects the Exodus from Egypt, for the latter is the origin of all the commandments.  And anyone who accepts the laws of [fair] measures admits to the Exodus from Egypt, for it is the cause of all the commandments.


            The same idea is implicit in the words of the Yerushalmi (Pe'a 1:1):


Rabbi Abba bar Kahana said: The people of David's generation were all righteous, but since there were informers among them, they would go out to war and fall… The people of Achav's generation were idolaters, but since there were no informers among them, they would go out to war and win.


Rabbi Meir Simcha ha-Kohen of Dvinsk, author of Meshekh Chokhma, explains (Shemot 14:24):


If the community becomes corrupt through idolatry or illicit sexual relations, about this it is stated: "[God] remains among them in the midst of their uncleanness" (Vayikra 16:16).  But regarding manners, character traits, slander, and strife, about this it is written: "Be You exalted, O God, above the mountains" (Tehillim 57:12) - remove Your presence, as it were, from them… For if the community becomes corrupt in character traits, it is worse than if they become corrupt in the mitzvot.


            An additional source for this principle is found in the Gemara in Kiddushin (31a):


Ulla Rabba expounded at the entrance to the house of the Nasi: What is meant by that which is written, "All the kings of the earth shall give You thanks, O Lord, when they hear the words of Your mouth" (Tehillim 138:4)? It does not say "the word of Your mouth," but rather "the words of Your mouth." When the Holy One, blessed be He, said, "I [am the Lord, your God]" and "You shall have no [other gods]" (Shemot 20:2-3), the nations of the world said: "He is saying this for the sake of His own honor." But when He said: "Honor your father and your mother" (ibid.  20:12), they recanted and acknowledged the first two statements.


In other words, the nations of the world thought that God has greater regard for His own honor; this was their error.  One who believes that God attaches greater importance to the mitzvot between man and God than to the mitzvot between man and his fellow has a cognitive deficiency.  How can it possibly be imagined that God is need of the honor bestowed upon Him by man? A correct understanding of the Divine leads one perforce to the recognition that the mitzvot were not given for the sake of God's honor.


            The prayer-books of the Kabbalists mention that before reciting the Shema, one must accept upon himself the mitzva of "Love your neighbor as yourself." It seems to me that this idea fits in well with what was said by Rosh regarding the need to give precedence to matters between man and his fellow.


            Different levels exist then not only with respect to the severity of the mitzvot, but also in the way we comprehend and relate to them.  This is what is meant by giving precedence to mitzvot between man and his fellow over mitzvot between man and his Creator.



(Translated by David Strauss)

[1] See at length, Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, Mishpat Kohen, no.  144.