Knowing the Mitzvos of the Torah In Ten Pages or Less: A Modest Proposal In the Aftermath of the Siyum 

by: Rabbi Yitzchak Breitowitz

Just a few short weeks ago, we celebrated a communal siyum on both the 24 books of the Torah She’bichsav and the six orders of the Mishna, the foundation of the Torah She’bal Pe. Many found the experience (both the learning and celebration) meaningful and have decided to incorporate more Torah learning into their family life. This learning can strengthen friendships and community, bring husbands and wives closer, and provide a solid and inspirational role model for children to emulate. Be’ezras HaShem, we hope that a siyum in one form or another will become an annual institution of the shul.

The exact form the overall project will take is still being worked out and will hopefully be announced shortly. (These include questions pertaining to choice of text –Mishna, Rambam, Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, Mishna Berurah, etc.; whether everyone should learn the same material or split the text into assigned sections; and whether there should be auxiliary shiurim to provide assistance.) As an additional component to the program, I would like to suggest the following undertaking:

All of us know that the Torah comprises 613 mitzvos, 248 positive and 365 negative. According to variousmidrashim, the 248 positives correspond to the limbs in the human body and the 365 equals the sinews and nerves. The fulfillment of each mitzva brings life and vitality to the particular part of the body to which it corresponds. At the same time, however, many of thesemitzvos are not practiced today because they apply only when there was a Bais HaMikdash etc. The Meforshim tell us that the only way we can obtain the spiritual benefit of the mitzvos we are unable to do is to learn about them.

All of us should endeavor to familiarize ourselves in at least a cursory, superficial fashion with all of the taryag(613) mitzvos – to know what they are, to be able to describe them in one or two sentences, and to know where they are found in the Torah. This is not as daunting a task as you might imagine. I am not talking about mastery of a great amount of detail – Shabbos, for example, could be summarized as a “prohibition to do any of the thirty-nine forms of labor on the seventh day of the week.” Undoubtedly, at this level of generality, scores of mitzvos are already known to most of us. And yet I would be willing to guess that some may not be. Many of us may not even know the names of some of these mitzvos – what is orlah, kilayim, pigul. chalitza? How many of us have even a vague picture of how a meal offering was brought in the Bais HaMikdash?

The Taryag Mitzvos are commonly organized in one of two ways: (1) the sequence of the Parshiyos of the Torah; or (2) a conceptual linkage placing relatedmitzvos together even if they appear at different places in the Torah. Each method has its pedagogic advantage. The first method – followed by the Sefer Ha’Chinuch – enables one to study the mitzvos as they appear in the weekly Torah reading. (The number of mitzvos in a weekly reading can vary tremendously; some parshiyosmay contain 30, 40, or even 50 commandments, while most of the parshiyos in Bereishis have no commandments at all).

For a systematic overview, however, the second arrangement – followed by Rambam in the Sefer HaMitzvos – is probably preferable since it enables the study of related mitzvos in an integrated fashion. While the Sefer Ha’Chinuch lists the mitzva to bring first fruits to the Temple in the book of Shmos (because that is where the commandment appears), he does not discuss the mitzva of reciting a declaration upon the bringing of the bikkurim until the end of Devarim. Learning themitzvos only as they appear in the Torah thus gives the reader a very incomplete picture. By contrast, in Rambam’s list the bringing of the first fruits and the obligation of recital are placed together.

I plan to duplicate an English translation of Rambam’s list (which runs to around 10 pages) which will be circulated to the membership. In the course of the year, you may also be receiving questions for further study, occasional discussion of contemporary halachic issues connected with various mitzvos, and perhaps some additional source material. I would also suggest that while every family should endeavor to go through the entire list, they should also pick a group of mitzvos that especially piques their interest and delve into them in a bit more depth.

There are a number of excellent books that can aid in getting a basic understanding of the mitzvos of HaShem. Some titles include:

  1. Sefer Ha’Chinuch (translated by C. Wengrov, published by Feldheim).
  2. Sefer Ha’Mitzvos (translated by C. Chavel, published by Soncino).
  3. A Chill, The Commandments (providing philosophical insights as well as description).
  4. L. Rabinowitz, Taryag ( good discussion of what goes into the list and what doesn’t).
  5. The Concise Book of Mitzvos (This is a translation of a work by Chafetz Chaim which covers only the mitzvos that are applicable today. It is thus less complete than the works enumerated above).
  6. The sefer Mitzvos HaShem is an excellent basic treatment but to date it has not been translated.

I sincerely hope that everyone will accept, b’li neder, the completion of this relatively modest endeavor. This is truly a family project and many schools throughout the United States and Israel already have a Taryag Mitzvos program. In the merit of our communal study of all of HaKadosh Boruch Hu’s commandments, may we merit the opportunity to be able to actually fulfill themb’mehaira b’yameinu.