At the heart of Jewish tradition is the idea of covenant, the binding agreement between God and Israel, confirmed by our obligation to do mitzvot, commandments. This structure has never changed, and the covenant remains in force even when one side or the other appears to break its terms. What is open to interpretation though is the precise nature of these commandments, and, contrary to popular belief, the number of them. Simlai, a third century sage once sermonised that there were 613 commandments– an idea he got from adding up the numbers of the word Torah to make 611 and then adding the two direct commandments from God (“I am God” and “You shall have no other gods”). While this story may have entered folklore as if it is real law, the truth is early biblical commentators disagreed. Abraham ibn Ezra wrote that this was not authentic rabbinic tradition: “Sages enumerate 613 mitzvot in many diverse ways but in truth there is no end to the number of mitzvot and if we were to count only the root principles the number of mitzvot would not reach 613” Nachmanides knew opinion was divided, while recognising the power of the sermon. It turns out on closer inspection that the number of mitzvot in Bible being 613 is just Simlai’s opinion, following his own choices for explication of the mitzvot.
So if we understand that the structure of mitzvot is neither so mechanistic nor so time bound as aggadah says, how do we fulfil the covenant? Over time a consensus grew about what are truly God’s requirements – the Ten Commandments say, or celebrating festivals. And other laws of ethical or ritual nature – supporting the poor, sanctifying the Sabbath, have also taken root. But the action of mitzvah must keep on changing and responding to our context – maybe ecological activity or giving blood could be seen as modern mitzvot.
So I have a challenge. Write for yourselves a list of 52 mitzvot you would like to do – from visiting a lonely elderly person to attending religious services, from volunteering to researching a social justice issue. And each week try to do just one of them. On Shavuot tradition tells us God marries Israel and the Torah is the wedding document, with all its derived mitzvot. So from this year to next, see if you can find, (to mangle the words of the song), “50 ways to meet your lover.”