Have you heard: Judaism has 613 commandments. 613!
A lot of students I’ve worked with get stressed out by this. How am I going to keep ALL of them?!
I know how stressful this feels, because once I felt it, too. Then my rabbi helped me to chill out.
613 Commandments, for real.
Rabbi Alexander Davis was my rabbi when I lived in Minnesota, before I moved to California to go to seminary. (Of course, I still consider him my rabbi!) He explained to me that yes, when the Sages of our tradition sat down and counted all the “thou shalts” (positive commandments) and “thou shalt nots” (negative commandments) in the Torah, they came up with 613 of them.
There are a couple of medieval books that list and explain all of them. These books give some of the reasons behind them as well. They are the Sefer HaMitzvot (Maimonides) and the Sefer HaHinukh (author unknown).
Our Sages deduced long ago that Jews cannot observe many of them today, so there’s no expectation for keeping them, and no judgment or punishment for breaking them. These include many of the agricultural laws, like not eating the fruit of trees for the first few years of the tree’s life, which occasioned the recent holiday of tu BiShvat, because the Torah prefaces that rule by saying “When you enter the land (Israel)…”
The Sages don’t expect you to observe these agricultural laws outside of the land of Israel.
Of course, you may set aside some of the yield of your work (whether your a farmer or an accountant or whatever) for the poor if you wish, and we still celebrate Tu BiShvat to remind us of abundance in Israel and our responsibility for stewardship of the environment. Still good to do!
Further, many laws have to do with procedures in courts of law. Our Sages deduced that Jews could only observe them when the Sanhedrin, a holy law court in the classical era, was convening. No Sanhedrin, no expectation to keep these particular procedural commandments.
My rabbi summed it up like this: Don’t worry about keeping all 613. Do what you can as you grow into them, one by one. The most religious person you know is good for 30 or 40 of them. 🙂
Baby steps, y’all…
I teach this to my students today, with an addition bit of advice: The ones you DO plan to keep, don’t try to do it all at once. You will get overwhelmed, judge yourself, give up…and wind up keeping (or benefitting from) none of them.
It’s better to take the mitzvot one by one and grow gradually.
In my personal experience and my observation of others, this is the surest way to success in keeping commandments, AND experience the most meaning in your life from keeping them.
ESPECIALLY when it comes to Shabbat and Kashrut (the rules of keeping kosher)…These are complex exercises in mindfulness with a LOT of rules. The best way: Start small, where you are now, and add one rule or aspect of observance at a time.
If you’d like to know more about our mitzvot and how to do them, I highly recommend you join us in The Jewcurious School. If you’re not ready for that, consider downloading the “3 Things” guide by clicking the picture below. You’ll get a guide to the best approach to adding mitzvot to your life, and you’ll stay in the loop as I teach the basics online every day.