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Ki Tisa

On this week’s parsh.jpg (2373 bytes), Menorat Hamaor 1 warns that a man should be forever cautious about the way he looks at a seemingly minor commandment vs. a major commandment.

R. Abohav quotes the second chapter of the Mishnah "Pirke Avot" (D’Avot)-- which says the following:

"Be as careful (Hebrew=zahir) in the performance of a seemingly minor mitzwah (commandment) as of a major one."

According to R. Abohav, a major commandment is one that is perceived as "obviously important" in your own eyes. A minor commandment is one that does not "seem" as important in your own eyes.

At first, this verse appears to be straight-forward. But does the actually say which mitzwoth are minor and which ones are major?

On the question of "minor" mitzwoth, the RMb"M describes levels of gravity regarding different prohibitive commandments (through the Torah's eyes) as follows:

"Rabbi tells us to observe laws which we deem of minor importance, e.g., to rejoice on the holidays and to study the Language of Holy Scriptures, with the same care as we apply ourselves to the laws we know to be of grave importance, e.g. circumcision, the fringes on the garments, or the offering of the Passover sacrifice. As a reason for this rule he gives the fact that we are ignorant of the real reward which we can expect for observing a law. To explain this further we have to consider that the Torah comprises positive laws as well as prohibitions. Now for the prohibitions, with few exceptions, the Torah tells us what the punishment is. For some there is capital punishment, for others extinction or untimely death, and for still others corporal punishment. Thus from the punishments we know which ones of the prohibitive laws are very grave and which ones less so. All in all, there are eight degrees. (The RMb"M goes on to explain each degree by severity of punishments)…From this scale we can infer the importance of prohibitions." 3

From this explanation, the RMb"M provides a better understanding of the terms minor and major. 

Putting aside our personal perceptions of the mitzwoth, we can deduce the actual importance of negative commandments based on the severity of their scriptural punishments. However, we can not deduce the importance of a positive commandment (whose real reward remains unknown). One Mishnah explains that the reward for positive precepts remains unknown to stop humanity from picking and choosing.

The Reasoning Behind Carefulness

We can learn more about the Hebrew word for "careful" (zahir in Pirkey Avoth) by studying its usage in other scriptural locations as follows: 4

  1. looking out for (watchful)
  2. strictly observed
  3. on one’s guard

In these instances (and thus our own --by association), the word zahir implies early detection and thus prevention. It means that we should regard sins equally (in terms of importance) before we arrive at the point-of-no-return by violating a major commandment. Thus, a preventative mentality makes us think before heading down the dead-end road of ir-rationalization-- in order to avoid falling through one of the commandments—no matter how minor it might appear to be. In other words, minors can lead to majors.

Thus, the Mishnah is telling us how to avoid a seductive snare. Something that seems harmless should be approached with caution because of what it leads to.

This was the very same challenge faced by the Israelites regarding their Canaanite neighbors in this week's Parasha. According to the Artscroll Chumash (ie: the five books of Moses), Shemoth 34:12 alludes to this exact concept:

"Be vigilant lest you seal a covenant with the inhabitant of the land to which you come, lest it be a snare among you"

On the word snare, the Artscroll Chumash comments as follows:

"To seek peace with the natives of Canaan would be natural for the descendents of the Patriarchs, a nation with a legacy of peace and kindness, and it would seem incomprehensible to them that they would be led astray by the Canaanite nations that were notorious for their debauchery and corruption. Could Israel be seduced by such peoples? Here G-D warns them that not only could they, they would. And such was the experience of succeeding Jewish generations in Eretz Yisrael that failed to expel the Canaanites."

Perhaps a little more carefulness (on Israel's part) might have avoided this snare entirely...

Positive Commandments
How can the Mishnah about minors and majors be applied to positive commandments?

According to the RMb"M: "No direct clues are offered for the classification of the positive laws and for the reward of their observance. Thus we do not know which laws are more important to observe and which ones less so. We are ordered to observe one law and another law, without being told which one is rewarded more highly by G-D. We must, therefore, observe them all with great care."

For this reason, all positive commandments must be treated with great care. This concept may be alluded to in Kiddushin 40b:

"Rabbi Eleazar son of R. Simeon said: ‘The world is judged by the majority [of its deeds], and an individual is likewise judged by the majority [of his deeds, good or bad]. A man should therefore always regard himself and the world as half-meritorious and half-guilty.  If he performs one good deed, happy is he, for he has tilted the scale both for himself and for the entire world, all of it, toward the scale of guilt, But one sinner destroyeth much good. On account of a single sin this man has committed, he has destroyed for himself and for the entire world much good.’ "

Perhaps a stronger focus on the ultimate good that comes from miztwoth (whether minor or major) is what is needed in today’s reality. Then, even in cases where we can't tell which is minor and which is major according to the Torah, we can triumph over carelessness. 

"Let us seek out our ways and examine them, and we will return to G-D"Hopefully, we will all be a little more cautious (watchful) in our observance--regardless of a commandment's status. "The factors that detract from carefulness and withdraw one from it are three: The first is worldly occupation and involvement, the second, laughter and levity, and the third, evil companionship." 6  In the end, more caution in these areas should lead the Jewish people to their ultimate redemption.

1 The fourteenth century author of one of the greatest classics of Jewish Literature Menorat Hamaor by Rabbeinu Yitzhak Abohav. Since the book's creation, it has appeared in over 75 different editions and many different languages. The above reference is based on my own translation from the Hebrew Addition.
Vayikra Rabbah, dates from the 6th century as one of the earliest MidRaShYm. Quote taken from the English translation in The Midrash Says, Shemoth, Bnay Yakov Publications, p.318, 1980
Maimonides Commentary On Pirkey Avoth, Paul Forchheimer, Feldheim
A Dictionary of the Targumim, The Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and The MidRaShYc Literature, Marcus Jastrow, PH.D. LITT. D., Judaica Press, Inc.
5 The Path of the Just, Moshe Chayim Luzzatto, Feldheim Publishers, p. 43
6 ibid.