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06.08.2020 17:20    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah shabbat parasha ekev dror ehrlich  

"All the Instruction"—Why in the Singular?

"You shall faithfully observe all the Instruction (Heb. kol ha-mitzvah)[1] that I enjoin upon you today, that you may thrive and increase and be able to possess the land that the Lord promised on oath to your fathers" (Deut. 8:1).

The beginning of this verse presents a linguistic difficulty:  why does it say kol ha-mitzvah in the singular, not kol ha-mitzvot (= "all the commandments") in the plural, as would be quite reasonable given the context?  How are we to understand the plain sense of the verse?  Did the Torah use the singular to indicate just one commandment, or perhaps a single specific commandment?  Or are we to see this "instruction" as subsuming the entire body of commandments as one?

Rashi begins his commentary on this verse by simply saying, "read according to the plain sense," which helps us not at all, since the plain sense in this case is far from clear.  Other commentators, such as Ibn Ezra and Nachmanides, do not elaborate on the linguistic difficulty but simply assume that the verse refers to the commandments in their totality.  However some commentators relate with great gravity to what appears to be a linguistic anomaly in the verse, and the linguistic challenge leads them to various conclusions on the ideological level. Two of these I shall present here, each attributing a different message to the words, "all the commandment," and surprisingly, each going in opposing directions.  Then I shall place them in their relevant philosophical context.

1.  "All the commandment" — as an expression of the value of the Torah's commandments taken as a whole

In his commentary on the verse at hand, Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel asserts that the expression kol ha-mitzvah refers to all the positive and negative precepts of the Torah.  According to him this is the consensus among exegetes and also the true interpretation.  Thus the question arises, "Why does it say 'commandment' in the singular, if the intention was to all the commandments?"  Abarbanel answers that the singular here is used to express the unity of the Torah and its completeness as a single bloc.  The commandments of the Torah represent a body of subjects that complement each other, just as the limbs and organs of the body come together to comprise a single whole body.  The two hundred and forty-eight positive precepts parallel the two hundred and forty-eight parts of the human body that together comprise a person, and the three hundred and sixty-five negative precepts parallel the number of days in a single year.  Other expressions of the supremacy of oneness include the fact that the chosen people is singular and of course the concept of the absolute oneness of G-d.  Thus the aim of the verse is to present the commandments of the Torah as a single unit, "indicating its unity like the Supreme One who gives the commandments," showing the likeness between the Torah and its Divine source.

Abarbanel's line of interpretation is further pursued by Rabbi Hayyim ben Atar in his commentary, Or ha-Hayyim, where he adds an important dimension relating to human nature.  In his view people are easily led astray from worshipping the Lord.  A person who keeps some of the commandments of the Torah is likely not to keep others, be it out of pure laziness or out of a sense of spiritual satisfaction from keeping the commandments which that person is careful to uphold.  He notes that in his day disregard for lesser commandments had spread precisely among Torah scholars who tended to observe most of the commandments. "All the commandment" is said on account of this type of person, to emphasize that the commandments comprise a single body and to avoid the mistaken notion that one can make do with observing the commandments half way, or to a third or a quarter.  He adds and further develops Abarbanel's metaphor of the body, claiming that just as the body is one, so the Torah is one, and just as one unhealthy organ affects the health of the entire body, so the failure to observe one commandment mars a person's worship of the Lord.

2.  "All the commandment"—as expressing the value of an individual commandment

In Kli Yakar, Rabbi Solomon Ephraim Luntshitz proposes another approach to the linguistic difficulty posed by the verse at hand.  According to him, when the Torah says "all the commandment" it does not intend to convey a message relating to the generality of the commandments, but refers to a single isolated commandment, plain and simple - not to any specific commandment, but rather to each one of the commandments of the Torah in its own right.  This verse indicates the great value for the individual and for the world as a whole in upholding a single commandment:  "Commandment is said, in the singular, to convey that even observing a single commandment properly is 'so that you may live' (Deut. 5:30)."

3.  Philosophical context

These opposing interpretive trends apparently reflect a difference of opinion among the amoraim (Sanhedrin 111a):


"Assuredly, Sheol has opened wide its gullet and parted its jaws in a measureless gape" (Isa. 5:14).  Resh Lakish said:  [It means] for him who leaves undone even a single statute.  Rabbi Johanan said to him:  It is not pleasing to the Holy One, blessed be He, that you say thus.  Rather [say], who has not studied even a single statute.


Resh Lakish represents the view that the Torah is a single bloc that can be upheld only by upholding each and every one of its components; hence, omitting a single commandment spells ruination.  Such an approach resembles the first commentary presented above.  Rabbi Johanan, however, represents the view that each one of the commandments is as important as the entire Torah, so that upholding any commandment, even just a single one, is of intrinsic value sufficient to save a person from the punishment of ruination.  Rabbi Johanan's words are cited explicitly by Kli Yakar in substantiation of his above-mentioned interpretation.

Sefer ha-`Ikarim by Rabbi Joseph Elbo (3.29) formulates the difference in approaches as follows:  assuming that the object of the Torah is to lead a person to human perfection, the question arises "whether perfection is achieved by means of this divine Teaching in its entirety or in its parts."  In other words, can human perfection be achieved only by observing all of the commandments of the Torah, or by observing some of them?

Rabbi Joseph Elbo examines the two possibilities as reflected by the Amoraic difference of opinion presented above:  on one hand, Resh Lakish appears to be correct, because if a person could reach perfection by observing a fraction of the commandments, it does not stand to reason that G-d would put us to the trouble of instructing us to observe many other commandments.  On the other hand, considering that total observance of the commandments without a single transgression is beyond human nature, if we accept Resh Lakish's position then no person could ever achieve human perfection and we would be left with the paradox of the Torah itself being the main obstacle standing in the way of this objective.

Elbo concludes that although merits in the World to Come increase with the observance of more precepts, nevertheless the multiplicity of commandments is intended to give people a variety of ways of achieving human perfection, so that observing the Torah as a whole is not necessary to achieve human perfection.  Quite the contrary, even by properly performing a single commandment, according to Elbo, a person can achieve perfection.  This approach appears to anticipate the quite modern notion of differentiation among people, not only in the way they look or the views they hold, but also in their abilities, psychological traits, and personalities, and recognizes differences as relevant when it comes to the relationship of each individual to observing the Torah and its commandments.  The multiplicity of commandments, according to Elbo, is not just a quantitative matter—increasing the probability that any Jew will perform at least one commandment properly—but also qualitative, providing alternative routes, a variety of possibilities, for worshipping the Lord and thereby achieving human perfection.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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