What is Being Jewish?

Unlike some other religions, Judaism is not learned in one day. There was a man who wanted to learn all of Judaism in one minute. He went to Hillel the Elder (circa 100 B.C.E.) and asked to be taught all the Torah in the short time that he could stand on one leg. Hillel the Elder told him, in what is today the most often misquoted passage of the Talmud, «What you do not like, do not do to your friend. The rest explains it, go and complete it entirely1

There are many ways of understanding this. Let me present you with one:

The Talmud teaches that a person should always, at every moment, consider himself at the very center of a balanced scale. If he does one sin, he could tip himself and the entire world to the side of negativity. If he performs one good deed, fulfills one Commandment of the Torah, he could tip the scale in the world’s favor.2 The reason for this is because at any moment such an existence is a distinct possibility. If not the entire world, smaller segments, such as your city, your family, or even yourself. And even if you do one good deed, perhaps you balanced the world with that one act, and now you need to tip the scale so that the world is in a favorable state of goodness. So you need to do one more good deed.

So, everything could very well depend on the very action you do right now. Certainly you want the world to be in a positive state, and so you want people to do good deeds to bring the world to a positive state. And since that is what you want, you should do the same for others.

What are these good deeds? The Commandments of the Torah. Hashem did us a great
kindness, by creating for us a means by which to bring spirituality to the world. Hashem
arranged it so that when we fulfill a Commandment, when we study Torah, when we pray, we bring spirituality and holiness to the world and ourselves. This is a gift from Hashem.

Spirituality and holiness are necessary for the continued existence of the universe. So it is our responsibility to keep the world going. How do we do that? The Rabbis have taught us that «The world exists on three things: Torah, Service, and acts of kindness.»3 And the Rabbis have taught that Hashem created the world for the sake of Israel and all who join the Children of Israel, so that we serve Hashem as He commands.4

So what is the nature of our responsibilities? What do we mean when we say «fulfill the
Commandments of the Torah?» What do the «Commandments» entail?

Judaism, as taught in the complete Torah, that is, both the Written and Oral Torah,
encompasses all of a human’s life. The Torah teaches us: «In all your ways shall you know Him, and He will straighten your paths.»5

This is why the Torah says

And now, Israel, what is it that Hashem your G-d wants from you? Only that you fear
Hashem your G-d, walk in all His ways, to love Him, to serve Hashem your G-d with
all your heart and soul, to guard the Commandments of Hashem and his Laws….6

The Mesillas Yesharim, a seminal work of Jewish thought, does an interesting treatment of these verses. He shows how these verses include all the aspects of perfect service of Hashem:

  1. Fear of Hashem.
  2. Walking in His ways
  3. Love of Hashem
  4. A complete heart
  5. Observance of the Commandments and Laws of each Commandment.

Let’s now examine each of these:

Fear of Hashem: This means fear of the awesome and elevated glory of Hashem. We cannot imagine the Essence of Hashem, but we can at least be in awe of the glory of Hashem. There is a lesser level, Fear of Punishment. That’s a respectable level of worship as well (and a great many people don’t have even that), but it is good as a starting point. It is not the goal. As the Mesillas Yesharim puts it: We should be humbled before the greatness of G-d
whenever we undertake to do anything, especially when we pray and study Torah.

Walking in His ways: This refers to proper development of our character traits. The Rabbis teach that we should emulate the virtues that the Torah says or implies Hashem has. For example, Hashem is merciful, so we, too, should be merciful. Hashem is gracious, so we, too, should be gracious. Hashem is holy, so we, too, should be holy. Just as Hashem buried the dead (Moses), so we, too, should bury the dead. Just as Hashem clothed the naked (Adam and Eve) and fed the hungry, so we, too, should do the same. Just as Hashem visited the sick (Abraham) and comforted mourners (Isaac), so we, too, should do the same.7 These are, of course, just a few examples of admirable traits.

This is not to say that any human can ever reach the level of Hashem in anything. A person’s objectives should always and only be to reach his own full potential.

An important thing to remember about character traits is the fact that even a good character trait is wrong when it’s inappropriate. You always have to take in the bigger picture. It’s wrong, for example, to have mercy on a rabid animal that’s running wild, killing everyone in its path. If you don’t stop it by any means necessary, many people will be killed.

The Rabbis of the Mishnah summed it up this way: «What is the best guideline by which to develop one’s character traits? The answer is: A character trait should serve a person well and also serve everyone else well.» In other words, working for the best true good for everyone. What is the best true good for everyone? The Mesillas Yesharim points out: When a person works to strengthen the study and observance of the Torah, all the world benefits. If everyone would do this, all the world would find peace.

Love of Hashem: When someone has a deep-rooted and firm love of Hashem, he is always eager to bring joy and satisfaction to Hashem (so to speak). To help us understand this concept, Hashem gave us a similar situation with family members, such as parents or a spouse. When you love someone, you want to give them joy and satisfaction. When that person is in pain, you are in pain. In fact, you get annoyed or angry at anyone who hurts someone you love. And of course, you like and are appreciative to anyone who brings happiness to someone you love. You should love Hashem the same way, at least to the same degree, if not more. The Torah speaks of loving Hashem «with all your heart and all your soul.»8 That’s pretty intense and long-lasting.

A complete heart: This has a few meanings: For one thing, it means that your only intention in performing the commandments should be to serve Hashem. You should have no ulterior motives, or additional desires. And you should not do it half-heartedly, or by rote. Your full concentration should be on performing the Commandment and obeying Hashem’s will. It also means that when you do something in service to Hashem, do it fully and entirely, and don’t omit anything if you can help it.

But Hashem knows that we are just human beings. Many of us have not yet reached that level of performance yet. So the Talmud teaches us, «If you are unable to have the proper intentions when studying Torah or performing the Commandments, do it anyway. The power of Torah and fulfilling the Commandments will raise you and improve you until as a result you will merit reaching the level of pure Service.»9

Observance of the Commandments and Laws of each Commandment: This means
attempting to fulfill all the Commandments precisely and with each detail. The only way to know the details involved is to study the Oral Torah, the basics of which the Rabbis
eventually recorded in the Talmud and other Rabbinical Writings. The Written Torah does not have all the details. The Written Torah is like brief notes to long lectures. It cannot contain all the information in full, but it has it in brief.

All of these five aspects of Service need a great deal of explanation and instruction,
obviously. However, since they are part of the Oral Torah, we have a great deal of
information about them in the discussions of the Sages, who have categorized and explained both the general categories and the finer details of all these issues.

It is possible, with Hashem’s help, that I will someday write articles about all five aspects, but for now I will confine myself to discussion of fulfilling the Commandments. Of all these five elements, fulfilling the Commandments comes first.

Why? For a few reasons. First of all, we are required to fulfill the Commandments even if we cannot do them with love, fear, or a complete heart. Secondly, the Commandments themselves have the special ability to infuse us with the other aspects. The Torah mentions this in a number of places. For example:

Hashem gave Moses instructions: Speak to the Children of Israel, and tell them: You
shall make tzitzis (fringes) on the corners of your clothing. This Commandment is for
all generations…. This shall be your tzitzis, and when you see them [dangling from your
clothing] you will remember all the Commandments of Hashem and you will do them.
Then you will not follow the desires of your hearts or your eyes, things after which you
lust. This way, you will remember, and you will fulfill all My Commandments, and
you will be holy to your G-d.10

The Torah here clearly states that doing the Commandments, even while we are still low
enough to lust after things we see, makes us holy. That is the power of the Mitzvos — the Commandments.

We find, also, that studying Torah, which is one of the most important Commandments,
brings us fear of G-d. The Torah assures of this, when it commands all Jews — women and children too — to gather at the Holy Temple once every seven years and hear the Torah readto us.

….so that you hear, and learn, and fear Hashem your G-d, and you will be careful to
fulfill all of the words of this Torah. Even their children, who cannot understand, will
hear, and they will learn to fear Hashem your G-d….11

Likewise each and every one of those five aspects of Judaism can be reached through the study of Torah and the performance of the Mitzvos. The Rabbis have taught us that
«Whoever knows Torah, Jewish Law, and has good character traits, is less likely to sin.
Whoever knows neither Torah, nor Jewish Law, and also has a bad character, is detrimental to society.»12 In order to perfect ourselves for our own benefit, and for the benefit of society in general, we need to study Torah, Jewish Law, and have good character traits. We also need to perform the Mitzvos, because, in the words of the Rabbis, «Whoever has learned Torah but does not fulfill what he has learned will lose what he has learned.»13

It is, in fact, a Jewish doctrine that the only way to reach any true spiritual development at all is through Torah and Mitzvos.14

So what are those Commandments? Well, I hope to get to that too, Hashem willing. But first there’s the matter of faith and belief. That’s the next in this series of discussions: What do Jews believe?


1. Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbos, 33a

2. Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin, 40b

3. Mishnah Avos 1:2

4. Rashi, Genesis 1:1, s.v. Bereishis Bara; Midrash Shir HaShirim Rabbah, 2:3; Babylonian
Talmud, Brachos 6b; ibid 61a; BT Shabbat 30b; Bereishis Rabbah 1:4 s.v. Bereishis Bara;
ibid 1:10; Vayikra Rabbah 23:3; Bamidbar Rabbah 13:16; ibid 14:12

5. Proverbs 3:6

6. Deuteronomy 10:12-13

7. Babylonian Talmud, Shabbos, 133b; Sota 14a; Maimonides Hilchos Deos, 1:6

8. Deuteronomy 6:5; 11:1

9. Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 50b; Sotah 22b; 47a; Sanhedrin 105b; Huryos 10b; Erchin 16b. See also Maimonides, Yad, Hilchos Talmud Torah, 3:5; Hilchos Teshuvah, 10:5; and Kitzur Shulchan Aruch

10. Numbers 15:37-40

11. Deuteronomy 31:12-13

12. Mishnah Kiddushin 1:10???

13. Mishnah Avos 3:12

14. This is the major theme of Pirkei Avos, Chapters of Our Fathers, where many of the
ethics and morals that we were taught at Mount Sinai with the entire Torah are explained.

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