On yesterday’s daf we learned the teaching of Rav Simlai who established that there are 613 mitzvot, divided between 365 negative commandments and 248 positive commandments. The Gemara on today’s daf describes an ongoing process whereby the prophets of subsequent generations appear to have lowered expectations and required fewer and fewer mitzvot. Thus:
- King David established eleven mitzvot (see Tehillim, chapter 15) – these include such activities as speaking honestly, honoring those who fear God, neither taking bribes nor interest on loans;
- The prophet Yeshayahu established six mitzvot (see Yeshayahu 33:15) – these include speaking honestly and behaving in upright manner and avoiding evil in all of its forms;
- The prophet Mikhah established three mitzvot (see Mikhah 6:8) – these are doing justice, having mercy and walking modestly in the ways of God;
- The prophet Yeshayahu the established two mitzvot (see Yeshayahu 56:1) – these are justice and righteousness.
- Finally, the prophets Amos and Ḥabakkuk each established a single mitzva (see Amos 5:4) which requires that we seek God, and Ḥabakkuk 2:4 which requires faith.
Although the Rivan explains simply that the leader of each generation understood the limits of his people and minimized the requirements so that they would be able to fulfill them, what are we to make of these statements that appear to water down the commandments of the Torah to a decreasing number of ethical laws?
The Ein Yaakov brings an explanation that each of these leaders prayed that fulfillment of these basic requirements would help protect their people from the evil inclination and allow them to perform all of the mitzvot. The Maharal suggests that the prophets did not mean to lessen the number of requirements, rather they were explaining that the system of commandments brings about a completeness that can be mimicked by means of performance of a number of ethical mitzvot, although without the nuance and detail of fulfilling all of the commandments. According to the Maharsha, these prophets were responding to the reality that no single individual will ever fulfill all of the 613 mitzvot, since many of them are limited to specific groups of people or circumstances. These are lists of mitzvot that every person can aspire to fulfill at all times.