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Mitzvos - The General and the Particular

The Torah portion of Behar begins by saying:1 “G-d spoke to Moshe on Mount Sinai….” It then details the laws of Shemitah , the Sabbatical year. Rashi , quoting Toras Kohanim asks:2 “What [particularly] has Shemitah to do with Mount Sinai; all the commandments were given on Sinai.!” He answers: “Just as the general, specific, and most minutely detailed laws of Shemitah were related at Sinai, so too, all [the mitzvos] were related, generally, specifically and most minutely at Sinai.”

This comment is in accord with the opinion of Rabbi Akiva that “The general as well as the specific laws were given at Sinai”3 ; it negates the opinion of Rabbi Yishmael, who maintains that only “the general principles were given at Sinai,” and “the specific laws were related in the Tabernacle.”4

Why do Rabbis Akiva and Yishmael disagree; what lies at the root of their argument?

R. Yishmael, who was a High Priest, served G-d in the priestly manner of “holy of holies”5 — the service of the completely righteous tzaddikim, while R. Akiva, who descended from proselytes, served in the manner of penitents.6

This explains why R. Akiva said concerning the self-sacrificial manner of service known as mesirus nefesh ,7 “All my days I agonized…. when will the opportunity [for actual mesirus nefesh] present itself so that I will be able to perform it?”

The service of tzaddikim is such that the feeling of mesirus nefesh is required only at the beginning of the day, at the time of the recital of the Shema ; during the rest of the day they go about their service of Torah and mitzvos with but a remnant of that emotion.

However, he whose service is in the manner of repentance — a manner of spiritual service that transcends all limitations — will find himself in the state of mesirus nefeshall his days ,” i.e., the whole day through.

It was this difference in approach to spiritual service that caused R. Yishmael to disagree regarding whether the specific laws were given on Sinai or in the Tabernacle:

The difference between Sinai and the Tabernacle was that the Tabernacle was constructed in a most orderly fashion, with separations between its various parts, with a progression from courtyard to Sanctuary, and within the Sanctuary itself, from the holy to the Holy of Holies. As such, it symbolized orderly and progressive spiritual service.

Sinai, however, was in the desert. It was not a place of order and settlement. It was thus representative of spiritual service that transcends order — transcendent mesirus nefesh.

Herein lies the basis of their disagreement: For the service of tzaddikim — R. Yishmael — it suffices that the general principles were given at Sinai. I.e., when we speak of mitzvos in their general state (i.e. the underlying foundation of all mitzvos) we presuppose the state of Sinai — mesirus nefesh. However, when we speak of their detailed and specific fulfillment, the orderly manner of service symbolized by the Sanctuary is required.

R. Akiva, however — displaying the service of penitence that transcends orderly progression — maintains that it is possible as well as necessary to experience mesirus nefesh — Sinai — even as one goes about performing the specific details of mitzvos , and indeed during all of one’s activities.

Based on Likkutei Sichos Vol. XVII pp. 276-284.

Spiritual Buying and Selling

In this week’s Torah portion of Behar , the verse states:8 “When you buy or sell [land] to your neighbor, do not cheat one another.” The Rambam says9 that implicit in this verse are the laws of buying and selling.

Among these laws is the principal that “One cannot sell something that has not yet come into existence.”10 Thus, while selling a tree’s existing fruit is a simple matter, selling the tree’s future produce can only be done by selling “the tree itself for its fruit” — the tree already being in existence.11

There are thus three different types of acquisition: acquiring the thing itself — a tree, for example; acquiring the produce — the tree’s fruit; and acquiring “the tree itself for its fruit.”

How are we to understand all this in terms of man’s spiritual service?

The overall quality of Divine service is that of selling and acquisition — a Jew so totally binds himself to G-d that his entire being is under G-d’s dominion and ownership. This is accomplished when all of one’s thoughts, words and deeds are in consonance with G-d’s desire.

This form of spiritual acquisition can take place in one of two ways: acquisition of the object itself, or acquisition of [the object’s] produce.

In terms of a human being, the “actual” object refers to the person’s soul and body and their powers, including intellect, emotions, and the powers of thought, speech and action.

“Produce” alludes to the results of man’s soul and body and their powers — the actual thoughts, words and deeds that are a direct outgrowth of man’s intellect, emotions and other powers.

“Acquisition of the produce” thus refers to a Jew who dedicates all his thoughts, speech and actions to G-d, being scrupulously observant in assuring that they are all in accordance with G-d’s will.

However, in such a person the “object itself,” i.e., the essence of his intellect, emotions and other powers, have not become G-d’s acquisition. In other words, the person’s mind and heart have not been liberated from their capacity to think evil thoughts and harbor sinful desires; the person merely vanquishes these thoughts and desires, preventing them from coming to fruition in thought, word or deed.12

“Acquisition of the object itself,” however, refers to the service of a truly righteous individual whose intellect, emotions and very being have become G-d’s acquisition; he has rid himself of all vestiges of evil, so all his desires are holy.

We can now understand in spiritual terms the concept that “One cannot sell something that has not yet come into existence.” An individual who is only able to make his thoughts, words and deeds into G-d’s acquisition must know that he can guarantee only his present thoughts, words and deeds; he has not gained enough mastery over himself to “sell something that has not yet come into existence.”

Thus, when such a person resolves to do something good and holy in the future, that “acquisition” has not yet taken place, for since he must constantly strive against his evil inclination, his future actions may not be in accord with his good resolutions.

However, even such an individual can offer G-d “the tree itself for its fruit,” i.e., he can “sell” his fruit — his future good thoughts, etc. — that has yet to come into existence by letting G-d acquire his body itself, similar to the truly righteous individual.

For during prayer even the individual who is merely on the level of “acquisition of the produce” can elevate himself to the point where his evil will lie dormant,13 thereby enabling him to offer G-d “the tree itself for its fruit.”

Based on Likkutei Sichos Vol. XXVII, pp. 176-179.


1. Vayikra 25:1.
2. Ibid.
3. Chagigah 6a; Sotah 37b; Zevachim 115b.
4. Ibid.
5. I Divrei HaYomim 23:13.
6. See Likkutei Sichos, VI p. 123ff; XI p. 107.
7. Berachos 61b.
8. Vayikra 25:14.
9. Sefer HaMitzvos, Mitzvas Asei 245.
10. Rambam, Hilchos Mechirah , beginning of ch. 22.
11. Rambam, ibid.
12. See Tanya ch. 12.
13. See Tanya ibid. and also ch. 13.



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