Ki Tetze – four mitzvot for these days | Adath Israel

Summary: Ki Tetze continues the second speech of Moshe. According to the Sefer Hachinuch Ki Tetze  contains 74 mitzvot, more than any other parashah, which is 12% of all of the 613 mitzvot in the Torah. Maimonides discounts two mitzvot from that total, and gives us 72. Still a very high percentage.


~ Why do we have all these mitzvot at the end of the Torah?

~ How does having all these mitzvot being given disputes the name Deuteronomy, which literally means “the repetition of the law”?


As we are approaching Rosh Hashanah I wanted us to notice that in the prayers of RH and YK we ask God to give us life. We will add: Remember us for life, King who wants life, and write us in the book of life, for your sake, Living God.

In Ki Tetze the idea of doing something and have long days appears twice. “והארכת ימים, “and you shall live long days” shows up regarding the mitzvah of removing the mother bird before taking the eggs in Devarim 22. And also למען יאריכו ימיך, “so that you shall live long days” appears regarding having just weights and measures in Devarim 25. Now if you count similar sentences such as למען יאריכון ימיך, and לא תאריכון ימים עליה, so that your days will be long and your days will not be long on the land, you find that this idea appears ten times in the Torah.

On six of those times, the text tells us that if you observe all of God’s mitzvot, you will live long lives. For example, in Devarim chapter 32 (v. 46-47): “And he [=Moses] said to them: pay attention to all the things… which you shall command to your children, to be careful to do all the words of this Torah… and in this, you will live long days on the land, which you are crossing the Jordan to inherit.

Therefore, we could simply leave thinking that if you observe all the mitzvot, you will live a long life! But that is not realistic, is it? First because it is impossible for one person to observe all the 613 mitzvot – there is no category of individual to whom all the mitzvot apply. All the more so nowadays, when the temple is not standing – of the 248 positive commands, only 126 are currently applicable. And of the 365 negative commands, only 243 are still applicable. The total nowadays is 369 mitzvot.

Even among these 369 mitzvot, however, there are many that most of us will never do since they depend on circumstances. One example is not being tardy to fulfill your vow – only if you make a vow it would applies. Another is building a parapet around the roof of your house – you need to build a house with a flat roof and then have a parapet[1].

But there are four specific mitzvot that the Torah attaches the idea of a long life. Two are found in our parsha. In order of appearance:

The first is honoring one’s parents, as we read in Exodus 20:11 and Deuteronomy 5:16:“Honor your father and your mother so that you should live long days on the land which the Lord your God is giving you.”

The second one is tza’ar ba’alei hayyim, “having mercy on living creatures,” which we find in this week’s parashah (Deut. 22:6-7): “If you happen to come upon a bird’s nest… you shall not take the mother with the fledglings. You shall send away the mother, and then you can take the fledglings so that it should be good for you, and you shall live many days.”

Number 3, is honesty in business, as epitomized by eifat tzedek, accurate weights and measures, as we also read in this week’s parashah (Deut. 25:15): “You must have complete and just weights and measures, so that you should live long days on the land which Adnai your God is giving you.”

Finally, in next week’s portion we read a general instruction: do not engage in idol worship (Devarim 30:17-18) “And if you bow down to those other gods and worship them… you shall not live long days on the land which you are crossing the Jordan to inherit.”

Now, I want to stress that this is not necessarily a promise to the individual. In fact, according to the story in the Talmud, Kiddushin 39b, believing that there is a direct individual connection between observing mitzvot and a long life is what made Elisha Ben Abuya a heretic. The Talmud reinforces this by saying that the long-life promise has to do with the world to come.

Rationalist rabbis nowadays, who do not want us to do mitzvot because of such promises, note that most of those promises are written in the plural “you”. This is pointed out by Avraham Ibn Ezra (Spain, 12th century) in his commentary on the our verse about accurate weights and measures. He says: “For it is well-known: for every just kingdom shall stand, for Tzedek [righteousness] is like a building, and if it’s twisted it’s like destruction — in a moment, the wall will fall.” So rationalist rabbis point out that each individual has the responsibility for the collective. If the collective Jewish people, believes in God, honors parents, deals with money with integrity and honesty, and cares for animals then our collective shall live long days.

Another way to understand this idea, and our request of being written “in the book of Life” is challenging the assumption that long days is a measure of time, or that life means being alive in a body. Doing mitzvot is not supposed to be because you want, as a friend of mine puts it, pie in the sky when you die. You shouldn’t do mitzvot because there is a potential gain with God. You should do them because they are the right thing to do, or as another voice in the midrash says: mitzvot were given to refine us – to make us better people. Abraham Joshua Heschel will say the same: mitzvot are to make us more noble, to discipline and inspire. The book of Life then becomes the book of good life, of a life worth living – and that is above and beyond the actual number of days we have on the planet.

So we can focus on those 4 mitzvot for the next three weeks: honoring parents, being careful with suffering of animals, dealing our finances with integrity and being mindful that there is only one force behind all of existence – God. That is how we have a life worth living, a life that has a long reach in the future.

[1] So, if you look closely to the number of mitzvot, both negative and positive, that we are supposed to keep, that applies to all of us, the number boils down to 270, 48 being positive and 222 being negative.