10 Great Principles You Had No Idea Were in the Torah

Dear Josep,

I have mentioned in the past that Jews count 613 commandments in the Torah. What these commandments are exactly is, of course, a subject of debate. There are certain things that some sages consider a commandment while others don’t, and vice versa. All agree that there are 613, and there is a consensus on most of them.

You may have wondered what on earth we could possibly have so many commandments about. While it’s true that keeping Shabbat, for example, is extremely complicated, only about 5 of the 613 address Shabbat. Kashrut is very complicated too, but only about 20 or so of the 613 address the dietary restrictions. That leaves 578 to go!

Well, you can find a comprehensive list here, based on the method of Maimonides. Skimming through it you’ll find that many of the commandments are not really applicable today, since they address the Temple service, ritual purity, and other things that are not relevant to our current status. But I wanted to draw your attention to the lesser-known mitzvot that reveal how much the Torah penetrates into the minutiae of daily life to try and create a society of justice and compassion.

You’ve heard of the commandments against murder, stealing, false testimony, and adultery, and the commandments to honor your mother and father and love your neighbor. Here are some commandments you probably haven’t heard about.

1) Return Lost Property to Its Owner (Hashavat Aveida)

This is actually two commandments: to return lost property (Deuteronomy 22:1), and not to pretend that you didn’t see lost property, to avoid the obligation to return it (Deuteronomy 22:3).

Oh yes. God is in your head, and He’s not leaving room for excuses. 😛

There is, of course, a whole set of rabbinic laws detailing exactly what this law applies to, when it applies, how to return it to its owner, and how hard to try and find the owner until you may claim it as your own. When I moved to Israel I was pretty tickled to discover that when people lost or found something, they would hang up signs, not reading “Lost” or “Found,” but “Hashavat Aveida”–the name of this mitzvah. Religious people also add, “The item will be returned al pi simanim,” “according to its distinguishing features,” referring to the requirement to withhold information on the item’s distinguishing features and then have the person claiming the item describe it to you, to be sure you are returning the item to the correct owner.

2) Don’t Speak Negatively of Others (Shmirat HaLashon)

I actually wrote a whole post about this one before, in which I defined this mitzvah thus: “There is a mitzvah in our tradition called ‘shmirat halashon,’ ‘guarding the tongue.’ It is a prohibition against speaking negatively about and/or to other people. There are several categories of negative speech, including hona’at devarim, speech that is directly harmful or abusive to the person to whom you are speaking; hotza’at shem ra, libeling; and the most well-known, lashon hara, gossiping or speaking negatively about people behind their backs.” You can read the whole post here.

3) Don’t Just Stand There (Lo Ta’amod)

The Torah has a number of commandments that require us to get involved to assist our fellow man, from not “standing by idly” when human life is in danger (Leviticus 19:16), to the obligation to assist someone who is trying to unload a heavy burden from his beast (Exodus 23:5) or even assisting a beast that has fallen beneath its burden (Deuteronomy 22:4).

The Torah commands us to actively engage in compassion and justice and take personal responsibility for the plights of others.

4) Treat Animals Humanely (Tza’ar Ba’alei Ḥaim)

The Torah actually quite a few commandments that address humane treatment of animals. The most obvious one is the laws of sheḥita, kosher slaughter, that require us to kill the animal as quickly and painlessly as possible. The Torah also forbids us from slaughtering an animal and its young on the same day (Leviticus 22:28) or from taking a mother bird with its young (Deuteronomy 22:6), and it requires us to set a mother bird free from her nest before taking the eggs (ibid. verses 6-7).

You're doing WHAT?
You’re doing WHAT?

It even forbids us to work the field with two different kinds of animals (say, a horse and a donkey) yoked together, since their difference in build and strength might cause them difficulty and pain (Deuteronomy 22:10). We are also required to allow our animals to rest on the Sabbath (Exodus 23:12), and are not allowed to muzzle an animal that is working a field of produce which it can eat and enjoy (Deuteronomy 25:4).

5) Conduct Business with Complete Honesty

You’ll see in the list I linked to above that there’s a whole section devoted to business practices. I wanted to bring out one commandment to exemplify the level of detail the Torah goes into: Leviticus 19:36 instructs us to have “true measures and weights,” “ma’azanei tzedek” and “avnei tzedek“. But the word “tzedek” doesn’t really mean “true,” it means “just.” That is, you are required to assure that the weights and measures that you use to weigh and sell your wares are accurate and correct, so that you don’t accidentally cheat someone by selling less for the price of more.

I remember reading a story in the Mishna about an oil vendor who would let the oil drip into his customer’s jug from his measuring cup for a very long time, so they would get the full measure of oil they had purchased. The Mishna brings examples like these to show what real honesty and good business conduct look like.

6) Hold Everyone Equal Before the Law

This principle was revolutionary in its time, and has become one of the foundations of the modern concept of justice. You will see that one of the longer sections in the list of the 613 commandments pertains to the court and judicial procedure, and many of these are specifically for judges deciding a case. One of them is not to favor a man because of his greatness (Leviticus 19:15), or be afraid of a bad man when making a decision he might not like (Deuteronomy 1:17), or even to let compassion for a poor man (Exodus 23:3; Leviticus 19:15), a stranger, or an orphan (Deuteronomy 24:17), or disdain for a sinner (Exodus 23:6) distort your judgement.

In other words, the Torah says, justice means making a judgment based not on who the people are, but on what they did or didn’t do. This is called “impersonal justice.”

Lady Justice was a Greek goddess, but she was not depicted with that blindfold until the 15th century.
Lady Justice (a.k.a. Themis) was a Greek goddess, but she was not depicted with that blindfold–symbolizing objectivity and impartiality–until the 15th century.

This sounds completely elementary now. But its origin is in the Torah and its first application was in the ancient courts of Biblical Israel.

7) Uphold Rule of Law

Eitan is reading a book by Francis Fukuyama, an American political scientist, called “The Origins of Political Order.” According to Fukuyama, one of the factors that contributes to a healthy government with accountability and restraint on its power is something he calls “rule of law.” That is, that there is a system of law by which the government itself is bound. This is one of the principles by which small tribes have always governed themselves, but in terms of a state-level government, the Torah was the first to introduce this idea. (Brahmanism also employed it, independent of Judaism, but it came later.) In Deuteronomy chapter 17, there is a whole list of requirements that a King of Israel must uphold. He is not allowed to acquire an excessive number of horses (verse 16) or wives (17), nor an excessive amount of wealth (ibid.). He is, of course, just as subject to the laws of the Torah as any other person, and in the books of Samuel and Kings, you can see numerous examples of prophets visiting kings of Israel to rebuke them for not following the law.

8) Eliminate Public Hazards

Remember the Mishna I “chanted” for you to demonstrate the “Talmudic singsong cadence”? It discusses responsibility for a certain kind of public hazard. In fact, that entire tractate discusses the subject of public hazards, who is responsible for eliminating them, and compensation when someone’s property or person is damaged by another’s property.

The Torah requires one to take responsibility for public hazards (Deuteronomy 22:8) and to build a barrier around one’s roof, to prevent people from falling off (ibid.).

9) Don’t Waste Perfectly Good Stuff (Bal tash’ḥit)

In Deuteronomy 20:19-20, the Torah forbids us to destroy fruit trees, either for no reason, or for purposes of warfare. Trees that do not produce fruit may be cut down during wars.

It is from this source that we learn the ethical principle of bal tash’ḥit, the prohibition against senseless damage or waste, including things that aren’t food. We must not waste lamp oil, destroy clothing or furniture, or kill animals unnecessarily.

10) Maintain Proper Hygiene

Deuteronomy 23:13-14 is very explicit about this: “And you shall have a designated place outside the camp, so that you can go out there [to use it as a privy]. And you shall keep a stake in addition to your weapons; and it shall be, when you sit down outside [to relieve yourself], you shall dig with it, and you shall return and cover your excrement.” The Torah then goes on to explain, in verse 15, “For the Lord, your God, goes along in the midst of your camp, to rescue you and to deliver your enemies before you. [Therefore,] your camp shall be holy, so that He should not see anything unseemly among you and turn away from you.”

Now, obviously, God “sees” everything, so this isn’t really about God not wanting to “see” human waste. He is describing here how to maintain a respectful environment in which to engage with the Divine. The Sages expand the rule of keeping human waste outside the space and covering it properly to other spaces in which our consciousness of God dwells: places where we study Torah or pray. This is why we are not allowed to pray in the bathroom (and why we don’t install mezuzot on bathroom doorways). The Sages also see this commandment as one of a number of commandments that have the purpose of maintaining human decency even in the chaos and turmoil of war. (The commandment about the “beautiful woman hostage” that I described in my post about women in Orthodox Judaism is another.)

I’ve said before that I think religion is responsible for introducing some of the major values that we, in Western society, see as being completely basic now. I think the examples from above demonstrate a little of what I mean by that. Historian Paul Johnson, author of “A History of the Jews” and “A History of Christianity,” wrote:

Certainly, the world without the Jews would have been a radically different place. Humanity might have eventually stumbled upon all the Jewish insights. But we cannot be sure. All the great conceptual discoveries of the human intellect seem obvious and inescapable once they had been revealed, but it requires a special genius to formulate them for the first time. The Jews had this gift. To them we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of human person; of the individual conscience and so a personal redemption; of collective conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice, and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind. Without Jews it might have been a much emptier place.

If you prefer to believe that we as a people possess this “special genius” to have developed these ideas for the first time–believe what you will. Me, I agree that we are gifted, but I call that gift “the Torah.” 😉

Much love,


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