How Many Chances Do You Get When it Comes to a Mitzvah?

Dear Allison,

There are 613 Mitzvot which is a lot of rules to follow (although not all apply at this time). What happens if you break a mitzvah, e.g. you ate a bacon sandwhich? Would that mean that there’s no point in you following that specific mitzvah any more because you’ve already disobeyed it and God gives you marks out of 613? Or are you allowed to break them, but you have to try to not break them in the future and God looks at what you did for the majority of the time? And also – are the Mitzvot supposed to benefit you in this life or after you die?…Hope that’s not too many questions!

Thank you,

Lucy

Dear Lucy,

Thanks for your questions. You’re right that there are 613 mitzvos (commandments) and that not all of them apply now since we currently don’t have a Temple in Jerusalem. But just to clarify a point – even the ones that still do apply today are not done by all people at all times as some commandments are performed either infrequently or never (like how to get married and divorced). Also, some are done just by men, some just by women, some only on holidays, etc. 

As far as what happens if you break a mitzvah, there’s a saying I started with my children that has become a mantra in our house: “It’s never too late to do the right thing.” That’s the Jewish take on mistake making. There is no one capable of not ever breaking a mitzvah and so we’re always given the opportunity to right our wrongs within Judaism.

That means that if a person ate a bacon sandwich because he wasn’t observant, but later learned, started to care about Jewish law and wanted to start keeping kosher, not only would he get merit for changing his ways, if he truly regretted what he had done before, his aveira (sin) of eating the bacon sandwich would be forgiven.  As I mentioned in a previous post, it can get even better than that, because if he saw that the path of bacon eating eventually led to his path of observance then his aveira retroactively would get counted as a mitzvah!

In terms of when the mitzvos are supposed to benefit us, there’s a lot said about this subject, but the simple answer is that there seems to be a benefit both in this world and in the next. The Torah mentions specific blessings we will get for following it (like keeping the land of Israel and having a good harvest) and specific curses that will come if we leave it, but it seems that these blessings and curses happen more on a national level than on an individual one.

We’re told elsewhere in the Torah that the reward for honoring one’s parents and doing a special mitzvah where one shoos away a mother bird before taking its egg will give the person who does each of these things a long life. But then in the Talmud, we learn of a boy who listens to his father, climbs a tree in order to shoo away a mother bird, and then tragically plummets to his death!

Such an outcome is of course puzzling so the Talmud explains the long life that is associated with these commandments is referring to the world to come. And philosophically speaking, it makes sense that we don’t see direct, individual rewards or punishments for mitzvos and aveiros in this world because if we did free will would basically be eliminated.

All the best,

Allison

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Allison is the Founder and Director of Jew in the City. Please find her full bio here.

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  1. very interesting!

  2. Wasn’t the story about the baby bird and the man plummeting to his death. Witnessed by a guy called Ha-Aretz and then Ha-Aretz said “there is no G-d” and betrayed the Bar Kochba revolt to Rome.
    A whole nation lost over a baby bird…

    • Allison Allison says:

      My husband said he’s familiar with the story you mentioned, but it’s actually a different bird and a different man plummeting to his death!

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