Light & Heavy Commandments - Fact or Fiction?

Rabbi (Judah) said… Be as scrupulous about a light commandment as of a weighty one, for you do not know the reward allotted for each commandment. (m.Avot 2:1)

Judaism claims that within the boundaries of Torah there exists the concept of precepts which are either “light” or “heavy.” Of the six hundred and thirteen enumerated commandments, there are those which fall into the category of being a “light” commandment and those which are considered to be “heavy.” Rabbi Judah proposes that there should not be a difference between the observance of the two. But does this distinction truly exist? Are there such things as light and heavy commandments? Don’t they all “weigh” the same? Citing James 2:10, Christian apologetics teach that if you’ve broken one, then you’ve broken them all. “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all” (KJV). As a matter of fact, there is currently an evangelism curriculum which uses this reasoning to lead people into confessing their sinfulness and subsequent need for a Redeemer. They barrage their target with a series of questions designed to elicit a confession of guilt for breaking at least one of God’s commandments. From there, they use this passage in James to point out that that offense was not an isolated event and that they have been marked as a “sinner” and are in need of a Savior, because they have, in effect, broken all of God’s commandments. If this understanding holds true, then there is no such division between the “light” and “heavy” commandments, for they are all the same in the eyes of God. According to this theology, if we break even the least of the commandments our souls are in danger of the flames of Gehinnom.

While there is definitely a need for people to realize their need for repentance and for Yeshua as the Redeemer, this method only uses God’s holy and just laws as a means of condemnation, rather than the life for which they were intended. The spirit of the commandments, however, is summed up in Ezekiel 20:11, which says, “I gave them my statutes and made known to them my rules, by which, if a person does them, he shall live.” This is the heart and soul behind the commandments of the Holy One, blessed is He. So what about these light and heavy commandments? Do they exist or not? Do the Scriptures refute such a distinction, or do we have a fundamental misunderstanding of the James’s extremely Jewish argumentation?

Guilty of One… Guilty of All

Let’s briefly look at the circumstances surrounding this argument in the epistle of James. At the beginning of this chapter, James sets forth an argument against partiality among the brethren. We are admonished not to treat wealthy individuals with any more respect than that due to any person. It is within this context that he makes the statement in regard to breaking one law and becoming guilty of many. He argues that the Torah commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves (implying that we should treat the poor with the same respect we would desire), and that treating one person differently from another is a transgression of this commandment. He continues his argument to say that each and every one of the commandments are viable and his audience should not think they are obeying the commandments if they willfully set aside one of them. He is essentially saying the same thing the sages teach in the Talmud.

“‘This is the Torah which Moses set before the children of Israel’ (Deut 4:44) — if one is worthy (by faithfulness to its precepts), it becomes an elixir of life; if one is unworthy it becomes to him a deadly poison” (b.Yoma 72b)

In summary, he is taking up the message of his elder brother and condemning hypocrisy among those who claim to be a life of faith, rather than creating a systematic theology on the law in relationship to soteriology (the doctrine of salvation). It is we who have unfortunately misunderstood and misapplied his teaching in this context.

Bearing this in mind, we need to readdress our original concerns. First, does Scripture make a distinction between light and heavy commandments and should we? Although we don’t have any direct reference to this categorization in the Hebrew Scriptures, we do find allusions to them from the Master in the Gospels. In his seven woes against the Pharisees, Yeshua says:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. (Matthew 23:23)

In this passage Yeshua specifically contrasts the tithing of “mint and dill and cumin” against the “weightier matters of the law.” He defines the weightier matters as being “justice and mercy and faithfulness.” From this, we might assume that tithing on mint, dill and cumin constitute the lighter commandments of the Torah. However, the Torah does not require the tithing on herbs. Biblically, tithing is only in reference to grain, wine and oil. The Pharisees were scrupulous in their tithing, therefore a tradition arose to also tithe on herbs such as dill, mint and cumin. The debate over tithing dill and other spices can be found in the Talmud (b.Niddah 50a–51b).

We also hear Yeshua reference this concept in the Sermon on the Mount.

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17–20)

In this passage, he references what he terms as the “least” of the commandments. It is these “least” commandments which we can understand as “light.” These are the commandments which are contrasted against the heavy, weighty or major ones. Like Yeshua, Rabbi Judah instructs his disciples to be cautious in the observance of both the heavy as well as the light commandments, saying, “you do not know the reward allotted for each commandment.” Why does he make this statement? Because, according to the Torah, it appears that even the least commandments can carry a reward equal to that of a weighty commandment.

Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. (Exodus 20:12)

If you come across a bird's nest in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs and the mother sitting on the young or on the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young. You shall let the mother go, but the young you may take for yourself, that it may go well with you, and that you may live long. (Deut. 22:6–7)

In our example, we see that the light commandment of not taking a mother bird along with her young carries with it the same reward as the heavy commandment of honoring one’s father and mother. Although one is a heavy commandment and one is a light commandment, they both bring with it the same reward: the blessing of long life. But what is it that makes one commandment “light” and another “heavy?” If we are merely looking at how one commandment is rewarded over another, this test would fail as in our current example. Therefore, there has to be a different method by which commandments can be divided in the categories of light and heavy. The answer to this is found when two commandments of the Torah are in conflict. When two commandments of the Torah are in conflict and only one commandment can be performed and the other forfeited, it is the weightier commandment which takes precedent. This is why Yeshua repeatedly violated the Sabbath for the sake of healing. It was not that he believed the Sabbath to be invalid or wished to teach its stringencies being nullified. He set the example for his followers to place the proper priority upon the weightier commandments, which he listed as “justice and mercy and faithfulness,” in times when the restrictions of Sabbath could prohibit one of these from taking place. Therefore, as his disciples, we must do our best to follow his example and put our priorities in alignment with his. We must not be like those he chastised who placed the light commandments above the weightier ones. But we must also heed his voice and not neglect the lighter commandments, thinking the only valid ones to be the weightier ones. Let us allow our hearing and doing to be one and the same as we follow the footsteps of our Messiah.