The Nullification of the Commandments


Citing the verse, “You shall keep the commandment, the decrees and the judgments which I command you today to do them,”[1] the Talmud interprets: “today to do them, and not to do them tomorrow; today to do them, and tomorrow to receive their reward.”[2] In other words, the mitzvot of the Torah were commanded to be observed in this world, but not in the “world to come” —the world that is to follow the messianic era. In the words of the Talmudic sage Rav Yosef, “The mitzvot will be nullified in the world to come.”[3]

However, there are many talmudic and midrashic passages which clearly imply that the laws of the Torah will continue to be observed in the future world of Moshiach.[4] The Jerusalem Talmud explicitly states that “The laws (halachot) of the Torah will never be nullified.”[5] Indeed, the eternality and immutability of the Torah’s laws is one of the most basic principles of the Jewish faith.[6]

Function and Essence

The key to the resolution of this apparent contradiction lies in a difference in the choice of words between the above-quoted statements. Rav Yosef tells us that “The mitzvot will be nullified in the world to come,” while the Jerusalem Talmud states that “The laws of the Torah (halachot sheba’Torah) will never be nullified.”

Generally speaking, there are two aspects of the Torah. On one level, the Torah is “G-d’s blueprint for creation”[7]—the divine vision of how life is to be lived on earth. On this level, we say that the Torah comes “to refine and bring merit to”[8] [“merit” by itself is a noun] man and his world—to sanctify physical life and develop it into a receptacle for the divine truth.

Ultimately, however, the Torah cannot be defined as a program for life. The Torah is the divine will, and the will of G-d cannot be defined by something that He has created. We cannot say, “G-d wants ‘x’ because it is beneficial to human life”; we can only say “G-d wants ‘x.’ Therefore it is beneficial to human life.” There cannot be a reason for G-d’s desire, for that would mean that something outside of Himself is the cause of something within Him. Thus our sages have said that “the Torah preceded the world.”[9] Essentially, Torah is the pure will of G-d; any reasons or benefits associated with the divine law are only “garments” that clothe its supra-rational essence as it enters our perception and experience.

Therein lies the distinction between the term “mitzvot” and “laws of the Torah.” Mitzvah means “commandment,” implying the existence of an “other” [or, “someone outside of the commander”] who is being (and needs to be) commanded. Thus the term “mitzvah” relates to the pragmatic function of Torah: to impose a code of behavior upon an imperfect world—a world that is separate from, and at times even in conflict with, its Creator.

The word “mitzvah” also means “connection,”[10] implying a higher function to the mitzvah: to connect the commanded mortal with the divine commander. But a connection, by definition, is the link between two otherwise separate entities; so the mitzvah as the agent of connection between G-d and man also implies a purpose extrinsic to the divine essence of Torah’s laws.

“The laws of the Torah,” on the other hand, is a reference to the divine will per se, unencumbered by purpose or objective. A commandment is not a commandment unless it is issued to another (or, an “other”), a connection is not a connection unless it is connecting another; in contrast, a “law” is an objective truth, independent of how (or even if) it is applied.

Three Eras

Our sages speak of three distinct stages in the development of creation: 1) our present world (olam hazeh); 2) the era of Moshiach (yemot hamoshiach); and 3) the world to come (olam haba).

Our present world is the scene of a daily struggle between good and evil. G‑d created the world to reflect His infinite goodness and perfection, but He also shrouded it in a veil of corporeality—a veil that conceals its divine essence, allowing for the existence of greed, hate and suffering. Man can strive to actualize the good inherent in himself and his world through the observance of the mitzvot, but he can also choose to intensify the illusion of evil by violating the divine will, G-d forbid. Thus, ours is a world in which the divine will is only partially implemented, both because there are many who, whether out of ignorance or disinclination, do not observe the mitzvot, and because it lacks the conditions that enable the fulfillment of many mitzvot (and the optimal fulfillment of all mitzvot).[11]

The second phase of creation, the era of Moshiach, marks the universal and optimal realization of the divine law for life. The era of Moshiach is described as a world in which “there is no hunger, no war, no jealousy, and no rivalry”[12]; as a time in which our current state of galut (exile) will come to an end, the dispersed of Israel will be gathered to the Holy Land, the Beit Hamikdash will be rebuilt and its service restored; as a time in which “knowledge, wisdom and truth will abound.”[13] But the most important hallmark of this time is that man will fully and utterly fulfill the mitzvot of the Torah. Indeed, the other features of the messianic era are only the consequences of the implementation of divine blueprint for life.

Otherwise stated, the era of Moshiach represents the ultimate realization of human potential. But human potential is mortal and finite, and thus cannot be said to truly reflect the “spark of G-dliness” that is the essence of man. Death, for example, is a natural constituent of the human state—and the antithesis of G‑d’s infinite and eternal reality.[14] The ego of man—that which imbues us with a sense of individuality and apartness of being—is a most basic component of human nature, and is in utter contradiction with the axiom that “There is nothing else apart from Him.”[15] So there is much in the very nature of man that is a subtle form of “evil”—i.e., part of the veil that obscures the divine truth. So even when life on the face of the earth is in complete conformity with the divine will, the nature of man marks him as something distinct from his divine source.

Following the era of Moshiach comes the third and ultimate phase of existence—the “world to come.” The world to come is a world of eternal life and infinite perfection. It is a world devoid of every vestige of evil—of anything that sets apart creation from its Creator. It is a world in which the all-pervading truth of G-d is manifest, and every creature perceives its oneness with the divine.

The “mitzvah”—Torah as divine command and as link between G-d and man—has relevance only in the first two stages of creation: in our present era, where it comes to impose the divine will upon a resisting world, and in the era of Moshiach, where it generates a harmonious world, subservient and connected to G-d. In the world to come, however, the mitzvah will be nullified. This is not to say that we will cease to put on tefillin or begin working on Shabbat, G-d forbid—a world that is one with G-d will obviously be in complete conformity with G-d’s will. But the very notion of a “commandment” or a “connection” will be superfluous. Our minds do not “command” our bodies to do their bidding, nor are our bodies “connected” to our minds by virtue of the fact that they do their bidding. Body and mind constitute a single entity; the will of the mind is the will of the body, which the body naturally and spontaneously actualizes.

The laws of the Torah are the will of G-d, and are as eternal and immutable as their conceiver. In the world to come, they will constitute the natural law of a physical reality that spontaneously realizes the divine reality. But they will cease to be mitzvot. The divine commands will not be repealed or amended—they will be nullified, as the light of a candle is nullified in the blaze of the noonday sun.

The Enduring Dispute

The eternality of the “laws of the Torah,” and the various stages the world undergoes from being commanded by—to becoming one with—the divine will, are exemplified by the following statement in the Talmud’s Ethics of the Fathers:

Every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven, is destined to endure… Which is a dispute that is for the sake of Heaven? The dispute(s) between Hillel and Shammai.[16]

Hillel and Shammai, who lived in the first century BCE, were the founders of two major schools of Torah interpretation known as the “House of Hillel” and the “House of Shammai.” These two schools differed on many points of law, to the extent that the disputes of Hillel and Shammai are the prototype for all “disputes for the sake of Heaven”—disagreements between Torah sages engaged in the study of the divine will and its implementation in physical life.

But why do we say that such disputes are “destined to endure”? Should not our objective be to resolve the dispute and ascertain what G-d wants us to do? Indeed, the Torah provides the formula by which such disputes are to be decided: “You should follow the majority.”[17] Once an issue is put to a vote, the majority view becomes Torah law—the unequivocal will of G-d. All, including those who were previously convinced that the Torah should be understood otherwise, are obligated to submit to the final ruling.

And yet, the minority view is not rejected. As the Talmud relates, following a debate between the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel, “a heavenly voice proclaimed: ‘These and these are the words of the living G-d.’ ”[18]

Since we are speaking of individuals who are disputing for the sake of Heaven—who are totally devoted to Torah, and who apply their minds to its understanding free of all personal motive and prejudice—their arguments are the “words of the living G-d.” The Torah, by its own attestation, is “not in heaven.”[19] G-d desired that His word should be filtered through the mind of the Torah scholar, and that the result should constitute the divine will.

In the concrete world of physical deed, only one opinion can be actualized. When two people come before a court of Torah law to litigate a disputed loan, there can be only one ruling: the defendant either owes the money or he does not. When an ox is slaughtered and its kashrut is in doubt, there can only be one decision: either the meat is kosher and permissible for consumption, or else it is forbidden. Hence the Torah’s provision that differences in opinion among Torah sages be decided by the majority. But the principles and reasoning behind the two (or more) opinions are all true expressions of the divine will. If the minority opinion cannot be implemented on the physical plane, its spiritual and psychological applications can, and should, be realized. For the world of the spirit tolerates, indeed welcomes, conceptual opposites. A person can be simultaneously attracted and repelled, humble and proud, grieving and joyful. When two Torah-opinions advocate contrasting truths, both are to be embraced as the words of the living G-d.

A dispute that is for the sake of Heaven is not something to be resolved. There is no wrong or erroneous view to be weeded out and disavowed. On the contrary: this is a dispute that endures, as the various faces of the divine truth are assimilated in the human soul.

Strictly the Future

Sixteenth-century kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria (the “Ari”) takes this a step further: not only are both the words of the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel enduring on the conceptual level, but each has its time and place on the pragmatic level as well.

In our present world, we follow the rulings of the House of Hillel, who constituted the majority of Torah sages.[20] But in the era of Moshiach the majority opinion will shift in favor of the House of Shammai, and their rulings will then be implemented in our physical lives.

This reflects the change in the nature of reality that the messianic era represents. Generally speaking, the House of Hillel tended toward a more lenient interpretation of Torah law, while the House of Shammai took the more stringent view. In our present reality, where divine commandments must be imposed upon an imperfect world, the rulings of the House of Hillel represent the ultimate in conformity to the divine will, while the rulings of the House of Shammai represent an ideal that is too lofty for our present state (which is why we perceive them as “stricter” and more confining), and can only be realized on the conceptual level. In the era of Moshiach, the situation will be reversed: a perfected world will embrace the more exacting application of Torah law expressed by the House of Shammai, while the Hillelian school of interpretation will endure only conceptually.[21]

The New Physics

Ultimately, neither our present world nor the era of Moshiach can absolutely realize the divine law. In both these worlds, the rulings of the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel (as those of all Torah disputes) can coexist only on the conceptual level. Physically, the laws of existence dictate that one must give way before the other. Indeed, we cannot even envision the possibility of a deed simultaneously being done and not done.

But the laws of physical existence are part and parcel of G-d’s creation, and obviously do not limit their Conceiver and Creator. Consequently, a world that is one with its Creator is likewise not limited by these laws. In the world to come, the disputes between the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai will endure in all respects, including their pragmatic application. All faces of the word of G-d will be actualized on all levels, including the physical level, where contrasting truths will exist side by side as they do today on the spiritual and psychological plane.

Thus we have three stages in the actualization of Torah law, corresponding to the three stages of creation:

In our present world, where the mitzvot command a world loath to yield its perceived independence and disconnection, the more lenient formulation, as channeled through the Hillelian school, is implemented, while the more exacting ideal, as expressed in the Shammaian approach, is confined to the theoretical and experiential realm.

In the era of Moshiach, where the mitzvot are the harmonious connectors of a compliant world to its divine source, the Shammaian ideal will govern physical life while the Hillelian dimension of Torah will be relegated to the realm of the spirit.

In the world to come, the mitzvot will be annulled. No longer will the laws of the Torah be the stuff of a divine relationship with an extrinsic reality. Rather, they will be fully and unequivocally realized in a world that is no longer separate from its source, unhindered by “laws” that define a finite and mortal world.

Based on a series of talks by the Rebbe, Tishrei 5752 (September-October, 1991)[22]

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber

[1]. Deuteronomy 7:11.

[2].Talmud, Eruvin 22a.

[3]. Ibid., Niddah 61a.

[4]. E.g. Talmud, Sanhedrin 90b.

[5]. Jerusalem Talmud, Megillah 1:5; Mishneh Torah, Laws of Megillah, 2:18.

[6]. “A clear and explicit mitzvah in the Torah stands forever and for all eternity, without change, reduction or addition. As it is written (Deuteronomy 13:1), ‘Everything that I command you, you shall keep and observe; do not add to it, and do not subtract from it.’ ” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Fundamentals of Torah, 9:1).

[7]. Midrash Rabbah, Bereishit 1:2.

[8]. Talmud, Makkot 23b (according to the two meanings of the wordlezakot); see also Midrash Rabbah, Bereishit 44:1.

[9]. Talmud, Pesachim 54b.

[10]. As in the Aramaic word tzavta (see, for example, Talmud, Bava Metzia 28a).

[11]. A majority of the mitzvot (343 of Torah’s 613 commandments) can be observed only when the Beit Hamikdash is standing and/or when the entire community of Israel resides in the Holy Land. Furthermore, even the mitzvot we can observe today are but pale “models” of the real thing, as the optimal fulfillment of all of G-d’s commandments can be realized only in the messianic era. (Sifri, quoted by Rashi on Deuteronomy 11:18. See also Nachmanides on Deuteronomy 4:4).

[12]. Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, 12:5.

[13]. Ibid., Laws of Repentance,

[14]. Indeed, the world as G‑d initially created it was free of death and dissolution, which were caused by man’s first sin.

[15]. Deuteronomy 4:35.

[16]. Ethics of the Fathers 5:17.

[17]. Exodus 23:2.

[18]. Talmud, Eruvin 13b.

[19]. Deuteronomy 30:12.

[20]. In all but a few cases, in which the majority of sages followed the House of Shammai.

[21]. See Likkutei Torah, Korach 54b-c.

[22]. Sefer HaSichot 5752, pp. 27-36.


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