The Mishna says:

Be quick in performing a minor commandment as a major one. [Avot 4:2]

But we do not rank the commandments. The Mishna also says:

Be as scrupulous in observing a minor commandment as a major commandment, because you don't know the values of the commandments." [Avot 2:1]

All this is consistent with saying: "Mitzvot may well differ in value, but since we don't know what these values are, we must treat them as equal."

But then, the Talmud says that a candidate for conversion is "given instruction in some of the minor [commandments] and some of the major commandments". [Yevamot 47] These words even appear on the conversion certificate. How does the converting rabbi decide what's major and what's minor?

Instead of leaving it to the converting rabbi to decide what mitzvot to teach, couldn't the Talmud have specified them, without characterizing them as major or minor?

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    Where's the contradiction? The last source doesn't say that there aren't "major" and "minor" commandments (however those are defined), but that their respective rewards may be on a different scale.
    – Meir
    Aug 22, 2019 at 16:46
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    "because you don't know the values of the commandments" indicates the prior "assessments" of minor vs major are actually invalid.
    – Yirmeyahu
    Aug 22, 2019 at 16:50
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    Very similar: judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/105024/…
    – Joel K
    Aug 22, 2019 at 17:15
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    1. there's no contradiction - no source says there are no minor or major Mitzvos, only that we don't know exactly. 2. The negative Mitzvos can be clearly divided by the measure of punishment or Teshuva needed to repent. 3. Some positive are also very severe like Bris or eating Matzah, but for others where the reward is not specified, we can presume it depends on לפום צערא אגרא.
    – Al Berko
    Aug 22, 2019 at 19:51
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    Many of the comments here ought to be posted instead as answers.
    – Isaac Moses
    Aug 22, 2019 at 20:20

2 Answers 2


R. Chaim of Volozhin in his commentary to Avot 2:1 offers various explanations that still uphold the idea that some commandments are definitely superior to others.

  • The reward for any mitzvah is so great so as to defy the imagination. Thus, it is silly to not go after lesser mitzvot on the basis that their reward is less, because even the lesser reward is beyond comprehension. The phrase "we don't know the value" doesn't refer to the relative value, but to the actual value.

  • Sometimes you can end up with greater reward for a lesser mitzvah because you do the lesser mitzvah out of fear of God, while you might only do the greater mitzvah out of fear of punishment (which is a lower level).

  • Sometimes a lesser mitzvah overrides a greater mitzvah; e.g. a mitzvah that can't be done by someone else overrides the greater mitzvah of Torah study.

  • According to Resh Lakish in Sanhedrin 111a Hell is opened up for someone who leaves even a single mitzvah. Thus, you have to make sure to do every single mitzvah, event the lowest ones.

R. Yoel Sirkes in his commentary to R. Yaakov Ben Asher's codification of the Talmudic statement from Yevamot explains that we tell a convert some major commandments so as to scare him away, and some minor commandments to show how easy it is to get reward. As such it wouldn't particularly matter which individual mitzvot were told to the convert.

  • Also, the “value” of a mitzvah is not necessarily fixed. It can vary. The Mishna says: Ben He He says: According to the effort is the reward. [Pirkei Avot 5:21], implying that mitzvot that require more effort count for more. The Talmud adds: One mitzvah involving pain is worth a hundred mitzvot that do not. [Jerusalem Talmud -- do you know exact ref?] Aug 23, 2019 at 1:43
  • Also, Rav Nachman of Breslov taught that a mitzvah that costs money is worth more than one that costs nothing. Aug 23, 2019 at 1:45

The classic example of a Difficult Mitzva is honouring ones parents, and an easy Mitzva is to send away the mother bird as quoted in Yerushalmi Kiddushin 20a (It seems that its proportional to the amount of exertion as it takes 2 seconds to send away mother bird and a parents lifetime to respect them adequately):

אמר ר' אבא בר כהנא השוה הכתוב מצוה קלה שבקלות למצוה חמורה מן החמורות מצוה קלה שבקלות זו שילוח הקן ומצוה חמורה שבחמורות זו היא היא כיבוד אב ואם ובשתיהן כתיב והארכת ימים

The Mishna by saying one should be scrupulous in doing both easy Mitzvot and hard Mitzvot, as we do not know the value of fulfilling a Mitzva with pure faith Just because G-d told us to, without logical reasoning of how much benefit we may gain from that Mitzva in that circumstance as Yerushalmi Pea 3a says:

רבי אחא בשם רבי אבא בר כהנה כתיב (משלי ה׳:ו׳) אורח חיים פן תפלס נעו מעגלותיה לא תדע טילטל הקב"ה מתן שכרן של עושי מצות כדי שיהיו עושין אותן באמונה
It is written: "When you walk the path of life (i.e a Mitzva comes your way which is life) do not choose your step (i.e do that Mitzva even if you could go and look for a greater Mitzva to do)" - do not move your steps away for you don't know why G-d is carrying you that way and the value of fulfilling those Mitzvot out of pure faith

  • But I wanted to know why the Talmud said what it said, and why it has to be inserted in every conversion certificate. Instead of leaving it to the converting rabbi to decide what mitzvot to teach, couldn't the Talmud have specified them, without characterizing them as major or minor? Aug 23, 2019 at 0:35
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    @MauriceMizrahi you'd probably agree that the Talmud knows that Mitzvos depending on the situation can vary in difficulty, and the Talmud does not want to limit itself by stating explicit Mitzvos as easy or hard as it can be dependant on the enviroment. But the 2 mentioned above seem to be accepted as the top and bottom of the range of difficulty. Parents when alive are very difficult to treat with the right level of respect (do you change into your best clothes when they address you?), and sending a mother bird away when you meet one is clearly not difficult when you come across it.
    – user15464
    Aug 25, 2019 at 10:42

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