One of the six mitzvahs that are constantly applicable, at all times and in all places, is to love G‑d.1 But how does one “love”? How can a feeling such as love be obligatory?

In his introduction to Shaarei Hayichud Ve’haemunah, the second section of Tanya, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi addresses this latter question directly. Quoting the verse “For if you keep all these commandments which I command you to do them, to love the L‑rd, your G‑d,”2 he asks, “How is it that the Torah uses the language of ‘doing’ regarding love of the heart?” Love is not an action, but rather a spontaneous feeling, which cannot simply be enacted at will!

This question leads him to differentiate between two classifications of love for G‑d. The first, which he ascribes exclusively to the tzadik (the completely righteous individual) is a love resulting from a complete vanquishing of the animal soul by the G‑dly soul. This successfully reveals the G‑dly core as it is in its essence—alight with a fiery passion for G‑d. When one’s animal soul is completely vanquished, this passion is automatically revealed.

The second type of love described by Rabbi Schneur Zalman is more attainable and is therefore applicable to all individuals:

When one contemplates ideas that arouse a love for G‑d, in a general way, how G‑d is our very lifeforce . . . Or in a more specific way by contemplating the greatness of G‑d . . . and the great love He has for us . . . this will arouse a reciprocal love for G‑d.

Since this love is a direct result of contemplation, we are commanded to focus our thoughts on ideas that will lead to the arousal of this love.

Thus, we have a resolution to the question posed above. True, one cannot be commanded to “do” a feeling, but one can certainly be commanded to engage in the sort of contemplation that will lead to the desired result.

Interestingly, we find a strikingly similar description of the process by which one may attain love of G‑d, written approximately half a millennium before Rabbi Schneur Zalman lived. In the second chapter of Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah, Maimonides writes as follows:

What is the path [to attain] love and fear of Him? When a person contemplates His wondrous and great deeds and creations and appreciates His infinite wisdom that surpasses all comparison, he will immediately love, praise and glorify [Him], yearning with tremendous desire to know [G‑d's] great name, as David stated: "My soul thirsts for the L‑rd, for the living G‑d" [Psalms 42:3].3

Both sources describe an intellectual contemplation that results in a feeling of love for one’s Creator.4 Indeed, the Maggid of Mezeritch is quoted as saying5 that the actual mitzvah to love G‑d is not referring to a feeling of love, rather it refers specifically to the contemplation that would lead to such feelings.6

If we look at earlier sources, we actually find variant descriptions of what the mitzvah to love G‑d entails. Rashi on the verse “And you shall love the L‑rd, your G‑d, with all your heart,”7 comments: “Perform His commandments out of love.” This may be taken to mean that according to Rashi, the mitzvah is to serve G‑d because of one’s love for him, not for any ulterior motive.

There is also a third way this mitzvah is interpreted. The Talmud in Tractate Berachot8 records the famous statement of Rabbi Akiva, who interpreted the words in the verse “with all your soul” to mean “even if G‑d takes your soul.” Based on this, the law is derived that one must give up one’s life rather than transgress the prohibition of idol worship. However, in Tractate Sanhedrin,9 the Talmud records a disagreement between Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Eliezer regarding this law. Rabbi Yishmael believes that even in a case of idol worship, one does not need to sacrifice one’s life.

According to Rabbi Yishmael, explains the Talmud, the verse “with all your heart, soul and might” refers solely to love of G‑d, not self-sacrifice. However, according to Rabbi Eliezer (who bases his opinion on the statement of Rabbi Akiva), we derive from this verse the obligation to give up one’s life so as not to serve another god. According to this explanation, this verse does not command us to love G‑d in the everyday sense, but rather to stay committed to G‑d to the point of martyrdom.

The truth is that all three above interpretations are included in the classification of this mitzvah by Maimonides. The first classical understanding—that this refers to the constant mitzvah to love G‑d—is found in the section of Mishneh Torah quoted above. The second description is found in Hilchot Teshuvah:

One who serves [G‑d] out of love occupies himself in the Torah and the mitzvahs and walks in the paths of wisdom for no ulterior motive: not because of fear that evil will occur, nor in order to acquire benefit. Rather, he does what is true because it is true, and ultimately, good will come because of it.

This is a very high level which is not merited by every wise man. It is the level of our patriarch, Abraham, whom G‑d described as, "he who loved Me," for his service was only motivated by love.

G‑d commanded us [to seek] this rung [of service] as conveyed by Moses as [Deuteronomy 6:5] states: "Love G‑d, your L‑rd.'' When a man will love G‑d in the proper manner, he will immediately perform all of the mitzvahs motivated by love.10

We see from this quote that not only is there a mitzvah to love G‑d, there is also an obligation along the lines of Rashi’s interpretation above—to perform the mitzvahs out of love. The third classification is found in the fifth chapter of Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah:

What is the source [that teaches] that even when there is a danger to life, these three sins should not be violated? [Deuteronomy 6:5] states: "And you shall love G‑d, your L‑rd, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might." [The words "with all your soul" imply:] even if one takes your soul.11

From the fact that Mishneh Torah contains all three aspects of this mitzvah, we may surmise that all three are part and parcel of this obligation.

Indeed, circling back to Rashi’s comment quoted above, where he classified this mitzvah as performing the commandments out of love, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson—in a lengthy talk discussing Maimonides’ and Rashi’s description of this mitzvahunderstands Rashi’s position as not only referring to the actual love of one's heart, but also to serving G‑d out of love. It goes without saying that this verse is referring to everyday love—Rashi is pointing out that there is an additional dimension here.

From Rashi's comment on the second verse of the Shema prayer, the Rebbe deduces that according to Rashi, performing the mitzvot with love is an actual component of this commandment. Rashi comments:

What is this “love” [referred to in the previous verse]? It is that these words [the mitzvahs] shall be upon your heart, and through this, you will come to recognize the Holy One, blessed be He, and will [consequently] cling to His ways.12

The language “and will [consequently] cling to His ways,” in reference to the obligation to love G‑d, strongly implies that clinging to His ways, i.e., performing mitzvahs, is a component of this mitzvah.13

We also have clear proof from a section of the Talmud Yerushalmi that according to Rabbi Akiva, and notwithstanding the Talmud quoted earlier—which seemed to state that according to Rabbi Eliezer this verse is solely referring to the obligation for self-sacrifice—this mitzvah would indeed refer to everyday love too.

Describing the episode leading up to Rabbi Akiva giving up his life to sanctify G‑d’s name, the Talmud Yerushalmi records:

Rabbi Akiva exclaimed: “All my life I read this verse and was pained about how I would be able to fulfill all three expressions described in the verse, ‘You shall love the L‑rd, your G‑d, with all your heart, soul and might.’ I loved with all my heart, I loved with my physical possessions (might), however, with all my soul I was not tested.”

It was during this episode that Rabbi Akiva stated that the words in the verse “with all your soul” refer to the ultimate love for G‑d: self-sacrifice. But we see clearly from the details recorded in the Talmud Yerushalmi that Rabbi Akiva did not mean this explanation to exclude all other meanings. He clearly states that he fulfilled the other aspects of this mitzvah before he had the opportunity to sacrifice his life for his Creator.

In contrast to Rabbi Akiva’s statement, that the pinnacle of Divine service is to love with all one’s soul—to the point of martyrdom—in chassidic thought the emphasis is on serving G‑d with all one’s might. This is based on the Talmud in Tractate Berachot where Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai states that when the Jewish nation performs G‑d’s will, they will not be bothered with mundane work. They will be able to devote themselves entirely to the study of Torah. However, when we do not fulfill G‑d’s will, then we will be burdened with all sorts of mundane labor.

As proof, he cites a verse from the second paragraph of the Shema, “I will give the rain of your land at its time . . . and you will gather in your grain, your wine and your oil.”14 From this verse it is evident that the Jews will be troubled with gathering the grain themselves.

However, the obvious question—raised by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi—is that this verse is preceded by the verse “And it will be, if you listen to My commandments that I command you this day to love the L‑rd, your G‑d, and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul.'' How then can the very next verse be referring to a situation where the Jews are not performing G‑d’s will!?

To answer this, Rabbi Schneur Zalman explains that this verse is indeed referring to the Jewish nation’s fulfilling G‑d’s commandments. Still, since they have not reached the ultimate level of Divine service, they are considered in some form to be “not performing G‑d’s will.”15 When one serves G‑d with all one’s might, one is able to exceed all “constraints and limitations.”16 Even if an individual is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice by giving up one’s very life to sanctify G‑d’s name and thus serves G‑d with all one’s soul, this is not necessarily what is demanded. The point of being here in this world is to be constantly dedicated to G‑d. It is about being cognizant of our higher purpose. This is what enables us to fulfill our mission in this world, to transform physicality into a fitting dwelling for G‑d.17