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Enumerating the Commandments (613)

613 mitzvot | Enumerating the Commandments (613)

In Judaism there is a tradition that the Torah contains 613 mitzvot (Hebrew for commandments, from mitzvah – מצוה – precept, plural mitzvot; from צוה, tzavah- command).

According to the main source, of these 613, 248 mitzvot aseh (positive commandments) and 365 mitzvot lo taaseh (negative commandments). It is notable that 365 is the number of days in a solar year and 248 was at that time believed to be the number of bones in the human body.

Significance of 613

The Talmud (tractate Makkoth 23b) calculates that the numerical value (gematria) of the Hebrew word "Torah" is 611. The Torah states that Moses transmitted the Torah from God to the Jewish people: "Moses commanded us the Torah as an inheritance for the community of Jacob" (Deuteronomy 33:4). However, there were two commandments which God directed straight at the Jewish people: the first two of the Ten Commandments; these are phrased in the first person.

Many Jewish philosophical and mystical works (Baal ha-Turim, the Maharal of Prague and leaders of Hasidic Judaism) find allusions and inspirational calculations relating to the number of commandments. Other works dispute that exactly 613 mitzvot exist.

The tzitzit (knotted fringes) of the tallit (prayer shawl) are tied to the 613 commands by interpretation: principal Torah commentator Rashi bases the number of knots on a gematria: the word tzitzit (Hebrew: ציצת (Biblical), ציצית, in its Mishnaic spelling) has the value 600. Each tassel has eight threads (when doubled over) and five sets of knots, totaling 13. The sum of all numbers is 613, traditionally the number of mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah. This reflects the concept that donning a garment with tzitzit reminds its wearer of all Torah commandments.

Other views

The Talmudic source is not without dissent. Apart from Rabbi Simlai, to whom the number 613 is attributed, other classical sages who hold this view include Rabbi Simeon ben Azzai (Sifre, Deuteronomy 76) and Rabbi Eleazar ben Yose the Galilean (Midrash Aggadah to Genesis 15:1). It is quoted in Midrash Exodus Rabbah 33:7, Numbers Rabbah 13:15–16; 18:21 and Talmud Yevamot 47b.

However, some held that this count was not an authentic tradition, or that it was not logically possible to come up with a systematic count. This is possibly why no early work of Jewish law or Biblical commentary depended on this system, and no early systems of Jewish principles of faith made acceptance of this Aggadah (non-legal Talmudic statement) normative. The classical Biblical commentator and grammarian Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra denied that this was an authentic rabbinic tradition. Ibn Ezra writes "Some sages enumerate 613 mitzvot in many diverse ways [...] but in truth there is no end to the number of mitzvot [...] and if we were to count only the root principles [...] the number of mitzvot would not reach 613" (Yesod Mora, Chapter 2)

Nahmanides held that this counting was the matter of a dispute, and that rabbinic opinion on this is not unanimous. Despite this, he states that "this total has proliferated throughout the aggadic literature… we ought to say that it was a tradition from Moses at Mount Sinai" (Nahmanides, Commentary to Maimonides’ Sefer Hamitzvot”, Root Principle 1).

Rabbi Simeon ben Tzemah Duran states that "perhaps the agreement that the number of mitzvot is 613… is just Rabbi Simlai’s opinion, following his own explication of the mitzvot. And we need not rely on his explication when we come to determine the law, but rather on the talmudic discussions" (Zohar Harakia, Lviv, 1858, p.99).

Rabbis who attempted to compile a list of the 613 commandments faced a number of difficulties, being:

Which statements were to be counted as commandments? Every command by God to any individual? Only commandments to the entire people of Israel?

Would an order from God be counted as a commandment, for the purposes of such a list, if it could only be complied with in one place and time? Or, would such an order only count as a commandment if it could – at least in theory – be followed at all times? (The latter is the view of Maimonides.)

How does one count commandments in a single verse which offers multiple prohibitions? Should each prohibition count as a single commandment, or does the entire set count as one commandment?

In Torah Min Hashamayim ("Heavenly Torah"), Conservative Judaism’s Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes: Judah ibn Bal’am denigrates those who number the mitzvot, and who attempt "to force their count to equal 613." In his opinion, this is impossible, for if we were to count all of the mitzvot, including those that were temporary commandments and those that were intended to endure, the number would be far greater than 613. "And if we confined ourselves only to those that endure, we would find fewer than this number." (Behinat Hamitzvot Rabbi Yehiel Mikhel Gutmann, Breslau, 1928, p.26)

Despite these misgivings, the idea that there are 613 commandments became accepted as normative in the Jewish community. Today, even among those who do not literally accept this count as accurate, it is still a common practice to refer to the total system of commandments within the Torah as the "613 commandments".

Works enumerating the commandments

In practice there is no one definitive list that explicates the 613 laws. The differences come about because in some places the Torah lists related laws together, so it is difficult to know whether one is dealing with a single law, which lists several cases, or several separate laws; Other "commandments" in the Torah are restricted as one-time acts, and would not be considered as "mitzvot". In rabbinic literature there are a number of works, mainly by the Rishonim, that were composed to determine which commandments belong in this enumeration:  

  • Sefer ha-Mitzvoth ("Book of Commandments") by Rabbi Saadia Gaon (really just a list, later expanded by R’ Yerucham Fishel Perlow)
  • Sefer Hamitzvot ("Book of Commandments") by Maimonides, with a critical commentary of Nachmanides – see below;
  • Sefer ha-Chinnuch ("Book of Education"), attributed to Rabbi Aaron ha-Levi of Barcelona (the Ra’ah);
  • Sefer ha-Mitzvoth ha-Gadol ("Large book of Commandments") by Rabbi Moses ben Jacob of Coucy;
  • Sefer ha-Mitzvoth ha-Katan ("Small book of Commandments") by Rabbi Isaac of Corbeil;
  • Sefer Yere’im ("Book of the [God-]fearing") by Rabbi Eliezer of Metz (not a clear enumeration);
  • Sefer ha-Mitzvoth by Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (the "Chafetz Chaim") – this work only deals with the commandments that are valid in the present time.

Maimonides’ work

The most important of the above works is Sefer ha-Mitzvoth by Maimonides (Rambam). Maimonides went to great lengths to enumerate exactly which of the written Torah’s (Pentateuch) commandments can be considered fixed forevermore, in contradistinction to many "commands" that God makes in the Torah at various points but are restricted as one-time acts. He employs a set of fourteen rules (shorashim) which determine inclusion into the list. In this work, Maimonides supports his specification of each Mitzvah through quotations from the Midrash halakha and the Gemara. Nachmanides makes a number of critical points and replaces some items of the list with others.

The 613 commandments and their source in scripture, as enumerated by Maimonides. Follow this link to read them.

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