The Jewish tradition that there are 613 commandments (תרי״ג מצוות, romanized: taryag mitzvot) or mitzvot in the Torah (also known as the Law of Moses) began in the 3rd century CE, when Rabbi Simlai mentioned it in a sermon that is recorded in Talmud Makkot 23b.
Although there have been a lot of attempts to codify and enumerate the commandments contained in the Torah, the most traditional enumeration is Maimonides’. The 613 commandments include “positive commandments”, to perform an act (mitzvot aseh), and “negative commandments”, to abstain from certain acts (mitzvot lo taaseh). The negative commandments number 365, which coincides with the number of days in the solar year, and the positive commandments number 248, a number ascribed to the number of bones and main organs in the human body. Though the number 613 is mentioned in the Talmud, its real significance increased in later medieval rabbinic literature, including many works listing or arranged by the mitzvot. Three types of negative commandments fall under the self-sacrificial principle yehareg ve’al ya’avor, meaning “One should let oneself be killed rather than violate it”. These are murder, idolatry, and forbidden sexual relations.
The 613 mitzvot have been divided also into three general categories: mishpatim; edot; and chukim. Mishpatim (“laws”) include commandments that are deemed to be self-evident, such as not to murder and not to steal. Edot (“testimonies”) commemorate important events in Jewish history. For example, the Shabbat is said to testify to the story that Hashem created the world in six days and rested on the seventh day and declared it holy. Chukim (“decrees”) are commandments with no known rationale, and are perceived as pure manifestations of the Divine will.
Many of the mitzvot cannot be observed now, following the destruction of the Second Temple, although they still retain religious significance. According to one standard reckoning, there are 77 positive and 194 negative commandments that can be observed today, of which there are 26 commands that apply only within the Land of Israel. Furthermore, there are some time-related commandments from which women are exempt (examples include shofar, sukkah, lulav, tzitzit and tefillin). Some depend on the special status of a person in Judaism (such as kohanim), while others apply only to men or only to women.
Significance of 613
The Talmud notes that the Hebrew numerical value (gematria) of the word “Torah” is 611, and combining Moses’s 611 commandments with the first two of the Ten Commandments which were the only ones heard directly from God, adds up to 613.The Talmud attributes the number 613 to Rabbi Simlai, but other classical sages who hold this view include Rabbi Simeon ben Azzai and Rabbi Eleazar ben Yose the Galilean. It is quoted in Midrash Shemot Rabbah 33:7, Bamidbar Rabbah 13:15–16; 18:21 and Talmud Yevamot 47b.
Many Jewish philosophical and mystical works (e.g. by Baal HaTurim, the Maharal of Prague and leaders of Hasidic Judaism) find allusions and inspirational calculations relating to the number of commandments.
The tzitzit (“knotted fringes”) of the tallit (“[prayer] shawl”) are connected to the 613 commandments by interpretation: principal Torah commentator Rashi bases the number of knots on a gematria: the word tzitzit (ציצת (Biblical), ציצית, in its Mishnaic spelling) has the value 600. Each tassel has eight threads (when doubled over) and five sets of knots, totalling 13. The sum of all numbers is 613. This reflects the concept that donning a garment with tzitzit reminds its wearer of all Torah commandments.
Dissent and difficulties
Rabbinic support for the number of commandments being 613 is not without dissent. For example, Ben Azzai held that there exist 300 positive mitzvot. Also, even as the number gained acceptance, difficulties arose in elucidating the list. Some rabbis declared that this count was not an authentic tradition, or that it was not logically possible to come up with a systematic count. No early work of Jewish law or Biblical commentary depended on the 613 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”.
Nahmanides held that this particular counting was a matter of rabbinic controversy, and that rabbinic opinion on this is not unanimous. Nonetheless, he concedes that “this total has proliferated throughout the aggadic literature… we ought to say that it was a tradition from Moses at Mount Sinai”.
Rabbi Simeon ben Zemah Duran likewise rejected the dogma of the 613 as being the sum of the Law, saying 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 [and affect] the Law, but rather on the Talmudic discussions”.
Even when rabbis attempted to compile a list of the 613 commandments, they were faced with a number of difficulties:
- Which statements were to be included amongst the 613 commandments? Every one of God’s commands to any individual or 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? Else, would such an order only count as a commandment if it could be followed at all times? (The latter is the view of Maimonides.)
- Does counting a single commandment depend on whether it falls within one verse, even though it may contain multiple prohibitions, or should each prohibition count as a single commandment?
Ultimately, though, the concept of 613 commandments has become accepted as normative amongst practicing Jews and today it is still common practice to refer to the total system of commandments within the Torah as the “613 commandments”, even among those who do not literally accept this count as accurate.
However, the 613 mitzvot do not constitute a formal code of present-day halakha. Later codes of law such as the Shulkhan Arukh and Kitzur Shulkhan Arukh do not refer to it. However, Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah is prefaced by a count of the 613 mitzvot.
Works enumerating the commandments
There is no single definitive list that explicates the 613 commandments. Lists differ, for example, in how they interpret passages in the Torah that may be read as dealing with several cases under a single law or several separate laws. Other “commandments” in the Torah are restricted as one-time acts, and would not be considered as “mitzvot” binding on other persons. In rabbinic literature, Rishonim and later scholars composed to articulate and justify their enumeration of the commandments:
- Halachot Gedolot (“Great Laws”), thought to be written by Rabbi Simeon Kayyara (the Bahag) is the earliest extant enumeration of the 613 mitzvot.
- Sefer ha-Mitzvoth (“Book of Commandments”) by Rabbi Saadia Gaon. Written during the period of the Geonim, Saadia’s work is a simple list (though it was later expanded by Rabbi Yerucham Fishel Perlow.)
- Sefer Hamitzvot (“Book of Commandments”) by Maimonides, with a commentary by Nachmanides. Maimonides employs a set of fourteen rules (shorashim) which determine inclusion into the list. In this work, he 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.
- Sefer ha-Chinnuch (“Book of Education”). This work generally follows Maimonides’ reckoning of the 613 commandments. It is written in the order in which the commandments appear in the Torah rather than an arrangement by category (as in Maimonides’ work.) In addition to enumerating the commandments and giving a brief overview of relevant laws, the Sefer ha-Chinuch also tries to explain the philosophical reasons behind the mitzvot. It has been attributed to various authors, most commonly Rabbi Aaron ha-Levi of Barcelona (the Ra’ah), though its true authorship is unknown.
- Sefer Mitzvot Gadol or SMaG (“Large book of Commandments”) by Rabbi Moses ben Jacob of Coucy.
- Sefer Mitzvoth Katan or SMaK (“Small book of Commandments”) by Rabbi Isaac of Corbeil. This work was written in the form of a poem, divided into seven sections and intended to be read each week. While Isaac’s work is fairly short, most editions contain lengthy commentaries. Like the Chafetz Chaim’s enumeration, the SMaK deals only with those mitzvot applicable today.
- 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”). The Chafetz Chaim’s work follows the reckoning of Maimonides but gives only the commandments relevant today. Notably, this listing omits commandments regarding temple service, ritual purity, sacrifices, and so on. Though the original work included only those commandments relevant in all places and at all times, later editions include agricultural laws relevant today only in the Land of Israel.
Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia