ט״ו בתמוז ה׳תש״ע (June 27, 2010)

Makkot 23a-b – The 613 commandments in the Torah

How many commandments are there in the Torah?

 

Tradition has it that there are 613 mitzvot, and the source for this tradition appears on today’s daf (=page). According to Rav Simlai, the 613 mitzvot are divided between 365 negative commandments, matching the days in a solar year, and 248 positive commandments, matching the number of organs in the human body. According to Rav Hamnuna, the source for this is the pasuk (=verse) in Sefer Devarim (33:4Torah tzivah lanu Moshe – Moses commanded us the Torah. In gematria – the numerical value of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet – the word Torah (400 + 6 + 200 + 5) equals 611, meaning that Moshe taught the Jewish people 611 mitzvot. Add to this the two commandments that the Jewish people heard directly from God with no intermediary – that is, the first two of the Ten Commandments – and we have 613 commandments.

 

The Rivan (one of Rashi‘s grandsons) explains that the 365 negative commandments match the days in a solar year, representing the fact that the days themselves call out to us to refrain from negative behaviors. Rabbi Yosef Albo in his Sefer ha-Ikkarim suggests that time itself is a message for us. Just as every fleeting moment does not have true existence, since “the present” disappears before you can even realize it, yet we find that “past” and “future” are created from it, similarly it may appear that negative commandments – simply not doing something – do not have any creative aspect to them, yet they generate a wholeness of experience. At the same time, the organs of a person cry out to perform mitzvot, and, in fact, the Sefer Hareidim lists the 613 commandments according to their performance by means of the different organs of the body.

 

A more common method of compiling lists of the commandments are according to their appearance in the Torah (as done by the Sefer Ha-Hinukh), or according to a logical scheme (as done by the Rambam). In his commentary on the Rambam’s Sefer ha-Mitzvot, the Ramban objects to this exercise, arguing that the number 613 has no real significance and that depending on how one counts and what one includes there may be many more that 613 commandments.

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