The Origins and Use of the 613 Mitzvot
Few ideas have found as much purchase in Jewish thought as the notion that Jewish law consists of precisely 613 commandments. Enumerations of the commandments survive not only from rabbinic Jews since the geonic period, but even from Karaite, Samaritan, and Christian authors. Yet, taken as a whole, rabbinic literature hardly supports the claim that the Torah contains 613 commandments and the Babylonian Talmud never takes up the question of what constitutes a commandment for the purposes of this enumeration.
In fact, even though the number 613 appears in numerous places in standard printings of rabbinic literature, Ephraim Urbach noted long ago that manuscripts of these passages almost invariably read “all of the commandments” or similar phrases, instead of the phrase “613 commandments.”
In light of this, there is perhaps no idea that is simultaneously as widely accepted, yet with so little basis in rabbinic literature, as the supposition that it is “unambiguous” that Jewish law consists of precisely 613 commandments.
The Origin of the Idea that God Gave Moses 613 Commandments
The only place where talmudic and midrashic manuscripts uniformly preserve the idea that God gave Israel exactly 613 commandments is the famous passage in Bavli Makkot 23b-24a. This aggadic text reads (translation my own):
דרש רבי שמלאי שש מאות ושלש עשרה מצות נאמרו לו למשה שלש מאות וששים וחמש לאוין כמנין ימות החמה ומאתים וארבעים ושמונה עשה כנגד איבריו של אדם
Rabbi Simlai expounded: “613 commandments were said to Moses, 365 negative commandments, like the days of the year, and 248 positive commandments, corresponding to a person’s limbs.”
אמר רב המנונא מאי קרא (דברים לג, ד) תורה צוה לנו משה מורשה תורה בגימטריא שית מאה וחד סרי הוי אנכי ולא יהיה לך מפי הגבורה שמענום
Said Rav Hamnuna: “What is the verse? ‘Moses commanded us a Torah’ (Deut. 33:4) – torah in gemaṭria (numerical value of letters) is 611. ‘I am [the Lord your God who brought you out of the Land of Egypt’ and ‘You shall have no other [gods before me]’ (Exod. 20:2-3) we heard from the Almighty.
The number 613 – the sum of two otherwise significant numbers, 365 and 248 – appears to be a “symbolic rather than mathematical number,” meaning, that it results from combining two symbolic numbers, rather than an attempt to carefully enumerate and classify the law as a whole. Once R. Simlai established this number, Rav Hamnuna’s search for a biblical prooftext naturally follows.
This talmudic passage immediately goes on to reduce the commandments to smaller numbers:
בא דוד והעמידן על אחת עשרה... בא ישעיהו והעמידן על שש... בא מיכה והעמידן על שלש... חזר ישעיהו והעמידן על שתים...
“David came and established them (heʿemidan) as eleven… Isaiah came and established them as six… Micah came and established them as three… … Isaiah returned and established them as two…
The passage finally suggests that there is really only one mitzvah, based on the verse “the righteous shall live by his faith.” These “reductions” to pithy catalogues of obligations certainly do not indicate that the number 613 represents some sort of official count of the commandments, as would appear in the medieval period, because the rabbinic idea of Jewish law clearly extends beyond these eleven, six, three, two, or one commandments.
Even so, the search for an official list of 613 mitzvot began in earnest. In 1878, the great Austrian Jewish scholar Adolf (Aharon) Jellinek (1821-93) published a small pamphlet called Quntres Taryag, identifying some one hundred and forty-four works dedicated to the enumeration of the commandments. Almost immediately, another scholar pointed out that, perhaps inevitably, the great bibliographer had overlooked some examples, and in the subsequent century and a half, scholars have identified many additional enumerations.
How did this number attain such currency in Jewish consciousness? This question can only be answered by examining the diverse ways that authors have engaged lists of the 613 commandments. Essentially, our story traces the move of these lists from the synagogue to the beit midrash, from liturgical to jurisprudential purposes.
The earliest attempts to enumerate the commandments appear in piyyuṭim (liturgical poems) known as azharot (“warnings”), once commonly recited during musaf of Shavuot. What is probably the earliest surviving azharah, known by its opening words אתה הנחלת (Atah Hinḥalta, meaning “you gave as an inheritance”), is a poem, apparently of Babylonian provenance (even ascribed in one manuscript to a Babylonian yeshiva). This poem, however, contains fewer than 613 commandments and doesn’t even mention the number 613. Yet even those azharot that do attempt to list precisely 613 commandments are nevertheless fraught with methodological problems for later interpreters, as all but one of these poems fail to number the commandments.
Despite the attempts of later commentators on these poems to treat these texts as carefully-worded legal compositions, their authors appear to have a had different goals in mind, such as educating synagogue attendees about the basic content of the 613 commandments or ritually reciting the entire law on the day that it was given.
The list found at the outset of the Halakhot Gedolot, ascribed to the ninth-century Simeon Qayyāra (known informally as Behag, an acronym meaning “author of [ba’al] the Halakhot Gedolot”), who may have hailed from Basra, is by far the most influential of these early enumerations. Several scholars have suggested that this list was not written by the same author as Halakhot Gedolot itself, as the body of this work makes little reference to the homiletic introduction, and the book itself is organized around the Mishnaic tractates, not a list of mitzvot, an argument that appears fairly compelling.
ספרי המצוות - Books of the Commandments
The idea of composing compendia that went by the title “Book of the Commandments” appears to have been Karaite, rather than Rabbanite, in origin. In the late tenth century, the Jerusalem Karaite Yefet ben ʿEli reported that the proto-Karaites ʿAnan ben David and Benjamin al-Nahāwandī had authored “Books of the Commandments,” i.e., legal codes that went by this title, but not works organized around any sort of enumeration of the commandments.
This suggests that one of the impetuses behind the earliest such Rabbanite works, composed by the geonim Saʿadya ben Joseph (882-942) and Samuel ben Ḥofni (d. 1034), was competition with Karaites. These Judeo-Arabic works were the first to utilize the 613 commandments in a new way, moving from a liturgical setting to a more explicitly educational or reflective venue.
The earliest such Rabbanite work was written by Saʿadya Gaon, who, in his prayer book, wrote that the lists of the 613 commandments are hardly “an indispensable principle,” but that he nevertheless composed liturgical counts in order to correct earlier enumerations because “the hearts of men, whom I have seen, are devoted to it.”
His Book of the Commandments, which largely remains unpublished, divided the commandments into twenty-six categories, such as commandments operative in particular places, those that are binding on particular people, or those that pertain to larger categories, such as worship or impurity. This work is not a detailed exposition of the law, but, instead, largely a summary of the commandants, usually just mentioning each one with its primary scriptural source(s). It is not always clear how Saʿadya chose to create his categories; for example, the section containing laws of sowing clearly overlaps with the laws that only operate in the land of Israel.
Samuel ben Hofni
The Book on the Commandments by Samuel ben Hofni is markedly different: it is primarily a book of legal theory, and only the second (of three) parts lists and categorizes the commandments. Noting Samuel’s failure to list all of the 613 commandments and his placement of the commandments into overlapping, rather than mutually exclusive, categories, David Sklare suggested that Samuel sought to organize the commandments in order to tackle theological and polemical problems, rather than narrow legal ones.
For example, Sklare argued that by demonstrating that the commandments could vary according to personal status or time and place, Samuel sought to affirm the ability of divine law to conform to changing circumstances, undercutting a claim made by Muslims that the Torah needed to be abrogated because it is outdated.
Ḥefeẓ ben Yaẓliaḥ
Another significant Book of the Commandments of this period was penned by the relatively unknown Ḥefeẓ ben Yaẓliaḥ (late 10th cent.). Widely cited by early medieval Jews in North Africa and Spain, a complete copy of Ḥefeẓ’s work appears to have been unavailable even by Maimonides’ time. This massive legal compendium, sections of which were published by the early twentieth-century Genizah scholar Benzion Halper, was apparently a complete legal code. Like Saʿadya before him, Ḥefeẓ placed the commandments into distinct sections, such as those addressing ritual defilement or animal blemishes. Yet where Saʿadya merely listed the commandment, Ḥefeẓ explained many of the relevant laws in detail. Halper suggested that this work, were it preserved in its entirety, would have been around 800 pages in length!
These early works that addressed the 613 commandments underscore the malleability of this genre, addressing liturgical, didactic, philosophical, and jurisprudential themes.
Methodological Categorization and Derivation
Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) tackled the idea of 613 mitzvot in profoundly new ways in his Book of the Commandments. He prefaced this work with fourteen methodological principles, and defended his decisions about the enumeration throughout. Maimonides also heaped endless criticism on the enumerations of his predecessors, most explicitly attacking the enumeration found in Halakhot Gedolot, but also Ḥefeẓ’s count, and, even less directly, Sa’adya’s.
Maimonides’ Book of the Commandments addresses questions of the scriptural or extra-scriptural sources of every law, and seeks to classify laws into headings of larger commandments. (As examples of the latter, Maimonides insists that the four species taken on Sukkot constitute only one commandment, not four, and that the commandment to love a convert is distinct from, and in addition to, the commandment to love all Jews) Both the identification of sources and the categorization of laws became endemic to later considerations of the 613 commandments, but are less prominent in earlier enumerations.
For this reason, Maimonides’ criticism of his predecessors should probably be understood as part of his attempt to create a novel genre. From his perspective, it was not merely that geonic-era enumerators (and, especially, authors of the azharot) made numerous “mistakes” when counting the 613 commandments, but they had committed – in Maimonides’ eyes – profound category errors in their deployment of this number.
Ultimately, Maimonides sought to move the enumeration from its liturgical roots, and beyond its philosophical applications, into a more jurisprudential realm. It is in this setting that the search for the “correct” enumeration most fully flourished, first in the hands of Maimonides’ early critics Daniel ben Saʿadya ha-Bavli (flourished early 13th c.) and Naḥmanides (d. 1238), and later in such classics as Derekh Mizvotekha of Judah Rosanes (1657-1727) and Minḥat Ḥinukh of Joseph Babad (1801-1874). Many of these works read Maimonides’ assumptions into earlier enumerations, holding them up to the standards of later enumerators.
All evidence indicates that Maimonides composed his Book of the Commandments during the period that he wrote his Mishneh Torah, but disagreements between them abound. Even the assumption that these two works should be read together may be erroneous, as Maimonides wrote the former in Judeo-Arabic and the latter in Hebrew.
Moses Ibn Tibbon (1195-1274), of the illustrious family of medieval Jewish translators, even provocatively suggested that Maimonides wrote the Book of the Commandments in Judeo-Arabic precisely in order to prevent linking these two works together. Other than the assumption that Maimonides rethought particular issues, it is difficult to identify a systematic account to explain the many divergences between these compositions.
What Motivated the Movement toward Precision?
The factors that motivated attempts to identify a precise list of commandments are not unique to this topic, or even to Jewish literature. In fact, these enumerations are just one of the better known instances of a larger phenomenon of attempts to enumerate found in Jewish (and non-Jewish) texts.
- The Decalogue - The best-known example might be the Decalogue or the “Ten Commandments”; although the Torah refers to the “ten words/sayings” in three places (Exod. 34:28, Deut. 4:13, 10:4), neither scriptural presentation (Exod. 20:2-14; Deut. 5:6-15) contains a numbering.
- Ishmael’s 13 Middot – Similarly, the identification of the thirteen middot in R. Ishmael’s list is hotly contested, as the list appears to contain sixteen items.
Attempting to ascertain the exact enumeration of matters found in earlier religious texts is in no way solely a Jewish phenomenon, but reflects a general trend of fidelity to tradition that can be found throughout religious traditions. For example, a famous ḥadīth relates that Muhammad informed his followers that his community would split into seventy-three sects; it is unsurprising that later heresiographers would struggle to identify each of these groups.
The surprising resilience and prevalence of the idea that Jewish law consists precisely of 613 commandments owes much, I would suggest, to the very flexibility of this idea. This notion has helped educate synagogue attendees, address polemical concerns, and, most prominently, limn the contours of revelation and divine law.
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May 26, 2017
October 22, 2019
Dr. Marc Herman is currently a research fellow in the Department of Religion Studies at Lehigh University and will next hold the Shvidler-Rabin joint post-doctoral fellowship in the History Departments at Fordham and Columbia Universities. His Ph.D. is from the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Religious Studies. He has forthcoming articles in the Jewish Quarterly Review and Jewish History.
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