The Magic 613
To this end Orthodox Jews adhere to the 613 Mitzvot (“commandments”), sometimes known as the “Law of Moses” or simply “the Law.” These injunctions are part of the Torah, we are told. Where then are they enumerated there?
That turns out to be a serious problem. Some hold that they are all present in “hidden form” in the Ten Commandments. If so they seem well hidden. In fact, their basis must be sought for in various scattered places in Scripture.
It is something of a surprise to find that there is no universally recognized list of the Mitzvot. The earliest known version, a bare-bones listing, is ascribed to Saadia Gaon (ca. 882-942). Nowadays many follow a different list drawn up by Maimonides (1135-1204), but there are yet other compilations that differ in content. At all events, Saadia Gaon and Maimonides lived long after the closing of the canon of the Talmud. Why does the Talmud itself not offer a definitive enumeration of the 613? Could it be that the Talmudic sages knew the list, but neglected to write it down, as they took it for granted? Why then do subsequent lists differ in content? In all candor, these lists seem to be something of a Johnny-come-lately phenomenon. They are a product of medieval, and not of classical and post-classical Judaism.
Some commandments in Maimonides’ list now seem barbaric in their anachronism, for example, 513. The master must not sell his maidservant; and 514. Canaanite slaves must work forever unless injured in one of their limbs. Nos. 545-49 apply to capital cases, stipulating the the courts must carry out the penalties of stoning, burning, execution by the sword, strangulation, and hanging. Moreover (552), the court must not suffer a witch to live. Two items that nowadays are definitely honored more in the breach than the observance are 534. Not to lend with interest; and 535. Not to borrow with interest.
Here, in rough outline, is how these lists seem to have come into being. Imagine someone with a new notebook, numbering the lines of the blank sheets from one to 613. Then one would have to decide what to write on those lines. Why 613? Well, according to the deliverances of the numerological technique known as gematria, the Hebrew numerical value of the word "Torah" is 611. One then must combine the 611 commandments ascribed to Moses with the two received directly from God to reach the desired total of 613. The magic number was attained by a dubious kind of numerology--and not in a very convincing manner, since the first calculation was 611, two shy of the final total.
Nor does the numerological intervention stop there. Some authorities hold that there are 365 negative commandments, reflecting the number of days in a solar year, and 248 positive commandments, corresponding to the presumed number of bones and significant organs in the human body. Many of the mitzvot cannot be observed following the destruction of the Second Temple in CE 70. According to one reckoning, there are 77 negative and 194 positive commandments that can be observed today--a total that is far from the canonical 613. Moreover, there are 26 admonitions that apply only within the Land of Israel. There are some commandments from which women are exempt (examples include those pertaining to shofar, sukkah, lulav, tzitzit, and tefillim). Some depend on the particular status of a person in Judaism (such as being a Kohen), while others apply only to men and others only to women.
Rabbinic support for 613 has not gone without challenge. Moreover, even as the number gained acceptance, difficulties arose in fleshing out the list. Some rabbis held that this count was not an authentic tradition, or that it was not logically possible to come up with a systematic count. In fact, no early work of Jewish or Biblical commentary depended on the system of 613, and no early expositions of Jewish principles of faith made the acceptance of such a list binding. It is evident that the confidence shown by some that the whole sequence was conveyed to Moses at Mount Sinai requires a considerable suspension of disbelief.
When rabbis attempted to compile a definitive list of the 613 commandments, they encountered a number of problems. Which statements were to be counted as commandments? Does this mean every command by God to any individual? Or only commandments to the entire people of Israel? Moreover, 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 universal, to be followed at all times? Further, how does one count commandments in a single verse which offers multiple prohibitions? Should each prohibition rank as a single commandment, or does the entire set constitute one commandment?
Ultimately, though, the concept of 613 commandments became a kind of talisman in the Jewish community. Today, even among those who do not literally accept this count as accurate, it is still common practice to refer to the total system of commandments within the Torah as the "613 commandments.” It sounds so precise.
In reality the 613 commandments do not form an essential part of halakhic law. This is so despite the sobriquets noted at the top: the “Law of Moses” or simply “the Law.” In the strict sense, observing them is elective. In other words, they are a resource for those who choose to structure their lives around an elaborate series of do’s and don’t’s. This impulse looks very much like a version of the Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), identified by psychiatrists. In fact, there seems to a heightened incidence of clinical OCD among the Orthodox. That is, having internalized the 613, some individuals go searching for yet other injunctions and taboos to observe.
As in previous essays in this series, these findings suggest that the views of Orthodox Jewry, and of much of modern Judaism in general, have only a tangential relationship to the faith found in the Hebrew Bible. In fact we are dealing with two religions--one relying upon the other, to be sure--but essentially two religions. For this reason, the assertions of modern Judaism faithfully to reflect the “faith of our fathers” must be taken with more than a grain of salt.
Why is it important to utter these strictures? Would it not be more tactful to abstain? I don’t think that one can do this, though. The reason is that the older faith--Judaism One, if you will--has, through its influence on the New Testament and the Koran, had a great deal of impact on later civilization. To understand our cultural history, it is essential to reconstruct the relationships prevailing among the original three document-complexes.
Such is not the case, however, with Judaism Two, which is essentially the creation of an enclave, a separatist culture. It came about as a creative effort to cope with two disasters that devastated the Jewish world--the destruction of the Second Temple and the triumph of Christianity. As such, its influence has been pretty much limited to its own adherents.
What beliefs and practices prevail within this enclave is a matter that by definition must be determined by the observant persons who find their place within it. It is not the business of any outsider to say what these beliefs and practices should be. That point should be axiomatic. All the same, some valid observations are in order, and I have sought to make them above. In this light, the effort to pass such modern instances off as “living biblically” or “in accord with Torah” must not go without challenge. To shirk this duty would be to burke the larger enterprise of interpreting the interaction of the three primary Abrahamic religions.
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