Lies We Were Taught in Hebrew School, or Why 613 is a Meaningless Number

Originally posted on

Dear Readers,

Jews, as you may have gathered, often have opinions. And it is my opinion that certain ideas in circulation have gotten so warped through vapid repetition that they have entered the domain of lies. Yes, you heard me. LIES.

We, as a people, value education and text. So, in the coming weeks, I am embarking on an occasional series here at Jewschool entitled Lies We Were Taught in Hebrew School. I will be attacking, head-on, the sorts of alleged truisms that get repeated and repeated so often that they have become utterly divorced from anything resembling truth. It is my hope that by debunking some of these commonly-propagated myths, we can elevate our discussions with knowledge, rather than resort to pithy aphorisms.

“What,” you may be asking, “is he talking about?” Well, dear readers, I’ll give you some examples. The first post in this series is entitled 613 is a Meaningless Number. Bold? Absolutely. An overstatement? Perhaps. But are you intrigued? Read on.

I can already hear the fingers furiously typing away in the comments box. “There are 613 mitzvot in the Torah! How can you possibly say this number is meaningless?”

So I ask you, have you ever tried to count the mitzvot in the Torah? It ain’t easy. They aren’t numbered. Hell, Jews and Christians can’t even agree on how to number the ten commandments, how are we supposed to get to 613?

But I’m getting ahead of myself. After all, the number came from somewhere, didn’t it? Turns out, it did. In fact, as far as I can tell, the first reference we have in our texts to this number comes from the Gemara, in Makkot 23b24a. (Click on those page numbers to see the talmud pages in Hebrew.)

Rabbi Simlai explained: 613 mitzvot were said to Mosess: 365 negative commandments, like the number of days of the sun; and 248 positive commandments, like the parts of a person.

To clarify – negative commandments are those which can be described in terms of “thou shalt not.” Positive commandments are those which can be described in terms of “thou shalt.” In other words, “Don’t kill” is a negative commandment, and “Keep the Sabbath” is a positive commandment. Positive and negative are not value judgments here, merely a way of distinguishing between prohibitions and proactive requirements.

So what do we make of this business with the sun and the body? Well, two months ago, one might have been surprised to see a reference to our 365-day solar year in Jewish text, but after all the hoopla around Birkat HaChammah, we all now know that the solar year sometimes popped up in Jewish text. So why is the number of prohibitions equal to the number of days in the year? Because we should be conscious of our religious obligations every day. In other words, this is metonymy at work. 365 = entire year = always.

The same idea is at work with the parts of a person. The footnotes to the Schottenstein Edition of Talmud Bavli (published by Artscroll) notes that the idea that 248 is the number of the body’s organs comes from Mishna Oholot 1:8. Again, we see metonymy at work. 248 = all the parts of your body = your entire being. In other words, you should put your entire being to work in the pursuit of mitzvot.

I would argue, then, that the number 613 was not originally meant to be an accounting of actual mitzvot. Rather, it’s a forceful symbol of how important the mitzvot are — they should be the focus of all our being, all the time.

Incidentally, Makkot gives something of a proof text as to how we “know” the number 613 is correct, drawing on the phrase Torah tzivah-lanu Moshe morasha… (Moses commanded to us the Torah as a heritage.) The gematria of the word Torah is 611; there’s a midrash that says the first two of the Ten Commandments were heard by the Jewish people directly from God, so we add those two to the 611 we get from the gematria of the word Torah, and look, it’s 613!

Of course, this little corner of the Talmud inspired dozens of Jewish scholars throughout history to try to enumerate which verses in the Torah constitute the actual 613. None of them got the same answer. Nachmanides, in his commentary to Maimonides’ attempt (more on that in a second), goes so far as to say that the idea of 613 commandments has become so omnipresent, “we ought to say that it was a tradition from Moses at Sinai.”

Maimonides decided he could do it better than everyone else — that tended to be his M.O. in general, cocky little bastard — so he whipped up something called The Book of Commandments (aka Sefer HaMitzvot) . Of course, being Maimonides, he wasn’t just content with producing a list. He included a prologue in which he smack-talked all the previous attempts and then revealed his methods, fourteen principles of how to know a commandment when you see one — and how to tell if it’s positive or negative.

Maimonides was such a towering figure in Jewish thought, his list has more or less stuck. Generally speaking, when folks talk about “the 613 commandments,” they’re thinking of his list (if they’re thinking at all). But despite his tremendous influence, not all the great sages bought it.

Abraham ibn Ezra, the favorite sage of grammar nerds everywhere, took on the fad of counting the 613 mitzvot in his book Sefer Yesod Mora Ve-Sod Ha-Torah (The Book of Foundation of Awe and the Secret of Torah), stating:

In reality, there is no limit to the mitzvot. As it is written, I have seen an end to every purpose; But They commandment is exceeding broad (Psalms 119:96). However, counting only the categories, the sources, and the laws that are forever binding, then the mitzvot are no richer than 613.

Okay, so he wimps out and gives Maimonides his backhanded seal of approval. This, incidentally, is the reasoning that Jewschool frequent comment-writer Firouz likes to fall back on whenever anyone points out that beloved mitzvot like lighting candles on Shabbat or observing the holiday of Hanukkah don’t originate in the Torah and therefore aren’t one of the 613.

The Vilna Gaon takes the step that ibn Ezra wasn’t bold enough to make, writing in Orot Hagra:

It definitely cannot be said that only 613, and no more, come under the category of mitzvot. For if so, there are only three mitzvot from Bereishit until Bo, and many portions of the Torah contain no mitzvot. That is not plausible… The mitzvot are thus multitudinous beyond enumeration…

He picks up ibn Ezra’s idea of the mitzvot of the Torah being the sources for later mitzvot — an idea upon which the entire halakhic process is based — but draws a much more beautiful and complex picture:

The 613 mitzvot mentioned are only roots, but they spread forth into many branches. Which of them are roots and which of them are branches is actually a matter that is concealed from us.

So in short, 613 started as a beautiful metaphor for a wholehearted approach to Jewish living that got trampled on by centuries of literalists before being briefly revived into an even more beautiful metaphor for the ever-expanding opportunities for holiness in our lives.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little journey into Jewish text with me. Stay turned for future installments of Lies We Were Taught in Hebrew School, featuring such delightful topics as tattooing, good deeds, the Book of Deuteronomy, and more! (Have suggestions? Let me know!)

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