Politics, Religion

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

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!)

48 thoughts on “Lies We Were Taught in Hebrew School, or why 613 is a Meaningless Number

  1. I went to an event last night where Rabbi Ethan Tucker of Yeshivat Hadar talked about this same issue. He pointed out that 613 is both prime and a centered square number (it’s 17^2 + 18^2), and suggested that the rabbis may have chosen it for this reason, to suggest indivisibility and perfection.

  2. maybe you should ask why 10 is a meaningful number. As in why 10 makes up a minyan. It seems youre basic issue is with the oral tradition ie what the rabbis taught. If you want to deny that go right ahead. But dont try to run rings around it and nitpick various different traditions.

  3. What you call nitpicking the tradition, I would call participating in it. If we don’t grapple with tradition, it dies. I happen to prefer my reading of the gemara (which is certainly not unique to me) to Maimonides, not only because I find it more beautiful and open, but also because I think it’s more authentic to the Torah’s concept of “lo bashamayim hi” (“it’s not in heaven,” ie the interpretation of the law is in the hands of people).

  4. Wow. So I guess you are smarter then Rambam,Ramban, Chinuch. To dismiss works such as the Rambam”s Sefer Hamitzvohs in such an off handed manner is a poor reflection of your knowledge and respect for scholars who were far brighter than we can imagine. Its one thing to be ignorant. Its another thing to be brazen about it.

  5. Rambam was a human being, like dlevy, but something tells me that dlevy does not have the entire Torah and Mishnah and probably a good deal of the Talmud committed the memory like the Rambam…

  6. no. obviously they are. otherwise the Rabad and Ramban and others would have had no fun writing their criticisms. Few claim the Rambam to be infallible. But what is definite is that he had a MUCH firmer grasp on traditional Torah study than anyone alive today. And the only reason he could write what he wrote (whether we agree with what he wrote or not) was by virtue of having acquired an incredible knowledge of Jewish understanding. And while dlevy is clearly a very smart dude and very Jewishly aware, there’s a big gap in the knowledge each have. So the issue I have is simply that it’s kind of important to start this discussion by acknowledging that those great rabbis in the generation of the Rishonim hold a special place in our history by virtue of their incredible level of learning, and even our most learned don’t have quite the same intimacy with the tradition, i.e., having the whole of the Mishnah committed to memory.

  7. Great post! Would you be interested in covering “Anshei Knesset HaGadol” for this series? I’ve been told they didn’t really exist though it’s hard for me to wrap my mind about what that means exactly.

  8. Delightful post! However, you’re actually the first person to convince me that the number has real significance. I’ve never heard the bit about 365 and 248, which is pretty compelling, in a homiletic sense. And I love a good d’var torah. I’m going to use this at camp this summer with something.

  9. What I would suggest is that your title be changed, for it seems to me that you are not arguing that 613 is “meaningless” rather, that its meaning should not be limited. You have presented us with your reading of the meaning behind the use of this specific number, and for that I and I’m certain most who read your post are grateful. But the (even if tongue in cheek) anger with which you express your thoughts is troubling. You dont have to call what came before you “lies” to make your opinions count. You dont have to crap on the Rambam to make us think you have something interesting or valuable to say.

  10. To dismiss works such as the Rambam”s Sefer Hamitzvohs in such an off handed manner is a poor reflection of your knowledge and respect for scholars who were far brighter than we can imagine.
    I love it when people propose that ancient rabbis were geniuses on the scale “far brighter than we can imagine“! The inflexibility of regarding everything written (and it seems to be everything) as misunderstood genius is just a way of stultifying adaptation.
    And quite frankly, if it’s so genius and complicated that one has to be a genius to understand it, well, maybe best leave it on the shelf, unread. Does it mean anything to the spiritual lives of everyday Jews if it’s so inaccessible?

  11. Okay, you’re on to me. I don’t really think the number is meaningless, I just don’t think it means what the majority of people who like to harp on about “the 613 mitzvot” insist it means. Nor do I think I’m smarter or more learned than the Rambam or any of the sages. But I do think that irreverence is a healthy approach to text, particularly in the way that it removes stumbling blocks to learning. I would argue that what “israel” refers to as nitpicking is actually an honest and full-on engagement with the texts of our tradition. Without this “nitpicking,” Jewish scholarship would dry up and die. I’m willing to bet that many people who read this post are encountering these texts for the first time. Don’t like my interpretation? Great. Offer your own. But here’s a hint, straight from the yeshiva: “Who does he think he is dissing Rambam like that?” is not an interpretation.

  12. the same Gemara, in Makkot 23b-24a lists several other calculations for the number of mitzvot in the torah. I’m not sure when 613 became the “chosen number” but it certainly wasnt as far as the gemara was concerned.

  13. I am also a bit confused as to why the post was entitled “lies you were taught in hebrew school” since dlevy, I don’t think that was the point you ended up proving (and I think you admitted to that in your comment). I DO appreciate the Dvar very much, and understanding the numbers as a wholeness of self is a beautiful interpretation that I’ve never been presented with before.
    It is also seems to be a very kabalistic approach to me…in terms of taking meaning from the numbers and finding bodily significance in them. You know…the mystical version of kaballah…not that Madonna-following-red bracelet wearing-fad kind.

  14. What I also find interesting is that we can really only observe 60-80 of the so-called 248 positive commandments today anyway. Remember some of these mitzvot can only be done once in a lifetime.
    Are the 248 organs of the body verifiable? What exactly are they counting?

  15. BSB6 – Had I called the post “Exegesis on Rabbinic Approaches to Ennumerating Religious Obligations in the Pentateuch,” I suspect fewer people might have bothered to read it. I admit up front that the title (and subtitle) are absolutely overstatements, not trying to pull a fast one on anyone.
    ML, check out Mishna Oholot 1:8. Here’s a link to Neusner’s translation via Google Books: http://books.google.com/books?id=oLEfIfv0IYMC&pg=PA951

  16. Just a side note, my Rebbi did a series on “Lies my Bubbie Told Me” that smashed a lot of pervasive myths in the Jewish world.

  17. A question about the 248 body parts – if we are forbidden from desecrating a dead body, how would we know? Were people doing dissections (which I thought were traditionally considered forbidden… I mean even halachic organ donation is controversial today)? Or were we basing this on numbers generated by non-Jewish doctors/scientists who were doing dissections? Or was it just entirely unscientific and just a spiritual/kabbalistic number?
    And here I thought we had 2000 parts because Lever 2000 told me so!

  18. This site notes that 248 is also the numerical equivalent of both “Abraham” and “b’tzelem Elohim” (in God’s image) which might be a clue. In my googling, I also came across the notion that 248 is the number for parts of a man’s body; women supposedly have 252. Also, a word of caution to anyone who might want to do some googling on this topic themselves: searching for “248 body parts” yields significantly different results from “248 limbs.” Ick.

  19. ever notice that orthodox shuls say a separate prayer for healing sick men and women? there is your source. the prayer for men asks to heal the 248 limbs, while the prayer for women only asks to heal “all their limbs.”
    why dont they just have one prayer to heal everyone’s limbs? well then that would miss out on an opportunity to point out that men- and not women- have bodies that tightly correspond with mitzvot. Im not kidding.

  20. Kfj-
    Rambam was a genius. And his work is accesible. Obviously you have left it on the shelf.
    To dismiss his great work AND his taking 613 seriously is reflects poorly upon you and the original writer.
    Try writing over on page of the Rambam.Then think about the absolute genius it took to put that together.
    He was an unimaginable genius. I don’t know why your ego or insecurity prevents you from admitting that.

  21. ILJ – I’m not sure how many would really consider Sefer HaMitzvot to be among Rambam’s great work. Mishneh Torah? Sure. Guide for the Perplexed? Undoubtedly. But Sefer HaMitzvot comes across as little more than an intellectual warm-up exercise or parlor game for Rambam. I think the exercise of trying to count mitzvot can be a useful means to an end, if that end is a serious consideration of what the Torah actually asks of the Jewish people. To treat it as more than that does a disservice to any attempt at taking mitzvot and halacha seriously.

  22. The irreverence and I dare say arrogance of this post stands in tension with the importance of it. My questions are: What does it mean to engage texts the tradition deems as sacred? What claims do these texts have on me? Can one challenge these texts without referring to their author as “a cocky little bastard”? Do you have to know something about these texts before commenting on them? Is humility a value in learning? How, on a blog, do we best model Jewish study that engages people to the fullness and offers them a voice in the conversation?

  23. I wouldn’t call it a lie, but rather a useful and meaningful approximation. It takes a certain amount of hairsplitting as to what constitutes a mitzvah to arrive at exactly 613, but 600-700 seems like a reasonable estimate. (Note that a pomegranate is said to contain as many seeds as there are mitzvot).
    I think the Talmud in Makkot is telling us the origins of the chosen number: The gematria of Torah almost coinciding with the sum of the days of the year and the limbs of the body.
    However, within its context, Makkot is saying some pretty subversive things about the mitzvot.
    First, all but two were commanded by the lips of Moses, not the Voice of God. And then, as the passage proceeds, all of these hundreds of mitzvot are subsumed into two: “Keep justice and do righteousness (Isaiah 56:1).
    That may be the biggest lie of all: That all of the hundreds of mitzvot which are irrelevant in our post-Temple time actually are worth paying attention to. That’s not a lie, exactly; it was deeply believed by the Mishna. But the Bavli presents us with the number 613 only to ultimately erase it.

  24. I must have earned great renown to be part of an actual Jewschool post! Maybe you guys should just give me login info so I can revolutionize this site outside of my quiet insurgency in the comment section. That said, I appreciate the accolades and apologize for my recent absence – work, life… you know how it goes.
    I have read through all comments to date, and noticed that there is a large chunk of earnest criticism missing – a void to vill, as it were – so here go…
    Jews and Christians can’t even agree on how to number the ten commandments
    As our “younger brothers in faith” (Pope John Paul II), who are the Christians to do anything except sit at our feet and take notes? The idea that we would have to negotiate with them on how to number commandments is hillarious. It’s like asking your four year old brother to help you with differential calculus.
    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
    When did I say that Hanukkah is one of the 613 commandments?! I didn’t see this mitzvah in Rambam’s Sefer Hamitzvos, did you?
    Indeed, what you did not mention, dlevy, is that in addition to the 613 Mitzvos d’oraisa (Biblical mitzvot), there are an additional 7 Mitzvos d’rabbanan (Rabbinical mitzvot), which are treated like the Biblical mitzvos because we are commanded to follow the guidance of halachic authorities, and on these 7 there is universal legal agreement.
    These 7 Rabbinical Mitzvos are:
    – To kindle Hannukah lights
    To kindle lights for Shabbos
    – To read Megillah Ester for Purim
    – To recite Hallel on festivals
    – To wash your hands before eating
    – To construct an Eruv on Shabbos
    – To recite blessings on food and anything that brings pleasure
    Though perhaps not in that order, if order matters. Belatedly, I found a link to these 7 Mitzvos for those who need one.
    613 started as a beautiful metaphor for a wholehearted approach to Jewish living that got trampled on by centuries of literalists
    If anyone is the literalist, dlevy, it is you! I have had to explain prior to this post this exact concept, which you’ve suddenly embraced, after decades of literalist intransigence:
    Vilna Gaon: The 613 mitzvot mentioned are only roots, but they spread forth into many branches.
    Firouz: There are 613 mitzvahs. Within each mitzvah there might be volumes worth of halacha, but all that law and custom is consistent with the mitzvah itself. We don’t add to the 613 and we don’t subtract from the 613.
    Yet many of you didn’t like my remarks then, though you readily accept the Vilna Gaon now (as you should). Will you really be so hard headed as to claim that my remarks, then and now, are not congruous with those of our greatest sages and teachers?
    dlevy, I greatly appreciate you taking on this challenge and confronting falsehoods. However, to me, it seems all you’ve done is contorted yourself inside out until you came to a conclusion consistent with mainstream educated Jewish thought (on whose coat tails I hang to), except that now you feel you’ve made the discovery on your own.
    I understand that many of you come from communities where “613” and other concepts like “mitzvos” is banded about with reckless abandon like candy. In some communities, there is not a good understanding of underlying Jewish concepts in the general population, but this does not stop individuals from employing these concepts in a brute, shallow way. I understand that this can be frustrating, and increases a desire to rebel from accepted norms. This is not my experience in my community, and I empathize with you.
    May we all progress to understand each of the 613 mitzvahs with a depth that approaches that of our sages.

  25. It is worth bearing in mind that Pope John Paul II’s grasp of modern scholarship was a bit on the thin side; he appears to have entirely overlooked the scholarly consensus that Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity were ‘two nations in one womb’.
    Nowadays you would be hard pressed to find a competent historian prepared to describe Christians as “younger brothers in faith”…

  26. Firouz, you’re simply taking the 613 number as fact without backing it up. Did you go count the number of Mitzvot in Humash one-by-one?

  27. Perhaps I should also reinvent the wheel?
    As I posted earlier, Rambam did the work for us.
    Now we must only live up to our obligations.
    Unbelievable. THE FRIGGIN POPE, the highest position in all of of Christendom, calls us Jews his “older brothers in faith”, and it’s not good enough for you?
    What “scholarly consensus”?!!! Are you insane?! THE POPE!!!
    two nations in one womb
    I’ll assume you’re referring to Edom? Christianity is irrelevant to that calculus. Edom will not repent as a function of Christianity. The sooner Christians dissolve the Church and ask advice of the Rabbis the better.

  28. Firouz. Did you read my whole piece? Part of the point is that Rmabam did it one way, but a whole bunch of other meforshim also counted and their answers didn’t match. There’s a reason for this.
    And the Pope is not the highest position in all of Christendom, and many Protestants, Orthodox Christians and others would certainly take issue and offense at that statement. But it’s clear from the rest of your comments that you’re not really interested in the (non-Jewish) world as it is, but rather in a fantasy of the world as you can refract it through an offensive and made-up lens.

  29. …And you like to murder soft cuddly puppies. If this is your retort, dlevy, you should get off Jewschool and go to real school. Under what possible scenario should we value what Christians havebout the Chumash? For G-d’s sake, they don’t even have Rashi! They’re just grasping at air, and you would give them the right to debate Jews on Jewish law! That is trully offensive, and not in a PC way, but in a true, honest way. I’m on my BB so I have to cut this short. Rambam and the others did not disagree on the number of mitzvot, nor did they disagree on what is a mitzvah. The only question was whether some mitzvot should be considered independent, or listed under others.

    1. Under what possible scenario should we value what Christians havebout the Chumash? For G-d’s sake, they don’t even have Rashi!
      Rashi didn’t have Rashi either! Therefore, why should we value what he says?

  30. Where did I ever say we should value what Christians say about Chumash? All I said is that there’s no universal agreement about how to number the 10 commandments, because counting mitzvot isn’t easy.
    You can look at the grass and say it’s purple all you want, but that doesn’t change the reality that it’s green.
    But if you continue to include ad hominem attacks in your comments here, I suspect you won’t be saying much for long. And I believe that falls under kavod habriyot, at least if you’re following Soleveitchik’s enumeration.

  31. counting mitzvot isn’t easy
    Someone already did it for us, in an authoritative and accepted way. Why are you trying to reinvent the wheel? Again, what is your problem with my initial response to your post? I believe I covered all this in detail there.
    if you continue to include ad hominem attacks
    So you DO murder cute fluffy puppies in cold blood! dlevy, you attack me in a Jewschool POST! I defend myself in the comments, am further attacked and insulted in the comments, and I am the one to be banned for using ad hominem attacks? And this coming from the same people who would allow Arabs the right to urge our enemies to destroy the Jewish state from the podium in the Knesset?!
    Yet here you are, threatening to shut me up. What next? It’s a hate crime? I’m antisemitic?
    Defend your beliefs or take your ball and go home.
    You bring up an important point! But the reason why Rashi wrote a commentary on the Chumash is precisely because scholarship had gone down to such a low level that he needed to do so. Remember, Rashi wrote at the level that was obvious even for a child of 3 in his day. Today, we have 80 year old men pouring over Rashi to find every morsel! You are right, there was once Chumash without Rashi. There was also once a Torah without Talmud, where everyone simply learned the Oral law from speaking to their parents and teachers.
    So imagine, a thousand years ago Rashi had to write down a commentary for the Chumash for Jews to maintain their level of knowledge. The Christians have been cut off from any depth or supplementary materials to Chumash for 2000 years!
    These comments take so long to write on Bberry. I will respond in depth when I get to computer.

  32. Firouz, I’ve had to say this a couple times recently, to you and others: attack the idea, not the person. Period. By clicking “submit” on your comment, you’re agreeing to do that.

  33. Firouz,
    I think what’s happened here is that most of us could take issue with so many things you type and take for granted, that the question becomes, “Where do I start?” Shalom, hombre.

  34. Wow this is really healthy and challenging debate on this number. I like the points that the author has made and think that he should be allowed to make them in whatever style he feels entertaining to the reader. We should concern ourselves instead with the content and on that point I believe that we still come up short. Whilst the 613 do not appear in the Torah it seems they are a 2nd temple invention so perhaps the key to their true purpose lies there like so many other traditions that cropped up during this time?

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