Israel Drazin
Israel Drazin

Explanations of the 613 Biblical Commandments

Rabbi Abraham Chill (1912-2004) gives readers of “The Mitzvot, The Commandments and their Rationale” a very readable listing of the commonly accepted list of biblical commands, presented in the order in which they appear in the Five Books of Moses, identifies the location of the command in the Bible, and gives the explanations offered by various highly respected ancient rabbis, including Maimonides, Nachmanides, Abarbanel, ibn Ezra, Radak, Ralbag, Rashi, Sforno, Saadiah, and 15 others. He describes each of the 23 rabbis that he quotes. As my uncle, Rabbi Dr. Sidney B. Hoenig, Dean, Bernard Revel Graduate School, Yeshiva University, wrote in his Foreword to the book, “His work presents in digest form each and every perspective of every one of the 613 divine commandments and, in clear style and comprehension, makes the reader part of the whole gamut of thinking in Oral Law perception.”

As I wrote in my “Mysteries of Judaism IV”: “The first report that the Torah contains 613 commandments dates to the third century CE, when Rabbi Simlai mentioned this concept in a sermon recorded in the Babylonian Talmud, Makkot 23b. The Talmud states: ‘Rabbi Simlai gave as a sermon (darash Rabi Simlai): 613 commandments were communicated to Moses—365 negative commands, corresponding to the number of solar days (in a year), and 248 positive commands, corresponding to the number of the members (bones covered with flesh) of a man’s body.’ Rabbi Simlai invented the number 613 because it fit his sermon: A person should observe the Torah with all his body parts (248) every day (365). The two numbers total 613. 150 years before Rabbi Simlai, ben Azzai said that there were three hundred biblical commands.[1] E. E. Urbach wrote, “In the Tannaitic sources this number (613) is unknown.”[2]

Maimonides not only knew that the notion of 613 biblical commands is only sermonic, but that the general population accepted the notion, and that they wanted information about what Judaism required,  and what it prohibited, so he listed the commandments that he felt the rabbis considered either explicit or implicit in the Torah.”

Rabbi Chill agreed with the sermonic basis of the 613 number in his Introduction.

The issue of the 613 number aside and the issue whether particular commands in the list are actually in the Bible or are rabbinic novel interpretations of what the Bible states is academic because it is clear that Judaism has accepted the commands in the list as mandatory Jewish obligations. Therefore, the listing of the commands and their explanations are informative and instructive as Maimonides and Rabbi Chill contend.

Examples of the 613 and their rationale

  • The first biblical command is in Genesis 1:28. “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it.” Rabbi Chill gives seven details about the command, including that it addresses males but is not incumbent upon females, offers the opinions of five rabbinic sources as to why the command was made, including the view of Or ha-Hayim that unpopulated and desolated areas are breeding places for phenomena that are harmful to humans, and lists about a dozen references in rabbinic literature about the command. He lists about a dozen references for all 613 commands after each explanation of the command.
  • The last biblical command is to write a scroll of the Torah in Deuteronomy 31:19. Rabbi Chill tells five practices concerning the Torah scroll including the obligation to show it respect by standing when it passes us, and lists two rabbinic views for the command, including the view of ibn Ezra that a Torah should always be available to help people find solutions to their problems.
  • Exodus 20:2-3, according to Rabbi Chill, contains the first of the Ten Commandments, which tell us that God brought us out of Egypt and we “shall have no other God before me.” Other rabbis count the two verses as two commands. Maimonides, for example considers the statement that God took the Israelites from slavery as a command to learn and know about God. Rabbi Chill offers five details about the command and the views of Nachmanides and ibn Ezra. Included is ibn Ezra’s discussion on why God introduces Himself as the Power who brought the Israelites out of Egypt instead of being the creator of the universe. Since Rabbi Chill considers Exodus 20:2 and 3 as a single command, he counts what others consider the tenth command as two (see below). His view mirrors that of the Masorites who established the vowels we use in Torah books and who divided the Torah text into paragraphs for easy reading. They divided the Ten Commandments in a more reasonable manner than Maimonides, and the Masoretic Text is the text that is in the Torah scroll that we use in synagogues.
  • The prohibition of idol worship is im Exodus 20:4, 5, 23:13, and Leviticus 19:4. Rabbi Chill gives seven details of the command, including that we may not even pretend in jest to worship an idol, lists four rationales from four rabbinic sources including Recanati that the second command was given to disabuse men from the notion that God works through intermediaries who are also gods who should be worshipped
  • As stated above, the Masorites and Rabbi Chill divided what most Jews and others consider the tenth command of the Ten Commandments into the ninth and tenth command. The ninth, found in Exodus 20:14 and Deuteronomy 5:18, is “You shall not covet.” Rabbi Chill explain that there are two forms of covetousness. One does not go beyond daydreaming. This one is not punished, but is still forbidden. The second leads to an action such as stealing for which the thief is punished. Rabbi Chill lists the rationale of five sages including ibn Ezra and Maimonides who address the question how can a person avoid being covetous.
  • The tenth command of the Ten Commandments is “You shall not commit adultery. It is in Exodus 20:14. Rabbi Chill offers five comments on the law including that loose morals contribute to the downfall of civilization, and the opinions of three sages including Hinnukh who gives four rationales for the command: God intends that sexual relationships should be stable. A child of a promiscuous relationship may never know who his father is. Adultery is a form of theft. It can lead to murder.

[1]      Sifrei Deuteronomy 76.

[2]      The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987). See my book Mysteries of Judaism II, chapter 23, “There are not 613 biblical commands,” for more information on this subject, including the views of sages agreeing the 613 is sermonic, not real.

About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 50 books on the Bible, philosophy, and other subjects.
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