Israel Drazin

Were the 613 biblical commands proclaimed at Mount Sinai?

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 Rabi Simlai mentioned this concept in a sermon recorded in the Babylonian Talmud, Makkot 23b. The Talmud states: ‘Rabi 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.’ Rabi Simlai invented the number 613 because it fit his sermon: A person should observe the Torah with all his body parts (248) daily (365). The two numbers total 613. One hundred fifty years before Rabi Simlai, ben Azzai said there were three hundred biblical commands.[1] E. E. Urbach wrote, “In the Tannaitic sources, this number (613) is unknown.”[2] Whatever the true number is, the basic questions in Judaism are: were the “biblical commands” actually “biblical,” and did God proclaim them to the Israelites at Mount Sinai?

  • Maimonides not only knew that the notion of 613 biblical commands was only sermonic but that the general population accepted the notion. He was also sensitive to the fact that Jews wanted information about what Judaism required and prohibited. So he listed the commandments that he felt the rabbis considered in the Torah. His listing included rabbinic laws, such as tefillin and mezuzot.
  • Rashi relied on a midrash and accepted Rabi Simlai’s sermon as reality. The first sentence of parasha Behar in Leviticus states that God spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai and proclaimed the law regarding the sabbatical year, called shemita in Hebrew. Rashi reports in his commentary, “Were not all the commandments stated from Sinai? However, just as (regarding) the sabbatical year, there were stated its generalizations, and its details, and its minutiae from Sinai, so were all (law) stated, (i.e.) their generalizations, details, and minutiae from Sinai. Thus it is taught in the ‘Law of the Priests” ((Siphra). And it seems to me that this is its explanation:… that [all command] generalizations and its details were stated from Sinai… and they were again repeated in the plains of Moab.”[3]
  • There are many ways people can understand the issues.
  • They can accept the midrashic view.
  • They can agree with it but interpret it metaphorically. The Torah laws are so necessary for Jewish survival and improving individuals and society that it is as if God delivered them.
  • They may reject the midrashic view and accept that the Torah only states that the Decalogue was announced at Sinai and other laws were given to the Israelites after they left the mount.
  • People could decide, we do not know which opinion is correct. But what difference does it make? We feel the laws benefit individuals and society, which is why I observe them.
  • Other individuals might say, I know that virtually all the Torah laws, if not everyone, were changed since the days of Moses. These changes included new holidays, some omitted, changes in those maintained, and new laws developed, such as rules concerning money handling. So, I will accept the Torah as changed by the rabbis as the Torah desired.
  • Those philosophically minded might prefer the views of Aristotle, Maimonides, Abraham ibn Ezra, Spinoza (1632-1677), Gersonides (1288-1344), and others.
  • Aristotle writes on this subject in Nicomachean Ethics, X9, 1179a, 23ff.
  • Maimonides stated in his Guide 2:48, “As regards the immediate causes of things produced, it makes no difference whether these causes consist of substances, physical properties, freewill, or chance… The prophets ascribe the production directly to God and use such phrases as, God has done it, commanded it,[4] or said it.” Why are they attributed to God? Because God is the ultimate cause. God created or formed the world. Is Maimonides also applying this understanding to the origin of the Torah?
  • Maimonides tells us in his Guide for the Perplexed 3:17 that divine providence does not extend to individuals, nor is God involved when a leaf falls from a tree. He writes that he accepts Aristotle’s philosophy and defines divine providence as human intelligence. It is human’s intelligence that is divine, not an act by God. People must improve their thinking and not rely on God because God will not help them. The synonyms for “providence” are wisdom, foresight, and prudence. This reinforces 2:48.
  • Ibn Ezra, Gersonides, and others believed that God only knows the species He created or formed, not individuals. They said divine providence only applies to the species generally but not to the specific item or being.[5]
  • Ibn Ezra states this in his commentary on Exodus 33:22 and other places.
  • Spinoza’s opinion about divine providence is contained in his Dr. Blake D. Dutton wrote in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Among philosophers, Spinoza is best known for his Ethics, a monumental work that presents an ethical vision unfolding out of a monistic metaphysics in which God and Nature are identified. God is no longer the transcendent creator of the universe who rules it via providence, but Nature itself, understood as an infinite, necessary, and fully deterministic system of which humans are a part. Humans find happiness only through a rational understanding of this system and their place within it.”
  • Gersonides, also known as Levi ben Gershom and Ralbag, writes in his The Wars of the Lord, “it is evident that it is proper that divine providence should extend over those men who have reached intellectual perfection as individuals.”[6]
  • These seem to reflect the most radical interpretation of the Maimonidean opinion in Guide 2:48.
  • Still others could accept a combination of some of these positions.[7]

[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.

[3] The translation, including the parenthetical insertions, but not the bracketed item, is from The Pentateuch and Rashi’s Commentary, Leviticus,” S. S. & R. Publishing Company1949, pages 249-250.

[4] I added the emphasis.

[5] This, of course is a radical concept. If God does not know individuals, the widely accepted idea held by many humans that God rewards good behavior and punishes bad, is impossible. If Maimonides agrees with ibn Ezra and the others that God does not know individuals, he would also hold this radical view.

[6] Translated by Seymour Feldman, volume two, page 175.

[7] There are many more modern thinkers who held these views such as Thomas Paine (1737-1809) in his The Age of Reason. He attacked the Bible with vigor and hatred. Some quotes are: “Moses is not the author of books as ascribed to him, and the Bible is spurious” page 90 of 191. “Every book of the Bible… is without authenticity” page 98, “stupidity” page 117, “ridiculous” page 129, “lying” page 143, “the stupid Bible of the Church, that teaches man nothing” page 187.

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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