The Long List of Mitzvot

Image: A piece of paper with blanks and boxes for check marks, a check list. (TeroVesalainen/pixabay)

Every year, when I teach my students about the concept of mitzvot [commandments] some member of the class will ask for a list of the 613. I remember being the student who wanted the list, and I remember why I wanted it: I wanted to be sure that I had a good checklist, because I was determined to be a very good Jew.

The thing is, most Jews do not worry about 613 mitzvot. We just do our best to do all the mitzvot that we can.

The number originates in a sermon by Rabbi Simlai, a 3rd century rabbi who lived in the land of Israel:

Rabbi Simlai taught: There were 613 mitzvot stated to Moses in the Torah, consisting of 365 prohibitions corresponding to the number of days in the solar year, and 248 positive mitzvot corresponding tothe number of a person’s limbs. Rav Hamnuna said: What is the verse that alludes to this? It is written: “Moses commanded to us the Torah, an inheritance of the congregation of Jacob” (Deuteronomy 34:4). The word Torah, in terms of its numerical value [gimatriyya], is 611, the number of mitzvot that were received and taught by Moses our teacher. In addition, there are two mitzvot: “I am the Lord your God” and:“You shall have no other gods” (Exodus 20:2, 3), the first two of the Ten Commandments, that we heard from the mouth of the Almighty, for a total of 613. – Makkot 23b-24a

This text is the origin of the number 613.  It is a poetic way of saying, “The commandments of the Torah cover all aspects of life, all the days of the year and all the bones in our bodies.” Still, it provided many rabbis, Maimonides included, with a great puzzle: how to fit the mitzvot in the Torah to the number!

One of those lists is available online at Judaism 101. I remember as a student pouring over a similar list, trying to figure out how to do all those mitzvot as quickly as possible. Gradually I realized that part of doing mitzvot is learning about them – and learning about them is a lifetime process. Sometimes it’s learning about a minor holiday or practice. Sometimes it’s about building my skills for visiting the sick, supporting mourners, etc, Sometimes the learning is about how this ancient mitzvah will fit into my modern life – but learning is always a part of it.

I find it useful to scan these lists when I’m feeling a little too smug about my life. There will usually be a clue there about a mitzvah I have managed to ignore. Then I can embark on a cycle:

  1. Learn all I can about that mitzvah
  2. Imagine how it might fit into my life
  3. If appropriate, talk with other members of my household about that mitzvah
  4. Talk with a colleague I trust to get a rabbi’s point of view on that mitzvah
  5. Make a plan for improving my observance of that mitzvah
  6. Check in with myself about it from time to time.

This is not rocket science. Often it happens when I am saying the traditional prayers. For instance, there is a short listing of the mitzvot that reward us both in this world and in the next in the morning prayers:

These are the obligations without a limit. A person eats their fruit in this world, and sets up a reward in the world to come as well:

To honor father and mother;
To perform acts of love and kindness;
To attend the house of study morning and evening;
To receive guests;
To visit the sick;
To rejoice with the bride and groom;
To accompany the dead;
To pray with intention;
To bring peace between a person and his fellow.
And the study of Torah is equal to them all, because it leads to them all!

Something on that list will bother me, reminding me that I haven’t kept that mitzvah very well. Have I visited someone sick any time recently? Been to a funeral? Have I studied Torah regularly, beyond what my work requires? Then, when I spot the problem, I act to mend my ways.

Some mitzvot aren’t appropriate for me; Some are only for Cohanim (priests.) Some are only for farmers in the Land of Israel. Some have to do with the Temple cult, which can’t resume without the Temple. But there are still plenty of them to give me work to do!

So that’s the story of the 613 mitzvot.  Somewhere in those wonderful inconsistent lists, a mitzvah is waiting for each of us.  And when that one is running smoothly, there will be another.

Mitzvah goreret mitzvah.

One mitzvah leads to another. – Pirkei Avot 4:2


What’s a Mitzvah?

“What’s a mitzvah?” a reader recently asked.

If you look it up in the Hebrew dictionary, it will tell you that a mitzvah is a commandment.

“Commandment” in English implies that it comes from outside, and it isn’t my choice. And yet each mitzvah IS a choice: I can keep it, or I can neglect it. It’s up to me. These duties are rooted in Torah, but they are acted out in my life, and in the lives of my fellow Jews.

I prefer to think of mitzvot (that’s the plural) as my sacred duties. Whether they are as lofty as saying my prayers, or as mundane as paying workers on time, they increase the holiness in the world, and they are choices I make every moment of every day. I do not get a gold star for doing them. They are just what I do as a Jew.

This month I’m asking myself: which of my sacred duties have I neglected? Which have I done poorly, done for ego, done only when someone is looking? Which have I treated as truly sacred?

How can I do better?

This post is inspired by #BlogElul, the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, also known as @imabima.


Ask the Rabbi: 613 Mitzvot? Where?

A reader asks: “I know we’re supposed to ‘do mitzvot’, but what are they? Where is the list?”

We often hear that there are 613 mitzvot [commandments, sacred duties] in the Torah. For many of us this inevitably brings up the question: can I see the list? Behind this question is the worry, “How am I doing?” or another worry, “Have I missed something?” After all, 613 is a LOT.

The first mention of “613 mitzvot” is in the Gemara, Makkot 23b, where it quickly becomes clear that like many numbers in Torah, 613 is as much or more a symbol than an enumeration. (If you are curious about the discussion, click the link.) 365 is the number of days in a solar year, and it also happens to be the number of negative (“Thou shalt not”) commandments. The rabbis believe 248 to be the number of parts of the human body. Add them together, (think: time + humanity) and voilá: 613 mitzvot.

Having come up with a great number that both tells us that the mitzvot have to do with all human concerns, and that also says “a LOT,” various rabbis through history have provided us with lists of “The 613 Mitzvot.” Our clue that the number came before the lists is that the lists differ.

That said, it can be satisfying and comforting to see an actual list. Probably the most famous is that of Maimonides, in the Sefer HaMitzvot [The Book of the Mitzvot.] If you click the link and study the list, you will discover (likely to your relief) that the number of mitzvot that actually apply to you, a 21st century Jew, is much less than 613.

One Orthodox scholar, the Chofetz Chaim, has written that there are 194 negative and 77 positive commandments that are available to us to observe without a functioning Temple in Jerusalem, and that of those commandments, 26 apply only if one is living in the Land of Israel. By that reckoning, a 21st century Diaspora Jewish male of the priestly line (Kohen) need worry only about 245 mitzvot. Within Orthodoxy, even fewer of those mitzvot apply to non-Kohanim and even fewer to women.

How can a liberal Jew make sense of Maimonides’ list? One way is to use it as a template for growth. Take each mitzvah, and look it over a bit. Ask:

1. Do I understand this mitzvah? (if not, study; if so, continue)

2. Is this a mitzvah I currently observe?

3. If I do observe it, how’s that going? How does it mesh with my other observances? How could I improve, either with my observance or the choices I make about this mitzvah? Do I want to learn more?

4. If I don’t observe it, how’s that going? Why don’t I observe it? Do I feel guilty about not observing it? Have I ever tried observing it, or do I assume I’d feel persecuted/silly/deprived if I observed it? What do I really know about this mitzvah from a reliable source? Do I want to learn more?

5. In either case, how does my observance/non-observance affect my relationship with my Jewish community? Does it separate me from my community, or bring me more into tune with it?

6. Is this a mitzvah I might want to observe someday, but not yet?

7. Do I want or need to talk to someone about this?

After looking over those questions, if you feel satisfied for now relative to that mitzvah, move on to another mitzvah on the list. (Nowhere is it written that you have to follow a particular order.)

Now, if you are reading this and feeling panicky, let me suggest something from the original passage in Mattot: “Isaiah [came] and reduced them [the commandments] to two, as it is said, “Thus says the Eternal, ‘Maintain justice and do what is right.'” (Is 56:1)