The 613
© 2010 S.H. Parker

"Six hundred and thirteen commandments were given to Moses." So we learn in Makkot 23b.

Where do the Rabbis get the number 613 as the number of commandments? Where does this number come from?

There have been numerous attempts to identify the 613 individual מִצְוֹת

I was taught that none of these lists are correct or, more accurately, none is unexceptional (see Rabbi Simchah Roth's The Sages and Eretz-Israel). Indeed, from the first publication of a list of the 613, by Saadia Gaon in the early 10th century (some say Simeon Kahira was first), learned persons have disputed these lists ... vigorously. Googling around researching this subject, I couldn't find anything recorded about what the 613 are until Saadia in the 10th, then ibn Gabirol and Rambam in the 12th century (and, at that point, the competition to make the definitive list was on).

Examining the list texts, I see that a single commandment might be stated in multiple different ways to help get to 613. But one idea expressed in multiple ways is still one idea. See, for example:

Some lists contain what is clearly Rabbinic legislation.

I do not for a moment mean to disparage these lists, the list makers, nor those who took the effort to ready them for web publication (well, maybe just a little, since, in the final analysis, it seems to me that the number of מִצְוֹת -- or enumerating them -- is less important than "walking humbly before your God"). That said, however, look at the links provided above. How many different ways can you say "love God?" This is padding, padding to get to 613. Plain and simple. (To fill out 613, early list writers did indeed incorporate Rabbinic laws; see The 613 Commandments, which also shows some of the disputed items and who disputed them.)

More to the point, is it really important precisely how many commandments there are in Torah?-Or is obsessing about the exact number a bit ... retentive?

Perhaps there is something more than simple counting behind this number, something more significant.

An early drosh in the Talmud (Makkot, 23b) notes that the gematria[1] of "torah" is 611. Israel received two directly from God (this is an alternate tradition to Israel's having heard the entirety of the asseret ha'dibrot before succuming to their fear). "Torah" is 611. Hence, 613. On this view, "613" is symbolic of the phrase "the Torah of Moses." Nahmonides[2] (13th century) notes that this number is not a firm matter in Rabbinic thinking, rather "this total has proliferated throughout the aggadic literature." 

In other words, 613, as a count of  מִצְוֹת is traditional, aggadic (homiletic) at that, and not halachic.

Okay. So, from where do we receive this tradition?

Rabbi Joseph Radinsky taught me a more satisfying derivation and meaning of "613" מִצְו‍ֹת

Rabbi Simlai [early 3rd century] expounded:

Six hundred and thirteen commandments were given to Moses,
three hundred and sixty-five "Thou shalt nots," the number of the days in the solar year,
and two hundred and forty-eight "Thou shalts,"
corresponding to the parts of the body.

(masekhet Makkot, 23b; this translation from Hammer on the Rock: A Midrash Reader, Nahum N. Glatzer, ed.)

248 "parts of the body"? In ancient times, people believed that's how many bones there were in the human body. Alternately, I have read that 248 was believed to be the total of bones and major organs in the body.

And, 365 + 248 = 613!

R. Radinsky explained Rav Simlai's aphorism: the 613 means to serve the Lord all the days your life, with every bone in your body.

[1] "Gematria" -- each letter in the Hebrew alphabet also serves as a number. Hence every letter has a numerical value. The gematria, then, is the sum of the values of the letters. One well know gematria is חי, life, which is 18 (hence 36 = double life). Some charming d'varim are given using gematria.

[2] Was Nachmanides ("Commentary on the Torah," Genesis 1:1, quoted in Gerald Schroeder “Genesis and the Big Bang: The Discovery of Harmony Between modern Science and the Bible”) the first to describe the big bang? Consider his description of creation:

At the briefest instant following creation all the matter of the universe was concentrated in a very small place, no larger than a grain of mustard. The matter at this time was very thin, so intangible, that it did not have real substance. It did have, however, a potential to gain substance and form and to become tangible matter. From the initial concentration of this intangible substance in its minute location, the substance expanded, expanding the universe as it did so. As the expansion progressed, a change in the substance occurred. This initially thin non-corporeal substance took on the tangible aspects of matter as we know it. From this initial act of creation, from this ethereally thin pseudosubstance, everything that has existed, or will ever exist, was, is, and will be formed