25 January 2016

Maimonides was wrong (and dishonest): There aren't 613 commandments in the Torah

From the Introduction my latest book (which I hope will be published soon) called "Every Jot and Tittle."
Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law. Matthew 5:18
If Jesus really said these words, he wasn’t much of a prophet. Because nearly every jot and tittle of biblical law is ignored by his followers today, as it has been throughout the history of Christianity. Even the Jews stopped obeying most of the commandments after the temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE.[1] And yet despite Jesus's prophecy, the earth is still here. (It's hard to say about heaven, though. Maybe it has passed away.)

But let’s pretend that Jesus was right about the Old Testament’s laws. What would that mean?

Well, here’s how he put it in the next verse:

Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:19
According to Jesus, then, Christians should teach and obey all of the Bible’s commandments. Whoever does that will be great in the kingdom of heaven; whoever does not will be least. (If they make it there at all.)

So say you decide to follow Jesus on this and become great in the kingdom of heaven. What would you do?

Well, the first thing you’d do is list all of the Bible’s laws. You can’t follow laws that you don’t know exist.

As far as I know, no Christian has ever done this. But the Jews have. The first to do so was Rabbi Simlai in the third century CE, who claimed there were 613 commandments in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) -- 365 negative commandments[2], one for every day in the year; and 248 positive ones, one for every bone in the human body (there are actually 206, but oh well). The rabbi’s magic numbers made it into the Talmud[3] and have become (more or less) Jewish dogma since then.

Besides the nifty 365/248 split of the 613 commandments, there are other reasons why the number just had to be 613. The Talmud refers to the commandments as "Taryag Mitzvot." The Hebrew word "mitzvot" means commandments (singular: "mitzvah") and "Taryag" is a Hebrew acronym that is numerically equivalent to 613, since the Hebrew letter tav = 400, resh = 200, yud = 10, and gimel = 3, for a grand total of 613. And (as if that wasn't enough) the word "Torah" is numerically equivalent to 611,[4] which when added to the two special commandments that were supposedly given directly by God (without Moses's intervention)[5] gives 613. QED.

Previously I said that Rabbi Simlai was the first person to list the commandments. But that's not quite true. He didn't actually list the commandments; he just stated that there are 613 of them, 365 negative and 248 positive. How he determined these numbers without a list is unclear. It must have been a miracle or a revelation or something.

The commandments weren't listed until the eighth century, five hundred years after the Talmud fixed their number at 613. Simon Kayyara created the first list, which of course totaled 613, with the 365/248 split between positive and negative commandments -- with one rather embarrassing difference: Kayyara listed 365 positive and 248 negative commandments, the exact opposite of of the numbers proposed by Simlai and codified in the Talmud.[6]

In the next few centuries there were other lists, each with the canonical number of 613. But by far the most famous was that of Moses Maimonides in the 12th century. Maimonides claimed that all previous attempts were filled with errors and any future listing would be unnecessary, because his list is absolutely perfect in every way, as he explained in his introduction:[7]

When by using this work, the total comes out correct, clearly proven and without any doubts, the reader will be able to detect the errors of all who use a method other than this to count the Mitzvot. ... For I shall explain all of the Mitzvot and list them individually, bring proof in any case of doubt or where there is the possibility that someone without deep knowledge of Torah could err. I will eliminate his error and explain all his doubts. ... Not a single commentary who lists the Mitzvot has erred in this enumeration of the 613 and the division of 248+365. They were totally mistaken however in what goes into the list.
Other lists have been made in the last 850 or so years since Maimonides, with additions, deletions and rewordings, but always preserving the magical number 613 and the positive/negative subcounts of 245/365. But none of these could compete with Maimonides's list, which has since become standard throughout Judaism.

Maimonides's List

As Maimonides recognized, it isn’t easy to list the Bible’s commandments. There's a tremendous amount of repetition, with enough variation to make it hard to know if similar-sounding commandments are different enough to be listed separately. It’s also often difficult to decide if a commandment is specific to a particular person at a particular time, or whether it's general enough to apply to everyone. And how should verses that include several commandments be treated: as one compound commandment or as several simple ones?

One thing is obvious, though: no two independent and honest listers are likely include many of the same commandments on their lists -- and they certainly will not agree on the total number of commandments or on the number of positive and negative ones.

So how did it happen that every attempt in the last twelve hundred years always came up with the same number of commandments (613), with the same 248/365 positive/negative split (albeit sometimes reversed)?

There's only one possible answer to that question. They cheated.

The magic numbers were written in the the Talmud, so the required numbers were always achieved in the lists.

Maimonides's list is no exception, as is obvious to anyone who compares his list to the Torah itself. Here's how he (and the others) did it.

  • Omit (or combine) some commandments.

  • Repeat (or split) others.
By using these two simple rules, a list with the desired numbers can easily be obtained.

Some examples from Maimonides's list

Maimonides eliminated many of the commandments that seem especially cruel to us today, probably because they seemed cruel even then (ca. 1170 CE).

Here are some commandments that were not included on Maimonides's list

  • A slave owner shall not be punished for beating his slave if the slave lives for a day or two, for the slave is the slave owner's money.
    If a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and ... he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money. Exodus 21:20-21
  • If you sell your daughter, she shall not be freed after six years (as are male Hebrew slaves).
    And if a man sell his daughter to be a maidservant, she shall not go out as the menservants do. Exodus 21:7
  • If a man has sex with another man, they have committed an abomination. Kill them both.
    If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them. Leviticus 20:13
  • If the daughter of a priest plays the whore, burn her to death.
    And the daughter of any priest, if she profane herself by playing the whore, she profaneth her father: she shall be burnt with fire. Leviticus 21:9
(There are dozens of others that Maimonides somehow forgot to include on his list.)

And here are some commandments that Maimonides liked so much that he repeated them several times.

  • Leave the corners of your field and some of your grapes in your vineyard unharvested for poor people and strangers to eat.
    When ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corners of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleanings of thy harvest. And thou shalt not glean thy vineyard, neither shalt thou gather every grape of thy vineyard; thou shalt leave them for the poor and stranger. Leviticus 19:9-10
    P120: To leave the corners for the poor
    N210: Not to reap all harvest without leaving a corner for the poor
    P121: To leave gleanings for the poor - Lev 19:9
    N211: Not to gather ears of corn that fell during harvesting
    P123: To leave defective grape clusters for the poor
    N212: Not to gather the whole produce of vineyard at vintage time
    P124: To leave grape gleanings for the poor
    N213: Not to gather single fallen grapes during the vintage

  • A Nazirite ("Nazarite" in the KJV) must not eat anything that comes from a grapevine.
    When either man or woman shall separate themselves to vow a vow of a Nazarite, to separate themselves unto the Lord: He shall ... [not] eat moist grapes, or dried. All the days of his separation shall he eat nothing that is made of the vine tree, from the kernels even to the husk. Numbers 6:3-4
    N203: A Nazirite must not eat fresh grapes
    N204: A Nazirite must not eat raisins
    N205: A Nazirite must not eat grape seeds
    N206: A Nazirite must not eat grape skins

  • Don't eat your tithe (of corn, wine, oil, and firstlings) inside the gates of your city.
    Thou mayest not eat within thy gates the tithe of thy corn, or of thy wine, or of thy oil, or the firstlings of thy herds or of thy flock, nor any of thy vows which thou vowest, nor thy freewill offerings, or heave offering of thine hand. Deuteronomy 12:17-18
    N141: Not to eat unredeemed 2nd tithe of corn outside Jerusalem
    N142: Not consuming unredeemed 2nd tithe of wine outside Jerusalem
    N143: Not consuming unredeemed 2nd tithe of oil outside Jerusalem
    N144: Not eating an unblemished firstling outside Jerusalem
    N145: Not eat sin ­offering and guilt ­offering outside Sanctuary court
    N146: Not to eat the meat of a burnt offering
    N147: Not eat lesser holy offerings before blood dashed on Altar
    N148: A Kohen may not eat first fruits outside Jerusalem

  • Every seventh year do not plant or harvest any crops.
    Six years thou shalt sow thy land, and shalt gather in the fruits thereof: But the seventh year thou shalt let it rest and lie still; that the poor of thy people may eat: and what they leave the beasts of the field shall eat. In like manner thou shalt deal with thy vineyard, and with thy oliveyard. Exodus 23:10-11

    Six years thou shalt sow thy field, and six years thou shalt prune thy vineyard, and gather in the fruit thereof; But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of rest unto the land, a sabbath for the Lord: thou shalt neither sow thy field, nor prune thy vineyard. That which groweth of its own accord of thy harvest thou shalt not reap, neither gather the grapes of thy vine undressed: for it is a year of rest unto the land. Leviticus 25:3-5

    P134: Renouncing as ownerless produce of the Sabbatical year
    P135: Resting the land on the Sabbatical year
    N220: Not to cultivate the soil in the seventh year
    N221: Not to prune the trees in the seventh year
    N222: Not reap a self­grown plant in the 7th year as in ordinary year
    N223: Not gather self­grown fruit in the 7th year as in ordinary year
Using these two rules (omitting and repeating), it was easy for Maimonides and the other rabbis to achieve the magic numbers.

But that's not what bothers me most about their lists. It's their blatant dishonesty when stating the commandments.

Here, for example, are some of the commandments on Maimonides's list, with the corresponding verse from the Torah (and my snide parenthetical remark).

  • N319: Not striking parents - Ex. 21:15
    He that smiteth his father, or his mother, shall be surely put to death. Exodus 21:15
    (The commandment does not say "Don't strike your father or mother." It says, "Whoever strikes his father or mother shall be killed.")

  • P247: Saving the life of the pursued - Deut. 25:12
    N293: Not sparing the life of a pursuer - Dt 25:12
    When men strive together one with another, and the wife of the one draweth near for to deliver her husband out of the hand of him that smiteth him, and putteth forth her hand, and taketh him by the secrets: Then thou shalt cut off her hand. Deuteronomy 25:11-12
    (The commandment doesn't say to "save the life of the pursued" or to "not spare the life of a pursuer." It says "If two men fight and the wife of one grabs the 'secrets' of the other, then cut off her hand without pity.")

  • P221: Keep the laws of the captive woman — Deut. 21:11
    When thou goest forth to war against thine enemies, and the Lord thy God hath delivered them into thine hands, and thou hast taken them captive, And seest among the captives a beautiful woman, and hast a desire unto her, that thou wouldest have her to thy wife; Then thou shalt bring her home to thine house, and she shall shave her head, and pare her nails; And she shall put the raiment of her captivity from off her, and shall remain in thine house, and bewail her father and her mother a full month: and after that thou shalt go in unto her, and be her husband, and she shall be thy wife. Deuteronomy 21:10-13
    [The commandment doesn't say to "keep the laws of the captive woman." It says "When God delivers your enemies into your hands, and you see a beautiful woman among the captives, take her home, have sex with her, and marry her (after letting her mourn her parents for a month)."]

  • N17: Not to love someone who seeks to mislead you to idols - Dt 13:9
    N18: Not to relax one's aversion to the misleader - Dt 13:9
    N19: Not to save the life of a misleader - Dt 13:9
    N20: Not to plead for the misleader - Dt 13:9
    N21: Not to oppress evidence unfavorable to the misleader - Dt 13:9
    If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers; Namely, of the gods of the people which are round about you, nigh unto thee, or far off from thee, from the one end of the earth even unto the other end of the earth ... thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. And thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die. Deuteronomy 13:6-10
    (This commandment doesn't say "not to love, not to quit hating, not to save, or not defend an idolater," it says, "If your family or friends try to get you to worship another god, stone them to death.")
From all this, then, it should be obvious that Maimonides's list is not as perfect as he claimed it to be. He freely omitted or repeated commandments in order to obtain the desired numbers, and he misstated many commandments, as well. It is time to make a honest list.

Every Jot and Tittle

So this is my attempt to list all of the commandments -- not just in the Torah, but in the entire Bible. I must say, however, that unlike Maimonides, I don't claim that my list is perfect. In fact, I am sure it's not. Although I have tried to include every commandment, I probably have left some out. And I may have inadvertently repeated a few, as well. I can only say that I have tried to make a complete, honest, and accurate list of all of the commandments in the Bible -- which is something that I suspect has never been attempted before.

The commandments are presented in a series of eighteen chapters, most of which are, I hope, self-explanatory. But the last four may require a bit of explanation.

Chapter 15 presents all of Jesus's commandments that are recorded in the gospels and are not found in the Hebrew Scriptures. Many of these could have been placed in other chapters, but I've included them here since they should be of special importance to Christians. The next chapter, "Just for Christians," includes the commandments that are likely to make little sense to anyone outside of the Christian faith.

Chapter 17 includes all of the commandments that seem (to me anyway) to be rules that we all should try to follow. I've included the these good commandments in a separate chapter since there are relatively few of them.

The final chapter is called "Fortune Cookie Commandments" in honor of Antonin Scalia's famous footnote (#22) in his dissent to the Obergefell v. Hodges opinion, which reads:

The Supreme Court of the United States has descended from the disciplined legal reasoning of John Marshall and Joseph Story to the mystical aphorisms of the fortune cookie.

Each chapter or section presents the commandments in biblical order. Whenever a commandment is listed by Maimonides, I've included his statement for that commandment, as well. To avoid repetition, cross-references are included at the end of each section for commandments that are listed in other chapters.

So how many commandments are in the Bible? My list has a total of 1587 commandments, 776 in the Torah. Of the Torah's commandments, 490 are positive and 286 negative.

I know of no significance for any of these numbers. But if you think of some, let me know. Maybe we can get them into the Talmud.


1. After the temple's destruction, the Jews had nowhere to perform their animal sacrifices; and without temple or sacrifice, the priesthood was discontinued. So all of the commandments about the temple, priests, and animal sacrifice are ignored in modern Judaism. The Sanhedrin (the Jewish high court) was also attached to the temple, so when the temple was was destroyed, the Sanhedrin could no longer enforce the Torah's laws (by, for example, stoning and burning people to death). The few remaining laws deal mostly with the Sabbath, religious festivals, and kosher foods. These are the ones that are still obeyed by Orthodox Jews; they include only a small fraction of the commandments in the Torah.

2. The "positive" commandments are the "Thou shalt ..." ones and the "negative" commandments are the "Thou shalt nots". The distinction, however, is a bit fuzzy, since many can be considered positive or negative depending on how they are phrased. For example, Exodus 22:18 could be expressed as either a positive commandment ("Kill witches") or as negative one ("Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live").

3. "Six hundred and thirteen commandments were revealed to Moses; 365 being prohibitions equal in number to the days of the year, and 248 being mandates corresponding in number to the bones of the human body." Talmud (Makkot 23a) - The 613 Commandments, Jewish Encyclopedia

4. tav = 400, resh = 200, vav = 6, and hei = 5.

5. The first two of the Jewish version of the Ten Commandments: "I am the LORD thy God" (Ex 20:2) and "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." (Ex 20:3)

6. Eisendberg, Ronald L., The 613 Mitzvot: A contemporary guide to the commandments of Judaism, pp. xix, xx.

7. Maimonides, Introduction to the Sefer HaMitzvos

6 comments:

Ranger Ginger said...

You asked if anyone could come up with any reason for the numbers well! Just having a look and doing the minimisation thing 1 + 5 + 8 + 7 could be "3" and therefore the Trinity!!!!! That is 1 + 5 = 6 + 8 = 14 + 7 = 21! Adding 2 + 1 = 3!!!!! It really just shows you that you can play with anything and come up with something that people could consider meaningful!! They could say that it is predictive of Yahweh, Jesus and the Spirit!!! Life is full of patterns and if we look we can find them! It is easy to see how people are fooled!

SharonC said...

I always interpreted Jesus to mean the ten commandments were the ones you had to follow under the new covenant. He did have a good message.

Gerri D said...

Sharon C! You see the issue is that the 10 Commandments are a mash up from the Old and New testament and not what came down from the Mount! If you were to follow the ones that did you would be "keeping holy the feast of the leaven bread" and "don't boil a baby goat in its mother's milk"!! The reason why Jews maintain a full set of sep kitchen items and utensils!! Jesus only gives 5 commandments in the NT and they have been mashed together!! BTW it is Paul that says about the new covenant not Jesus who said you have to follow all the rules in the OT just like those above!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Yark Hutprancer said...

>> He did have a good message.

Worship a god or burn for all eternity? Since gods are imaginary, I would say that was a very bad message.

pappu fusss said...

there are some gifts of god, they are unique, must see
http://www.godispain.blogspot.in/2013/09/leprosy-another-gift-from-god.html

inaaya bint musab said...

Just because doctors and professors do not agree on how many muscles are in the human body does not mean that we should not use our muscles. Likewise, we should follow the 600 plus commandments ( just as we use the 600 plus muscles in our bodies ) because they are all beneficial. The ones that are not possible to follow anymore can be honored, studied, talked about, a n d followed philosophically.