Tag Archives: Makkot (Tractate)

What’s The Deal With Not Shaving?

This week’s parasha is Behaalotcha, which starts with God’s command to light the Temple menorah, followed by a description of the Levite initiation ritual. This ritual required the Levites to have their entire bodies shaved with a razor (Numbers 8:7). Yet, it is well-known that Jewish law forbids shaving the face with a razor. Where did this law come from?

The nobility in many Mesopotamian cultures sported square beards. Is this what the Torah means when it says not to “round” the beard’s corners?

The Torah source is found in Leviticus 19:27, where God commands that “you shall not round the corners of your head, nor shall you destroy the corners of your beard.” The wording here is ambiguous and perplexing. What does it mean to not “round” the head’s “corners”, or not to destroy the beard’s “corners”? The verse does not say anything about shaving with a razor either. Moreover, the context of this verse is amidst a set of things not to do while mourning the dead. This is precisely how the Mishnah (in the tractate Makkot) understands it:

If a man makes a baldness on his head, or rounds the corner of his head, or destroys the corner of his beard, or makes a cutting in his flesh for the dead, he is liable [to flogging], whether he makes one cutting for five dead, or five cuttings for one, he is liable for each.

Shaving is included among a set of things not to do when mourning the dead, such as making a bald spot on the head, which comes from a related verse in Leviticus 21:5: “They shall not make baldness upon their head, neither shall they shave off the corners of their beard, nor make any cuttings in their flesh.” Here again we see a prohibition against shaving the beard’s corners. This one, however, is in a set of laws directed only at kohanim. The Talmud (Makkot 20a) explains how even though this verse applies only to priests, other Torah verses expand the prohibition to all of Israel. Nonetheless, all of this only applies when mourning the dead.

Historians have indeed found that shaving was a common mourning ritual in the ancient Near East. Tearing out hair in grief (thus making a “bald spot” for the dead), or shaving hair as an offering to the dead were frequent sights. The Torah prohibits this type of extreme mourning.

The Mishnah cited above continues by saying that one is only liable for punishment if they used a razor to shave their hair. However, another opinion is that any hair removal – even if plucking out each hair one by one – is forbidden. The first opinion is the one that is followed, and thus, shaving hair with a razor in connection to a mourning ritual is forbidden.

If that’s the case, why is shaving with a razor for hygienic or aesthetic purposes forbidden?

Reinterpreting Verses

The Rambam takes an alternate approach in explaining the prohibition of shaving. He writes (in Moreh Nevuchim, Part III, Ch. 37) that shaving was the practice of idolatrous priests, who were clean-shaven in those days. Therefore, maintaining a beard was a way to distinguish Jews from idolaters. This idea appears to be supported by verses in the Book of Jeremiah. For example, Jeremiah 9:24-25 states:

Behold, days are coming, says Hashem, that I will punish all of them that are uncircumcised: Egypt, and Judah, and Edom, and the children of Ammon, and Moab, and all ketzutzei pe’ah, that dwell in the wilderness; for all the nations are uncircumcised, but all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in the heart.

Jeremiah prophesies that a day will come when God will punish all the uncircumcised idolaters (as well as Jews who may be circumcised physically, but are not circumcised “spiritually”). A list of nations follows, and then appears the term ketzutzei pe’ah. This phrase (which also appears in Jeremiah 25:23 and 49:32) can be translated as “trimming the corner”. Thus, some took it to mean that God will punish all those nations that trim the corners of their beards.

However, reading the verse in context shows that it is unlikely to be speaking about trimming beards. Ketzutzei pe’ah is more likely referring to those who live in the distant corners of the world. God is saying he will punish Egypt, Judah, Edom, Ammon, Moab, the nations of the wilderness, and all the uncircumcised in the farthest corners of the Earth, wherever they might be. This is made even clearer in the second passage (Jeremiah 25:23) where the term appears:

… and all the kings of the land of Uz, and all the kings of the land of the Philistines, and Ashkelon, and Gaza, and Ekron, and the remnant of Ashdod; Edom, and Moab, and the children of Ammon; and all the kings of Tyre, and all the kings of Zidon, and the kings of the isle which is beyond the sea; Dedan, and Tema, and Buz, and all ketzutzei pe’ah; and all the kings of Arabia, and all the kings of the mingled people that dwell in the wilderness; and all the kings of Zimri, and all the kings of Elam, and all the kings of the Medes; and all the kings of the north, far and near, one with another; and all the kingdoms of the world, which are upon the face of the earth…

Assyrian priest and king, with beards

Looking at the historical record, we see that while certain nations’ priests were clean-shaven, most were not. Babylonian, Assyrian, and Persian priests had nice long beards. These were the Israelites’ primary neighbours and adversaries for most of ancient history, and none were clean-shaven. Therefore, the argument of not shaving because of idolatry is of little substance. Besides, the Torah’s prohibition applies only to cases of mourning, and this is a major reason why halakha forbids a Jew from shaving for thirty days following the death of a family member.

To be fair, Kabbalistic texts do explain why shaving is forbidden from a mystical perspective. The Tanakh itself, though, is mute on this point. In fact, when speaking of a razor specifically, the Torah seems to be quite positive about it. In this week’s parasha, shaving with a razor is part of a cleansing purification, as it is for someone who was afflicted with tzaraat, or someone who had been a nazir (Numbers 6:9). Most tellingly, Isaiah prophesies that a day will come when God Himself will purify us all by shaving us with a razor:

In that day, Hashem will shave with a razor… the head and the hair of the feet; and it shall also sweep away the beard. And it shall come to pass in that day, that a man shall rear a young cow, and two sheep; and from the abundance of milk that they shall give, he shall eat butter; for butter and honey shall every one eat that is left in the midst of the land…

This verse explicitly mentions shaving the beard with a razor as part of mankind’s final purification. The verse is found in a long passage (Isaiah 7-9) that weaves in prophesies about the coming of Mashiach and the return to an idyllic world, where “… endless peace will be upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to establish it, and to uphold it through justice and through righteousness, from henceforth and forever…”

May we merit to see it soon.

The One Commandment of the Torah

The Revelation at Sinai

This week’s Torah reading is Yitro, famous for its account of the Divine Revelation at Mt. Sinai. For the first time, the Jewish people heard the Ten Commandments, directly from God. Commenting on these verses, Rabbeinu Behaye (1255-1340) describes how God actually revealed the Torah gradually, starting with Adam.

To Adam, God revealed the very first six commandments: (1) not to deny God’s existence, (2) not to blaspheme God, (3) not to murder, (4) not to engage in immoral sexual relations, (5) not to steal, and (6) to establish just legal systems and courts. These may sound familiar, as they are part of the Seven Noahide Laws. Yet, Rabbeinu Behaye writes that Adam and Eve were given these commandments before Noah. These six are the basic laws of humanity so, naturally, they must have been given to the first humans.

To Noah, God added a seventh commandment. Originally, God instructed man to consume only fruits and vegetables (Genesis 1:29-30). In God’s original perfect world, nothing at all had to die. (Thus, the third commandment of “not to murder” likely applied to all living things at the time!) Yet, ten generations after Adam, we read that God permitted the consumption of meat, albeit in a limited way. There are deeply profound reasons for this, which we have addressed in the past.

From the time of Noah onwards, man was permitted to consume meat, so God added a seventh commandment: “do not eat the limb of a live animal”. The basic meaning of this law is that an animal should be carefully slaughtered (and as painlessly as possible) before its meat is consumed. However, the commandment takes on much broader implications, and is regarded as a general prohibition of not being cruel to animals.

From 8 to 613

Another ten generations after Noah came the eighth commandment, given to Abraham. It was Abraham who was first instructed to circumcise himself and the males of his household. God declared that henceforth, every newborn male should be circumcised on the eighth day of life. Appropriately, this was the eighth commandment.

“Jacob wrestling with the angel” by Eugène Delacroix (1861)

Jacob received the ninth commandment: not to consume the gid hanashe, the sciatic nerve. This stems from Jacob’s famous wrestling match with the angel, where he was struck in the thigh, and “Therefore, the children of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh until this day…” (Genesis 32:33).

Finally, it was Moses’ generation – the twenty-sixth generation from Adam – that received the entire set of Ten Commandments. Of course, these Ten are quite different than the previous nine. However, the Ten Commandments are only the first of the entire set of 613 mitzvot in the Torah, which do encapsulate the previous nine as well. Jewish tradition holds that these Ten, in fact, allude to all 613. It is often pointed out that the text of the Ten Commandments in the Torah contains exactly 620 letters, corresponding to the 613 Torah mitzvot, plus the additional 7 mitzvot instituted by the Sages.

Going in Reverse

Rabbeinu Behaye teaches us that the Torah was revealed step-by-step, progressing from six in Adam’s time, to seven in Noah’s, eight in Abraham’s, nine in Jacob’s, ten in Moses’, followed by all 613. Interestingly, there is a passage in the Talmud (Makkot 23b-24a) that appears to neatly continue the Torah’s evolution, but this time in reverse!

The passage begins by reminding us that “…six hundred and thirteen precepts were given to Moses” before stating that “David came and reduced them to eleven.” King David was able to condense the entire Torah to eleven central principles, which he recorded in Psalm 15:

A Psalm of David. Hashem, who shall sojourn in Your tabernacle? Who shall dwell upon Your holy mountain? One who (1) walks uprightly, and (2) acts righteously, (3) speaks truth in his heart; (4) Has no slander upon his tongue, (5) nor does evil to his fellow, (6) nor takes up a reproach against his neighbour; (7) In whose eyes a vile person is despised, and (8) one who honours those that fear Hashem; (9) one who swears to his own detriment, but does not renege; (10) One that does not lend his money on interest, (11) nor takes a bribe against the innocent. The doer of these will never falter for eternity.

“Isaiah” by Gustav Doré

David saw that all of the Torah boils down to these 11 principles. But the Talmud doesn’t stop there. The prophet Isaiah “came and reduced them to six.” He taught that it all came down to:

One that (1) walks righteously, and (2) speaks uprightly; one that (3) despises the gain of oppressions, that (4) shakes his hands from holding of bribes, that (5) stops his ears from hearing of blood, and (6) shuts his eyes from looking upon evil. He shall dwell on high… (Isaiah 33:15-16)

From 6 to 1

Along came Isaiah’s contemporary, the prophet Micah, and further reduced the commandments to three! “What does Hashem require of you? Only to act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God…” Apparently, upon hearing this, “Isaiah came again and reduced them to two, as it is written: ‘Thus said Hashem: preserve justice, and do righteousness’” (Isaiah 56:1).

“Amos” by Gustav Doré

Sometime later, the prophet Amos came and was able to reduce the entire Torah to one single principle: “Seek Me and live” (Amos 5:4). The Talmud questions the meaning of this, suggesting that perhaps “seeking God” simply means fulfilling the 613 precepts of His Torah – in which case, we are back to where we started!

The Talmud concludes by telling us that the prophet Habakkuk came along and solved the problem, teaching that the one principle that the entire Torah boils down to is this: tzaddik b’emunato yichyeh, “The righteous shall live by his faith”. It all comes down to knowing without a doubt that there is a God in this universe, and having faith in Him every step of the way. When we fully understand God’s constant, absolute presence in our lives, we will surely live righteously – for how can one ever act unrighteously when they are gripped by God’s perpetual presence?

The Sages teach us that no person sins unless a spirit of folly – a temporary lapse in faith – rests upon him. Of course, if one constantly lacks faith, they will forever succumb to sin. Those who do not know God are doomed to fail. And knowing God is not so simple. The Kotzker Rebbe once beautifully taught that “One who does not see God everywhere, does not see Him anywhere.”

The righteous person is the one who does indeed see God everywhere, who “lives by his faith”, or to translate more accurately, “who lives in his faith”. And what is the purpose of the Torah but to cultivate a deeper understanding of God, and a closer connection to Him? The 613 mitzvot are there to guide us through this journey; to bring us closer to God. And so, the entire Torah can be reduced to this one principle. May we all merit to actualize it.

Tisha B’Av: Why Are We Still Mourning?

This week’s Torah portion is Devarim, which begins the fifth and final book of the Torah. This book (Deuteronomy), is written from the perspective of Moses, and summarizes much of what the Torah discussed earlier. At the same time, it also introduces many new mitzvot, and reveals deeper insights into the Torah’s previous narratives. For example, while the book of Numbers told us that Moses was forbidden to enter the Holy Land because he disobeyed God in striking the rock, here we are told that Moses was forbidden to enter the Land because of the incident of the Spies! (1:22-38) How do we reconcile these differences? The answer can actually be found in next week’s parasha, Va’etchanan.

Va’etchanan (literally “and I beseeched”) describes how Moses begged God to allow him to enter the Holy Land. The Talmud (Berachot 32b) states that Moses prayed so much that God actually relented and forgave him for striking the rock. However, it would have been wrong for Moses to enter the Holy Land at that time, considering that the rest of the men were condemned to perish in the Wilderness because of the sin of the spies. After all, Moses was their leader. Could a shepherd abandon his flock? Would a captain abandon his sinking ship? So, Moses didn’t enter the land not because of the rock, but because of the spies.

'Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem' by Francesco Hayez (1867)

‘Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem’ by Francesco Hayez (1867)

This is all the more pertinent now with Tisha B’Av right around the corner. Tisha B’Av commemorates the destruction of both Holy Temples in Jerusalem, along with a handful of other tragedies said to have happened on, or around, that date – the ninth of the month of Av. According to tradition, the origins of Tisha B’Av lie in the incident of the spies. It was on that day that the spies returned from the land of Israel, and reported negatively about the people’s chances of conquering the land. The faithless nation feared and cried needlessly on that day so, it is said, God subsequently gave the nation many good reasons to truly fear and cry on that day throughout history.

The Problem with the 9th of Av

There are many problems with this classic narrative. First of all, why would God punish generations far in the future for the sins of that one generation long ago? Deuteronomy 24:16 itself states clearly that “Parents shall not be put to death because of their children, nor children because of their parents. Each person shall be put to death for their own crime.” While the Torah does also mention a number of times that God “carries over the iniquity of the fathers onto the children to the third and fourth generations”, the phrase concludes by saying this is only true to those that “hate Him”. In any case, it is only to the third and fourth generations, not millennia into the future! Even so, the Talmud (Makkot 24a) says the prophet Ezekiel came and repealed this divine decree anyway:

Said Rabbi Yose bar Chanina, “Moses pronounced four decrees upon Israel, which four prophets came and cancelled.”
…Moses said, “carries over the iniquity of the fathers onto the children…” (Exodus 34:7) Ezekiel came and cancelled it: “The one who sins will die.” (Ezekiel 18:14)

'The Spies With The Grapes Of The Promised Land' by Nicolas Poussin (1664)

‘The Spies With The Grapes Of The Promised Land’ by Nicolas Poussin (1664)

Second of all, did the spies really return on the 9th of Av? The Talmud (Ta’anit 29a) calculates that the spies went forth on the 29th of Sivan and returned forty days later on the 9th of Av. However, the Torah tells us that the spies went to Israel at the start of the grape harvest (Numbers 13:20) and the same tractate of Talmud (Ta’anit 30b) states that the grape harvest season lasted from the 15th of Av until Yom Kippur! How could the spies have returned on the 9th of Av when the grape harvest only began on the 15th? (A simple Google search reveals that the ideal time for grape harvest is September-October, which is right between the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur.)

On the same note, when exactly were the Temples destroyed? The Tanakh tells us that “in the fifth month, on the seventh day of the month, which was the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, came Nebuzaradan, the captain of the guard, a servant of the king of Babylon, to Jerusalem. And he burned the house of Hashem, and the king’s house…” (II Kings 25:8-9) This verse suggests the First Temple was destroyed on the 7th of Av.

Another verse in the Tanakh tells us that “in the fifth month, in the tenth day of the month, which was the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, came Nebuzaradan, the captain of the guard, who stood before the king of Babylon, to Jerusalem; and he burned the house of Hashem, and the king’s house…” (Jeremiah 52:12-13) The verse is nearly identical, except that this one says Nebuzaradan came on the 10th and destroyed the Temple.

We have the 7th of Av and the 10th of Av, but no 9th! The Talmud (Ta’anit 29a) notes this contradiction and tries to reconcile it this way: “On the seventh the heathens entered the Temple and ate therein and desecrated it throughout the seventh and eighth, and towards dusk of the ninth they set fire to it and it continued to burn the whole of that day [the tenth].” Rabbi Yochanan goes on to say that if it were up to him, the mourning day would be the 10th of Av, not the 9th, since this is when the Temple was mostly destroyed.

And what about the Second Temple? Josephus lived through its destruction, and later wrote about it in detail. He says that it was destroyed on the 10th of Av, and writes that the Jews mourn its destruction on the same day that they mourn the destruction of the First Temple. However, he seems to admit that he is uncertain about the exact dates that the Temples fell.

What does the Talmud say? It, too, is uncertain, but concludes that since “good things tend to happen on good days, and bad things on bad days,” it is assumed that the Second Temple was destroyed on the same day as the First Temple!

Postponing, Abolishing, or Redefining?

This year, Tisha B’Av falls on Shabbat, so the fast is postponed, appropriately, to the 10th. While Rabbi Yochanan felt that the 10th is the correct day to fast anyway, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi – the great redactor of the Mishnah – wanted to have the fast of Tisha B’Av abolished completely! Some say this was only when Tisha B’Av falls on Shabbat and needs to be postponed, while others say he wanted it gone entirely (Megillah 5b).

This idea has been echoed in modern times. The primary reason for mourning on Tisha B’Av is because of Jerusalem’s destruction and the Jewish people’s exile. Today, the Jewish people have returned to the Holy Land and have rebuilt Jerusalem. While there’s no Temple just yet, we are free to travel to, and settle in, the Holy City whenever we wish. Why are we still mourning?

Perhaps Rabbi Yehudah felt the same way. In his day, Jews had also returned to Jerusalem and enjoyed relatively good terms with the Romans. Rabbi Yehudah himself was friends with the Caesar known in the Talmud as ‘Antoninus’ (possibly the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, or maybe a local Roman governor).

Meanwhile, far worse tragedies have befallen the Jewish people since then: crusades, inquisitions, pogroms, the Holocaust, and the list goes on. Why focus on the temples and Jerusalem when there are more recent, greater tragedies? Indeed, former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin intended to combine all the days of commemoration, and move Holocaust Remembrance Day and Israel’s Memorial Day to Tisha B’Av.

Perhaps this is what Tisha B’Av should be: one day to remember all of the suffering that has troubled the Jewish people, and all the suffering that continues to plague the world. A day to remind us that Mashiach has not come yet, the Temple is not yet rebuilt, and the world is not yet whole. A day to ask ourselves: what exactly are we doing to hasten the arrival of that magnificent, forthcoming time? What are we doing that will finally put an end to all the mourning? Tisha B’Av should be a day not about drowning in the sad tears of the past, but about actively working towards the happy tears of the future.

And this is precisely what Rabbi Akiva told his colleagues when they saw the ruins of the Temple. While Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, and Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananiah immediately fell into a bout of weeping, Rabbi Akiva was laughing. Surprised, they asked him to explain himself. He told them that while they were dwelling on the destruction of the first and second temples, he was dwelling on the vision of the coming Third Temple. The rabbis responded – and with this the tractate ends – “Akiva, you have consoled us! Akiva, you have consoled us!”

Do Jews Really Follow the Torah?

This week’s parasha is the dual MatotMassei. We read in it how God commanded Moses to “take revenge” on the Midianites and smite them. Moses and the Israelites fulfil God’s word to a tee:

And they killed every male, and they killed the Midianite kings upon their slain… the children of Israel took the Midianite women and their children captive, and they plundered all of their beasts, and all of their livestock, and all of their possessions. They set fire to all of their cities and fortresses, and took all the booty and all the plunder of man and beast… (Numbers 31:7-11).

TorahEvery modern reader should be absolutely horrified to see this passage in the holy Torah. How could God command such seemingly despicable acts? To slay every single man without trial, and to abduct their women and children? To loot all of their possessions? To burn down their cities? Could this be the conduct of holy, moral people?

The Torah records a number of other instances that an ethical person would find reprehensible, including four types of cruel death penalties (stoning, burning, strangling, decapitating) and a call to commit genocide (Deut. 7:1-2), among others.

At the same time, the Torah records far more laws dealing with kindness and charity, peace, love, justice, and holiness. How is it that the same God that commands vengeance and extermination also commands to “judge your fellow favourably… do not take revenge or bear a grudge… and love your fellow as yourself” (Leviticus 19:15-19)?

What’s going on?

Not in Heaven

The Talmud (Bava Metzia 59a-b) recounts a famous incident that happened in the study halls during a debate on the cleanliness or uncleanliness of one tanur shel akhnai, the “oven of Akhnai” or “oven of the snake”. Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus declared the oven clean, while the majority of rabbis declared it unclean. Although the majority is always followed, Rabbi Eliezer was certain he was right, and said, “If the halacha agrees with me, let this carob tree prove it!” Amazingly, the carob tree that he pointed to uprooted itself and moved some 800 feet.

The rabbis, seemingly unfazed, told him: “No proof can be brought from a carob tree.”

Rabbi Eliezer then upped the ante: “If the halacha agrees with me, let this stream of water prove it!” Immediately, the river switched courses and miraculously flowed backwards.

Again, the rabbis told him: “No proof can be brought from a stream of water.”

Rabbi Eliezer continued: “If the halacha agrees with me, let the walls of the study hall prove it.” As soon as the words exited his mouth, the walls started to shake violently and begin to tip over.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananiah interjected and told the walls: “How can you interfere when scholars are engaged in a halachic dispute?” So the walls stopped their descent and remained standing on an incline.

Finally, Rabbi Eliezer said: “If the halacha agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!” Lo and behold, a Heavenly voice emanates from above and states that Eliezer is indeed correct.

At this point, Rabbi Yehoshua looked up and said: lo b’shamayim hi, “It is not in Heaven!” Rabbi Yehoshua was quoting Deuteronomy 30:12, where Moses tells the Israelites that the Torah is not in Heaven; it is not distant from the people, but here on Earth for them to use and benefit from. The halacha went with the majority, and Rabbi Eliezer was overruled.

The Talmud continues by telling us that Rabbi Nathan later met Elijah the Prophet and asked him what God thought of the whole incident. Eliyahu told him that God had laughed heartily and said nitzchuni banai, “My children have defeated Me!”

This incredible story illustrates clearly how God’s intention in giving us the Torah was not to have us obey it blindly. Instead, we are meant to ponder it and grapple with its dictums, debate it, and come to our own conclusions as to what is right and wrong, moral and immoral. This is a key part of what the Talmud is all about.

For example, many of the Talmudic Sages found the Torah’s death penalties quite unpalatable; Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon said that they would never issue a death penalty at all (Makkot 7a), and ultimately, the death penalty was abolished from Jewish courts. Similarly, wars were replaced with debates in study halls; sacrifices were replaced with prayers; and the Torah’s caste system (where a select few priests lived in opulence and glory off the backs of the common people’s hard labour) was replaced with one of complete equality, where no distinction is made between even the greatest rabbi and the simplest Jew.

Struggling with God

So, do Jews really follow the Torah? When it comes to literally fulfilling its precepts – absolutely not! Of the 613 commandments that are derived from the Five Books of Moses (the nature and validity of which we have discussed in the past), well over 300 are impossible to keep today, and have not been possible for two millennia. Even if they were possible, very few people (if any) would actually want to return to an agrarian, slaveholding, militaristic, polygamous society. Those laws ceased to exist long ago for a good reason.

But do Jews continue to uphold the spirit of the Torah? Certainly. It is clear from the words of the Torah itself that God wanted us to question His commands and develop them on our own towards a clearer, more moral end. We see this at least as far back as Noach. While God commanded Noach to build an Ark, He also expected him to go out into the world and inspire people to repent so that a flood would be unnecessary. Noach failed, and the Sages say the Flood was called mabul noach, “Noah’s Flood” (or mei noach, “Noah’s waters”, as in Isaiah 54:9), because he was partly responsible for it.

We see it again with Abraham when God told him that Sodom would be totally destroyed. Abraham did not simply bow his head and accept; he questioned God’s decision and argued with Him. Moses argued with God for seven days during his first encounter with the Burning Bush at Sinai. Following the Golden Calf incident, Moses refused God’s suggestions again and brazenly told Him, “erase me from Your book!” if He would not agree to forgive the people. Rabbi Yehoshua’s bold rebuttal to the Heavenly Voice was just one in a long line of rebellious acts.

This is precisely the meaning of the name given to our forefather Jacob: He was called “Israel” ki sarita im Elohim… va’tuchal, “for you have struggled with God… and prevailed.” Jewish history is nothing but a centuries-old struggle with God. And for the most part, we have prevailed.

The Revelation at Sinai and Mysteries of the 613 Commandments

In this week’s parasha, Yitro, we read about the Divine Revelation at Mt. Sinai, and the giving of the Ten Commandments. Though only Ten Commandments were revealed at this point, we know that the Torah itself has 613 commandments (mitzvot). All of these were subsequently revealed over the next forty years that the Israelites spent in the wilderness, with Moses gradually writing down the Torah and teaching it to the people. However, the Torah itself does not say that there are 613 commandments, so where did this number come from?

613 and the Body

The first recorded instance of there being 613 commandments comes from a traditional teaching of Rabbi Simlai in the Talmud (Makkot 23b). Rabbi Simlai explains that 613 commandments were given, 365 of which are negative (what we are not allowed to do) and 248 of which are positive (what we must do). Rabbi Simlai relates that the 365 negatives correspond to the 365 days of the solar year, while the 248 positives correspond to the 248 major body parts. (Scientifically speaking, an adult human being has 206 bones, along with a few dozen major organs, which together may correspond to the Talmud’s 248 body parts.) Another opinion cites that the 365 also correspond to the 365 major nerves of the body.

Later, the Kabbalistic sages would suggest that bodily ailments can be pinpointed to a lack of mitzvah observance. Each positive mitzvah corresponds to a specific body part, while each negative mitzvah corresponds to a specific bodily nerve or sinew. Therefore, if one was failing to uphold a certain mitzvah, they may find the corresponding body part in pain. At times, the teachings of the Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, the 16th-century Tzfat mystic) specifically discuss which mitzvot correspond to which body parts.

613 and the Torah

To return to the Talmud, Rabbi Hamnuna explains where the number 613 comes from. He calculates that the gematria (numerical value) of the word Torah, תורה, is 611 (ת is 400, ו is 6, ר is 200, and ה is 5). Why not 613? Because at Mt. Sinai, the Israelites heard the first two commandments directly from God, so together with the 611 of Torah, we get to 613.

Rabbi Hamnuna is referencing a Midrashic teaching that describes the revelation at Mt. Sinai. The revelation was so intense that the Jewish people actually fainted – or even died – for a brief moment when they heard the first commandment uttered. God then sent angels to revive the people. He then pronounced the second commandment, and once again the people died! God revived them once more. This time, not wanting to experience death and resurrection yet again, the people asked Moses to get the rest of the commandments, and relay it to them. Therefore, the first two commandments were heard directly from God, and the remaining 611 were brought through the Torah (which has a numerical value of 611) written by the hand of Moses, as he received it from God.

613 and Moses

Of course, the Torah doesn’t record just the 611 commandments, but all 613. It is a central tenet of Judaism that the entire law was brought down by Moses, as revealed by God. Amazingly, the gematria of Moses’ full title, Moshe Rabbeinu, משה רבינו, is 613! (מ = 40, ש = 300, ה = 5, ר = 200, ב = 2, י = 10, נ = 50, ו = 6). Fitting for the man that brought the Torah and its 613 commandments.

Identifying the 613

The precise identity of the 613 commandments was not actually listed in the Talmud, nor was it commonly known for a long time. It was another Moses, Moses Maimonides, the Rambam, who compiled the first complete set of 613. This version was the one ultimately accepted, and used today. However, there were other versions around as well, and previous compilations, too. When reading the commentaries of Rashi and the Ramban (Nachmanides), we see them referencing what they believe to be a mitzvah from the Torah, yet it is not found in Rambam’s code! Therefore, Rambam’s code cannot really be said to be completely definitive.

The Ibn Ezra actually held that the 613 are more of a metaphorical idea than a literal set of laws (Yesod Mora, chapter 2), while the Tashbatz stated that 613 is an opinion of Rabbi Simlai only, and does not necessarily hold primacy (Zohar Harakia). Of Rambam’s list, 314 can only be fulfilled when a Temple is available. Thus, even the most pious Jew today (or in the last two thousand years for that matter) cannot fulfill even half of the 613 commandments! It is said that by studying them, we can in effect fulfill the commands. Perhaps with the coming of Mashiach, the exact nature of the 613 will finally be clear.