Tag Archives: Ramban

The Most Important Torah Reading

Two columns of parashat Ha’azinu in a Torah scroll

This Shabbat we will be reading Ha’azinu, a unique parasha written in two poetic columns. Ha’azinu is a song; the song that God instructed Moses to teach all of Israel: “And now, write for yourselves this song, and teach it to the Children of Israel. Place it into their mouths, in order that this song will be for Me as a witness for the children of Israel.” (Deut. 31:19) Of course, the entire Torah is a song, chanted with specific ta’amim, musical cantillations. In fact, the mitzvah for each Jew to write a Torah scroll of their own (one of the 613) is derived from the verse above, where God commands the Children of Israel to write this song for themselves. While the simple meaning is that God meant to write the song of Ha’azinu, our Sages interpreted it to refer to the entire Torah. (Since most people are unable to write an entire kosher Torah scroll by themselves, the mitzvah can be fulfilled by writing in a single letter, or by financially contributing to the production of a Torah scroll.)

Why is the song of Ha’azinu so special that God commanded Moses to ensure it will always remain in the mouths of Israel? A careful reading shows that Ha’azinu essentially incorporates all of the central themes of the Torah. We are first reminded that God is perfect, “and all His ways are just” (32:4). While it is common for people to become angry at God and wonder why He is seemingly making life so difficult for them, Ha’azinu reminds us that there is no injustice in God, and that all suffering is self-inflicted (32:5). The Talmud reminds us that hardships are issurim shel ahavah, “afflictions of love”, meant to inspire us to change, grow, repent, learn, and draw us closer to God. Isaac Newton said it well:

Trials are medicines which our gracious and wise Physician gives because we need them; and the proportions, the frequency, and weight of them, to what the case requires. Let us trust His skill and thank Him for the prescription.

History is the Greatest Proof

In the second aliyah, we are told to “remember the days of old and reflect upon the years of previous generations” (32:7). Is there any greater proof for God and the truth of the Torah than Jewish history? Despite all the hate, persecution, exile, and genocide, the Jewish people are still alive and well, prospering as much as ever.

Does it make sense that 0.2% of the world’s population wins over 20% of the world’s Nobel Prizes? (Out of 881 Nobels awarded thus far, 197 were awarded to Jews, who number just 14 million or so. Compare that to the 1.8 billion Muslims in the world—roughly 25% of the world’s population—who have a grand total of three Nobel Prizes in the sciences.) Does it make sense that a nation in exile for two millennia can return to its ancestral homeland, defeat five professional armies that invade it simultaneously (and outnumber it at least 10 to 1), and go on to establish a flourishing oasis in a barren desert in just a few short decades? Does it make sense that tiny Israel is a global military, scientific, democratic, and economic powerhouse? And yet, does it make any sense that the United Nations has passed more resolutions against Israel than all of the rest of the world combined?

There is no greater proof for God’s existence, for the truth of His Torah, and the distinctiveness of the Jewish people than history itself. It is said that King Louis XIV once asked the French polymath and Catholic theologian Blaise Pascal for proof of the supernatural, to which the latter simply replied: “the Jews”. Although Pascal—who was not a big fan of the Jews—probably meant it in a less than flattering way, he was totally correct.

The Consequences of Forgetting God

From the third aliyah onwards, Ha’azinu describes what the Jewish people have unfortunately experienced through the centuries: God gives tremendous blessings, which eventually leads to the Jews becoming “fat and rebellious”. They forget “the God who delivered” them (32:18). This is precisely when God hides His face (32:20), and just as the Jews provoked God with their foolishness and assimilation, God in turn “provokes [them] with a foolish nation”. God sends a wicked foreign nation to punish the Jews—whether Babylonians or Romans, Cossacks or Nazis—to remind the Jews who they are supposed to be: a righteous, Godly people; a light unto the nations. If the Jews will not be righteous and divine, God has no use for them.

Having said that, this does not exonerate those Cossacks and Nazis, for they, too, have been judged. They are a “foolish nation”, a “non-people”, who themselves merit destruction, and God “will avenge the blood of His servants” (32:43). The song ends with a promise: Israel will atone and fulfil its role, its enemies will be defeated, and God will restore His people to their land.

The Spiritual Power of Ha’azinu

The song of Ha’azinu beautifully summarizes the purpose and history of the Jewish people, and elegantly lays down the responsibilities, benefits, and consequences of being the nation tasked with God’s mission. Not surprisingly then, God wanted all of Israel to know Ha’azinu very well, and meditate upon this song at all times. This is why it was given in the format of a song, since songs are much easier to memorize and internalize then words alone. Music has the power to penetrate into the deepest cores of our souls.

In fact, the Zohar on this parasha writes that music is the central way to elevate spiritually, and can be used to attain Ruach HaKodesh, the prophetic Divine Spirit. Elsewhere, the Zohar goes so far as to say that Moses’ prophecy was unique in that all other prophets needed music to receive visions, while Moses alone could prophesy without the help of song!

Today, we have scientific evidence that music deeply affects the mind. It triggers the release of various neurotransmitters, and can rewire the brain. It has a profound impact on mood and wellbeing, and can be used to induce all sorts of mental and emotional states. Music is powerful.

And so, the Torah concludes with a song. After relaying Ha’azinu, the Torah says that “Moses finished speaking all of these words to Israel” (32:45). The lyrics were the last of the Torah’s instructions. Indeed, Ha’azinu is the last weekly Torah reading in the yearly cycle. (Although there is one more parasha, it is not read on its own Shabbat, but on the holiday of Simchat Torah, at which point we jump right ahead to Beresheet, the first parasha.)

So important is Ha’azinu that it is always read during the High Holiday period, usually on Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Repentance, or Return. So important is Ha’azinu that it is most often the first parasha read in the New Year. And so important is Ha’azinu that it was commonly believed the entire Torah is encoded within it. When our Sages derived the mitzvah of writing the Torah from the command of writing Ha’azinu, they literally meant that Ha’azinu encapsulates the whole Torah! The Ramban went so far as to teach that all of history, including the details of every individual, is somehow encrypted in Ha’azinu. This prompted one of the Ramban’s students, Rabbi Avner, to abandon Judaism and become an apostate. In a famous story, the Ramban later confronts Avner, and proves that Avner’s own name and fate is embedded in one of Ha’azinu’s verses.

In past generations, many people customarily memorized Ha’azinu. The Rambam (Hilkhot Tefillah 7:13) cites another custom to recite Ha’azinu every morning at the end of Shacharit, and the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 31a) states that in those days it was read every Shabbat. This Shabbat, take the time to read Ha’azinu diligently, and see why it was always considered the most important Torah reading. Perhaps you will even find your own life encoded in its enigmatic verses.

Wishing everyone a sweet and happy new year! Shana tova v’metuka! 

Is the “Jewish Calendar” Really Jewish?

This week we read a double Torah portion, Vayak’hel-Pekudei, which continues to describe the construction of the Tabernacle and its components. At the same time, we have the special additional reading known as Parashat haChodesh, recounting God’s command to the Israelites to establish the months of the year and observe rosh chodesh. Parashat haChodesh is always read before the start of the month of Nisan, since this is the first month of the calendar (although the new year doesn’t officially start until Rosh Hashanah in Tishrei). It was particularly with regards to the month of Nisan that God commanded the Israelites right before their exodus from Egypt.

Babylonian Calendar

Yet, the term “Nisan” does not actually appear in the Torah. Neither do any of the other eleven months’ names. These names actually come from the Babylonian calendar! Our Sages admit that the Hebrew calendar was adopted from the Babylonians during the Jewish exile in Babylon following the destruction of the First Temple. The Babylonian calendar had essentially the exact same 19-year cycle as the current Hebrew calendar, with a 13th leap month of Adar II added seven times throughout the cycle in order to keep it synced with the solar cycle.

Adopting the Babylonian calendar so directly actually presents a number of interesting issues. The Babylonians named their months based on their idolatrous beliefs. For example, Tammuz was the name of the Babylonian (and Sumerian) god of vegetation. In their mythology, Tammuz died and entered the underworld following the summer solstice, when the length of the days start to decline. Because of this, the Babylonians observed a mourning period in the month of Tammuz, with women in particular weeping in the temples.

In fact, this is mentioned in the Tanakh, where God shows the prophet Ezekiel (8:14-15) a vision of Jewish women mourning for Tammuz by the Holy Temple in Jerusalem!

Then he brought me to the door of the gate of Hashem’s House which was toward the north; and, behold, there sat women weeping for Tammuz. Then said He unto me: “Have you seen this, son of man? Turn around again and you shall see greater abominations than these…”

‘Ezekiel Prophesying’ by Gustav Doré

This passage has God showing a number of abominable acts committed by the Jews, justifying their destruction at the hands of the Babylonians. Technically, Jewish law forbids even mentioning the name of a foreign or idolatrous deity. Yet, Jews to this day refer to the fourth month of the year as Tammuz! And to this day, Jews observe a period of mourning in that month! Of course, this period of mourning is not for the deity Tammuz, but for the destruction of the Temple. The parallels are nonetheless striking.

The Ramban dealt with this apparent contradiction by teaching that it was done on purpose, so that the Jews would never forget their exile. On a more mystical level, mourning for the Temple in the month of Tammuz can be seen as a sort of tikkun, a spiritual rectification for the sin of the ancient Israelites idolatrously mourning the false god Tammuz.

Despite this, there was actually a time when Jews did not exactly agree on their calendar. It isn’t surprising that many weren’t too thrilled with adopting a pagan Babylonian system.

A Strictly Solar Calendar

The Book of Jubilees is an ancient Hebrew text that covers Jewish history from Creation until the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. The book is divided into 50 chapters, with each chapter describing one yovel, “jubilee”, the 49-year period proscribed by the Torah. (Multiplying these values suggests that the Torah was given in the year 2450 according to the Book of Jubilees, which is very close to the rabbinic tradition of 2448.) While Jubilees was not included in the mainstream Tanakh, it was traditionally found in the Tanakh of Ethiopian Jews. It is also evident that Jubilees was used by the Hasmonean dynasty (of Chanukah fame), and influenced a number of midrashim, as well as the Zohar.

It isn’t hard to see why Jubilees was not canonized by the rabbis of the day. The book suggests that those who use a lunar calendar are mimicking idol worshipers, and since the calendar is not precise like the solar one, end up celebrating the Jewish holidays on the wrong days.

A section of the Book of Psalms from the Dead Sea Scrolls

At least fifteen copies of Jubilees were discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls—more than any other text. The Qumran sect of Jews that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls were clearly at odds with mainstream rabbinic Judaism. They believed that God created the sun and planets with precise orbits, and following these natural cycles reveals His great wisdom. Meanwhile, the rabbis rely on witnesses to spot a new moon before having the Sanhedrin proclaim a new month. The witnesses might err, or it could be cloudy that night, and the calendar would be all wrong!

The Sages responded by citing the Torah (Leviticus 23:1-2):

And Hashem spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and tell them, the appointed times of Hashem, which you shall proclaim as holy convocations, these are My appointed times.

God clearly commanded us to appoint the convocations, and whenever we would do so, He would declare them as His appointed times! The Talmud elaborates that God wanted us to reconstruct our own calendar, and the Heavens will reflect our actions here on Earth. There is a far more profound lesson here that our Sages wanted to teach us.

One of the central themes of Passover is that God transcends nature. The laws of Creation can be broken, and inexplicable miracles do happen. Since human beings are made in God’s image, we too are capable of transcending nature. This is our very purpose in life; to break free from the confines of the physical and ascend ever further spiritually.

The Sages established a lunar calendar that would allow people to participate in God’s creation—and teach them that they don’t have to be subject to the strict laws of nature—while at the same time wisely syncing the calendar with the solar cycle to ensure the years don’t lag behind. Ultimately, the calendar was fixed so that we no longer need any witnesses or a Sanhedrin to establish a month. Nonetheless, we celebrate the same holidays at different times every year to remind us of the great potential that lies within each of us; that we are not meant to be slaves of nature, but masters of it.

*For a more detailed analysis of the conflict surrounding the Hebrew calendar, see the third chapter of Barry Freundel’s Why We Pray What We Pray.

Should Jews Believe in Astrology?

This week’s parasha, the second last of the Torah, is Ha’azinu. This parasha is unique in that it consists almost entirely of one lengthy song – clearly visibly when looking at a Torah scroll, where the text of Ha’azinu is split into two narrow columns. Moses sang this prophetic song to the nation right before his passing.

Two columns of parashat Ha'azinu

Two columns of parashat Ha’azinu

In the verses that introduce it (Deut. 31:19), we see God commanding Moses to write the song and “teach it to the Children of Israel. Place it in their mouths so that this song will be for Me a witness for the Children of Israel.” God wanted Moses to diligently teach this song to the entire nation. In fact, the actual wording of the verse has God commanding everyone – each member of the nation – to write the song for themselves. It is based on this verse that the Sages drew the mitzvah of writing a Torah scroll (or participating in writing one), even though the plain text of the verse states only to write this particular song, Ha’azinu.

Perhaps because of this, the Ramban taught that Ha’azinu contains the entire Torah within it. Moreover, he believed that every detail of every person’s life is somehow encoded within this song! In one famous story, when a student of the Ramban, a man named Avner, heard this teaching, he was so baffled by it that he left Judaism entirely, converted to another religion, and became a prominent anti-Semite. When Avner later confronted the Ramban, the Rabbi showed him how one verse in the song did indeed accurately point to this man’s life. Avner was so ashamed that he disappeared, never to be heard from again.

Heavenly Princes

And so, each and every one of the song’s 43 verses has a great deal to teach us. The eighth verse begins by telling us that God gave each nation their lot, and the ninth verse says that “Hashem’s portion is His people, the lot of His inheritance.” The Zohar comments on these words that while God established Heavenly “princes” to watch over every nation in the world, Israel is watched over by God Himself. The Ramban (in his Discourse on Rosh Hashanah) elaborates:

He gave each and every nation… some known star or constellation, as is known by means of the science of astrology… Higher above [the constellations] are the angels of the Supreme One, whom He appointed as “princes” over them… It is further written, “So shall you be My people, and I will be your God, and you will not be subject to other powers at all.” (Jeremiah 11:4)

When we often say that Hashem is our God (as we so in the daily Shema), or when the Tanakh writes that we are God’s people, this does not mean that gentiles cannot have a relationship with God, or that there are other gods out there for the non-Jewish world. Rather, it means that while God oversees absolutely everything in His universe, and has created all people, He has also appointed various Heavenly (or astrological) forces above each nation – except Israel. These forces are not independent in their own right, as they are subject to the angels above them, and these angels ultimately serve God. As such, the nations of the world have various Heavenly intermediaries between themselves and Hashem. Israel, however, has a direct connection to Him. In fact, this is the hidden meaning within the name “Israel” (ישראל), which can be read as yashar El. (ישר-אל), “straight to God”.

Ain Mazal L’Israel

Long before the Ramban, the Sages of the Talmud debated whether the constellations had an effect on people (Shabbat 156a). The consensus of the Rabbis was that constellations do impact people, but Jews are free from this influence. They learn this from the prophet Jeremiah, who prophesied: “Thus said Hashem: Learn not the way of the nations, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven, for the nations are dismayed at them.” (10:2) God tells Israel not to draw meaning from heavenly signs as the other nations do. The Talmud goes on to tell us a story about Abraham, who cried out to God: “Master of the Universe! I have looked at the constellations and find that I am not fated to have children.” To this, God replied: “Stop your star-gazing! Israel has no constellations.”

Hebrew Zodiac from a 6th Century Synagogue

Hebrew Zodiac from a 6th-Century Synagogue

Elsewhere, the Talmud tells us that Abraham was once a powerful astrologer, and great men from around the world came to consult with him about their fortunes (Bava Batra 16b). When Abraham looked into his own fate, he saw that he would not have children. God commanded him to desist from astrology, for the Jewish people have the power to transcend the stars. Of course, Abraham went on to have many children.

Later on, Moses would record in the Torah the prohibition for Jews to consult various fortune-tellers and astrologers. The Rambam codifies the law in this way:

It is forbidden to tell fortunes. [This applies] even though one does not perform a deed, but merely relates the falsehoods which the fools consider to be words of truth and wisdom. Anyone who performs a deed because of an astrological calculation or arranges his work or his journeys to fit a time that was suggested by the astrologers is [liable for] lashes, as [Leviticus 19:26] states: “Do not tell fortunes.” (Sefer HaMadda, Hilchot Avodah Zarah, Chapter 11, Halacha 9)

Transcending Nature

We see from the above that various Heavenly forces, angels, and constellations do exist, and certainly do influence the world. Astrological signs can be potent forces. Ironically, earlier in his discourse, the Ramban points out how astrology is intricately tied into the Jewish calendar: it is no coincidence that Pesach is celebrated in the month of Nisan, the sign of which is Aries (the ram, or sheep), since the main mitzvah of Pesach was to sacrifice a lamb; and it is no coincidence that Rosh Hashanah – judgement day, when each person is put on trial – is in the month of Tishrei, the sign of which is Libra, the scales of justice. The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Shemot 418) even tells us how each of the 12 Tribes of Israel corresponds to one of the 12 astrological signs of the zodiac!

And yet, all the sources are clear: Jews are not to dabble in astrology, for we have no need for intermediaries, and we have all the power to break free from the influence of the constellations. It is precisely when we believe in astrology that it becomes real, just as Abraham had no children as long as he believed in the heavenly signs that he saw. Every Jew must realize that we are Israel, yashar El, and that Hashem alone is our astrological sign. There is no need to believe in what the Rambam calls “emptiness and vanity”. The Rambam ends his laws on this subject by telling us to live up to the Torah’s call (Deut. 18:13) to be of “perfect faith with Hashem, your God.” When one has perfect faith in the Master of the Universe, anything is possible, and this is how God finished his rebuke to Abraham:

“Stop your star-gazing! Ain mazal l’Israel. What is your calculation? Is it because Jupiter stands in the West? Then I will turn it back and place it in the East!”

Why You Really (Really!) Shouldn’t Do Kapparot (Even With Money)

Tuesday evening marks the holy day of Yom Kippur. In the early morning hours before this, many Jews will seek to perform the custom of kapparot, which involves taking a live rooster (or chicken), swinging it over one’s head, and then having it slaughtered. In the process, the person states how the rooster will be their “atonement”, and while the rooster will die, the person will go on to live a good life. The rooster’s meat is typically donated. Others swing money over their heads instead of a rooster, and then donate the money to charity. Of course, this strange-sounding custom is not mentioned anywhere in the Torah or Talmud. In fact, throughout history many Jewish Sages tried hard to extinguish this custom, for a number of important reasons.

19th Century Lithograph of Kapparot

19th Century Lithograph of Kapparot

First of all, kapparot sounds much too similar to a korban, a sacrificial offering. In the days of the Temple, the kohanim sacrificed animals in order to atone for the people. The kapparot ritual explicitly states that the rooster serves as atonement, and the rooster is then killed. Despite some people’s claims that kapparot is not a true sacrifice, it clearly mimics the Temple’s sacrificial procedures, and intends to accomplish the same goal. The Mishnah Berurah (605:2) openly admits this, saying that kapparot is basically like a sacrifice. Indeed, an outsider would hardly be able to tell the difference. The problem is that the Torah forbids bringing sacrifices anywhere other than the place that God specifically designates (Deut. 12:5-6), which was the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The Torah also commands that only kohanim are allowed to oversee sacrificial procedures. From this perspective alone, kapparot is contrary to the Torah.

Thirteen Years of Pain

Secondly, kapparot fits squarely under the category of unnecessary cruelty to animals. Commenting on the verse in Psalms (145:9) which states that God has mercy and compassion upon all of His creations, Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch wrote:

Here you are faced with God’s teaching which obliges you not only to refrain from inflicting unnecessary pain on any animal, but to help and, when you can, to lessen the pain whenever you see an animal suffering, even through no fault of yours.
(Horeb, Chapter 60, Section 416)

The Jewish Sages have always been concerned about animal welfare. The Talmud considers it a Torah mitzvah to treat animals with respect and prevent any harm to them (Bava Metzia 32b), so much so that one is allowed to violate various Shabbat prohibitions to help a suffering animal (Shabbat 128b). Let us not forget the story of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, who suffered excruciating pains for thirteen years. Why was he afflicted with such pain?

A calf was being taken to the slaughter when it broke away, hid its head under [Rabbi Yehuda’s] clothes, and lowed [in terror]. “Go”, he said, “for this you were created.” Thereupon it was said [in Heaven], “Since he has no pity, let us bring suffering upon him.”
(Bava Metzia 85a)

The great Rabbi Yehuda – the compiler of the Mishnah – made one uncompassionate remark to a fearful calf that was about to be slaughtered. For this, Heaven rained upon him tremendous pain – six years of kidney stones, and seven of scurvy, so unbearable that his cries could be heard over three miles away. When did his suffering end?

One day [Rabbi Yehuda’s] maidservant was sweeping the house; [seeing] some young weasels lying there, she made to sweep them away. “Let them be,” he said to her; “It is written, ‘And his tender mercies are over all his works.’” It was said [in Heaven], “Since he is compassionate, let us be compassionate to him.”

Rabbi Yehuda quotes the same verse (Psalms 145:9) that Rav Hirsch expounded upon, and has mercy on the young animals in his home. For this, his suffering is finally taken away. If even one little remark to an animal is worth thirteen years of suffering, how much more so if an animal is swung around wildly, then slaughtered needlessly – which is precisely what happens with kapparot. (It has also been pointed out that chickens used in kapparot are usually starving and thirsty, and often have their limbs dislocated or bones broken during the procedure.)

Idolatrous Practices

Lastly, kapparot appears to be connected with various idolatrous practices and non-Jewish customs. The Ramban, among others, considered it darkei emori, the way of idolaters. The Shulchan Arukh, the central halachic text of Judaism, is also staunchly opposed to kapparot, and its author, Rabbi Yosef Karo, called it a “foolish custom”.

Many modern-day authorities, too, from across the Torah-observant world, have been vocally against kapparot. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and the entire Brisker rabbinic lineage before him opposed the custom, considering it irrational. The rabbi of Beit El and rosh yeshiva of Ateret Yerushalaim, Shlomo Chaim Aviner, a prominent authority within the Dati Leumi community, has described it as a “superstition”. And the former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, Chaim David HaLevy, beautifully wrote in his Aseh Lekha Rav:

Why should we, specifically on the eve of the holy day of Yom Kippur, be cruel to animals for no reason, and slaughter them without mercy, just as we are about to request compassion for ourselves from the living God?

Kapparot with Money

While it is clearly evident that one should completely avoid kapparot with chickens, some might argue that it is still worth doing kapparot with money. The problem is that the procedure and text are still the same: waving coins or bills over one’s head, stating that the money serves as an atonement, and that donating it will save one’s life.

The truth is that there is no need to do this at all, since any giving to charity automatically fulfils a mitzvah, assists in one’s repentance and atonement, and is said to be life-saving. The Talmud famously tells us (Bava Batra 10a) that charity is the greatest of all forces, and quotes the verse in Proverbs that “charity saves from death” (10:2).

Thus, any charitable contribution, at any time of the year, already does what kapparot claims to do. And so, awkwardly waving money around one’s head and reciting the kapparot verses is nothing more than a funny-looking waste of time, associated with a cruel, idolatrous, nonsensical, and nonJewish custom.

In his list of the 613 Torah mitzvot, the Rambam (who was also opposed to kapparot) lists the 185th positive commandment of the Torah as eradicating any traces of idolatry from Israel. Since many great Sages held the view that kapparot is associated with idolatrous ways, including the Ramban, Rashba, and the authoritative Shulchan Arukh, it is undoubtedly a mitzvah to not only avoid kapparot, but to encourage others to abandon this practice, and to expunge it from Judaism.

Wishing you a fulfilling and uplifting Yom Kippur. Gmar Chatima Tova!

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.