Rochester Rabbis Respond
Rochester Rabbis were asked to comment on the Torah interpretations and teachings of the 613 commandments. We include their comments here, in alphabetical order.
Rabbi David Abrahams, Congregation Etz Chaim
Almost all Jews (and a large number of non Jews) are aware that there are 613 commandments — mitzvot — in Torah.
In each succeeding generation of American Jewry, fewer and fewer Jews seem truly aware of them, particularly as they pertain to ancient Temple service, sacrifices, and rituals which simply are not part of modern Judaism, regardless of whether one is Hasidic, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, humanistic, or “just Jewish.”
Standing alone and out of context, they make an interesting list, but little else. But in the context of Torah study, and the centuries of commentary and scholarship that focuses on these mitzvot, we gain insight into Judaism as ethical monotheism, with ethics and ritual indelibly intertwined.
The centuries of commentary and study, by definition, all have been verbal. That there now is commentary that has its expression in art is a major step forward, enabling all who view it to experience these mitzvot visually, which can have a profound impact on a gut level.
An essential component of a mitzvah is our response to it. Do we respond based on whims and expediency, or do we respond based on educated choice?
After Hillel told the potential convert not to do to others what he found harmful, he also directed that he “now go and learn.”
The 613 mitzvot are an invitation and entry point to an incredible world of Jewish learning. When one receives such a gracious invitation, the least one can do is RSVP.
Rabbi Leonardo Bitran, Temple Beth El
The Torah identifies 613 commandments (mitzvot). They are also associated with specific parts and faculties of the human body. Therefore, knowing the entire Torah (5 books of Moses) encompassing all details of all 613 mitzvot unites one’s soul with God. Just as a human being is comprised of 613 aspects the learning of the mitzvot of the Torah expresses a specific manifestation of the Almighty. In Jewish mysticism, God speaks to us and manifests God-self through these 613 commandments. The study and knowledge of these mitzvot unite us to God.
We learn from the Talmud, Makkot 24a, there were 613 mitzvot stated to Moses in the Torah, consisting of 365 prohibitions corresponding to the number of days in the solar year, and 248 positive mitzvot corresponding to the number of a person’s limbs.
Rav Hamnuna said: What is the verse that alludes to this? It is written: “Moses commanded to us the Torah, an inheritance of the congregation of Jacob” (Deuteronomy 33:4). The word Torah, in terms of its numerical value (Gematria). We also learn from the same Makkot 24a that only 611mitzvot were received and taught by Moses our teacher. In addition, there are two mitzvot: “I am the Lord your God” and: “You shall have no other gods” (Exodus 20:2, 3), the first two of the Ten Commandments, that we heard from the mouth of the Almighty, for a total of 613.
Finally the prophet Micah 6:8 gives his own explanation for the 613 mitzvot. “It has been told to you, what is good, and what the Lord does require of you; only to do justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
At Temple Beth El, to every Bar or Bat Mitzvah, we recite the words of the prophet Micah as a blessing. Their fulfillment of the 613 will come easy to them and they will learn at an early age how to bring justice, love, and mercy to the world.
Rabbi Alan Katz
The Hebrew expression Taryag Mitzvot, means 613 commandments. This comes from the tradition known as Gematria, which assigns numerical values to Hebrew letters; in this case, Taryag is equal to 613. The basic understanding is that in the Torah (baTorah = 613) there are 613 separate commandments for Jewish people to follow.
In fact, no individual today would be able to observe each and every commandment since many are directly connected to the rituals of the ancient Temple, which was destroyed in 70CE. Many others deal with agricultural laws in the land of Israel, which except for a handful of Jewish farmers are not applicable for the vast majority of Jews. So how might the modern Jew connect in this powerful idea of Taryag Mitzvot?
Perhaps turning to Gematria could offer us a meaningful connection. There are many phrases and ideas in Hebrew that can be interpreted numerically to the value of 613 and observance of Torah. The phrase “Hinei Chochmah v’Dayah”, equivalent to 613 means, “Here is wisdom and understanding.” This acknowledges what Torah provides for those who study and learn from it. Beyond the wonderful stories and biblical characters, our sacred scripture is a guide that leads us on a path of knowledge.
For some the most meaningful Gematria connection might be through the expression B’gemilut Chasadim, with acts of loving kindness. Ultimately our behavior in relation to others should be conducted in this loving and kind directive. Perhaps this is the secret of Taryag Mitzvot.
Rabbi Jan Katz
K’doshim tihiyu – You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy.” (Leviticus 19:2) What does it mean to be holy for the Jewish people? It is not a status or state of being, but rather what Jews do to imitate the image of Godliness, and to fulfill the words and intentions of the Divine Creator. It is the actions of Jews that sanctify that which dwells in time and space. Jews sanctify the rhythms of passing time by celebrating the weekly Sabbath, the holidays, the new moon, and life cycle events. Jews sanctify their stewardship of the earth’s space by treating all that comes from the earth with care and dignity, with an eye and a heart toward tikkun olam – towards making the broken whole and the whole better. Jews also sanctify space by beautifying symbols and rituals to reflect the Divine presence in our lives – when we wrap ourselves in a prayer shawl, a tallit, when we affix a mezuzah to the doorposts of our homes. All this is to say, 613 commandments represent the physical manifestation of the religious, spiritual, moral, and ethical trajectory to which humans, even in our imperfection, aspire. Enacting the commandments reflect our human will and our choice to do them, to give voice to our ultimate values.
The number 613 and the actions that number embraces, the sacred text of Torah from which they derive, and the particular narrative and chronology of the Jewish people all serve to preserve the covenantal relationship between the one God and the Jewish people and the integrity of the Jewish people, distinct to themselves, and also interconnected counterparts to all other peoples of faith and of unique cultural and social identities.
Rabbi Avi Kilimnick, Congregation Beth Sholom
When I hear the number 613, I gain a sense of meaning, purpose, and completeness.
The Sages teach that the 613 Mitzvot are divided into 2 parts, one representing the Mitzvot of what we should refrain from doing, there are 365 of them. The other is the mitzvot we should do, there are 248 of those. The 365, represents the 365 sinews in a human body, and the 248 represents the 248 limbs that our bodies are composed of.
The sinews give a person stability, making sure our bodies are intact. The limbs are the tools for us to move forward and run with the world around us.
The life of Mitzvot helps us create our foundation, to know what things we should refrain from so that we have a healthy conduct of stability, and then they guide us and encourage us to do good deeds, act in ways that will help ourselves and all mankind.
The 613 is the full package for healthy living. It is not only the makeup of the human soul for the individual, it is also the number which helps the world at large be a sanctuary for all people to live in.
Rabbi Drorah Setel, Temple EmanuEl
Growing up as a fifth-generation Reform Jew, I regularly heard negative comments about the mitzvot as an antiquated and limiting framework for living Jewishly. It wasn’t until my first year of rabbinical school that I came to a different understanding. Rather than seeing the mitzvot as a series of petty rules governing every small aspect of one’s daily life, I came to understand halachah in its meaning as a “pathway,” empowering us to make meaningful choices within the quotidian routine. Despite their oppressed and powerless status, the ancient rabbis were able to conceive of the practice of mitzvot as a world-changing process, coming from the grassroots of individual and communal practice.
My current understanding of the mitzvot is based on two additional concepts. One is the rabbinic insight that belief must be expressed in action. Love for God or honor for parents is found in behavior, not thought or feeling alone. In this sense, mitzvot are the demonstration of our values. The other way of looking at mitzvot which I find meaningful is based on Abraham Joshua Heschel’s idea that they are what we owe God in return for the gift of our existence. Striving to live with awareness and intention seems a straightforward, if not always easy, remittance.
However, the rabbinic elaboration of a specific 613 mitzvot is rooted in a worldview no longer shared by the vast majority of Jews, a perspective that marginalized all those who were not able-bodied heterosexual Jewish men. Contemporary Jews are creating a new concept of mitzvah as a Jewish obligation rooted in Torah teachings of relationship, inclusivity, care for creation, and social justice. This emerging Halachah of the post-rabbinic era is in its infancy but points the way to a Judaism as meaningful to our descendants as it was to our ancestors.
Rabbi Peter W. Stein, temple B’rith Kodesh
In 1885, Reform Judaism in the United States offered a first formal definition of its purpose. A statement, commonly known as the Pittsburgh Platform, was published. While the Reform movement has evolved in many significant ways and there have been several other platforms issued, this foundational document continues to serve a valuable purpose. One central statement of the platform reads as follows: “…We recognize in the Bible the record of the consecration of the Jewish people to its mission as the priest of the one God, and value it as the most potent instrument of religious and moral instruction…”
Judaism in all its practices is a religion that centers on the teachings of the Torah, the Five Books of Moses. These teachings are defined and redefined in every generation, sometimes in dramatic ways. The premise of each generation’s teachings is that they are interpretations of the commandments that are right for that time and place in human history.
The commandments do not change… just the ways that they are understood and practiced. The elaborate tradition of counting exactly 613 commandments is an example of the intersection between the immutable biblical text and the continuing practice of commentary and interpretation. Exhibits like Mr. Rand’s The 613 are a powerful demonstration of how creative and beautiful the tradition of interpretation can be. The artwork allows us to reflect on the continuing chain that has seen each generation follow the commandments in their own unique way.
Reform Judaism thrives on a progressive approach to religious observance. We take the commandments seriously and also take seriously the opportunity to wrestle with their purpose and arrive at new understandings of what we are to do. Mindful of the Pittsburgh Platform, we have the chance, each day and in each generation, to work hard at understanding our mission and the lofty ideals put forth in the biblical texts and in the countless works of religious and spiritual scholarship that have followed.
Rabbi Debbi Till, Temple Sinai
613 Commandments Promote Compassion, Loving-Kindness, and Peace in the World
The earliest account of God giving Israel the 613 commandments dates to the third century CE, found in the Babylonian Talmud, Makkot 23b: “Rabbi Simlai gave as a sermon: 613 commandments were communicated to Moses – 365 negative commands, corresponding to the number of solar days [in a year], and 248 positive commands, corresponding to the number of the members [bones covered with flesh] of a human’s body.” From this is derived the notion that a person should observe the Torah with all their body parts (248) every day (365). The two numbers add up to 613.
Initially, a sermonic device, and evolving over time, factions within the Jewish community understand the 613 mitzvot, the commandments in myriad ways – for some communal expectation, others as a collective behavioral guide, while for others a relic of our Jewish ancient narrative – a litany of obsolete rules. Actively choosing to observe some or all the commandments is a mechanism to embody Judaism’s most sacred teachings, to lift the words off the page, into our hearts, and by way of action, into a world desperately in need of repair. Where the force of the word ‘commandment’ causes some to bristle, mitzvah when read as ‘sacred opportunity’ resonates and inspires — lending credence to the words of Abraham Ibn Ezra who wrote, “The essential reason for the commandments is to make the human heart upright,” and Moses Maimonides who wrote, “The purpose of mitzvot is…to promote compassion, loving-kindness, and peace in the world.” כן יהי רצון Let it be so.