Re: 613 Mitzvos

Daniel Malament (danielm@j51.com)
Thu, 29 May 1997 20:48:20 -0400 (EDT)

Russell W. Earl, Sr. wrote:
> I know that the 613 Mitzvos are found in Torah, but my intrest is in
> the history of their formation. Who, beside Rambam, worked to determine
> what Mitzvos would be included, when and where was this all
> accomplished.

Many people have discussed the mitzvot over the ages, but an important
thing to note is that there is no absolutely definitive set of the 613
mitzvot. There is an ancient tradition that there are 613 mitzvot, but
there have been many arguments over exactly which they are. This makes
more sense than it may originally seem, as, for example, the Rambam
(Maimonides) counts the four types of Torah-ordained death penalties as
separate mitzvot, but the Ramban (Nachmanides) counts them as one (or maybe
it's the other way around). On the other hand, there are many verses which
are the sources for laws, but it is not clear whether the law is being
directly prescribed by the text or was instituted by the Rabbis, who used
the text as a support for their enactments. What all this adds up to is
that we know what the laws are, but it isn't completely clear which are to
be included in the count of 613 and which are not (those which are not
generally being either of Rabbinic origin, or customs that have been
accepted as law). This is not to imply that the situation is entirely
confused, merely that there are arguments in a number of places.

As for who discusses the mitzvot in the context of the teaching that there
are 613 of them, the Rambam is the source that immediately comes to
everyone's mind, but there are others. For starters, most editions of the
Rambam's _Sefer HaMitzvot_ (Book of the Laws) include the Ramban's
commentary/glosses, in which he frequently disagrees with the Rambam. Also,
there is a book called the _Sefer Mitzvot Gedolot_ (lit. Great(er) Book of
Laws) which addresses the topic, and another work called the Sefer Mitzvot
Ketanot (Lesser Book of Laws, written by the same author, I think). I
don't recall much about them off hand, but I'm sure others on the list will
know more, and any good Jewish book store should be able to get you copies
of them (maybe even in English translations). Also, look in the
Encyclopedia Judaica under Mitzvot; there should be a list of works in
there somewhere.

-Dan