Since many have the custom of studying the 613 mitzvos on Shavuos, I will address this topic:
We all know that the Torah contains 613 Mitzvos. However, most of us are unaware of the vast literature that debates, disputes and categorizes what exactly comprises these 613 Mitzvos, and the halachic ramifications resulting from these discussions. I will simply note that counting every time the Torah says to do or not to do something, will result in thousands of Mitzvos. Aren’t we shortchanging ourselves by limiting our mitzvah count to 613? Since the Mishnah (at the end of Makkos) states: Hashem wanted to provide Israel with much merit and therefore, provided them with much Torah and many Mitzvos, why do we limit the count to 613?
What is the source for the count of 613 Mitzvos?
The Gemara teaches: Rav Simla’i explained: “Moshe Rabbeinu was taught 613 Mitzvos, 365 negative Mitzvos equal to the number of days of the solar year, and 248 positive Mitzvos, corresponding to a man’s number of ‘limbs.’ ” Rav Hamnuna said: “What verse teaches this to us: ‘Torah tzivah lanu Moshe morashah kehilas Yaakov’ Moshe taught us the Torah, which is an inheritance of the community descended from Yaakov. The Gematriya (numerical value) of the word Torah equals 611, and two Mitzvos of Anochi Hashem and Lo Yihyeh Lecha were taught to us directly by Hashem” (Makkos 23b).
Thus we now know that we have 613 counted Mitzvos, and yet there are thousands of places that the Torah commands us what to do. Obviously, some of the Torah’s commandments are not counted, but which ones? And why should the Gemara not want to count them? This question led many early authorities to calculate exactly what is exactly included in the 613 Mitzvos and thereby understand what the Gemara means. Several Geonim and Rishonim authored works that list the 613 Mitzvos of the Torah, and no two lists are the same. As a matte of fact, there are major disputes among the early authorities what are the rules that govern what we include in the count of the 613 mitzvos.
The Sefer Hachinuch
Most of us are familiar with the listing of the 613 Mitzvos of the Sefer Hachinuch. Actually, this author did not develop his own list of 613 Mitzvos, as he mentions himself several times in his work. He followed the calculation of the Rambam, who wrote a large work on the subject called Sefer HaMitzvos, which includes both the rules of when to count something as a mitzvah, and a list of the 248 Mitzvos aseh and the 365 Mitzvos lo saaseh, organized in a logical pattern.
Chronology versus Logic
The Sefer Hachinuch reorganized the Rambam’s list, numbering each mitzvah according to its first appearance in the Torah. Thus, the first mitzvah of the Torah, Pru Urvu, producing children, which is mentioned in Parshas Bereishis, is the first mitzvah; Bris Milah, mentioned in parshas Lech Lecha is counted as the second mitzvah, and Gid Hanasheh, taught in Parshas Vayishlach, completes the three Mitzvos mentioned in Sefer Bereishis. Parshas Bo contains a total of twenty Mitzvos, reflecting its significance as the first parsha in which Hashem directly commanded Mitzvos to the Jewish people, as Rabbi Yitzchak noted in the Midrash Rashi quotes in his opening words of his commentary to Chumash.
What Counts as a Mitzvah?
In the first section of the Sefer HaMitzvos, the Rambam details the rules that he used to determine what qualifies as a “mitzvah” in the count of 613. He establishes 14 rules, which include:
I. Any mitzvah that is only miderabbanan is not counted among the 613 Mitzvos. This rule may seem obvious since the Gemara is calculating the 613 Mitzvos that Hashem commanded us, and not those later added by the Sages. However, one of the greatest of the Geonim, the author of the Baal Halachos Gedolos, counts many Mitzvos derabbanan in his list of the 613, including kindling Ner Chanukah, reading Megillah on Purim, and Reciting Hallel. How could the Baal Halachos Gedolos include these in his list of Mitzvos that Hashem commanded us?
The Ramban, in his exhaustive commentary to the Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvos, provides two answers:
A. There is an alternative text to the Gemara in Makkos, which reads, “The Jewish people are commanded 613 Mitzvos.” According to this wording, the Gemara there cites a Biblical verse not to imply that we derive these 613 Mitzvos from the Torah, but merely as a mnemonic device (based on the Gematriya of the word Torah) to remind us that there are a total of 613 Mitzvos of both Torah and rabbinical sources.
B. The Ramban contends that even the text of the Gemara that I quoted earlier, which states that Moshe Rabbeinu was commanded 611 Mitzvos, does not present an obstacle to the Behag’s approach, and could include Mitzvos introduced by Chazal. The Ramban cites many places where even though the Gemara states that “The Torah required…” or “Hashem said…” the statement refers to a rabbinic command, not a Torah requirement. In his opinion, Chazal used this terminology even in the context of Rabbinic requirements, since the Torah requires us to observe the Mitzvos that Chazal commanded.
Thus, although the Rambam insists that there are 613 Mitzvos that Hashem commanded the Jewish people, and his opinion is accepted by most authorities, there are substantive Torah leaders who understand that this list also includes Mitzvos introduced by the Sages.
Dispute the Rules
In addition to the above dispute, there are other authorities who disagree with almost all of the other thirteen rules that the Rambam used to define the Mitzvos. Nevertheless, since the Jewish people have come to accept the Rambam’s and Chinuch’s count of the Mitzvos, it is important for us to know and understand these rules.
II. Only What the Torah Says
The Rambam’s second rule is to not count any mitzvah that is derived hermeneutically, through a drasha, but only mitzvos that are mentioned outright in the Torah. Therefore, says the Rambam, we do not list the requirements to treat one’s stepfather or stepmother with appropriate respect as separate mitzvos, since these requirements are derived from the extra word es. Instead, these are included under the mitzvah of respecting one’s parents. Indeed, if we begin including these requirements as separate mitzvos, the list would be far greater than 613. Similarly, the Rambam rules not to count Visiting the Sick (Bikkur Cholim) or Comforting Mourners (Nichum Aveilim), as separate mitzvos, but includes them under the Torah’s mitzvah of emulating Hashem by acting in ways that imitate His acts of kindness.
III. Mitzvos are Forever!
One only counts a mitzvah that is everlasting, and not a mitzvah that is inherently temporary. For example, we do not count that a Levi may not serve in the Mishkan past his fiftieth birthday as one of the 613 commandments since this rule applied only in the Desert and not afterwards.
The reason for not counting these commandments is that the 613 Mitzvos bond an eternal relationship between Hashem and the Jewish people, and as such apply only to mitzvos that apply forever. However, many mitzvos unapplicable today due to the absence of the Beis Hamikdash still count in the list of 613. This is because these mitzvos are eternal commandments that are temporarily beyond our ability to observe.
IV. Torah, but Not the Whole Torah!
One should not count as part of the 613 any command that includes observing the entire Torah. For example, the Torah states: Be careful concerning all that I am telling you (Shemos 23:13) and Guard my decrees and observe my judgments (Vayikra 18:4). These and other similar statements are not counted among the 613 mitzvos. The Rambam explains that each of the 613 Mitzvos involves a different mode of developing our relationship with Hashem, while a pasuk that instructs to keep all the mitzvos is not indicating any specific way to grow.
V. No Reasons!
In the instances when the Torah provided a reason to observe a mitzvah, we do not count the reason as a separate mitzvah. Although these reasons are significant in understanding both our relationship with Hashem and why we observe His mitzvos, they do not obligate any additional actions with which to deepen our relationship with Hashem.
VI. Yes and No
When there are two commands pursuant to an activity, one a positive command (mitzvas aseh) and the other a negative mitzvah (mitzvas lo saaseh), we count the mitzvah twice, once among the 248 Mitzvos aseh and once among the 365 Mitzvos lo saaseh. There are numerous examples of this: For example, there is a positive mitzvah, “to keep Shabbos,” and a negative mitzvah, “not to perform melachah on Shabbos.” The situation is repeated concerning the observance of all the Yomim Tovim (seven times, or 14 more mitzvos), afflicting ourselves on Yom Kippur (which has both a positive and a negative commandment), and regarding all korbanos being salted before placing them on the mizbeiach (which also has a lo saaseh, Do not place unsalted korbanos on the mizbeiach).
VII. Details, Details
Details about when a mitzvah applies and how to fulfill it do not count as separate mitzvos. For example, for certain sins the Torah requires an atoning korban that has a sliding scale: a wealthy person offers an animal, a pauper offers only a grain offering, and someone in-between offers a dove or pigeon. All this counts as only one mitzvah, although there are many different ways of accomplishing it. Here again, there is one mitzvah that develops our relationship with Hashem, although depending on one’s financial circumstances, there are different ways to perform it. Dividing this into several mitzvos would send an erroneous message.
VIII. Not Every “No,” means “No!
There are instances where even though a verse might seem to be forbidding something, a careful reading of the verse indicates that the Torah is merely stating that something will not happen or does not need to be performed. Obviously, these instances do not qualify as mitzvos. For example, the Torah says that no prophet will arise who will be like Moshe. Although the wording of the Torah, Lo kam od navi kemoshe, might be read to mean, “No prophet should arise like Moshe,” which implies that we are commanded to make sure this does not happen, the translation of the verse is actually a prophetic Divine statement: “No prophet will arise like Moshe.” Thus, this verse is not a directive and does not count as a commandment.
IX. Five times One equals One.
When the Torah repeats a mitzvah many times, one does not count each time as a separate mitzvah, but we count it as one mitzvah. Therefore, although the Torah prohibits eating blood on several occasions, it counts as only one of the 613 mitzvos. As a result, in the Rambam’s opinion, someone who violates this prohibition is punished only as if he violated one lo saaseh, and not many.
According to this approach, when two similar mitzvos lo saaseh or two similar mitzvos aseh are both counted as mitzvos, this must be because one mitzvah is more comprehensive than the other is. Otherwise, this mitzvah would not be counted more than once.
Here is an example:
The Rambam counts two different mitzvos against owning chometz on Pesach, bal yera’eh, that chometz should not be seen, and bal yematzei, that chometz should not be found. Why does he count both of these mitzvos, whereas he counts only one mitzvah not to eat blood?
The answer is that these two mitzvos are not identical: bal yematzei includes cases that are not included under bal ye’ra’eh. Specifically, someone who buried chometz on his property does not violate bal ye’ra’eh, since the chometz cannot be seen. However, he does violate bal yematzei since the chometz can be found.
This distinction not only affects whether this mitzvah is counted once or twice among the 613, but also has other halachic ramifications. Someone who purchased chometz or mixed dough and allowed it to rise on Pesach thereby violates two different prohibitions. Since these prohibitions count as two separate mitzvos, the violater is punished for two different violations.
X. Prelimary Steps do not a Mitzvah Make
Preliminary steps involved in the performance of a mitzvah are not counted as a mitzvah on their own. For example, one does not count the statement that one should take flour to bring a korban mincha, a grain offering, as a mitzvah on its own. It is simply one stage in the performance of the mitzvah.
XI. Part of a Mitzvah is Equal to None
There are mitzvos in which several items are involved in successfully performing one mitzvah, such as taking the four species on Sukkos. The Rambam points out that one counts the taking of the four species as one mitzvah, not as four separate mitzvos, since taking each of them without the others, or even three without the fourth, does not execute any mitzvah.
XII. Completing one Part of a Mitzvah
Some mitzvos involve the successful completion of several other commandments, such as, the mitzvah to build the Mishkan/Beis Hamikdash, which involves the completion of many of the vessels, including the Menorah, the Shulchan, and the Altar. Each of these independent mitzvos is not counted separately: Since the purpose of all of them is the creation of the Mishkan/Beis Hamikdash, they are all included under the one mitzvah of building Hashem’s “house.”
XIII. Many Days are not Many Mitzvos
If a mitzvah persists for several days, one counts the mitzvah only once. It is interesting that the Rambam counts offering the Korban Musaf on Sukkos as only one mitzvah, even though the number of its bulls changes daily.
Included in this rule is that a mitzvah observed more than once a day is counted only once. Therefore, reciting Keriyas Shma every morning and evening is counted as only one mitzvah (Kinas Sofrim).
XIV. Punishments are not Mitzvos
When the Torah describes the punishment for violating a specific mitzvah, we do not count that punishment as a separate mitzvah in its own right.
Although almost every one of the Rambam’s rules has its disputants, this last rule is interesting because it entails a major dispute between the Geonim’s approach to counting mitzvos and the list of the Rambam. Several of the Geonim listed the 613 Mitzvos, and they counted everytime the Torah mentions a punishment for violating a certain command as a separate mitzvah. This is because the individual’s command not to violate this prohibition of the Torah counts as a mitzvah, and the Beis Din’s instruction to mete out a specific punishment to those who violate this prohibition is counted as a separate mitzvah. This understanding of the Mitzvos creates a list of 71 Mitzvos of the Torah that apply to the Beis Din.
As mentioned above, the Rambam disputes this approach and counts simply five Mitzvos for the Beis Din to fulfill, one for each of the four types of capital punishment Beis Din carries out, and one for malkus, lashes.
Among those who did not follow the Rambam fully, the one closest to the Rambam’s count of the 613 Mitzvos was Rav Moshe of Coucy, one of the Baalei Tosafos, whose magnum opus, the Sefer HaMitzvos HaGadol (often abbreviated to Smag) is a compendium of all the halachic conclusions of the Gemara, with a full analysis of the author’s decision, organized according to the list of the 613 Mitzvos. Although the book is not commonly studied today, and it is never used as the final halachic decision, at one time it was the major decisor of halachah for Ashkenazic Jewry.
What is interesting is that although he also organized the mitzvos in a logical fashion, similar to the approach of the Rambam, his list is in a very different order from that of the Rambam. Nevertheless, his count is so similar to the Rambam that in his list of 248 positive mitzvos, he agrees with the Rambam on 245 of them.
His extra three, which the Rambam does not count, include:
To accept Hashem’s judgment on anything that happens. Whereas the Smag counts this as one of the 613 Mitzvos, deriving it from a pasuk, the Rambam does not count this as one of the 613 Mitzvos.
The Smag counts one of the 613 mitzvos — calculating seasons and the heavenly bodies to know how to determine the Jewish calendar. The Rambam mentions in his second rule that one should not count this as a separate mitzvah, because it is derived from a drasha. The Smag does not accept this rule.
The Third Smag Addition:
The Smag counts as a mitzvah: To distance oneself from falsehood. I admit to having no idea why the Rambam does not count this as a mitzvah. He includes all the laws of the mitzvah under the mitzvas lo saaseh of “Do not bear a false story,” a lo saaseh that includes the laws of saying loshon hora. However, as we mentioned earlier, the Rambam contends that one counts overlapping mitzvos aseh and lo saaseh separately, so why does he omit the count of this mitzvah?
In conclusion, we have seen that much halachic literature is devoted to counting and understanding the various counts of the the 613 Mitzvos. Some people have the practice of reviewing the mitzvos that are included in the week’s Torah reading at the Shabbos table, a minhag that is not only praiseworthy, but also familiarizes us with all the 613 Mitzvos.