Which Mitzvah Should we Drop?

What do you mean by “dropping” a mitzvah? Drop it from what? And what does this question have to do with this week’s parshah?

To understand the question properly, we need to study some background material. The Gemara (Makkos 23b) teaches that Hashem commanded 613 mitzvos, 365 negative mitzvos (lo saaseh) and 248 positive (mitzvos aseh) ones, although it does not list them. Yet we know that the Torah commands us what to do thousands of times. Obviously, most of these commands are not counted, but which ones? Furthermore, by mentioning that there are 613 specific mitzvos, the Gemara implies the importance of identifying them. This last factor led many early authorities to pinpoint the exact identity of these 613 mitzvos. In fact, the Geonim and Rishonim authored a vast literature debating and categorizing what exactly comprises these 613 mitzvos.

Two Early Counts

Rav Saadiah Gaon authored one of the earliest lists. He wrote an alphabetic poem that mentions all the mitzvos, without any explanation why he counted the commandments he did and did not count others. Rav Yeruchem Fishel Perla, a talmid chacham of note who lived in Warsaw during the time of the First World War, analyzed Rav Saadiah’s mitzvah list and compared it with the other opinions found among the Geonim and Rishonim. This three-volume magnum opus remains a classic, if underutilized, resource.

Baal Halachos Gedolos

The Rambam mentions that the accepted counting of the 613 mitzvos prior to his own Sefer Hamitzvos was that of the Halachos Gedolos, a halachic work authored by Rav Shimon Kaira in the era of the Geonim, which is usually referred to as Behag, short for Baal Halachos Gedolos. (Although the Behag is often cited as the work of the early gaon, Rav Yehudai Gaon, since the Halachos Gedolos quotes Rav Yehudai Gaon many times, he obviously cannot be the author.) Subsequent to the Behag’s list, many other authors followed his list, while others made minor amendments to his list. In addition, many liturgical poems were written based on his list. However, it appears that until the Rambam penned his Sefer Hamitzvos no one disputed the basic approach that Behag used to determine what counts as a mitzvah.

Will the Real Mitzvah Please Stand Up?

The Rambam disagreed sharply with the Behag’s list, and devoted much of his work, the Sefer Hamitzvos, to clarifying what the 613 mitzvos really are. The Rambam even mentions that the many piyutim based on the Behag’s list are in error; however, he does not fault the authors involved, noting that they were poets and not rabbis (Introduction to Sefer Hamitzvos).

What difference does it make whether something is a mitzvah or not?

Although many authors discuss what to include in the count of the 613 mitzvos, it is noteworthy that few of them discuss why it is important to know what are the 613 mitzvos — other than to understand the Gemara’s statement quoted above.

On the other hand, the Rambam does explain why he listed the mitzvos. In his introduction to Sefer Hamitzvos, he describes how he has decided to write a work that includes all of the halachos of the Torah, but without any sources and debate. The work he indeed eventually wrote and called it the Mishneh Torah. The Rambam describes how he decided to structure the Mishneh Torah according to related mitzvah topics, rather than follow the order of the Mishnah. The Rambam then mentions that he decided to precede each section of the Mishneh Torah with an introduction in which he would list the mitzvos included in that section.

Why the Sefer Hamitzvos?

At this point, the Rambam notes a concern. Prior to this time, the standard work listing the 613 mitzvos was the Behag, a list with which the Rambam disagreed. This meant that if the Rambam listed the mitzvos before each section of his Mishneh Torah according to this own list, he would be disputing an accepted approach to Judaism. Thus, he was in quandary. On the one hand, his Mishneh Torah would be incomplete without listing the mitzvos involved in each of its sections; while on the other hand, people might reject this list unless he explained its rules and why he disputed what was heretofore accepted. For this reason, the Rambam explains, he wrote the entire Sefer Hamitzvos as an introduction to his Mishneh Torah in order to explain the rules that determine what counts as a mitzvah and what does not. In a way, writing the the Sefer Hamitzvos was bolder and more innovative than writing either the Moreh Nevuchim or even the Mishneh Torah itself, since the Sefer Hamitzvos disputed a theretofore completely accepted system.

Although some authors subsequently disputed parts of the Rambam’s system, in general, the Jewish people have more-or-less accepted his list of mitzvos and his rules determining what counts as a mitzvah. For example, a later work, the Sefer Hamitzvos HaGadol, usually called by its Hebrew acronym, the Smag, compiled his own list of the 613 mitzvos. Although he disputes with the Rambam’s conclusions on a number of occasions, he still accepts most of the Rambam’s basic definitions as to what comprises a mitzvah and what does not. His disagreements with the Rambam generally involve specific interpretations and applications, not the basic rules.

The Sefer Hachinuch

The most familiar list of the 613 mitzvos is that of the Sefer Hachinuch. Actually, this author did not develop his own count of 613 mitzvos, as he mentions himself several times in his work. Rather, he followed the Rambam. However, whereas the previous mitzvah counters, Rav Saadiah, the Behag, the Rambam and the Smag, all listed the mitzvos in a logical pattern, the Sefer Hachinuch rearranged the Rambam’s list, numbering each mitzvah according to its appearance in the Torah. He further introduced each parshah with its list of mitzvos. The Sefer Hachinuch’s reorganized list is the most commonly used today to count the 613 mitzvos. By the way, although it is important to know and understand the 613 mitzvos, there is no halachic significance in knowing the chronological number associated with a particular mitzvah. For this reason, there is no reason to memorize the mitzvos according to the number assigned them by the Sefer Hachinuch.

This Week’s Mitzvos

Now I can finally explain what I meant about “dropping” a mitzvah. In this week’s parshah, the Sefer Hachinuch counts sixteen mitzvos, eleven positive and five negative ones. The problem is that, according to most authorities, both he and the Rambam should have counted one more negative mitzvah.

Which mitzvah are they accused of omiting?

The Torah mentions many types of korbanos in the course of the parshah, some of animals, some of birds, and some of flour. When the olah offering is placed on the mizbei’ach, the altar, the Torah requires that it first be cut up into large pieces, similar in size to the large pieces of meat that a butcher may receive. It is forbidden to cut the meat into smaller pieces in order to place them on the mizbei’ach, nor may one place the entire carcass on the mizbei’ach without first cutting it up.

However, when the Torah discusses offering a bird as an olah, usually called the olas ha’of, the halachah is different and one may place the entire bird on the mizbei’ach at once, just as people commonly barbecue an entire bird. But what happens if the kohen chose to separate the bird in half before placing it on the mizbei’ach? According to the Rambam, one may separate the bird into parts if one chooses (Hilchos Maasei Hakorbanos 6:22). However, most authorities prohibit this, contending that severing the bird violates one of the 365 negative commandments of the Torah (Behag; Yerei’im). Thus, in their opinion, one who severs the bird commits a punishable offence similar to wearing shatnez or eating non-kosher!

Lo Yavdil

The above dispute stems from two differing approaches how to interpret two words in this week’s parshah: “lo yavdil,” (Vayikra 1:17). Does the Torah mean, he (the kohen processing the olas ha’of) is not required to separate it, or does the Torah mean, he shall not separate it.

Since the Rambam interprets the words according to the first explanation, and therefore rules that one may separate the bird, he does not count this as a mitzvah, and the Sefer Hachinuch follows this approach. As a result, the Sefer Hachinuch does not count this mitzvah among those of this week’s parshah.Hee counts sixteen mitzvos, eleven positive and five negative ones, whereas if this mitzvah was counted, there should be seventeen mitzvos, eleven positive and six negative ones.

Explaining our Question

Now I can explain what I meant in the title to this article. Although we generally follow the Rambam’s count of mitzvos, in this instance the Rambam is a minority opinion. Based on substantive proofs, the later authorities contend that we should not follow his approach, but consider this a lo saaseh (Malbim; Sfas Emes, Zevachim 64a; To’afos Re’im; Hirsch; Rav Yeruchem Fishel Perla’s commentary of Rav Saadiah, Lo Saaseh 194). That means that we have a total of 614 mitzvos, the Rambam’s 613 plus this mitzvah, or, even more specifically, we will have 366 negative mitzvos, rather than the 365 that the Gemara mentions. Obviously, we have counted something as a mitzvah that we should not have! We need to determine which negative mitzvah counted by the Rambam must be removed from the list in order to make room for this one.

Since none of the mitzvos that the Rambam selected have volunteered to resign, we are left with the unenviable responsibility of deciding which one to remove.

Assuming this awesome responsibility brings to my mind the epigram originally written by the Eighteenth Century English poet, Alexander Pope: Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

Of course, I am not advocating the rewrite of any part of Sefer Hachinuch. I am merely suggesting that there is much to gain by exploring some candidates for de-mitzvah-ication. This certainly provides an opportunity to examine and appreciate what is involved in “counting mitzvos.”

Watch that Mikdash!

One possible candidate could be the lo saaseh requiring the kohanim and the levi’im to guard the Mishkan/Beis Hamikdash by posting watchmen in various places. Just as Buckingham Palace has a military detail guarding the monarch’s residence, so too, the “palace” that we erect in Hashem’s honor must have an honor guard (Rambam, Hilchos Beis Habechirah 8:1). The Mishkan and the Beis Hamikdash certainly deserve as much pomp and honor as a mortal king receives!

This requirement would appear to be a positive mitzvah: Safewatching the holy place. Yet, in observing this requirement, the Rambam and the Sefer Hachinuch (Mitzvah 391) count both a positive mitzvah, to maintain the watch (Sefer Hamitzvos aseh 22; Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvah 388), and a negative one, not to abandon the guard (Rambam, Hilchos Beis Habechirah 8:3; Sefer Hamitzvos, lo saaseh 67; Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvah 391). Even more interesting is that their source for the negative mitzvah in Parshas Korach sounds like a positive mitzvah: And you shall safeguard the charge of the holy area (Bamidbar 18:5). Furthermore, this verse is an almost verbatim repeat of the previous verse, which is quoted as the source for the positive mitzvah, And they shall safeguard the charge of the holy area (Bamidbar 18:4). Indeed, this is presumably the reason why other Rishonim count this only as a positive command and not as a negative one (Smag).

To explain the Rambam’s position, the Sefer Hachinuch and the Mahari Korkos note the Gemara that states that the word hishameir, Guard, always introduces lo saaseh mitzvos, and both the Sefer Hachinuch and the Rambam quote a Medrash Halachah that explains that the repeated verse is to teach that this mitzvah is both a positive mitzvah and a negative one. Many later authorities debate whether to accept this conclusion of the Rambam, and offer other interpretations of this Medrash (Birkei Yosef, Orach Chayim 30:1).

A Tamei Entering the Mikdash

We will now explore a different approach to resolving our original question. The Torah prohibits a tamei person from entering the Beis Hamikdash area. This mitzvah is of course very dear to us in a discussion taking place in the season when our thoughts are drawn to our desire to bring the korban Pesach soon.

People usually become tamei by contacting tumah from a tamei source, such as a corpse or animal carcass. Such people are prohibited min haTorah only from entering the courtyard (chatzeir) of the Mishkan, or its corresponding area of the Beis Hamikdash, the Azarah, but not the rest of the Mishkan or the Beis Hamikdash (Pesachim 67a). The Rambam counts this prohibition as lo saaseh 77, deriving it from the verse: They shall not contaminate their encampments (Bamidbar 5:3).

There is another, more severe, category of tumah called tumah yotzei migufo, tumah that originates in the body, which includes such types of tumah as zav. These types of tumah are listed in Parshas Tazria, which we will read shortly after Pesach. People afflicted with these types of tumah may not enter the entire area called machaneh leviyah, which includes the entire Har Habayis, called in English, “The Temple Mount.”

One Mitzvah or Two?

Although everyone agrees that the Torah created two different levels of prohibition, the question is whether we count them as two separate mitzvos within the count of 365 negative mitzvos, or as one. The Rambam counts them as two separate lo saaseh mitzvos, numbers 77 and 78, deriving the second prohibition from the verse, He shall not enter the middle of the camp (Devarim 23:11), whereas others count these as one mitzvah (Smag, Lo saaseh 304). Thus, by following the Smag’s decision to count these two laws as one mitzvah, we would now have only 364 mitzvos lo saaseh and be able to add our parshah’s extra mitzvah, not to sever the olas-ha’of, in order to bring our numbers back up to 365.

Kosher Choices

Having discussed several mitzvos germane to the Beis Hamikdash where we might be able to “delete” a mitzvah, let us see if there are any other candidates. In the world of kashrus we can nominate not one, but two candidates:

The Rambam counts a total of five different negative commandments connected with eating insects and other small creatures (Lo saaseh numbers 175- 179) that fall under five different categories. These mitzvos are not mutually exclusive; quite the contrary, a particular creature may be included under several, or perhaps even all, of these prohibitions. The five prohibitions are:

1. Not to eat small flying creatures.

2. Not to eat small crawling creatures.

3. Not to eat creatures that appear to generate from rotting material (Hilchos Maachalos Asuros 2:13).

4. Not to eat creatures that develop within fruits and seeds (Hilchos Maachalos Asuros 2:14).

5. Not to eat any small creatures. The fifth category includes any of the others, as I will explain (Hilchos Maachalos Asuros 2:12).

One who consumes a creature that has several of these features violates a separate lo saaseh for each category that includes it. Thus, eating a small swimming creature will violate only one of these prohibitions (the fifth one); consuming a creature that both flies and crawls will involve three prohibitions (1, 2 and 5); if it also appears to develop from rotting material, one will violate four prohibitions (1, 2, 3, and 5), and if it develops within fruit or seeds, one will violate all five.

Where is the dispute?

Although the Rambam counts all five of these prohibitions as different mitzvos, each with its own rules, many of the other Rishonim do not count the third and fourth mitzvos that the Rambam counts as separate mitzvos (Smag; Ramban, Notes to Sefer Hamitzvos, Shoresh 9:9). Thus, according to the latter approach, someone who ate a small creature that flies, crawls and appears to develop from rotting material, will violate three prohibitions, not four. Consequently, they could count our original candidate, not to sever the olah-bird, without exceeding the limit of 365 negatives mitzvos. In fact, by excluding two mitzvos and adding only one, we would end up one mitzvah short and need to find one more to add to the list. We will leave that question for a different time.


Should one count the mitzvah of lo yavdil in this week’s parshah as one of the 613 mitzvos? According to most authorities, one should. Regarding the follow-up question, “But then we have 366 lo saaseh mitzvos, and the Gemara says that there are only 365,” I would answer that although it is not our place to determine definitely which the 613 mitzvos are, we should study the topic thoroughly to see which mitzvos are disputed. We have now seen some possible choices and deepened our understanding of what it means to count something as a “mitzvah.”

Why the Bird?

Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch (Vayikra 1:17) notes that the many laws involved in the processing of an olas ha’of are considerably different from those of other korbanos. To explain this korban’s many anomalous rules, he notes that Tanach often uses a bird as a metaphor for an imperiled, defenseless person in flight from his pursuer, and that an olas ha’of is symbolic of how a forlorn, suffering individual relates to Hashem because of his fate. The imperiled person can use the anguish itself as a springboard for ascent and advancement by clinging to the heights of Torah ideals even in his predicament. This korban teaches that even when the going gets tough, one must never let go the yearning to draw closer to Hashem.

Make Our Mitzvos Count!


clip_image002Since 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?

Why 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:

No Rabbinics

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.

Other Lists

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.