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Biblical Fact-Check: 613 Commandments?

I’m not sure where it began, but someone started the tale that the Hebrew High Priest had a rope tied to his leg, so that if the sound of the bells attached to his robe stopped jingling in the Most Holy Place, the people on the other end of the rope would know he’d been struck dead and could haul him out. No one exactly knows who began this myth: it’s not in the Bible nor is it in the Talmud. Yet you’ll find it trotted out in sermons fairly regularly.

Another of those legends is the idea that there are 613 commandments in the Mosaic Law. In this case, we do know the origin of the legend: rabbinic Judaism. In fact, the number 613 was obtained through typical rabbinical logic. One way is that the numerical value of the Hebrew word Torah is 611, to which can be added the first two of the Ten Commandments. Another method was to say that there were 365 prohibitions – corresponding to the days in a year – and 248 commands – corresponding to the bones in the human body. But in fact, to obtain this number, commands or prohibitions are often counted twice, while others are subsumed. The number 613 was first suggested by a third century rabbi and mostly codified by Maimonides in the 11th century. Virtually all the commandments that Maimonides lists as commands are not explicitly in the Torah, but are rabbinic interpretations of the Torah. A later rabbi, Gersonides, counted 513. Another suggested 521. Eliezer ben Samuel listed 417 commandments. The number of 613 wasn’t really accepted until much later in rabbinic Judaism’s history.

However, you’ll find Christian teachers readily throwing out the number 613, as if it is as biblically codified as the Ten Commandments (Ex. 34:28, Deut. 4:13). I’m sure I used the number myself, simply assuming that someone else counted correctly.

In fact, I haven’t come across a Christian teacher who has meticulously enumerated the commandments in the Law. And no wonder: it would be an elusive goal. You’d have to decide whether to count repeated commands in Deuteronomy twice. You’d have to determine if a sentence that commands three actions counts as one command or three. You’d have to determine whether a ritual command contains a moral imperative. Yes, it’s easier to take the rabbis’ word for it. But since they are often wrong about a great many things, I’d suggest saying “all the commandments of the Law” or “the entire Torah” or “every law of Moses”.

David de Bruyn

About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.

3 Responses to Biblical Fact-Check: 613 Commandments?

  1. Wow, we could use more articles like this one! I’ve repeated both of those items.

    During a Bible study last year, I was about to repeat what I’d heard about shields in warfare during the time of the apostles having leather on the front so that they could be dipped in water to extinguish fiery arrows, often heard during discussions of the armor of God in Ephesians chapter 6. I paused to research it first this time, and I haven’t found any evidence of the shields being made and used that way. Until I find evidence, I won’t be repeating that one either!

    Thank you for this article and Happy Thanksgiving!

  2. David,

    I believe John Sailhamer enumerated all 613 in the _The Pentateuch as Narrative_. That’s not to say that there aren’t difficulties, as you mentioned. But it’s been attempted with some degree of persuasiveness.

  3. Ryan,

    I wasn’t aware of Sailhamer’s effort, thanks. I have also seen lists in some of the works by Messianic authors, like Dan Juster in his “Jewish Roots”. Often, he copied the duplications offered by Maimonides and others.

    It’s usually a little odd when an author starts enumerating from scratch and happens to arrive at exactly 613; one feels it was a target, not a list.

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