According to the tradition there are 72 mitzvot in this parashah, more than 10% of the 613 ascribed by tradition to the Torah. This statement raises the question, “Says who?” Anyone who has read the Torah will realize that nowhere does it state that there are 613 mitzvot — in fact, nowhere is there any official enumeration of mitzvot in the Torah. In fact, there is no mention of there being 613 mitzvot in the most major ancient codification of Jewish law, the Mishnah, edited around 200 CE. The one statement found about there being 613 mitzvot in the Torah is actually part of a conversation drawing out core principles of Torah, found in the Babylonian Talmud, Makkot 24a. Rabbi Simlai teaches there that there are 613 mitzvot, 365 corresponding to the number of solar days in the year and 248 positive ones, corresponding to the number of bones in a person’s body. The conversation continues that David reduced the precepts to 11 principles (as learned from Psalm 15), Isaiah to six principles (as in Isaiah 33:15–16) and Micah to three (as in Micah 6:8). A closer reading of the only passage in Jewish tradition that teaches that there are 613 mitzvot reveals that it is part of a broader conversation of what it means to be a Jew, engaged in the study of Torah and the connection with God.
Nevertheless, over the centuries the tradition that the Torah had 613 mitzvot grew and in the Middle Ages rabbis began writing books enumerating them. There are many different versions, none of which agree as to which are the 613 mitzvot. However, since the Middle Ages, the list of 613 mitzvot enumerated by Maimonides has become the authoritative one, to the extent that one’s observance of these has become the litmus test of Jewish authenticity. Few know that of these mitzvot, nearly half have not been and cannot be observed since the destruction of the Second Temple, almost 2,000 years ago. In other words, it is incumbent upon each of us, if we are to live our Judaism with meaning, to understand how the traditions have developed and what is there contemporary significance.
To this day, one cannot read the Torah without further commentary and instruction to discern which are its mitzvot, which are not. For example, this week’s portion has the famous teaching of the “rebellious child” who is to be put to death. This passage becomes the subject of much Talmudic discourse, leading to the conclusion that the law has never been applied nor will it ever be. Rather, its presence in Torah is to help us learn how to learn Torah. Other laws, such as those regarding divorce, have been extrapolated from this Parashah leading to the horrible situation in some forms of Judaism of the agunah, or the “chained woman” who cannot be freed from her abusive husband. Others commit us to looking after the most underprivileged in society.
In today’s world in which there is so much conflict regarding religion, it is incumbent upon us to converse as to how we understand the words of Torah, how we understand the concept of mitzvah — commandment. Just because we understantd the notion that there 613 mitzvot as a rubric, not an exact enumeration, does not mean that we should eliminate the idea of there being a notion of being commanded. The question in front of us, however, will be how to read the Torah through the eyes of the rabbis, the received words of our tradition. But the tradition does not end in the past, but continues through us, so the further question will be which rabbis and teachers inspire us to see the Torah through a lens of more deeply connecting with the life source that unites us all.