Are there 613 commandments in the Torah?
Now, the Holy Spirit permanently indwells all of God's people, giving them new power over their sinful natures and guiding their growth in holy living apart from literal obedience to the 613 commandments of the Torah (vv. 4-6).
No one should ever cite "613" as the number of commands in the Torah. The rabbinic list of 613 (created by Maimonides) contains many redundant commands, erroneous interpretations of scripture, and many commands with no basis whatsoever in God's law.
The number 613 wasn't even the result of a careful count: it was based upon rabbinic numerology. It was first suggested some time in the third century by a Rabbi named Simlai:
Rabbi Simlai gave as a sermon [darash Rabi Simlai]: 613 commandments were communicated to Moses – 365 negative commands, corresponding to the number of solar days [in a year], and 248 positive commands, corresponding to the number of the members [bones/organs] of a man’s body.
Maimonides (the author of the most commonly used list of 613 commandments) started with the rabbinic traditional number 613 and crafted his list to conform to it. For example, he grouped every single death penalty command under just four numbered commands:
- P226 Execution by decapitation
- P227 Execution by strangulation
- P228 Execution by burning
- P229 Execution by stoning
Now, you might be thinking to yourself: "I don't remember anywhere in Biblical law where someone is required to be executed by strangulation or decapitation."
And you would be correct. Now you have direct evidence for the deficiency of Maimonides' enumeration of the commandments.
The number of commands in the Torah depends upon how you choose to count them. It is possible to treat every separate detail of the law as its own individual commandment (in which case you would come up with a large number: probably over 1000). It is also possible to group the details of a command under a more general command, as we do when we say "Ten Commandments."
How many commandments are in the Ten Commandments?
This is a trick question, right? The scripture says that there are "ten commandments" which YHWH wrote upon the stone tablets (Exodus 34:28, Deut. 10:4). But the Hebrew words that are often translated "Ten Commandments" (עֲשֶׂ֖רֶת הַדְּבָרִֽים׃) can mean anything from "ten words" to "ten sayings". A "saying" of YHWH can contain more that one "commandment," as I'll show below. In one of the passages listing the Ten Commandments -- Exodus 20:3-17 -- I could make a case that there are actually sixteen commandments, not (merely) ten. It depends upon how you divide them.
This variation in counting can be seen even in Christian tradition. Many Christians aren't aware that different "branches" of Christianity actually disagree on which of the Ten Commandments are given which numbers. For example, the Third Commandment ("remember the Sabbath...") for Lutherans (and Catholics) is actually numbered as the Fourth Commandment by Presbyterians (and most other Protestants), who follow the traditional Jewish numbering/division. So when Lutherans (and Catholics) get to the end of the Decalogue, they actually split the command about "coveting" into two different "commandments" (presumably because there are two different sentences in it).
Let's take the Sabbath commandment as a case in point: 8 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 You shall labor six days, and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to YHWH your God. You shall not do any work in it, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your livestock, nor your stranger who is within your gates; 11 for in six days YHWH made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore YHWH blessed the Sabbath day, and made it holy. Exodus 20:8-11WEB
There are (at least) three different "commandments" here:
- Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
- You shall rest on the Sabbath.
- You shall not make anyone to work over whom you have authority.
Some might even add that the phrase "9 You shall labor six days, and do all your work, Exodus 20:9WEB" mandates (some form of) work on the remaining six days. I can understand the argument for this, especially when the apostle Paul says things like "10 For even when we were with you, we commanded you this: “If anyone is not willing to work, don’t let him eat.” 2 Thessalonians 3:10WEB". I disagree that the Sabbath law is implying a required six full days of work, but this is a valid alternate interpretation.
The point here is not to turn the "Ten Commandments" into the "Sixteen Commandments," but to show how one's method of counting affects any final tally.
- Blomberg, Craig L.. From Pentecost to Patmos: An Introduction to Acts Through Revelation. United States: B&H Publishing Group, 2006., p. 248
- Babylonian Talmud, Makkot 23b-24a
- Following the numbering of Augustine of Hippo.