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Beyond Time

Shavuot Yizkor 5779 / 10 June 2019

June 13, 2019

Despite the near-universal acceptance in Judaism of 613 as the total number of mitzvot, the Torah itself never delineates a specific number. Instead, the idea of 613 mitzvot originates in the Babylonian Talmud:

דרש רבי שמלאי: שש מאות ושלש עשרה מצות נאמרו לו למשה, שלש מאות וששים וחמש לאוין כמנין ימות החמה, ומאתים וארבעים ושמונה עשה כנגד איבריו של אדם. אמר רב המנונא: מאי קרא? תורה צוה לנו משה מורשה, תורה בגימטריא שית מאה וחד סרי הוי, אנכי ולא יהיה לך מפי הגבורה שמענום.

Rabbi Simlai taught: Six hundred thirteen mitzvot were spoken to Moses – three hundred sixty-five prohibitions, corresponding to the days of the solar calendar, and two hundred forty-eight directives corresponding to a person’s limbs. Rav Hamnuna said: What verse supports this idea? Moses commanded the Torah to us.[1] The word “Torah” has a numerological value of six hundred eleven, and I am the Lord your God[2] and You shall have no other gods before Me[3] were heard from the Mighty Mouth.[4]

Rabbi Simlai asserts the total count of 613, and Rav Hamnuna supports his opinion using the verse, Moses commanded the Torah to us: the “Torah” that Moses commanded us has a numerological value of 611,[5] and the Israelites additionally heard the first two mitzvot directly from God, without Moses – yielding a total of 613.

Considering this midrash, the late-medieval rabbi known as Maharsha observed that those first two mitzvot – I am the Lord your God and You shall have no other gods before Me – are really two sides of the same coin. While one is phrased as a directive and the other as a prohibition, both deal with our faith in one indivisible and universal God. From this he concludes that from God’s perspective there must be just one unified mitzvah – which befits with a belief in one unified God. If there is only one mitzvah from God’s perspective, Maharsha asks, how do we account for the 613 mitzvot we generally think of?

The multiplication must come from the limits of human perception, he decides. While an infinite God can comprehend this one mitzvah, human beings cannot because we are “constrained by space and time.”[6] It’s like looking at light through a prism: God’s one mitzvah, refracted through the physical world, appears to us as 613 distinct mitzvot.

It makes sense that our living in physical space would limit our perception and create an apparent multiplication of mitzvot – but why does he mention time as well?

We have just finished counting the Omer, forty-nine days leading up to Shavuot. We count in the midst of our mourning as well: seven days, then thirty, eleven months, a year, another year, and all the years after that. Maharsha suggests that from God’s perspective, all the different times we think of – past, present, future – are simply one.

When we pray, Yizkor Elohim, we are asking for the ability to remember our departed loved ones the way God perceives them: as directly present, not separated by time but immediately with us. May these quiet moments become our opportunity to stand in their presence once again.

[1] Deut. 33:4.

[2] Ex. 20:2.

[3] Ex. 20:3.

[4] Makkot 23b-24a.

[5] In Hebrew each letter has a numerical value; ת+ו+ר+ה yields 400+6+200+5 = 611.

[6] Maharsha, Hiddushei Aggadot, Makkot 23b.