Volume One: The 613 Laws of Maimonides
The 613 Laws of Maimonides
It’s one of the stickiest conundrums in Scripture: are we today supposed to keep the Mosaic Law, or aren’t we? On the one hand, He gave Moses hundreds of specific instructions that govern everything from how to approach Almighty God to what to do if a wall develops a stain that won’t go away. On the other hand, the New Covenant scriptures clearly teach that the Law is powerless to deliver us from the curse of sin. What does Yahweh want us to do?
Some today would say (with ample scriptural backing) that we are no longer expected to keep the Law—that Yahshua’s sacrifice on Calvary did away with these requirements. Others would insist (with ample scriptural backing) that these are the unabrogated precepts of the Eternal God, recorded for our benefit and enlightenment, the observation of which is essential if we wish to lead a life pleasing to Yahweh.
A third group of believers—the vast majority—has only a vague idea that something called “the Law of Moses” or the “Torah” even exists. They have no clear concept of what it prescribes, what it will do for them, or what will happen if they don’t “keep it.” As a former member of group three, whose daily life betrays an affinity to group one but whose conscience (or is that the Spirit?) constantly prods him toward group two, I have no facile answers for you. I’m convinced, however, that the solution will present itself if we prayerfully take a close look at the “Laws” themselves in light of the balance of scripture. The New Testament has quite a bit to say about how the Law of Moses functions in the post-resurrection world. Now and then in our study, we’ll take a break from the list of “laws” to delve into relevant commentary from the Apostles, Prophets, and indeed, from Yahshua Himself.
First, however, we need to define our terminology and discuss our sources. The Hebrew word we translate “law” is torah. Strong’s defines it as: “a precept or statute, especially the Decalogue [the Ten Commandments] or Pentateuch [the five books of Moses]—law.” But there’s more to it than that. Here’s Baker and Carpenter’s definition: “torah: a feminine noun meaning instruction, direction, law, the whole Law. It comes from the verb yarah, which has as one of its major meanings, to teach, to instruct. The noun means instruction in a general way from God…. It is used regularly to depict priestly instruction in general or as a whole…. The term takes on the meaning of law in certain settings…. [It is] used as a summary term of various bodies of legal, cultic, or civil instructions…. The word can refer to a single law—for example, the law of the burnt offering.”
It is clear, then, that the spirit of the word torah leans less toward rigid legality than it does toward instruction. It is less a laundry list of dos and don’ts than it is a prescription for successful living—an Owner’s Manual, if you will, directing us toward our Creator’s intended purpose and function.
Perhaps stretching that metaphor a bit will help to clarify things. My car’s owner’s manual includes a “torah” that says I am to get the oil changed every 3,000 miles using a particular type of lubricant. If I do that “religiously” I will have “kept the law” of the oil change. But I have to keep the whole law. If I use the right oil but wait until I’ve driven 30,000 miles, or if I get the car lubed on schedule but use Aunt Jemima’s Pancake Syrup instead of Mobil One, I have “broken the law” of the oil change, even though I have actually kept part of it. Now here’s the question: who gets hurt if I break the law of the oil change? I do—I have shortened my engine’s life to some degree or caused it to run at less than optimum efficiency. Thus breaking the “law” carries a penalty with it. But does “god” (in this case, the Chairman of General Motors) get hurt? No. Even if he were omniscient—somehow knowing that I’d gone past my 3,000-mile schedule—all he might feel would be sadness or disgust because in some distant way it’s a poor reflection on him if my car falls apart in months instead of decades. Does he want me to follow the instructions? Of course he does. That’s why they were provided. But they are there for my benefit, not his.
The foregoing metaphor is admittedly oversimplified. God’s Torah goes far beyond keeping our bodies healthy. Quite a bit of it has no temporal value whatsoever, but is there purely for its instructional significance—its spiritual value. Do you remember the old movie The Karate Kid? The kid wanted to learn karate moves from the old master, but ended up out back waxing cars: wax on, wax off. He didn’t realize until later that going through the motions of waxing the cars was in fact training him in martial arts maneuvers. Much of the Torah is like that. It’s full of rituals, holidays, feasts, and offerings that don’t seem to do much for anybody in the near term. As rules go, they’re not as “practical” as (for example) the one instructing us not to eat buzzards. Rather, they’re there to teach us specific things about Yahweh’s plan of redemption, the depth of His love for us, and His schedule—His to-do list. They’re prophecy, if you will, most of which was fulfilled in the atoning sacrifice of Yahshua the Messiah.
Because the Torah is less a list of rules than it is an Instruction Manual from our Owner and Maker, it should come as no surprise that coming up with a straightforward inventory of all the “Laws of Moses” is easier said than done. Both Christians and Jews include the Pentateuch in their scriptures, but since Christians (to our detriment) pay comparatively little attention to the Torah, we will defer to the Jews in the matter of coming up with a definitive list. Have they done this? (Does the pope wear a funny hat?)
The most widely accepted listing is that of Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, a.k.a. Maimonides, a.k.a. the Rambam (1135-1204 A.D.). A physician from Moorish Cordoba, Maimonides eventually became a leader in the Jewish community in Cairo. He was deeply influenced by Aristotle and Greek thought in general. Maimonides authored the massive Mishneh Torah, a compilation of every conceivable topic of Jewish law, arranged by subject. It provided contemporary Jews with an easy-to-understand plain-language rendition of the prevailing view of the Torah’s meaning. The rabbis of his day, of course, didn’t appreciate the fact that the Mishneh Torah went a long way toward demystifying the Talmud—encroaching on their territory, as it were. There’s nothing like a good old-fashioned mystery religion to keep the sheeple in line and paying their salaries.
The Babylonian Talmud (in tractate Makkoth 23b) asserts that according to Rabbi Simlai, the Torah contains 613 mitzvot. (“Mitzvot” is the plural of mitzvah, meaning “precept,” from tzavah: “to command.”) Of these, 248 are mitzvot aseh (positive commandments)—equal to the number of bones in the human body (okay, so he missed it by a tad: an infant has 275 bones, and some of these fuse together as he grows, making a total of 206 in the adult human)—and 365 mitzvot lo taaseh (negative commandments)—equal to the number of days in the solar year. With the Midrash, the Talmud calculates that the numerical value (gematria) of the word Torah is 611, so one might (following this tortured line of reasoning) expect there to be 611 laws, or mitzvot. Au contraire! The Torah itself states that Moses transmitted the Law (presumably this first 611 mitzvot) from God to the Jewish people: “Moses commanded a law for us, a heritage of the congregation of Jacob.” (Deuteronomy 33:4). And God Himself directly delivered two more mitzvot—the first two of the Ten Commandments, phrased in the first Person—directly, written with His own finger upon tablets of stone. The grand total is thus 611+2 = 613. Get used to this kind of convoluted, unfounded logic—a sure sign that the men foisting it upon us have something to hide. We’re going to see a lot of it in the coming pages.
Anyway, Maimonides accordingly formulated a list of precisely 613 laws comprising the “Jewish Law,” or halakhah. (Of course, if you worked at it, you could identify thousands. The 613 target is a transparently man-made construct.) Others have compiled similar lists, but that of Maimonides is considered the most “authoritative.” As we’ve seen, some mitzvot are positive (“do this”), and some are negative (“don’t do this”). Some apply only within Israel, some apply only to specific populations or within specific historical timeframes, and some are universal. Some cannot be observed today because they relate to the Temple, its sacrifices and services (since the Temple does not exist at the present time). See Volume 3 for a listing of those precepts that can be kept. The criminal procedures mandated in the Torah can’t be performed because the theocratic state of Israel is no longer extant—and hasn’t been for two and a half millennia. Anybody who tells you that he’s keeping the Torah today is lying to you. It can’t be done. Those Jews who claim to adhere to the Torah today are generally using Maimonides’ list, not the Torah. They accept it as authoritative. Therefore, we will be using it as the roadmap for our study, a convenient structural skeleton to flesh out with Yahweh’s actual instructions. The telling little differences and ominous gaps will become apparent as we proceed.
An excellent resource for all things “Judaic” is www.jewfaq.org, home of “Judaism 101,” a vast repository of information on the subject. Its author, Tracey R. Rich, has some cogent things to say about the “keeping of the Law.” He writes, “Judaism is not just a set of beliefs about G-d [he means God, a title for deity translated from the Hebrew El or Elohim—heaven forbid he should use “God’s” actual name, Yahweh], man and the universe. Judaism is a comprehensive way of life, filled with rules and practices that affect every aspect of life: what you do when you wake up in the morning, what you can and cannot eat, what you can and cannot wear, how to groom yourself, how to conduct business, who you can marry, how to observe the holidays and Shabbat, and perhaps most important, how to treat G-d, other people, and animals. This set of rules and practices is known as halakhah. The word ‘halakhah’ is usually translated as ‘Jewish Law.’ A more literal translation might be ‘the path that one walks.’ The word is derived from the Hebrew root heh-lamed-kaf, meaning to go, to walk, or to travel.”
He continues: “Some non-Jews and non-observant Jews criticize this legalistic aspect of traditional Judaism, saying that it reduces the religion to a set of rituals devoid of spirituality. While there are certainly some Jews who observe halakhah in this way, that is not the intention of halakhah, and it is not even the correct way to observe halakhah. On the contrary, when properly observed, halakhah increases the spirituality in a person’s life because it turns the most trivial, mundane acts, such as eating and getting dressed, into acts of religious significance. When people write to me and ask how to increase their spirituality or the influence of their religion in their lives, the only answer I can think of is: observe more halakhah. Keep kosher or light Shabbat candles; pray after meals or once or twice a day. When you do these things, you are constantly reminded of your faith, and it becomes an integral part of your entire existence.”
Just when he seems to be getting near the heart of Yahweh in the matter, Rich swerves off course. Yes, the mitzvot were designed to draw their observer into a closer relationship with Yahweh. But they were never intended to be an end in themselves. The path to deeper spirituality is not to smother God’s influence under a mountain of religious minutiae—it is, rather, to open your heart to God’s will and teaching. Seeking for “religious significance” is the surest way to obfuscate the one-on-One relationship Yahweh is seeking to establish and maintain with us.
We can be drawn closer to Yahweh via the Torah only because it is His precepts, His instructions. So Mr. Rich’s explanation of what constitutes the halakhah is truly heartbreaking: “Halakhah is made up of mitzvot from the Torah as well as laws instituted by the rabbis and long-standing customs. All of these have the status of Jewish law and all are equally binding.” I would beg to differ. For that matter, so would Yahshua: “He answered and said to [the Pharisees and scribes], ‘Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: “This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men—the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do.’ He said to them, ‘All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition.’” (Mark 7:6-9) I submit to you that “laws instituted by the rabbis and long-standing customs” carry no weight at all; only God’s word counts. Thus although we will employ Maimonides’ list of mitzvot as an organizational starting point, the Torah will be our sole authority in this study.
Does this mean that I think the scholars of Judaism can have nothing to bring to the party? Not necessarily. If and when a Jew acknowledges his Messiah, when he becomes a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven, he is in a position to add depth to our knowledge of God’s will. As Yahshua said, “Every teacher of religious law who has become a disciple in the Kingdom of Heaven is like a person who brings out of the storehouse the new teachings as well as the old.” (Matthew 13:52) The best example we have of this is undoubtedly the Apostle Paul. Therefore we will, from time to time, consult with this learned rabbi. His writings are our clearest expositions on how the Law of Moses relates to the practice of Christianity. As we shall see, they are a hand in a glove, two sides of the same coin, part A and part B of the spiritual epoxy that Yahweh has given us to hold our mortal lives together as we live here awaiting the return of His Messiah in glory.
A few notes on our format: the order of this version of the Rambam’s list is courtesy of Judaism 101; I find Mr. Rich’s order and grouping system more logical than those of Maimonides (who listed affirmative and negative mitzvot in separate places, regardless of their subject matter). The mitzvot are not necessarily listed in order of their importance (although there are some critically foundational entries near the top of the list). A summary of each rabbinical mitzvah is shown in italics at the beginning of the entry. These mitzvot use a pronoun (e.g. “His”) to identify Yahweh; I have replaced it with His actual self-revealed name. Each mitzvah is followed by the scripture(s) from the Torah that supports it, the words in bold. That’s the part you really want to pay close attention to. Following all of that is my commentary. I am using Strong’s (marked “S”) and Baker and Carpenter’s (“B&C”) Hebrew dictionaries (among others) to help us define the salient words. Be aware that I have taken the liberty of abridging their definitions as needed for clarity.
(First published 2007)