A Jewish Voice

Home » judaism » Organizing the Mitzvot

Organizing the Mitzvot


(Earlier posted on my blog Law and the Purpose of Law)


In my last post I explained a little about the difference in the usage of the terms “Torah” and “Halachah.” Today I read and thought about difference in and of ordering of the Commandments.

First off, it should be explained, as is evident from the dictionary on this blog, that the Hebrew technical term for “Commandment” is Mitzvah (Mitzvot in plural). The rood of the word is Tzavah, to command someone something, which is used various places in the Jewish Bible, e.g., in the Jewish daily declaration, the “Q’riat Sh’ma,” where it is stated “V’hayu had’varim haeleh, asher anochi metzav’cha hayom“, “These words which I command you today.”[1] A Mitzvah is therefore, in its strictest sense, a commandment.

The Jewish Sages found 613 Mitzvot in the Five Books, which are confirmed by later Rabbinic authorities and ordered, such as Maimonides and the author of the Sefer Hinuch. These 613 Mitzvot are called the Taryag HaMitzvot, from the number 613, which Hebrew numerical value is spelled taryag. These Mitzvot can be ordered in the “to-dos” and the “not-to-dos,” named respectively Mitzvot ‘Aseh and Mitzvot lo Ta’aseh. Of the first there are 248 and the latter 365, which is explained as the 248 being the numbers of the bones in the body, and the 365 being the number of days in a (solar) year.

This is one way of organizing the Mitzvot. Another is in Huqim and Mishpatim, two terms which are used a number of times in the Five Books, where they are normally translated as statutes and ordinances respectively. They are defined as having two distinctly different meanings. When reading and studying the Mitzvot, the Rabbis reached the conclusion that some Mitzvot were more or less obviously, e.g., the Mitzvah against stealing and killing, whereas others were not so obvious, e.g., the Mitzvah against mixing milk and meat. They understood from this that that was what was hinted at, with the Huqim and Mishpatim, the Huqim being the Mitzvot, which reason is not yet clear for us and might not be, whereas the Mishpatim were the Mitzvot, which could be derived from rational logic by most.

The Sefer Hinuch has another organization of the Mitzvot:

  1. Commandments that are obligatory upon all Israel, both men and women, everywhere and in all times.
  2. Commandments that are obligatory everywhere and in all times, but upon Israelites, and not upon Kohanim or Levites.
  3. Commandments that are obligatory upon Levites only.
  4. Commandments that are obligatory upon Kohanim only, everywhere and in all times.
  5. Commandments that are obligatory upon the king of Israel only.
  6. Commandments that are obligatory upon the whole community, and not on the individual alone.
  7. Commandments that are obligatory only in a specific place and in a specific time, namely in the land of Israel, and in the time that the majority of the people of Israel is there.
  8. Commandments whose obligation differs as between men and women, and as between Israelites and Kohanim and Levites.
  9. Commandments that are obligatory constantly, such as the commandment to love God, to fear God, and the like.
  10. Commandments that must be observed at a specific time, such as the commandments of the Sabbath, Lulav, Shofar, rest on the festivals, the recitation of the Q’riat Sh’ma, and the like.
  11. Commandments whose observance is contingent upon a given circumstance, and which are therefore not obligatory unless that circumstance should arise, as for example the commandments to give the hired man his wages in the appointed time which is obligatory only upon the one who has hired workers.

Some extra categories can be added to these, namely:

  1. Commandments that apply only in the time of the Temple, or when the Jubilee law is in force.
  2. Commandments that are binding upon all mankind.
  3. Commandments punishable by death or by stripes.
  4. Commandments not legally punishable, but nevertheless morally binding.

These ways of organizing the Mitzvot gives a deeper and better understanding of how to relate to them, as well as how to apply them.

[1] Deuteronomy 6:6.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: