Thursday, June 26, 2008

Table Talk for Korach: Many, Many Mitzvot

Last week during the drashah/question and answer session, someone asked me how we know that there are exactly 613 commandments. I answered that I thought that it was an oral tradition that had become accepted over time. The source of the number 613 comes from the Gemara in Makkot 23b which states,
Rabbi Simlai taught: 613 commandments were told to Moshe (at Sinai); 365 correspond to the days of the year, and 248 correspond to the limbs of the human body.
The gemara then gives a proof for the number 613, from the famous verse: תורה צוה לנו משה -- "Moshe commanded the Torah to us." But the Gematria of Torah is only 611? (400+6+200+5) The gemara explains that while Moshe transmitted 611, we heard an additional two commandments from God Himself at Sinai.
In any case, the number of commandments, at least to me, seems less important than the message of the gemara relating the commandments both to the human body and the days of the year. Very often we view the commandments as burdensome; as obligations and responsibilities we must fulfill. So we find ways to do our duty in the most minimalistic way possible.
But by connecting the number of commandments with the human body and the days of the year, the gemara communicates the notion that commandments are, first and foremost, opportunities. Each day of the year can be infused with meaning. Every limb in the body has a purpose, and can achieve sanctity and holiness.
That's what Moshe tried to teach the Jewish people. It isn't the quantity or the number necessarily, that's as important as the quality of performance, and the connection with God that observance brings. If we find the meaning and connection, the numbers will come too.