Maimonides’ 14 principles for counting commandments
Derived from the Principles presented at www.Chabad.org:
The Talmud says that at Mt. Sinai, God transmitted 613 commandments to Moses — 248 positive commandments (dos) and 365 negative commandments (don'ts). When counting, however, we find that there are many more than 613 biblical obligations and prohibitions. Thus we need to explain the formula by which we determine whether a particular precept is counted as part of the 613 or not.
Maimonides used 14 principles to make this determination: Here they are as paraphrased by Chabad. I have also derived their explanations from the Chabad website.
Principle 1 Do not count Rabbinic Commandments in the list of commandments.
These are statutes instituted in the Talmud; for example, the lighting of Chanukah candles and reciting the Hallel prayer.
Principle 2 Do not include laws which are derived from one of the Thirteen Principles of Torah
An example of this is the obligation to accord honor to parents-in-law, a precept derived from an extra word in a verse. Though the Torah alludes to the concept, it is not considered a biblical command.
Principle 3 Do not count commandments which are not binding on all generations.
Examples of this are the laws regarding the disassembly of the Tabernacle, or the prohibition against waging war on Ammon and Moab, which only applied to the Israelites in the desert.
Principle 4 We do not include "encompassing" directives in the count.
Examples of this are "And keep My covenant" (Exod. 19:5), or "Concerning all that I have said to you, you shall beware..." (Exod. 22:30), or "And you shall be a holy people to Me" (Exod. 23:23).
Verses that don't instruct us regarding a specific action, but regarding the imperative to observe all of the Torah's commandments, are not included in the 613.
Principle 5 The reason for a commandment is not counted on its own.
At times, the Torah tells us the reason for a command in language that could be understood as an independent precept — when in fact it is simply the rationale behind the words that precede it.
For example, "He shall not leave the Sanctuary, and he shall not desecrate the holy things of his God" (Levi. 21:12). Not desecrating the holy is not a commandment on its own, rather it is the reason why the Kohen may not leave the sanctuary. Or "Her first husband, who had sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife ... and you shall not bring sin to the land" (Deut. 24:4). Here, too, "bringing sin to the land" is not an independent prohibition, but the reason why one may not remarry his divorced wife if she has remarried in the interim.
Principle 6 A commandment that has both negative and positive components is counted
as two — one positive commandment and one negative commandment.
For example, we are commanded to rest on The Sabbath and desist from work on the Sabbath. We are commanded to "afflict" ourselves on Yom Kippur and we are commanded not to eat on this holy day. Though a transgression of one is also a transgression of the other – if you eat on Yom Kippur you have not afflicted yourself; if you work on The Sabbath you have not rested – nevertheless these are considered two independent commandments.
Principle 7 The different applications of a commandment are not individually counted.
For example, one who inadvertently defiles the Temple or holy foods is required to bring a sin offering (Leviticus Chapter 5). If his financial situation allows, he is to bring a sheep or she-goat; otherwise he brings two birds; and if he is completely impoverished, he brings a flour offering. All this, however, is counted as one commandment — the commandment of bringing a sin offering when this particular offense is committed — although the execution of the commandment varies depending on the situation.
Principle 8 Do not count a negative statement amongst the prohibitions.
The Hebrew word "lo" can mean both "do not" and "shall not"; and only the "do not"s are counted as prohibitions. The only way to discern between the two is by studying the context of the word.
For example, "She shall not go free as the slaves go free" (Exod. 21:7). This verse should not be construed as a prohibition, it is simply telling us that the circumstances that mandate the emancipation of a Canaanite slave do not apply to a Hebrew maidservant. Certainly, if the owner wishes to free her, he may do so.
Principle 9 Do not count the number of times a commandment is mentioned in the Torah, only
the act which is prohibited or commanded.
Certain commandments are repeated in the Torah numerous times. For example, the commandment to rest on the Sabbath is mentioned twelve times and the prohibition against consuming blood is repeated no less than seven times. Nevertheless, when counting the 613 commandments, we only count a prohibited or prescribed act once.
(The exception to this rule is those instances where the Sages have deduced that the repetition of a particular commandment is intended to prohibit or instruct us regarding a different act. In such a case, the [seemingly] repetitive verse is counted as a separate commandment — for it is in fact instructing us regarding something different than the first verse.)
It should be noted that though we count the prohibited acts, and not the amount of times mentioned, we only count prohibited acts individually specified in the Torah. At times, the Torah will issue a prohibition employing general terminology, for this prohibition includes multiple acts. For example, "You shall not eat over the blood" (Levi. 19:26). This prohibition teaches us not to eat sacrificial flesh before the blood is sprinkled on the altar, not to eat from any animal before its soul (contained in its blood) has fully departed, that the members of a court may not eat on the day that they implement a capital verdict, and more. Though all these are biblically forbidden, none are counted as part of the 613 — as none of them are mentioned specifically in the Torah.
Principle 10 Do not count a preparatory act as an independent commandment.
For example, "You shall take fine flour and bake it [into] twelve loaves" (Levi. 24:5). This is not an independent commandment, but a necessary prerequisite to the commandment of placing Showbreads on the Table in the Temple's sanctuary.
Principle 11 If a commandment is comprised of a number of elements, do not count them
For example, "And you shall take for yourselves on the first day [of Sukkot], the fruit of a beautiful tree, date palm fronds, a branch of a braided tree, and willows of the brook" (Levi. 23:40). All these individual elements come together to create a single commandment — the commandment of taking the Four Species. As such, they are collectively counted as only one commandment.
Principle 12 When commanded to do a certain action, do not count each part of the action
For example, "They shall make Me a sanctuary" (Exod. 25:8). There's a general commandment to construct a sanctuary for God. For this purpose, it is necessary to construct an Ark, a Menorah, altars, etc. — but these are all details of the overarching commandment of creating a sanctuary for God.
Principle 13 We do not count the amount of days a commandment is performed.
For example, we are commanded to dwell in a sukkah during the seven days of the holiday of Sukkot — yet this is one commandment. We are commanded to bring a special offering in the Temple on Rosh Chodesh — yet this is one commandment, not twelve. We are commanded to make pilgrimage to the Temple three times yearly — but this is one commandment, the commandment of pilgrimage.
Principle 14 We do not count the punishment administered for each transgression.
The Torah specifies many forms of punishments that the courts administer: Four types of capital punishment, corporal punishment, financial remuneration, sacrificial penalties, etc.
While each form of punishment constitutes an independent commandment, we do not count the penalty for a particular transgression as part of the 613. For example, there are many different transgressions that mandate the bringing of a sin-offering. Yet, the bringing of a sin-offering is counted as only one commandment.
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My Commandment List
[1 - 80] [81 - 160] [161 - 240] [241 - 320] [321 - 400] [401 - 480] [481 - 559]
[Gene. 1:28 to Exod. 22:14] [Exod. 22:15 to Levi. 5:13]
[Levi. 5:15 to Levi. 14:10] [Levi. 14:11 to Levi. 19:15]
[Levi. 19:16 to Levi. 22:25] [Levi. 22:27 to Levi. 25:40]
[Levi. 25:41 to Numb. 18:17] [Numb. 18:20 to Deut. 12:15]
[Deut. 12:17 to Deut. 16:22] [Deut. 17:1 to Deut. 22:4]
[Deut. 22:5 to Deut. 24:16] [Deut. 24:17 to Deut. 32:38]