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Commentary on the 613 Mitzvot as number by RMBM and explored by Sefer HaHinuch

614th Commandment Discovered – Remember the Purim Day to Keep it Funny

Posted by rabbiart on February 24, 2010

Inspired by a hilarious post on the Hebrew Union College alumni email list, I decided to have a mild bit of fun on Facebook. I wrote the Facebook post shown below. Since all my FB friends and devoted readers here are well aware of my passion for the Arava Institute and the 2010 Israel Bike Ride. I created this entry.

I just landed a $50,000 donation to the Arava Institute Bike Ride and wanted to share the news with all my FB friends. this is really exciting and I hope you share my excitement (.read…more…about..this..donation) over the fact that Purim is only three days away.

So far six people have been taken in by this post. They shall remain nameless, because we are not supposed to hold anyone up for public humiliation, even in private, and heck, they know who they are.

Upon closer research of the Torah and entire Tanach, I discovered that all authorities who claim there are 613 commandments are wrong.  These cases suggest that specific commandments contained in the Torah have penumbras, formed by emanations from those commandments, that help give them life and substance. The practice of “mukzeh” is contained in the penumbra of “Remember the Shabbes day to keep it holy.” The prohibition of assault and robbery is contained in the emanations of “Thou Shalt Not Steal”. The oral tradition provides: “The enumeration of specific commandments and aspects therefo shall not be construed to delimit or set boundary conditions, on other commandments to be practiced by the people.

In our tradition and the historical life of our people, we have had many controversies over these penumbral rights of “practical observance.”  (See ikar shtuyot op. cit. or listen to audio version for precise citation.)

The present case, then, concerns a relationship lying within the zone of practice created by several fundamental commandments. And it concerns a law which, in forbidding or failing to understand the use of humor on the said holiday in question, seeks to achieve its goals by means of having yidden take various texts, including the Facebook post mentioned inter alia without tongue firmly planted in cheek, or the greater failure of having neglected to read to the end of said post.

Respectfully submitted.  Rabbi Joker in Chief

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Mitzvah #3:Not to eat gid-hanasheh (the thigh-vein)

Posted by rabbiart on December 12, 2008

A study of the traditional 613 mitzvot (commandments/obligations) according to their order of appearance in the Torah.

In the story of Yakov he wrestles with a mysterious man who confronts him in the middle of the night while he awaits a reunion with his brother Esav. At dawn, unable to escape, the man wounds Yakov in the thigh, and we read “therefore the members of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh-vein” (Breshit 32:33). Although we read of this commandment in the Yakov story, the tradition considers that the commandment is issued at Mt. Sinai along with all the other mitzvot.

Although we can classify this particular mitzvah as belonging to the mitzvot of kashrut, it is a mitzvah with a particular message. In the midrash, we learn that the mysterious wrestler is none other than the guardian angel of Esav. Rabbinic Judaism, striving to rebuild the Jewish people after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, uses this mitzvah to deliver a message of hope and faith against the power of the Roman empire. Rome is considered to be the descendant of Esav. Yakov defeated Esav’s guardian angel, therefore Israel will not perish, but out-last and overcome Rome.

The mitzvah of not eating the sinew of the thigh-vein is the first mitzvah that applies to women as well as to men, and it is applicable in all times and places. The specifics of this observance differ from place to place. In general, Jewish communities refrain from eating any part of the hindquarters, where the inner and outer sinew are located. In places where meat is not readily obtainable, the sinews are removed and then the hindquarter is used as food. There are other veins, arteries and tendons that are also removed, but we’ll come to those in due (mitzvah) order.

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Mitzvah #2 – Get Circumcised

Posted by rabbiart on November 6, 2008

A study of the traditional 613 mitzvot (commandments/obligations) according to their order of appearance in the Torah.

Mitzvah #2: Get Circumsized

Although we hear about the seven Noahide commandments that are derived from Parshat Noah, these are not considered part of the traditional 613 mitzvot. Interested readers can see the Talmud’s list of the Noahide commandments in English online here. So we move ahead in the Tanach to the one commandment that comes from Parshat Lech – L’Cha.

The commandment to be circumcised is based on the verse Breshit 17:10. “This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male among you shall be circumcized.” The commandment is given in the middle of the story where Avram and Sarai have their names changed, respectively, to Avraham and Sarah. In verse 12 HaShem tells Avraham that circumcision should take place on the eighth day, and that any male who does not get circumcized has broken the covenant, and is “cut off” from his people. The commandment is repeated in Vayikra(aka Leviticus) 12:3.

Some commandments are only in force in certain times and places. The commandment of circumcision remains in force for Jews at all times and all places. Traditionally, the obligation is considered to be an imperative for the father, or for a beth din where there is no father. In our day we might consider the obligation to be equally obligatory on all the parents of a son, whether father/mother, father/father, or mother/mother, because the heart of the matter is that Jewish males should be circumcised. The penalty for failure to observe this commandment is the punishment of kareth (being cut off from the people of Israel). There is only one other positive commandment in the entire Torah where failure to fulfill it carries this severe penalty. That is the failure to perform the ritual slaughter of the Pesach sacrifice. This mitzvah cannot be performed (as originally commanded) in our day because the Jerusalem temple no longer stands.

There are two specific brachot associated with this commandment. One is said by the mohel, and the other is said by the father. The respective texts are as follows: The mohel says (standard English translation) You are blessed, adonai elohenu, king of the world who hallowed us with His commandments and commanded us about circumcision. The parent says You are blessed, adonai elohenu, king of the world, who hallowed us with His commandments and commanded us to bring him into the covenant of Avraham our father. The community present responds to the second blessing with a proclamation – As he merited to enter the covenant, so may G-d grant him to attain Torah learning, the wedding canopy, and the performance of good deeds.

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Mitzvah 53 – Its the pits

Posted by rabbiart on August 27, 2008

A study of the traditional 613 mitzvot (commandments/obligations) according to their order of appearance in the Torah.

This mitzvah defines the jurisdiction of a rabbinical court with regard to damages resulting from improper use of public places.  In the rabbinic world, there is a clear distinction between public and private places. As you would expect, streets, alleys, passageways are all public.  What you might not expect is that people used public spaces for personal usages.  The rules and regulations of this mitzvah are not designed to discourage or prevent use of the public space, but rather to govern the usage and apportion responsibility for any damages that result.

The primary malfeasance in this mitzvah involves digging a pit in the public space, then leaving it, or leaving it uncovered or insufficiently covered.  Anyone who has ever driven over a pothole can see the importance of this mitzvah.  In the rabbinic understanding, “pit” might can include a ditch or a cave; any opening that would have the capacity to cause death.

The responsibility for carrying out this mitzvah is shared in an interesting way.  The mitzvah itself is to enforce the laws, apportion damages and so on.  This is a judicial responsibility, and therefore only falls to men, because women, in the rabbinic time, did not judge cases. But the application of the laws apply equally to women as well as men, whether they caused or suffered damages.

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Mitzvah 52 -Who’s ox got gored?

Posted by rabbiart on August 21, 2008

A study of the traditional 613 mitzvot (commandments/obligations) according to their order of appearance in the Torah.

OK. So I went with a title that it eye-catchy.  This mitzvah is actually that we should not eat any ox that gored another animal (for more than the first time) and was sentenced to death.  Once we have learned that this mitzvah applies to any animal that intentionally injures another animal. Even if the offending animal is a kosher animal, and even if the animal were to be correctly ritually slaughtered, we should not eat of it.

We might think that – since the animal must be killed anyway – why not at least put its meat to some human benefit? But this reduces the severity of the penalty, and lightens – in our eyes – the severity of what the animal has done (and what we in our thoughtlessness of maintaining the animal are also responsible for). So we are told not to eat of the animal so that “it will influence us to be so very careful in all our deeds that no disaster or misfortune should ever issue from our behavior”.

Does this apply in our time and place?  Should it?  We don’t have oxen, but we’ve probably all had neighbors with dangerous dogs.  In our own congregation we have had dogs attacked by other dogs. The problem of dangerous animals is with us even in our modern, urbanized society.  And once again… we find the Torah has something to tell us that is right on point with our lives.

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Mitzvah 50: Off with their Heads

Posted by rabbiart on July 22, 2008

A study of the traditional 613 mitzvot (commandments/obligations) according to their order of appearance in the Torah.

No one ever said that all the mitzvot are easy – to study or to carry out.  So here is the Torah on capital punishment.  In Shemot 21:20 we read

וְכִי-יַכֶּה אִישׁ אֶת-עַבְדּוֹ אוֹ אֶת-אֲמָתוֹ, בַּשֵּׁבֶט, וּמֵת, תַּחַת יָדוֹ–נָקֹם, יִנָּקֵם.

And if a man smite his bondman, or his bondwoman, with a rod, and he die under his hand, he shall surely be punished.

Because the Torah is explicating a divine law, it assumes that punishments will not be carried out incorrectly.  We also know that the Talmudic sages put so many restrictions around the exercise of capital punishment that it became almost impossible to carry out.

Why does the Torah (as interpreted by our tradition) provide for capital punishment?  Does that mean that the Torah, or HaShem, is bloodthirsty by nature, or angry, or harsh?  Or does it mean that the world in which we find ourselves is unfortunately filled by people who answer to that description?  What are we to do when confronted by people who abuse, beat, imprison, even kill innocents.

A response is required, a deterrent is needed. If we do not respond in a significant way when we see injustice, what kind of people are we? If the evil inclination is not deterred, what kind of world are we living in? Consider this teaching. “At the root of this precept lies the reason that HaShem wished to eradicate from the midst of His holy people the heart’s evil and great cruelty. Therefore the Torah commanded that if anyone becomes so overwhelmed by fierce anger that he beats to death his servant who is in his home and has no one to save him, then let the one who did this be put to death. Even though (it may be the case) that the servant was his purchased possession (a separate topic), and he lost his own property (what kind of reason is that) by the other’s (the servant) death, nevertheless he is to be slain, since his rage prevailed over his spirt to such an extent.

From the tradition’s point of view, failing to execute this law when circumstances require, is tantamount to putting a stumbling block before the blind, because it encourages terrible behavior.

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Mitzvah 49: The Laws of Fines

Posted by rabbiart on July 15, 2008

A study of the traditional 613 mitzvot (commandments/obligations) according to their order of appearance in the Torah.

We see the Talmudic concern for midah k’neged midah (measure for measure) reflected in the explanation of this commandment.  The commandment itself is based on Shemot 21:18-19 which reads

אִם-יָקוּם וְהִתְהַלֵּךְ בַּחוּץ, עַל-מִשְׁעַנְתּוֹ–וְנִקָּה הַמַּכֶּה:  רַק שִׁבְתּוֹ יִתֵּן, וְרַפֹּא יְרַפֵּא.   .וְכִי-יְרִיבֻן אֲנָשִׁים–וְהִכָּה-אִישׁ אֶת-רֵעֵהוּ, בְּאֶבֶן אוֹ בְאֶגְרֹף; וְלֹא יָמוּת, וְנָפַל לְמִשְׁכָּב

if men contend, and one smite the other with a stone, or with his fist, and he die not, but keep his bed; if he rise again, and walk abroad upon his staff, then shall he that smote him be quit; only he shall pay for the loss of his time, and shall cause him to be thoroughly healed.

Although the text in Shemot refers only to striking, we learn that regarding one who shames another, the beth din should cause him pain by requiring the perpetrator to pay money to the person that has been shamed.  We learn elsewhere that fines are only to be imposed by an ordained, authorized beth din in the land of Israel. The proper age for a recognized scholar to sit on a Bet Din is 18, but a judge acting as a solo Bet Din must be forty in order to impose monetary penalties.

The Talmudic explication of this particular mitzvah (of course the identification of specific mitzvot, and the creation of a list, is post-Talmudic) reveals some of what modern non-Orthodox readers may see as gender related difficulties in the tradition.  On the one hand, the implementation of the laws of fines is a mitzvah that applies only to men, because men are assigned public roles, including the imposition of justice.  On the other hand, the effect of the law is extended to women; who might be either victims or perpetrators of wounding or shaming.

The specifics of the law vary depending on the location of the incident in question and the Beth Din.  The law is primarily intended for a court system in the land of Israel which Hashem originally promised to Abraham Avinu.  Batei Dein acting outside of the land have authority (in Jewish law) only by being agents of courts inside the land.  Courts outside the land do not impose and collect fines, but any transgressor is palced in herem (excommunication) until he (or she) makes teshuvah with an injured party.  Once the teshuvah (RMBM describes a very specific procedure) is attempted, the transgressor is released from excommunication whether the injured party becomes reconciled or refuses reconciliation.

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Mitzvah 48 – No Hitting Mom and Dad

Posted by rabbiart on July 2, 2008

A study of the traditional 613 mitzvot (commandments/obligations) according to their order of appearance in the Torah.

The commandment to not strike your father or mother comes immediately after the commandment detailing methods of execution for violation of certain commandments.  Coincidence?  I think not.  This commandment is of course based on Shemot 21:15.

וּמַכֵּה אָבִיו וְאִמּוֹ, מוֹת יוּמָת.

Whoever hits his mother or father, he will be put to death

Unfortunately, we live in a world where abuse occurs within families.  Therefore we might ask, if my father hits me, does the Torah allow me to defend myself… and hit him back.  According to rabbinic Judaism, the answer is “NO!”. Even if his parents give him a severe beating, he must not respond in kind, unless he thinks they intend to kill him. It is interesting to note that the Torah nowhere gives a command not to strike a parent, but simply prescribes that any child who does so should be put to death.

American Conservative judaism approaches the tradition from a historical perspective.  In that regard, it is undeniable that there are two major epochs in Jewish history; the biblical period, and the rabbinic period.  During the creation of the Talmud, our Rabbis ameliorated much of what seems harsh in the Torah.  Regarding capital punishment, the Rabbis created so many safeguards that we find the statement that a court who executed one person in seventy years is “bloody.”

So too with this commandment. According to Talmud Sanhedrin the death penalty is only merited for striking a parent if blood is drawn.  Furthermore, if there are no witness, the penaly exacted is kareth.  Kareth is “divine severance of existence” also known as mitah b’yedai shamayim or death at the hands of HaShem. Detailed study of the mitzvah reveals that if no blood is drawn, then hitting a parent is considered the same as hitting any other Jewish person, and similar penalties would apply.

The mitzvah applies to all human beings (Jews, that is, because the mitzvot are incumbent only upon Jews) in every place and at every time.

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Mitzvah 47 – Capital Punishment by Strangulation

Posted by rabbiart on June 30, 2008

A study of the traditional 613 mitzvot (commandments/obligations) according to their order of appearance in the Torah.

With this mitzvah we hit on a difficult subject; capital punishment.  The mitzvah is based on Shemot 21:12.  The verse in translation reads “he that strikes a man so that he dies, shall surely be put to death.” In the original it is:

מַכֵּה אִישׁ וָמֵת, מוֹת יוּמָת

This verse of the Torah leads us into the well-known passage often referred to as lex talionis or the “law of retribution.  This is perhaps one of the passages that leads to the erroneous description of HaShem as the angry Old Testament god. Let’s face it, this passage is not exactly “touchy-feely.”  But what kind of a society would we be living in without this principle?  Or as it is rendered in our idiom “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.”

It’s not pleasant to consider executing a human being, and we can know for a certainty that in the United States today our criminal justice system has executed innocent people.  Perhaps not individuals that are “innocent” in the sense of never having committed a crime or done something that would cause us to lose our dinner, but innocent of the crime for which they are being executed.  But this is part of the Torah and part of our tradition, and it behooves us to wrestle with this command and with our feelings about it.

The details of carrying out this commandment are striking indeed and beyond description in this article. You can read them for yourself in Tractate Sanhedrin, Chapter Seven English online here.  But be careful, and don’t try this at home.

The rabbinic understanding of this commandment, and the unfortunate necessity for it, is based on a deep understanding of the flawed and fallible nature of human beings.  In the explanation by Sefer HaHinuch, we begin in the classic Rabbinic approach by quoting a verse from the Tanach.  In this case, he quotes Proverbs 29:4 “The King by justice establishes the land”. Simply put, he says “if not for the fear of justice, people would kill one another.”  In his examination of the details, he concludes that the Torah “lightened his (a killer) sentence to have him executed by strangulation, which is a death that comes swiftly” and not by other methods which there is great suffering.

Passing over the current debate on whether we – in our time – should abandon captial punishment entirely, we see that establishing the proper method of execution is a debate going on in our day. Does the Torah speak to us in our time? You betcha!

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Mitzvah 44: Redeeming the maidservant

Posted by rabbiart on June 11, 2008

A study of the traditional 613 mitzvot (commandments/obligations) according to their order of appearance in the Torah.

Here is another mitzvah that we cannot observe in our time. It is based on the same verse ( Shmot 21:8 ) as Mitzvah 43, and has the same rules for when it is in effect. Like the prior mitzvah, it applies only when the jubilee year is in effect, but more importantly, we no longer have servitude as described in the Torah and interpreted in the Talmud. Since we no longer sell ourselves – or others – into servitude to pay off debts, it seems that we can neither keep nor violate this particular mitzvah.

So what shall we learn from this mitzvah and its sister mitzvah; the betrothal of the Hebrew maidservant?

Servitude – in any form – should never be permanent. The option and the possibility of “getting out” should always be available, and it should be the decision of the servant, not of the master.

Dignity should be preserved for everyone. Not just for those who can afford to command their own dignity.  These two mitzvot remind us that the maidservant, and by extension anyone and everyone in an unfortunate circumstance is one of HaShem’s creations; not an object for someone else to exploit, and not someone to be treated as a lesser child of Hashem.  As our author has written, Jews “…are compassionate sons of compassionate fathers, it is fitting for them to deal kindly with human beings, even with those who have been their servants even if for but one day.”

What can we learn?  All of us should strive to maximize our compassion, not with just those who have been our servants, but with everyone.

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