A precept of the Torah, a mitzvah, is a divine command contained in the Pentateuch and can be either a positive precept—a command to do something—or a negative precept—a command to refrain from doing something. The command to give charity, for example, is a positive precept. The command not to steal is a negative precept. The idea that there are 613 precepts is first found in a homily delivered, according to the Talmud (Makkot 23b), by the third-century Palestinian preacher, Rabbi Simlai. This teacher states that there are 613 precepts: 365 negative precepts, corresponding to the days of the solar year, and 248 positive precepts, corresponding to the ‘limbs’ of the body. ‘Limbs’ here denotes parts of the body, such as the joints of the fingers, and the concept of 248 parts in this sense is ancient and found in the Mishnah (Ohalot 1: 8). It is as clear as can be that all this belongs to the Aggadah. It is an instance of sermonizing in which the preacher used concepts that predated his observation, applying them to convey a moral lesson, as preachers do. The homiletical nature is apparent in the Midrashic comment that each ‘limb’ says to man: ‘Perform a mitzvah with me’ and each day of the solar year says: ‘Do not commit a sin on me.’ Louis Ginzberg has noted that in the ancient Aggadah, referred to by Philo among others, the Decalogue is said to contain 613 letters. It was only at a later date that these ‘letters’ become ‘precepts’.
Subjects: Judaism and Jewish Studies.