Weekly Parsha Review Laced with Humor and Sarcasm from The Oisvorfer Ruv

Bamidbar Shovuis 2019: The Wedding Gift

Raboyseyee and Ladies,


This week we begin with a big mazel tov to the Oisvorfer’s shver (FIL), Irv Bader, who was inducted this past Monday evening into the Yeshiva University Athletics Hall of Fame Class of 2019. The Hall of Fame honors former YU student-athletes and other individuals who have distinguished themselves in competition, and who best exemplify the University’s highest ideals and mission.  Irv Bader played for Yeshiva University from 1957-1960 and even today, 59 years later, remains their #6 all-time scorer. For a list of YU’s top 29 all-time players, click here: https://yumacs.com/sports/2009/9/23/MBB_0923093918.aspx

In case you never heard of Irv Bader, Camp Seneca Lake, Coach Bader, or any of the other myriad titles he has held with distinction in education, special Olympics, and others – say it’s not so please- Irv was a two-time captain, who graduated in 1960 as YU’s all-time leading scorer with 1,374 points. He helped the Maccabees to a 46-32 mark over his four years, including a 14-4 ledger in 1958-59 for the second highest winning percentage (.777) in the Red Sarachek era. He was also named Small College All-American as a senior in 1959-60 after placing second in the Tri-State League in scoring and was sixth the following year with 20.6 points per game. He tallied a career-high 35 points against Kings College as a sophomore in 1957-58. The men’s basketball standout was inducted into the Jewish Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009. Sadly, only one of his eight grandchildren to play basketball.  Irv recently celebrated his 80th birthday, ad me’oh v’esrim plus (until at least until 120.)  Omen and mazel tov!


In a most becoming ceremony this past shabbis officiated by Rabbi Moishe Teitelbaum with grace and elegance, and with standing room only, Rabbi Yaakov Trump was inaugurated and installed as the new rabbi of the Young Israel of Lawrence Cedarhurst.  Mazel tov to Rabbi Trump and to his Rebitzen, Malka Trump. And mazel tov to Rabbi Moshe and Rebitzen Sori Teitelbaum, upon their completion of 32 years of service to the shul. Chazak!


The Wedding Gift:

Nu, after 49 days, seven full weeks since we began counting the Oimer, the great and mitzvah-free yom tov of Shovuis is upon us. Hyntige teyg (nowadays), Yiddin all over the world celebrate this yom-tov by eating cheesecake and other milichig products, ober is that what the RBSO had in mind when He made a personal appearance on Har C’nai (Mt. Sinai) and personally delivered the first two commandments to the awestruck Yiddin? Many Chabad shuls celebrate with ice cream, at least for the kids. Is Shovuis not directly associated with Matan Toirah (Revelation)? It is! And we commemorate this special day, the day the Yiddin –metaphorically speaking avada- got married and exchanged vows with the RBSO, with cake, other dairy products including ice cream? Is it not the day the Yiddin received the entire Toirah and its 613 mitzvis (commandments)? So we believe; ober speaking of 613 mitzvis, does the heylige Toirah really contain 613 mitzvis? Is that number accurate? Precise? Rounded efsher? Are there more? Efsher fewer? We shall examine that below.

This coming motzei shabbis, mamish as the heylige shabbis lets out, the yom tov of Shovuis begins. On shabbis itself, we begin reading and studying the sefer of Bamidbar, the great book of numbers. And taka so does the parsha begin, with a number count of the Yiddin. The RBSO wants to see the numbers, how many there are in each sheyvet (tribe)? The livi’im (Levites) are counted separately. The parsha discusses flag formations and where each tribe was to be situated around the Mishkan (Tabernacle). Why all this hoopla, with banners, flags, and marching orders and formations was necessary for what was then but a scheduled three-day trip through the Midbar on the way to the Promised Land? Ver veyst? Then again, Gilligan, the captain, Ginger, Maryanne, and the Howell’s, also set out on a three-day voyage. Shoin!  How three days morphed into forty years will be covered in a few weeks as will other travails and calamities which befell the Yiddin –mostly of their own doing. The bottom line: when the RBSO in this week’s parsha gave the Yiddin marching orders, formations, flag and banner design, and situated each tribe just where He wanted them, avada He knew that these formation and marches would be needed for a full 40 years. He is the RBSO; avada He knew that his people would misbehave. The Yiddin did not disappoint; in that area, they never have, and seemingly never will. We will be reading of their various mishaps and shenanigans as we make our way through the book of Bamidbar.

This year, as we begin Bamidbar for the 9th time –incidentally we will be completing a full nine years of heylige Oisvorfer Toirah just as we begin Sefer Devorim- and as Shovuis approaches, and as we mark Revelation, and the 613 mitzvis we received as a wedding gift, let’s take a shtikel dive into the numbers, Let’s see just how our rabbis came up with this magical number. Is that number found anywhere in the heylige Toirah? Spoiler alert: it’s not! Where did it come from? Is it at all possible that the number is not real? Oy vey! As a kid, did it ever enter your mind that the number 613, represented by the term “taryag mitzvis” –the Hebrew letter spelling out ‘taryag’ numerically equaling 613- was not accepted by all? Is that emes? Let’s find out.

Although there have been many attempts to codify and enumerate the mitzvis contained in the heylige Toirah, the most traditional and accepted enumeration is RambaM’s (Maimonides’s). His total of 613 commandments include “mitzvis ah-say” (positive commandments), to perform an act, and “mitzvis loi sah-say” (negative commandments), to commandment to abstain from certain acts. Most of us struggle with at least a number of these, if you chap and especially if you do. The negative commandments number 365, which coincide with the number of days in the solar year, while the positive commandments number 248, a number ascribed to the number of bones and main organs in the human body. The number 613 is of course mentioned in the heylige Gemora, ober its real significance seems to have gained momentum in later medieval rabbinic literature as we will read below.

Ershtens (firstly) you should know that a number of great Jewish scholars have –over the generations- compiled complete listings of the mitzvis contained in the heylige Toirah. Although they mostly agree on the vast majority of the commandments, they do disagree concerning a number of them. What else is new? The big chidush (news item) is that they seem to agree on many. Their arguments, we are taught, are for scholastic purposes only, for they do not disagree over any actual commandment whether it is mandatory or forbidden, they only disagree whether certain mitzvis are independent commandments, or are perhaps part of another commandment and are not counted on their own. In other words, and less elegantly stated: they don’t agree at all!

On the other hand, and believe it or not, some say that despite the rabbinic concept – as discussed in the heylige Gemora – that there are 613 biblical commandments, a careful examination produces a much smaller number. It does? The numbers are off? What happened to the missing mitzvis? Oy vey!

Ober, doesn’t the RambaM tell us that there are 613? Indeed he (and other luminaries) taka do. Moreover, where the RambaM and others argue mostly, is over which of the mitzvis count, which are part of the lucky 613. And don’t we generally and more, always follow the RambaM? Avada we do. Ober and as expected, not everyone agrees.

Nu, let’s find out what went down and how the number 613 magically appeared. I say magically because the heylige Toirah does of course not mention the number of 613. Ober let’s learn a shtikel Gemora which tells us (Makkis 23b), azoy: “dorash Rebbe Simloee (Rabbi Simloee gave as a sermon and said): 613 commandments were communicated to Moishe: 365 negative commands, corresponding to the number of solar days [in a year], and 248 positive commands, corresponding to the number of the members [bones covered with flesh] of a man’s body.” A person should observe the Toirah with all his 248 body parts 365 days of the year. As an aside, the Hebrew word translated as” bones” includes some additional body parts, which explains the discrepancy from modern medicine’s count of 206 bones.) Ancient source also indicate that there are 365 sinews in the body, and a 248 day cycle of the moon, so  both numbers have both anatomical and astronomical significance, whatever all that means.

The bottom line is that two numbers add up to 613.” Givaldig and veyter. Rav Hamnuna said: “What verse teaches this to us: ‘Toirah tzivoh lonu Moishe moiroshoh kehilas Yaakov’ (Moishe taught us the Toirah, which is an inheritance of the community descended from Yaakov).  And? So happens that the Gematria (numerical value) of the word Toirah equals 611. And? When you add the mitzvis the RBSO Himself delivered to the shell-shocked Yiddin, two first two of the Ten Commandments -(O’nochi Hashem and Loi Yihyeh Lecha)- to the 611, together we get to 613. Veyter. What could be more beautiful?


Ober, is that number real? Aren’t there mamish hundreds if not thousands of places where that the heylige Toirah commands us what to do? There are! Way more than 613 times. How many times does the heylige Toirah tell us to observe the shabbis? Many! At least several dozen times. And how many times are we warned about avoido zoro (idol worship), and not to bed those on the forbidden list? Seemingly not enough; ober that for another day. As an aside, the heylige Gemora  (Buba Metzia 59B) says, in the name of R’ Elazar HaGadol, that 36 times in Toirah we are warned against the wronging of a convert (46 if you count the times it says “because you were strangers in Mitzrayim (Egypt)). The reason given is because a convert has a strong inclination for evil, and you do not want to drive him back to his old ways. Efsher that’s the reason we Yiddin are so prone to going off the derecho; weren’t we all strangers and converts? Didn’t we all convert on Har C’nai (Mt. Sinai) on Shovuis mamish and isn’t that all part of the Shovuis celebration. And isn’t that why we read the emotional story of Rus, herself a convert on Shovuis? Grada it is.  Shoin: it’s not our fault that we are all but sinners and constantly finding ourselves in trouble -as did the Yiddin throughout their 40-year midbar stint. They were but converts and somehow efsher -with some outside stimuli- driven back to their old ways. Sounds logical ober will it hold up with the RBSO when we face Him? Ver veyst?


And if what we were taught in yeshiva is emes and of course it is, namely that the heylige Toirah contains no extra words –not even one letter- each and every letter is critical and needs to be adhered to- should we then not count each and every commandment given by the RBSO? Efsher taka each repetition of a commandment has a different meaning? Who are we to decide that just because the RBSO mentioned shabbis observance at least 8 times, that He really meant them all to be one big mitzvah? And were we to count each listing, each warning, each and every time the heylige Toirah told us to do or not to do something, would the list not balloon to over one thousand and more? Are we not shortchanging ourselves by limiting our mitzvah count to 613? Moreover, since the Mishneh (at the end of Makkis) states: Hashem wanted to provide Israel with much merit and therefore, provided them with much Toirah and many Mitzvis, why do we limit the count to 613? Are these words of the RBSO then –heaven forbid- to be ignored? Efsher not ignored, but not counted? And if that’s the case, and seemingly it is, it would then appear that a healthy number of the RBSO’s commandments are not being counted, ober which ones? And why were they left out? Guess what? This question bothered many an exegete and led many early authorities to calculate exactly what is included in the 613 mitzvis and thereby try making sense of what the heylige Gemora meant with Rebbe Simloee’s sermon. Geonim and Rishonim authored works listing the 613 mitzvis of the Toirah, and no two lists are the same. As a matter of fact, there are major disputes among the early authorities over the rules governing what, and which mitzvis we include and exclude in the count of the 613 mitzvis.

And just like that, the number 613 became associated with the number of mitzvis found in our heylige Toirah? As an aside, the heylige Gemora does not provide us with a list of the commandments. Ober, Rebbe Simloee got his number from where? Did he make it up while sermonizing? How many mitzvis were there before Reb Simloee gave his sermon? More? Less? Nu, listen to this bombshell: some say that before Reb Simloee’s famous sermon, no one thought there were 613 mitzvis (biblical commandments) in the heylige Toirah. And listen to this: some 150 years before Rebbe Simloee sermonized, a fellow by the name of ben Azzai – he most famous for never getting married- stated that there were but three hundred mitzvis d’oirayso (biblical commands). 300? Did he get the Toirah wholesale, more than 50% off?


Nu, since the RambaM and the RambaN seem to argue over kimat everything, let’s see what the RambaN (aka: Nachmanides), and others, including Ibn Ezra had to say and what they say is similar: if one counts all of the mitzvis as recorded in the heylige Toirah, the number would be well over a thousand! And that is well over the 613 counted by Rebbe Simloee. OMG!  And listen to this. Say the same two sages, “if only the mitzvis relevant to his day were numbered, the total would be less than three hundred. …and if we were to count only the root principles…the number of mitzvis would not reach 613.” You hear this Raboyseyee?

Says the RambaN in his commentary to the RambaM’s Sefer Hamitzvis: the 613 count is a matter of dispute and there is no certainty that it is true, but since “this total has proliferated throughout the aggadic literature…we ought to say that it is a tradition from Moishe at Sinai.” In other words: what began as sermonic material by Rebbe Simloee took on a life of its own. By comparing mitzvis to the days in the solar calendar and limbs in one’s body, he threw out the number 613 and shoin, it stuck.

And said Reb Yehudah ben Shmuel Even Bal’am (an Andalusian rabbi of the eleventh century), azoy : “To my mind, the dictum of Rabbi Simloee was said only as an approximation.” And said the Ralbag (Gersonides): “the number is only homiletical, teaching that the Yiddin should obey the RBSO’s laws with their entire being (248 organs), every day (365 days in the solar calendar).

The bottom line: In Tannaitic sources the number 613 is unknown, at least not proven to be known. And, because there was no consensus on this number, early attempts to list the 613 mitzvis failed.

And the good news? By paring the mitzvis down to a more manageable 613, by not counting each and every time the RBSO warned His people not violate the shabbis and myriad other laws, the rabbis decided that when the Toirah repeats a mitzvah many times, one does not count each such repetition as a separate mitzvah; we count them all as but one mitzvah. Therefore, although the heylige Toirah prohibits eating blood on several occasions, it counts as only one of the 613 mitzvos. As a result, in the Rambam’s opinion, someone who violates this prohibition is punished only as if he violated one loi sah-say, and not many. The same is emes when many of you violate other loi-sah says on the forbidden list. Each act is but one aveyro; maybe manageable.  Avada there are exceptions -of course- to this rule, and at times, what appears like a repetitive mitzvah, is indeed counted twice. In these instances, rationale is avada offered as to why they count twice.

Lest you think that only the RambaM and the RambaN argue over the list of  mitzvis to be included in the official count, you would be wrong. Many other luminaries weighed in on the count and argued vociferously over which were in and out and one thing remains clear. These days, in our times, we have a tradition that the total numbers 613. Whether or not that’s emes, or ever was, we will not know until the Moshiach arrives and clarifies this and many other things. For now, we go with 613. What all rabbis seem to agree on is this: of the 248 positive mitzvis, many –for various reasons- are not achievable in our times. The sad news is that even with a shortened list, most of us don’t observe all of them. Shoin! More bad news: the 365 on the ‘thou shall not do’ list, has not at all shrunken down. Yikes!

And we close with this. How many of the Commandments are relevant today? Not only is the number 613 the result of a third-century sermon, with the list debated by many rabbis and including commands instituted by the rabbis who considered them “as if” they were biblical, but most of the inventory of 613 commands are not relevant today. Says the RambaM (Sefer Hamitzvis):  the positive commandments that a man in the ordinary course of life has always the opportunity to fulfill is only 60 not 248.  For women, the number is only 46. Ober…lest you think that life has gotten easier by the paring down of the active mitzvah list….our sages, those to whom we refer as our ‘rabonon,’ found ways to add hundreds more and then told us that their enactments all hark back to Mt. Sinai and are therefore binding as if the RBSO Himself delivered  them. Mitzvos d’rabbonon are commonly divided into three categories: gezeirah laws instituted by the rabbis to prevent people from accidentally violating a Toirah mitzvah. We commonly speak of a gezeirah as a “fence” around the Toirah, takono (rules unrelated to biblical laws that were created by the rabbis for the public welfare.)


A good fellow by the name of Ezra was a takono specialist and gave us a few very interesting takonos, mostly very helpful), and minhag, ober all that for another day. As to minhogim (customs), they too are treated as a category of mitzvis d’rabonon (from the rabbis), mostly because customs are clearly not d’oirayso (from the Toirah), but minhag is generally not the sort of rule that is created by reasoned decision-making. A minhag is a custom that developed for worthy religious reasons and has continued long enough to become a binding religious practice. By way of example only, the second day of any holiday – think next Monday the second day of Shovuis- was originally instituted as a gezeirah, so that people outside of Israel, not certain of the day of a holiday, would not accidentally violate the holiday’s mitzvis. After the mathematical calendar was instituted and there was no doubt about the days, the added second day was no longer necessary. The rabbis considered ending the practice at that time, but decided to continue it as a minhag: the practice of observing an extra day had developed for worthy religious reasons, and had become customary. Shoin: another issue for the Moshiach to sort out.


Wishing you all a gitten Shabbis and a Chag Somayach-

The Heylige Oisvorfer Ruv

Yitz Grossman

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