What is the earliest reference to the Torah having 613 mitzvot? Where does this list come from? This is a matter of dispute here in South Africa, where a radio talk show host made some inaccurate statements about Judaism by saying that the 613 laws were only formulated thousands of years after the Torah was written. Can you please clear this up?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
Answering your question requires a little understanding of Jewish history.
At Mount Sinai God gave the Jewish people the Torah. The word "Torah" literally means "teaching." Included in this Torah were many laws that the Jewish people became obligated in performing from that point on. Over the 40 years in the desert, the Torah was written down onto a scroll by Moses. This became known as the Written Torah, because it was written down and sealed before their entry into the Land of Israel. (It is also commonly called the Five Books of Moses.)
Although the Written Torah contains the 613 mitzvot, it does not spell out exactly what they are. Along with the various laws that were commanded to the Jewish people, such as the commandment to wear Tefillin and to rest on Shabbat, came an oral explanation that explained exactly what the mitzvah entails. This is called the Oral Torah, as it was meant to remain as an "oral tradition" and passed on from parent to child throughout the generations. Some 1700 years ago, when the harsh Roman persecutions threatened the transmission, the Oral Torah was written down to form the Talmud.
The exact accounting of the 613 mitzvot are also a part of the Oral Torah that we received on Mount Sinai.
Although the Written Torah does not state the exact number of the mitzvot, there are various hints encoded throughout the Written Torah that take the tradition of 613 so far back in history, we learn that even the Patriarchs were aware of the tradition even though they lived years before the Torah was given.
The first place in the Torah where we see a written hint to the existence of 613 commandments was during the life of Jacob. This is hinted in the message that Jacob sent to his angry brother Esau when he warned him not to start a fight. He said, "I have lived (GARTI) with Laban up until now..." (Genesis 32:5) The Midrash explains that the Hebrew word GARTI ("I have lived") is the numerical value of 613.
Many commentators have discussed the mitzvot over the ages, but an important thing to note is that there is no absolutely definitive set of the 613 mitzvot. Some of the most well-known lists are from Maimonides, Nachmanides, and the Sefer HaChinuch. The variances in their lists are slight - for example, should we count the four types of Torah-ordained death penalties as separate mitzvot, or count them as one?
For a list of the 613 mitzvot, see: http://www.aish.com/jl/m/m/48945081.html