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Why are Jews so Obsessed with Lists? A look at 10 Commandments and 613 Mitzvot – Parashat Yitro

Confronting the Jewish penchant for creating lists….Dr. Ronit Steinberg starts with this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, and its list of 10 Commandments, comparing it to an artist’s interpretation of the list of 613 mitzvot.  

Parashat Yitro is known as the Parasha in which the Ten Commandments is revealed. This is essentially the first time that commandments appear in a continuous collection, almost resembling a list.

I use the word “almost,” because it is not a numbered or ordered list, and, as you know, there are also differences in the versions of the Ten Commandments between Sefer Shemot (Exodus) and Sefer Dvarim (Deuteronomy).

On this topic, I would like to discuss here the subject of the list of commandments, mitzvot, and remind you that Judaism includes several versions of this list. The source of the concept of the list appears in the Babylonian (Bavli) Talmud in the Makkot Tractate, where the number six hundred and thirteen appears for the first time, known to us in the language of Gematria (using the Hebrew letters as numbers) as Taryag Mitzvot (613 Mitzvot). This source also includes a numerical division between the active mitzvot (Mitzvah Asseh), and the passive mitzvot (Mitzvah Lo Ta’asseh). While the Talmud itself does not have an orderly list, this setting led to the creation of various lists beginning in the Geonic period and continuing later on during the Rishonic period. The most famous is the Rambam‘s (Maimonides’) list, written in Sefer HaMitzvot. Also worthy of mention are the Azharot poems, in which the list appears as a song, which is sung in the synagogues of Mizrachi Jews.

The difficulty in defining the number of mitzvot has several reasons, including the different-methods of combining or separating mitzvot that are related to each other. In addition, there is a debate whether mitzvot that were given to the Israelites during their stay in the desert should be included and also whether the list should only include biblical commandments written M’De’oraitah (from the Torah) or also include oral law M’De’rabbanan (from the rabbis).

In this context, I would like to present the work of the artist Dov Abramson, who is both a student and a lecturer at the Schechter Institute. Abramson in his art confronts various Jewish lists. The work in front of us is called “Ner Mitzvah“.

Dov Abramson, “Ner Mitzvah”, 2003, 613 memorial candles  and computer-processed labels, Jewish Museum Collection, New York.

The work composed of a collection of six hundred and thirteen memorial candles, covered in special labels, designed by Abramson. The number of candles immediately points out the number of mitzvot. Indeed, based on the verse from Psalms (Mishlei 6:23), “For a candle is a mitzvah and the Torah is a light.” The artist chose the candles as a representation of the mitzvot: each candle represents one mitzvah, whose name is printed on its label.

Various candles form Ner Mitzvah installation

The information on the labels is very useful and designed in a graphic language of uniform symbols. Each label contains the name of the mitzvah, its serial number, and its origin. Graphic symbols describe the type of mitzvah – active or passive; who the mitzvah obligates, for example, men, women, or Cohanim; where and at what time it is relevant – for example, in the Temple or in the Land of Israel; and what is the punishment for not fulfilling the mitzvah. For example, Active mitzvot are represented by a person running, while passive mitzvot are represented by a person sitting. Mitzvot for men are represented by pants, and for women by a skirt. A mitzvah practiced in the temple is represented by the image of an altar, and a mitzvah designated to priests is represented as the breastplates (choshen) worn by the Cohen Gadol, the head priest.

Label of various mitzvot from Ner Mitzvah installation

The piece can be interpreted in several ways, and I invite each and every one of you to offer your own interpretation.

In our context of the Ten Commandments and the list of mitzvot, we may emphasize the existing tension in the work, between order and disorder. The design of the mitzvah labels creates a stiff impression: the colors are monochromatic, the lines are black and straight, the entire look is geometric, and the symbols are concise. This stiff uniformity can indicate the formality of the list of mitzvot. The work’s design also highlights the lack of a hierarchical division of the mitzvot, which fits the accepted approach that there is no difference between one mitzvah and another, and there is no hierarchical division within the list as a whole: all the units in the piece are designed in the same way.

However, the order is not complete and unequivocal. The structure of the work is subject to change: one can change the shape of the pile or select individual units. It can be divided into groups, raised, or lowered. The list of mitzvot in Judaism is not uniform and organized, and perhaps this is part of the factors that allow Judaism to continue to exist throughout the history, from the time of the Ten Commandments until today.



Dr. Ronit Steinberg is a Lecturer in Art History, Modern and Jewish Art. She is the department head and academic advisor for the Jewish Art History and the Gender and Feminism tracks. Dr. Steinberg completed her PhD in the art history department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her joint book with Prof. Katrin Kogman-Appel, The Visual Arts in Jewish Society, a publication of The Open University of Israel, will soon be published.

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