Maimonides is celebrated for his Mishneh Torah, an encyclopedic compendium of Jewish law. One of its distinct features is the way the author lists and relists all the Biblical commandments. Before each section – for example, the laws of ShabbatMaimonides enumerates all of the Torah commandments contained therein. He lists the number of positive commands (the “must dos”) and the number of negative commands (the prohibitions), as well as the combined total.

In addition, Maimonides lists every single one of the 613 commandments in his impressive introduction twice (!), first in the order of themes, and then again as they are structured in the 14 sections of the code. His dedicated calculation and codification of the mitzvot makes Maimonides the greatest of the “enumerators” – those who sought to identify which laws comprise the traditional total of 613.

The Rabbinic Commandments

After diligently listing each of the 613 commandments, Maimonides adds:

There are additional commandments that were created after the Giving of the Torah [at Sinai], which were established by the prophets and the sages and have spread among the entire Jewish People – such as reading the megillah [of Esther on Purim], [lighting] Chanukah candles, [fasting on] the Ninth of Av fast, [establishing] Eruvin, and hand washing [before meals]… We are obligated to accept and observe all these commandments that were later instituted, as the Torah1 teaches: do not deviate from the matter that they [the sages] instruct you.2

Oddly enough, Maimonides, who had a distinct predilection for listing, does not claim to list them all, nor does he state how many Rabbinical mitzvot there are.

This is striking. Why would Maimonides go to such extraordinary lengths to list all the Biblical commandments and then fall entirely silent when it comes to the Rabbinic ones?

Maimonides himself explains that he gave such careful attention to the number of laws and their codification to serve as a vital aid in the study and practice of the mitzvot.3 Surely, this logic should apply just the same when it comes to the Rabbinic mitzvot, which we are just as obligated to adhere to!

It is true that if we include the multitude of Rabbinic ordinances applied to each Biblical commandment, the number would rise to the thousands, but the main Rabbinic enactments are quite small in number, often referred to as “the seven Rabbinic commandments.” Why didn’t Maimonides enumerate these main commandments initiated by the rabbis the same way he listed the commandments of Biblical origin?

Beyond Number

Noting Maimonides’ silence on this matter, the Rebbe draws a far-reaching conclusion – one that touches on a fundamental aspect of Judaism: The reason Maimonides does not list the number of Rabbinic commandments is because quintessentially there is no number. By its very nature, there can be no number. Refusing to give a number of Rabbinic commandments despite repeatedly doing so in relation to the Biblical commandments is designed to make that point.

Maimonides himself explains that the mitzvot of the Torah are fixed in number. The Torah4 says, “You shall not increase them, nor diminish from them.” Maimonides states: “It is clear and explicit in the Torah that G‑d's commandments remain forever without change, addition, or diminishment.”5 For Maimonides, this is one of the 13 fundamental principles of faith.

The Rabbinic commands, however, are completely the opposite. They are the product of Rabbinic license to innovate and enhance our observance of the Biblical mitzvot. The rabbis are mandated to introduce new advances in Jewish practice to meet the religious needs of the people, according to their judgement. At any given time in history, there may in fact be a particular number of Rabbinic mitzvot. Whether or not additional ordinances will be introduced is a matter of speculation – but the potential for that to happen is certain.

Were Maimonides to provide a number of Rabbinical commandments, even if that is simply accounting the number correct at his time of writing, that would give the impression that there is a fixed number – as was his intention when enumerating the Biblical commandments. Maimonides was therefore compelled to avoid all reference to a sum of Rabbinic commandments to maintain the principle that the Rabbinic commandments are flexible and can be amended.

An Open-Ended Question

Even if in today’s day and age the technical conditions do not exist for major Rabbinic enactments – as there is no Sanhedrin – that does not change the principle that Rabbinic commandments are not finite in number. Indeed, when the time comes for the Sanhedrin to be re-established in keeping with the Biblical prophecy that, “I shall restore your judges as before,”6 the possibility for new Rabbinic commandments to be issued will return.

In fact, it is not clear that even today the rabbis are prevented from enacting new laws. Indeed, Maimonides tells us that any Rabbinic laws that are adopted by all of the Jewish People become binding. He7 even rules that should all the Rabbinic scholars in the Land of Israel agree to appoint ordained judges, that the Sanhedrin could be re-established, and the possibility for new Rabbinic commandments would be reinstated.

It is an essential quality of Biblical laws that they have a defined number – 613 – and it is an essential quality of Rabbinic laws that they should not have a defined number, but should remain open-ended. The same way that the integrity of Judaism requires the Biblical laws to remain fixed, it also requires that Rabbinic law stay flexible.

Adapted from Likutei Sichot, vol. 29, Parshat Shoftim II.