Question:  The Ten Commandments came up in a conversation I was having with a friend. She said that in Judaism there are actually over 600 commandments. Is she correct? If so I’d appreciate your commenting on the actual number, the origin of those other than the Ten we usually refer to, as well as their origin, and any other knowledge you have on the subject.

Answer: Rabbi Simlai in Talmudic Tractate of Makot (page 23b) teaches that there are 248 positive commandments (Observe . . . ), and 365 negative commandments (Do not . . .), a total of 613.  These 613 commandments come from the Torah.  There are various attempts to compile a list of all of the commandments, and the lists vary from each other.  One of them, Maimonides’ “Sefer Hamitzvot,” has been translated into English as “The Commandments,” by Dr. Charles B. Chavel.

Question:  Jews are bound by law; 613 of them, some positive and some negative…. but I have never seen a list of the actual mitzvot.  I have read that most no longer apply,  but I would really like to see a complete list and read them for myself. ( I understand that they are contained throughout the Bible but locating them all is a bit beyond my current level of study).

Answer: There are actually several lists of the 613 mitzvot; but the most accessable list (in English) is Maimonides, The Commandments, translated by Charles B. Chavel, and published by Soncino Press.  You might find it in your local synagogue library, or you could certainly purchase it at a Jewish bookstore.

Question:  Do I have to give Tzedakah if I’m on welfare and SSI?

Answer: There is a Jewish teaching that one is still obligated to give tzedakah even if one is being sustained from community tzedakah funds.  Offhand, I can think of several explanations for this:

1)  People of any income level might tend to say, “Things are tough right now.  I will give when circumstances are a bit better.”  Realizing that Tzedakah is a mitzvah at any income level emphasized the importance of the mitzvah.

2)  It is a reminder that no matter how bad things seem, there are others who are less well off than you.

3)  You ought to remain in the habit of giving, so when your circumstances change, you have not lost your attachment to that mitzvah.

4)  If you are raising children, the best way to teach them that tzedakah is a mitzvah is to let them see you give tzedakah.

Note that one is obligated to give tzedakah commensurate with one’s income (after tax). Therefore, if one’s income is very low, one need only give a correspondingly small amount of tzedakah to fulfill one’s obligation.

Question:  Is tithing a commandment?

Answer: Tithing per se is not a commandment, because tithes were directed to the Temple, which no longer exists.  However, the mitzvah of giving tzedakah is based on the mitzvah of tithing.

Question:  Can you recommend readings on Tshuvah?

Answer: Here is a list of books and other readings on teshuvah:

Hilkhot Teshuvah (The Laws of Repentance) from Mishnah Torah, the Code of Moses Maimonides.

Classical Jewish ethical literature:

a. Hovot Halevavot (Duties of the Heart), by Bahya ibn Pakuda

b.  Shaare Teshuvah (The Gates of Repentance), by Jonah Gerondi

c. Mesillat Yesharim (The Path of the Righteous), by Moshe Hayim Luzzatto

Contemporary Jewish works:

a. On Repentance, by Josef Baer Soloveitchik

b. Teshuvah, by Adin Steinsaltz

I hope this list of books helps you.  Thank you to Rabbi George Barnard of Northern Hills Synagogue in Cincinatti for recommending the list.

Question:  Is Teshuvah done in ceremony form or in every day life?

Answer: There is no specific ritual or ceremony for teshuvah.  When one becomes aware that one has committed a sin and wants to repent, one apologizes to the appropriate parties, makes restitution (if possible), and resolves not to repeat the sin.

Question:  How does one go about “repenting” for sins transgressed against God such as adultery, assault, and using one’s profession for personal gain?  I’m curious as to whether or not there is a ritual one must complete, much like that of Yom Kippur, in order to appeal for forgiveness from God.

Answer: We atone for sins committed against God through repentance and prayer.  Repentance consists of an acknowledgement of the wrong, and a committment not to do the sin again.  Maimonides writes in his Hilchot Teshuvah (the Halacha of repentance) that the true measure of repentance comes when the opportunity to sin comes up again, and one refrains from sinning.

There is a blessing in the weekday Amidah that one recites three times a day that fulfills the same liturgical/ritual function as the confessions of Yom Kippur.  The translated text goes:

“Forgive us our Father because we have sinned, pardon us, our Sovereign, because we have transgressed; for you are a forgiver and pardoner.  The Source of Blessing are You, Adonai, gracious and full of forgiveness.”

The sins you mention, however, adultery, assault, and some cases of misusing one’s profession, are not sins solely between yourself and God.  They affect another person, as well.  In order to atone for sins between yourself and another person, first you need to as forgiveness from the person you have wronged, if possible.  After that, the process of atonement is identical to sins between human beings and God.

Question:  What is the Jewish view of forgiveness?  This seems to be a common issue in secular and Christian writing. There seems to be a belief in forgiving everyone for everything they have done even if they haven’t asked for forgiveness. I don’t think this is the Jewish way. Yet I struggle with this issue. Dennis Prager addressed it in one of his tapes and made it clear that from his perspective Jews and gentiles do approach this subject differently. From a personal perspective I don’t want to go through life bitter and angry at someone who may have hurt me intentionally and clearly has not asked for any forgiveness from me. A lot of the secular literature seems to suggest that healing of our inner selves comes when we forgive others. How do we forgive someone who doesn’t ask for forgiveness and is not sorry for what he or she has said or done? If we don’t forgive, then how do we move on without carrying negative feelings around inside of us?  Are you aware of any writings on this subject from the Jewish perspective?

Answer: You are really asking two questions:

1)  Are we obligated to forgive someone who has not asked our forgiveness?

2)  How do we live with our feelings about a person who has done us wrong and not asked forgiveness.

Question number 1 is easy.  Someone who has not asked forgiveness for something done wrong has not repented for the sin, and does not deserve forgiveness.  Forgiveness is only deserved for someone who has repented and made restitution for the sin.  This is clearly very different than the Christian attitude towards forgiveness.

It occurs to me, however, it is always possible that the person who committed the wrong might have honestly forgotten about it; or might honestly not realize that he/she did something to hurt you.  This brings up question number 2.  One approach might to be write a very polite letter to the person, telling him/her what he/she did to you, and how and why it hurt you.  This might prompt them to examine their behavior, and perhaps apologize.

But the hardest question, the one you seem to be asking, is what happens when a person knows that he/she has done wrong and deliberately does not apologize.  How do we live with our feelings of anger?  I have not found any specifically Jewish response to this question.  Judaism, for the most part, does not instruct us on how to feel, as opposed to how to act.

Realize first that each one of us is created in the image of God, which means that we have the power to choose how to behave.  If someone has chosen to behave against you badly, they have committed a sin.  It is their sin, and you bear no responsibility for that sin.  Know that God will not forgive them for that sin until they make appropriate reparations to you.

You, too, have a choice.  You are angry at this person for the sin that he/she has committed against you.  Your choice is to continue to carry around these feelings of anger and bitterness.  But you can make a different choice.  You should not forgive the other person, but you can say to yourself, “Yes, I am angry, and some part of me will continue to be angry until they apologize.  But do not choose to let that anger enslave me and run my life.  At the same time as I am angry, I also feel sorry for this person.  He/she is carrying around this sin – and probably others – and God will never forgive him/her.  This is incredibly sad, that a person has to go through life carrying sins because he/she is too stubborn or blind to realize the power of repentance.”

Question:  Where is the mitzvah of feeding and clothing the poor first discussed in the Torah?  Is there a specific reference to a biblical character that fulfilled this mitzvah? Who? When? Where?  Is this  halakha, or are there halakhot that pertain to this mitzvah?

Answer: The first mention of the mitzvah of feeding the poor (and there are also references to clothing, although there is no specific reference to providing clothing the poor as a kind of tzedakah) is in Exodus, chapters 22 and 23.  Specifically, look at the verses 22:20-26 and 23:9-11.

Their are no stories of Biblical figures performing these mitzvot, although there is a midrash from the Talmud Sota 14a which describes God as clothing the naked when God made clothing of skin for Adam and Eve.

Feeding and clothing the poor are certainly mitzvot.  The general halakha of tzedakah can be found in Maimonides’ Mishnah Torah, at the end of the chapter on “Gifts to the Poor.”

Question:  What is a Met (dead person) Mitzvah?

Answer: A Met Mitzvah is an unidentified corpse found outside a town.  Those who live in that town are obligated (have the mitzvah) to bury it.

Question: What’s the Conservative viewpoint of shatnez? I’ve looked in Klein’s _Guide to Jewish Religious Practice and came up with nothing. If I start keeping this mitzvah, do I really have to send my clothes out to be tested, do I have to avoid linen thread on wool items, or am I okay if I just steer clear of wool-linen blends in the fabric itself?

Answer: The Conservative movement has not published any specific position on shatnez, meaning that the traditional Torah prohibition against intentionally wearing linen and wool together does still stand.

Although there are laboratories that will test wool clothing to ensure that it is not a wool linen blend, the practice of most people is to trust the clothing label.  I am not familiar enough with the regulation of clothing manufacturing to know if an article of clothing labeled “100% wool” or a “wool-polyester blend” might use linen threads, but my practice has been to trust the label, and assume that there would not be linen unless it was specifically labeled.  Most thread, as far as I know, is made of cotton, not linen.

Question:  I am making a Tallit and I would like to know what type of materials I can and can not mix?

Answer: The Torah forbids mixing wool and linen in any article of clothing (Deuteronomy 22:11).  However, woolen tzitzit may be tied to a linen tallit.