side of Judaism, to use its details to portray the system as a whole.Thick description requires a judicious selection of only those details that usefullyinform us as to the larger issues, not including too many to be overwhelming, yet notleaving out relevant information. With a culture as complex as Judaism, selection alongthose lines is devilishly difficult. Let us spend a moment explaining how we cut thatmaterial to a manageable size.First, for reasons we will explain below, we have chosen to discuss only BiblicalJudaism, that originally legislated in the Torah. While we will analyze those laws withinusing the Rabbinic tradition of what they meant, we will not discuss the many later layersof Rabbinic legislation, which certainly affected and enriched the religion. Even so, weare left with too much material to be digested usefully within a reasonably sized study.The renowned twelfth-century
and philosopher, Moses Maimonides, provides a further way of subdividing Judaism into digestible portions in his enumerationof the 613 commandments that the Talmud asserted could be found in the Torah,
Book of the Commandments.
To appreciate Maimonides’comment, though, we need to remember that his enumeration assumes not only thevalidity of the Talmudic claim that the Torah ordained 613 commandments, but also that248 of them were positive commandments, meaning they require a person to take specificaction, and 365 were negative, meaning they prohibit certain actions.
That there were definitely and only 613 commandments was also a matter of debate; see Nahmanides’ questioning the assumption in his comments on the first of Maimonides’introductory principles to the book.