The anonymous author of the “Sefer HaChinuch,” the “Book of Training,” or “Education,” who in his modesty identifies himself only as “a Levite from Barcelona,” was a student of the Rashba, Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet, in the thirteenth century. One senses a crisis in competing for the attention of an intellectually curious youth, and an expression of support for the master’s position in a major controversy of the Age; that one should begin the study of philosophy only after reaching the age of 25, because in his Introduction, the author writes, “My sole intention is to educate the youth and to convince them that there are many advantages to the Commandments, apparent to all, that they can readily understand in their youth, and that is why I have called the work ‘Education.’ And the greater depth of the wisdom of the Commandments… if they merit it, they will grasp as they get older.”
In his Introduction, the author of the “Chinuch” categorizes the “Mitzvot” into those which apply in our time versus those which applied only in earlier times, when the Temple existed or when the majority of the Jewish People lived in Eretz Yisrael, those which apply only under specific circumstances that a person can choose to bring upon him or herself, and other characterizations. Finally, he mentions the Commandments that are applicable to all individuals, in all places and at all times, and under all conditions. They are: 1) to believe in HaShem 2) not to believe in any other Supreme Being 3) to insist upon the uniqueness of HaShem 4) to love HaShem 5) to fear HaShem 6) not to stray after one’s fantasies and what one sees in the outside world. This last “Mitzvah” goes to the root of a person’s psyche, and appears in the final section of the “Kriat Shema,” that is found at the end of Parashat Shelach.
He also notes that all of humanity has come to agreement on the principle that truth is communicated by the testimony of witnesses. Therefore, since the Giving of the Torah occurred before 600,000 adult male witnesses, besides women and children, and they included all types of human personalities, all raised to the level of prophecy, and all in total agreement, it is clear that our ancestors actually reached the ultimate in knowledge of HaShem possible for mortal human beings. And they have reported that it is possible (albeit very frightening) for G-d to speak with Man. It is therefore quite pointless for us to challenge the idea of “Torah min HaShamayim,” that the Torah was given to Man by G-d, but rather we should thirstily drink in what can be learned from the testimony and experience of those prophetic ancestors.
At the end of his Introduction, the author writes that he intends to write, for every Mitzvah, at least one idea as to the “reason(s) behind the Mitzvah.” For those reasons that are stated explicitly in Scripture, he will write them. And for those Commandments for which the reasons are not explicit, he will write what he learned from wise teachers, or what he understands himself. In general, for each of the 613 Commandments, a definition and source are provided, as well as a Section called “MiShorshei HaMitzvah,” the “Roots” (or Reasons) behind the Mitzvah, plus a Section called “MiDinei HaMitzvah,” a discussion of the major laws pertaining to it.
His method is that he goes through the Parashiot of the Torah, and identifies each Mitzvah, both the “Mitzvot Aseh,” the Positive Commands, as well as the “Mitzvot Lo- Sa’aseh,” the Negative Commands. He maintains a count of both the “Mitzvot Aseh” and of the Mitzvot Lo-Sa’aseh” within each Parashah, and a running combined count of all the “Mitzvot.” The first “Mitzvah” he identifies and discusses is the Commandment of “Priah U-Reviah,” Reproduction, found in Parashat Bereshit, and the final “Mitzvah,” number 613, is the “Mitzvah” upon each individual to write a “Sefer Torah,” found in Parashat Nitzavim-VaYelech.