The 613 by Archie Rand. (Blue Rider Press, 640 pp. $45)
The Ten Commandments are familiar to most and some may know of the seven Noahide laws, but in the hierarchy of biblical lists, the 613 mitzvot—a catalog of commandments taken by scholars from the five books of the Torah—is a relative unknown.
This inventory of mitzvot is the subject of “The 613,” artist Archie Rand’s series of 20-by-16-inch painted panels, one per commandment. On display, “The 613” is overwhelming; a 2008 installation covered over 1,700 square feet of wall space in a grid of paintings in garish, saturated colors and lurid, sometimes silly but always fascinating visual interpretations of prohibitions and laws.
“The 613” transformed into book form is a quieter yet just as compelling experience. The book includes the entire series, one painting per page with the number and English translation of the commandment below it. Rand’s series gives graphic life to even the most esoteric of commandments—10 paintings are on the laws of the Nazarite; over 20 look at the services in the Temple in Jerusalem.
However, interpretations of his painterly symbols and metaphors are left entirely to the viewer. Some are obvious. The grandeur of Creation as well as scientific efforts to explore it are easy to read in the images for the first painting in the series—an astronaut floating against a backdrop of stars and planets—on the mitzva To Know There Is a God. Others are more obscure: A person crawls out of an igloo in painting 577, Do to the False Witness What He Tried to Do to the Defendant.
In his introduction, Rand explores the history of contemporary Jewish-themed fine art as well as his five-year personal journey to completing “The 613.” The series, he explains, is his homage to the decorated wall frescoes of the Hellenist Dura-Europos synagogue in Syria combined with the broad style and caricature found in early comic books (see the Dick Tracy-like characters on number 566, Judges Must Not Accept Testimony Unless Both Parties Are Present).
For Rand, art is worship and culture; the lens through which he explores religion. He relates the Hasidic tale of a child in a synagogue who, ignorant of the prayers, whistled instead, knowing that God would rearrange the sounds into prayers. “‘The 613,’” Rand writes, “is one of those whistles.”