An Illustrated Guide to the 613 Jewish Commandments

Archie Rand in his studio in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Mr. Rand's new book is "The 613," which displays one painting for each of the 613 Jewish commandments.

The painter Archie Rand likes to work big. He tackles big themes, like jazz in American culture and the history of the Jews. He often paints very large pieces, including murals. And he likes to work in expansive series, like his collection of 54 paintings, one for each parashah, or division, in the Hebrew text of the Torah.

But nothing prepared the art world for “The 613,” his series, completed in 2008, of 613 paintings, one for each Jewish commandment.

Seven years ago, when The New York Times wrote about “The 613,” the paintings were hanging in Mr. Rand’s warehouse in Brooklyn. No gallery or museum has shown them all. To do that, Mr. Rand had to put the paintings between the covers of a book. “The 613,” a wonderfully garish book with one painting per page, will be published next week (Blue Rider, $45).

By taking his work to Amazon and Barnes & Noble, Mr. Rand is giving back to the art world the same cool indifference with which the art world has at times treated him.

Most people know that there are 10 commandments, enumerated in the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, and given on tablets to Moses — even if we do not necessarily know what those commandments are. (In a 2007 poll commissioned to promote an animated Christian movie, more respondents knew that “two all-beef patties” were in Big Macs than knew that “Thou shalt not kill” was a commandment.) But there are more: From Genesis through Deuteronomy, there are a total of 613 commandments, as counted by medieval sages.

Many of the 613 are obsolete. Christians believe Jesus released them from observing most of them, and hundreds pertain to practices in the Jerusalem temples, which were destroyed, the second in A.D. 70. But the list nevertheless seems like a theological dare. For his book “The Year of Living Biblically,” the humorist A. J. Jacobs spent a year obeying as many of the 613 as he could. If you have the right kind of perverse ambition, the list eggs you on.

Which seems to be what happened to Mr. Rand. A secular Jew whose work was shown by the prestigious Tibor de Nagy Gallery when he was only 18, Mr. Rand has won praise for abstract paintings, figurative paintings and prints made with color-stained potato chunks. But he did not seriously work with religious subjects until the 1970s, when he made a series of now-famous murals in the B’nai Yosef Synagogue in Brooklyn.

Since then, Mr. Rand, 66, has done other synagogue murals, a series on the 19 sections of the daily Amidah prayer and, in 1989, the 54 paintings on the divisions of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, Genesis to Deuteronomy.

But when Mr. Rand does work with a Jewish theme, he sometimes attracts ridicule, hate, or worse, indifference — not in the synagogues across the country that he has decorated with his beloved murals, but in the aggressively secular art world. In 1972, for instance, he did a gallery show “with 10 paintings named after the 10 rabbis of the Yom Kippur martyrology,” he recalled.

“And nobody noticed,” he said, even though “all the dealers, collectors, everybody was noticeably Jewish, though not identified as such.”

“Because the art world,” Mr. Rand said, “is where the Jews go to assimilate.”

When his friend Norman Kleeblatt, head curator at the Jewish Museum in New York, first saw the series of 54, he worried that they were too religious. Eventually, Mr. Rand said, Mr. Kleeblatt included the paintings in a group show in 1996, titled “Too Jewish?”

(In response to a call to Mr. Kleeblatt’s office, an assistant sent some pages from the original catalog of the show. In Mr. Kleeblatt’s opening essay, he wrote that Mr. Rand, sensing Mr. Kleeblatt’s embarrassment, had actually been the one to suggest that the paintings were “‘too Jewish’ to show even at the Jewish Museum.”)

When the show went on the road, it received mixed reviews. When the critic, often Jewish, “was disgusted by a blatantly Jewish identity,” Mr. Rand said, he or she would ignore the Rand paintings. The Times’s review, as it happens, did not mention Mr. Rand.

Of course, even if the art world kept kosher, it would not know what to do with Mr. Rand’s latest, most ambitiously Jewish project. What gallery or museum could show 613 paintings, one for each of the commandments in the Hebrew Bible? Mr. Rand got the formidable idea in 2001 from a philanthropist and friend who had purchased his paintings before.

“He said, ‘What are you going to do now, after the 54 chapter paintings?’” Mr. Rand recalled. “I said, ‘I need a number so enormous that the insolence of its own enormity, the temerity of it, in fact become a statement in itself.’ He said to me, ‘There’s 613 mitzvahs’ ” — using the word that means both “good deed” and “commandment.”

The paintings in “The 613” were made with Mr. Rand’s mixture of commercial acrylics and industrial resins. They are religious but hardly reverent.

“The images I chose were mainly cribbed, or swiped, from the comic-book industry, which it’s well known by now was dominated for years by Jewish inventors,” Mr. Rand said.

A reader can flip open “The 613” and see what looks like an EC Comic from 1949 or “Tales of the Crypt,” Mr. Rand said. “And it says, ‘The priest should not marry his mother-in-law,’ or ‘You shouldn’t get a donkey drunk on Halloween!’ ”

Those are not quite in the list of 613 commandments. But No. 277 commands one to “redeem each firstborn donkey with a lamb given to the priesthood,” which Mr. Rand illustrates with a prosperous-looking burgher riding a forlorn donkey, perhaps on his way to deliver a lamb to the priest.

And No. 169 is “the high priest must not marry a widow,” which is dramatized by a cowering damsel, forlorn, it seems, that no priest will marry her.

For extra fun, check out No. 500, “not to overcharge or underpay for an article,” illustrated with a buxom call girl lounging on a bed, reading a thick book, waiting for her john to arrive.

The point, for Mr. Rand, is not literalism. True religious seekers are comfortable with metaphor, and the truly secular will despise Mr. Rand’s work in any case. He tells the story of a close friend, an art world macher, or big shot, whom he would not let me name, who came to look at the paintings in his warehouse.

“What are you going to do with this?” he said the friend asked. “I said, ‘It’s an amazing achievement! I can’t believe I did this, 613 panels!’ And he said, ‘Look, I don’t know what you think you’re doing. You aren’t going to get anywhere with this Jew stuff.’ ”

Except he didn’t use the word “stuff.”

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