(Sephardi: miṣwā; Ashkenazi: mitsvā) מצוה Root: צוה
Plural: מצות mitzvot
Related words: צוה tzivah—he commanded; צוותא tzavta—a connection, companionship
What are they?
The simple meaning of the word mitzvah is command. It appears in various forms with that
meaning about 300 times in the Five Books of Moses. The Talmud
mentions that the Jewish People were given 613 mitzvot at Sinai, and numerous
codes—most notably, Maimonides’ Sefer Hamitzvot
detailed listings. Examples include such diverse acts as having children,
declaring G‑d’s oneness, resting on the seventh day, not eating pork, wrapping
tefillin on the arm and head, building a Temple in Jerusalem, appointing a
king, obeying the sages and providing an interest-free loan. See our Mitzvah Minutes
for some practical examples of mitzvot.
In common usage, a mitzvah often means “a
good deed”—as in “Do a mitzvah and help Mrs. Goldstein with her packages.” This
usage is quite old—the Jerusalem Talmud commonly refers to any charitable act
as “the mitzvah.”
Often the word mitzvah is related to the Aramaic word tzavta,
meaning to attach or join. Tzavta
can mean companionship
or personal attachment.
In this sense, a mitzvah bundles up the person who is commanded and the
Commander, creating a relationship and essential bond.
The three meanings can themselves be
bundled together. “Good” is defined as that which the Creator of the Universe
wants done with His universe, and by doing that which the Creator wants done,
we are bound up with Him in body, mind and soul.
What good are they?
Everyone agrees that G‑d didn’t provide arbitrary “make-work” schemes. Mitzvot have a practical
benefit for the person who does them as well as for the entire world.
The Chinuch, an influential work composed
by an anonymous author in 13th-century Spain, is the most complete
presentation of mitzvot in this role as a kind of cognitive behavioral therapy
for the human species. “Attitudes are molded,” writes the author, “more by what
people do than by what they think about.” The work details exactly what
attitudes are affected in what way by what mitzvah.
The Kabbalists of 16th-century
Tzfat, particularly Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (“the Ari”), provided a cosmic
model for the mitzvot. Mitzvot are
devices that reach under the hood of the cosmos to repair it, reorganizing it
into a harmonious state that is capable of receiving boundless G‑dly light.
Ultimately, then, it is our mitzvot that are responsible for preparing the
world for the messianic era, a time when it will be possible to do all the
mitzvot fully, in their ideal context, and the world will be filled with G‑dly
light “as the waters cover the ocean basin.”
Nevertheless, mitzvot cannot be reduced to
utilities to achieve any particular goal—even
the ultimate perfection of the entire cosmos. If they were, they would not be G‑d’s
innermost desire—they would be
just another means to an end. Rather, the very act of a mitzvah is its own end
in itself. Thus the Mishnah declares that despite all the wonderful things a
mitzvah brings to the person and to the world, ultimately “the reward of a mitzvah is the
mitzvah itself.” In performing
a mitzvah, you and your world are one with G‑d Himself
What about things He never told us to do?
Although, the term “mitzvah” would seem to apply only to those activities that we have been expressly commanded, the term is applied as well to seven rabbinical mitzvot:
- Washing hands for bread.
- Laws of Eruv.
- Reciting a blessing before partaking of food or any other pleasure.
- Lighting Shabbat candles.
- Celebration of Purim.
- Celebration of Chanukah.
- Recitation of the prayer of praise called Hallel on certain occasions.
For each of these (except, obviously, number 3), there are blessings which begins exactly the same as a blessing said over a Torah mitzvah: “Blessed are You, L‑rd our G‑d, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us . . .”
After all, the Torah explicitly requires us to listen to the sages. Yet the rabbis of the Talmud go further and assert that rabbinical enactments are more precious to G‑d than His own direct commands. The deepest expressions of the divine will are those acts which He did not expressly tell us to do, but which Jewish communities derived through study and celebration of His Torah. The same applies to safeguards, customs and embellishments known as hiddur mitzvah.
Practically Speaking . . .
A mitzvah-based society is a society of
educated, active participants—because you can’t do mitzvot without learning
about them first. Every Jew is obliged to participate in an ongoing study of
the mitzvot and new applications of them such as they arise. When a question comes
up concerning some new technology on Shabbat, the kosher status of a new type
of food or new methods of inducing fertility, it is up to the individual to ask
those who know more to instruct him, and it is up to those who do know more to debate the
issue according to established guidelines and precedents until they reach some
sort of resolution. In this way, there is a constant flow of knowledge within
Additionally, it’s hard to keep up the
performance of mitzvot without a renewable source of inspiration. Mitzvot done
with joy and enthusiasm lift a person a step above the world and have an
enormously greater impact on the person’s environment. Again, the key is study
and communal participation.