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What Is a Mitzvah?

What Is a Mitzvah?

The State of Being Connected

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(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 Talmud1 mentions that the Jewish People were given 613 mitzvot at Sinai, and numerous codes—most notably, MaimonidesSefer Hamitzvot —provide 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,2 meaning to attach or join. Tzavta can mean companionship3 or personal attachment.4 In this sense, a mitzvah bundles up the person who is commanded and the Commander, creating a relationship and essential bond.5

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 healing 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.”6

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.”7 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:

  1. Washing hands for bread.
  2. Laws of Eruv.
  3. Reciting a blessing before partaking of food or any other pleasure.
  4. Lighting Shabbat candles.
  5. Celebration of Purim.
  6. Celebration of Chanukah.
  7. 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.8 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 society.

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.

Footnotes
1.
Makkot 23b.
2.
See Talmud, Bava Metzia 28a.
3.
See Talmud, Berachot 6b: “The entire world was created only to accompany this one,” and Sukkah 52a: “The way is long and our company sweet . . .”
4.
See Talmud, Bava Batra 80a: “The mother bird will be attached to the daughter bird . . .”
5.
See Pri Etz Chaim, Shaar Lulav u-Minav 3: “Yetzaveh . . . to accompany . . .” Shelah, Asarah Maamarot, Maamar Shlishi u-Revi’i: “Mitzvah, meaning tzavta, meaning companionship.” Ibid., Torah Shebaal Peh, Masechet Yoma, Derech Chaim 16: “For a mitzvah is the unification of all of Atzilut . . . from the term tzvaata . . . accompany . . .” Ohr Hachaim on Exodus 27:20: “‘And you shall command’ . . . from the term tzavta . . . accompany . . .” Torah Ohr (Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi), Genesis 6b: “. . . ‘and He commanded us,’ from the term tzavta and connection with the Infinite Light, source of the mitzvot above . . .”
7.
Ethics of the Fathers 4:2.
8.
See Talmud, Sanhedrin 88b; Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 11:4.
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at Chabad.org, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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Discussion (10)
November 28, 2016
Re: Really (Avishai)
Do you have kids? Or students? What's more precious to you: When they only follow your instructions just as you said, or when they get what you really want and find their own way to do it even better?
Tzvi Freeman
November 27, 2016
Finding out a mitzvah
When I sit in front of this PC to read what's new in Chabad I feel this is not a "make-work" activity. It really works as a mitzvot; why? Because it provides a direct benefit to my soul; what benefit? It bundles up me up with my Creator; It directs me towards the things I need, for instance: I had been looking for to a more detailed explanation about teshuva and here under the Mitzvah Minutes link found what I needed. And, undoubtedly, to do teshuva is a mitzvah.
Jorge
Qro. Mexico
November 27, 2016
Really?
"Yet the rabbis of the Talmud go further and assert that rabbinical enactments are more precious to G‑d than His own direct commands."
Do you really believe this? It seems extremely self-serving to me.
Avishai
KY
September 6, 2015
mitzvah
Why oh why does a mitzvah have to have a reward? Surely just doing a good deed is enough, thinking a good thought when it maybe easier to think if I donate £1mill to a good cause and tell everyone, is that better than a small sum just given, with out fanfare?
andreas obuaculla
ireland
August 5, 2015
invest
A parent invests in a child`s education because he expects a return sometimes ten times or a hundred times. Otherwise he could have invested in his neighbor`s or his brother`s children. He may not be able to influence other`s children so much. But every commandment done may have some reward at the end so one continues to observe it. Even teaching or learning Torah is an investment for the future not for the present.
Anonymous
toronto
November 1, 2011
guidelines for debate
What are the established guidelines and precedents for debate for determining new mitzvot and the new practice of established mitzvot?
Anonymous
Brampton, Canada
August 10, 2011
Re: i don't get it
When the mitzvah is being performed, the innermost will of the Creator of the Universe is being carried out openly within His creation. That's called light: A window from the creation to the inner will of the Creator.
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
August 10, 2011
r h l Mar 9, 2011
Eating matzoh beyond Pesach allows one to

1. Keep a reminder of our days in Mitzrayim, the historical aspect.

2. A reminder of our present exiled status in geographical location/Diaspora

3. The mental state of our being when we struggle with life's hardships

4. Matzoh is a thin and simple food. It reminds us to be humble in life. It reminds us to practice prophet Micah's injunction : Walk humbly with G-d.

The whole idea is to keep a mind on refining one's behavior through the past conditions of the Jewish people and the present situation. At least this is the intention, and how it works for me.
Anonymous
August 10, 2011
i don't get it
at all.

How does eating Matza bring more light into the world or bind a jew to G-d? Sure it is a powerful reminder of the Exodus and it binds Jew to Jew but how does it bring light or bring the world closer to the times of Moshiach?
rhl
March 9, 2011
Of course
This was an excellent presentation about mitzvot.

The last two paragraphs are what really kicked in, the practicality of it all.
Naturally the soulful connection aspect is as important.

The only reason that i am making a comment is that of all the articles in this batch, i chose to read this one.

So i get to the end feeling pretty good. And who is the author ? You Rabbi Tzvi. Of course.

Thank you and Yasher koach.
Mordi
The landscape of classic Jewish thought is painted with a finite set of themes and motifs...
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