(Sephardi: miṣwā; Ashkenazi: mitsvā) מצוה Root: צוה
Plural: מצות mitzvot
Related words: צוה tzivah—he commanded; צוותא tzavta—a connection, companionship

What is a mitzvah?

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. It generally refers to the Divine commandments to the Jewish people, things He wants us to do or not do.

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.

What does mitzvah mean?

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 is a mitzvah?

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 Sefer ha-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. The most famous quote from the book: “A person's attitudes are molded by his behavior.”6

The author supports his statement by describing how through good deeds and Torah study a wicked heart can be transformed to the good, while the opposite occurs with a good heart and wicked deeds. Indeed, the entire 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.”7

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.”8 In performing a mitzvah, you and your world are one with G‑d Himself .

Can the rabbis create a mitzvah?

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.9 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.