What is a Mitzvah?

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Gordon-Bennett, Chaviva. "What is a Mitzvah?" ThoughtCo, Jun. 25, 2015, thoughtco.com/what-is-a-mitzvah-2076795. Gordon-Bennett, Chaviva. (2015, June 25). What is a Mitzvah? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-mitzvah-2076795 Gordon-Bennett, Chaviva. "What is a Mitzvah?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-mitzvah-2076795 (accessed October 19, 2017).
A man wearing Tefillin, one of the 613 mitzvot
A man wearing tefillin, which is one of the Jewish mitzvot, or commandments. Getty Images/Bruno De Hogues

The word mitzvah is well-known outside of the Jewish world, but its meaning is often misunderstood and misused. So just what is a mitzvah? 

Meaning

Mitzvah (מִצְוָה; plural: mitzvot or mitzvoth, מִצְווֹת) is Hebrew and translates literally to "command" or "commandment." In the Greek text of the Hebrew Bible, or Torah, the term is entole, and during the Second Temple Period (586 BCE-70 CE), it was popular to see philentolos ("lover of the commandments") etched onto Jewish tombs

The term is perhaps most recognizable in reference to the bar mitzvah, son of the commandment, and bat mitzvah, daughter of the commandment, which marks, for each, the entrance of a Jewish child into adulthood at 12 for girls and 13 for boys. In fact, a quick Google image search will return thousands of pictures from bar and bat mitzvah parties and Torah readings. 

Other words do appear in the Torah in reference to the commandments, specifically with what became popularized as the "Ten Commandments," which is actually more accurately translated from the Hebrew ​aseret ha'diburot as, literally, "the 10 words."

Despite the popular understanding in the secular and Christian worlds that there are only 10 mitzvot, for religious or Torah-observant Jews there are actually 613 mitzvot in the Torah, not to mention many more, known as mitzvot d'rabbanan discussed below.

Origins

The first appearance of the word mitzvah is in Genesis 26:4-5, when God is speaking to Isaac about staying put despite the famine that was plaguing the land.

 

"And I will multiply your seed like the stars of the heavens, and I will give your seed all these lands, and all the nations of the earth will bless themselves by your seed, because Abraham hearkened to My voice, and kept My charge, My commandments (mitzvot), My statutes, and My instructions."

The term mitzvah goes on to appear more than 180 more times throughout the Hebrew Bible, or Torah, frequently in reference to the commands that God gave to individuals or the greater Israelite nation. 

The 613 Commandments

The concept of the 613 mitzvot, although it is not explicitly mentioned in the Torah itself, arose in the 3rd Century CE in the Talmud, Tractate Makkoth 23b, 

The 365 negative commandments correspond to the number of days in the solar year, and the 248 positive commandments correspond to the individual's limbs.

If you've heard someone discuss a good deed or nice thing someone did or was considering doing and heard someone say, "It's a mitzvah," this isn't exactly the correct usage of the term. Although there's a high likelihood the deed they were discussing could fit nicely into one of the 613 mitzvot or commandments found in the Torah, it's a colloquial use of the term. 

Interestingly, this common use of the term mitzvah to refer to any type of good deed is quite old, having originated in the Jerusalem Talmud in which any charitable act was referred to as ha'mitzvah, or "the mitzvah."

Curious what the 613 commandments are? Read the entire list of dos and don'ts here

The Rabbis' Commandments

Beyond the 613 mitzvot from the Torah there are mitzvot d'rabbanan (דרבנן‎), or commandments from the rabbis. Essentially, the 613 commandments are known as mitzvot d'oraita (דאורייתא), which the rabbis understood to be strictly mandated from the Bible. Mitzvot d'rabbanan are additional legal requirements that were mandated by the rabbis.

A good example here is that the Torah tells us not to work on the Sabbath, which is a mitzvah d'oraita. Then there is the mitzvah d'rabbanan, which tells us not to even handle specific objects that could lead one to work on the Sabbath. The latter, in essence, safeguard the former

Some other well-known mitzvot d'rabbanan:

  • Washing hands before eating bread (known as al netilat yadayim)
  • Lighting Shabbat candles
  • The celebrations of Purim and Chanukah
  • The blessings before eating food
  • The laws of eruv, or carrying on Shabbat

In the instance that a mitzvah from the Torah conflicts with a rabbinic mitzvah, the Torah-based mitzvah will always win out and take precedence. 

The Mitzvah Tank

If you live in New York, Los Angeles, or another major metropolitan area with a large Jewish population, chances are you've seen The Mitzvah Tank. Operated by the Chabad Lubavitch movement, this tank drives around and provides opportunities for Jews who otherwise might not to fulfill various mitzvot, including putting on tefillin or, during certain holidays, to fulfill commandments related to those holidays (e.g., waving the lulav and etrog on Sukkot).