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What is a Mitzvah?

by Rabbi Mendy Hecht


Library » Mitzvot » What are they? | Subscribe | What is RSS?


A. A Mitzvah (pronounced MITZ-vah) is a Hebrew word which means “commandment” and “connection.” A Mitzvah is a commandment. If I command you to serve me lunch, that’s a Mitzvah from me to you. The Mitzvahs are G-d’s commandments to the Jewish people in the Torah.

B. There are two types of Mitzvahs mentioned in the Torah: Positive Mitzvahs and Negative Mitzvahs. Positive Mitzvahs tell you, “Do this!”: give charity, eat Matzah, return a lost object. Negative Mitzvahs tell you, “Don’t do this!”: don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t eat on Yom Kippur. There are 248 Positive Mitzvahs and 365 Negative Mitzvahs, for a total of 613. Mitzvahs also divvy up in Ethical and Ritual categories: Ethical Mitzvahs lay down how to interact with fellow humans, such as not taking revenge or hurting orphans, and Ritual Mitzvahs lay down how to interact with G-d, such as keeping Shabbat or building a Sukkah. In addition, The Sages added seven Mitzvahs, bringing the total to 620.

There’s no set place and time that’s just for G-d... every place and time can shout out “G-d!”
C. A Mitzvah is the ultimate expression of how Judaism views religion. It’s not a specific time, place, or with a specific thing, when or where or with which one has a relationship with G-d. Jazz great Herbie Hancock maintains a “religion room” in his home. In there, he’s religious. Everywhere else… well, you’ll have to ask Herbie about that. Judaism says you can, you should, have a relationship with G-d over the morning coffee—by drinking Kosher—as much as you do over the awe-inspiring day of Yom Kippur. There’s no set place and time that’s just for G-d, to the exclusion of all other places and times—every place and time can shout out “G-d!” And that’s just the idea of the Mitzvah. For “Mitzvah” doesn’t just mean “commandment”: it means “connection” too. You are connected to G-d. When you do a Mitzvah, you’re expressing that connection. Whatever, whenever, you’re always connected to G-d, and you can express that connection by doing a Mitzvah.

ethical Mitzvahs are often difficult to observe, because violating them is easy to rationalize... yetdefinition they carry just as much weight as any other Mitzvah
How do I do Mitzvahs?

1. Are You Positive?

Observing the negative Mitzvahs tends to be easier than observing the positive ones—after all, it’s simpler to not do something than it is to do something. On the other hand, sometimes you want to do those very things. You wanna sink your teeth into a pork sandwich—but you know it isn’t kosher, so you resist the urge. It ain’t easy—but it’s a Mitzvah.

2. Are You Ethical?

Because of the danger of moral relativism, G-d lays down moral absolutism with the Ethical Mitzvahs. Now, your mind is not the judge of who deserves death and who doesn't—G-d is. You don’t murder, period. The Torah decides what is ethical, not your conscience. So ethical Mitzvahs are often difficult to observe, because violating them is easy to rationalize. But observe them we must, for they carry just as much weight as any other Mitzvah.

3. Quality vs. Quantity

If you’re new to doing Mitzvahs, take things one step at a time. Don’t take on a whole ton—work on getting comfortable with the one or two or three Mitzvahs you’ve adopted until you’ve incorporated them into your lifestyle. Then, start doing more. Don’t forget, of course, that every Mitzvah has its entourage of Halachot—you’ll need to know the relevant Jewish guidelines to be certain you’re doing the Mitzvah correctly. Contact your local smiley Chabad rabbi for some affable assistance—that’s just what he’s there for.

See also What are the 613 Mitzvahs? and What are the seven rabbinic Mitzvahs?


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(pl. Mitzvot). A commandment from G-d. Mitzvah also means a connection, for a Jew connects with G–d through fulfilling His commandments.
(pl: Shabbatot). Hebrew word meaning "rest." It is a Biblical commandment to sanctify and rest on Saturday, the seventh day of the week. This commemorates the fact that after creating the world in six days, G-d rested on the seventh.
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
(pl. Matzot). Unleavened bread which is eaten on Passover, especially at the Passover Seder (feast), commemorating the Matzah which the Jews ate upon leaving Egypt. It consists of only flour and water and resembles a wheat cracker.
Yom Kippur
Day of Atonement. This late-autumn high-holiday is the holiest day of the year. We devote this day to repentance and all healthy adults are required to fast.
The temporary structure in which we are required to dwell for the duration of the holiday of Sukkot. The Sukkah must have at least three walls and its roof consists of unsecured branches, twigs or wooden slats.
Literally means "fit." Commonly used to describe foods which are permitted by Jewish dietary laws, but is also used to describe religious articles (such as a Torah scroll or Sukkah) which meet the requirements of Jewish law.
Laws governing the Jewish way of life.
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.