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Jewish Concepts: Mitzvah

MITZVAH (Heb. מִצְוָה), a commandment, precept, or religious duty. The term is derived from the Hebrew root צוה which means "to command" or "to ordain." In common usage, mitzvah has taken on the meaning of a good deed. Already in the Talmud, this word was used for a meritorious act as distinct from a positive commandment. The rabbis for instance declared it "a mitzvah to hearken to the words of the sages" (Ḥul. 106a; cf. Git. 15a). Although many different terms such as ḥukkah ("statute," Ex. 27:21), mishpat ("ordinance," Deut. 4:5), edut ("testimony," Deut. 4:45), mishmeret ("observance," Lev. 8:35), and torah ("teaching," Ex. 16:28) are mentioned in the Pentateuch to indicate laws, only the word mitzvah is generally used to include all its commandments. There are traditionally 613 biblical *Commandments which are divided into 248 positive mandates and 365 prohibitions. With the increased ritual obligations imposed by the rabbis, the mitzvot were also separated into two main categories: mitzvot deoraita, the biblical commandments, and mitzvot de-rabbanan, the rabbinic commandments (Pes. 10a; Suk. 44a). There are also instances when the mitzvot were classified as mitzvot kallot, less important mitzvot, and mitzvot ḥamurot, more important mitzvot (e.g., Ḥul. 12:5; Yev. 47b; Av. Zar. 3a). Nevertheless, the rabbis exhorted the people to be mindful of all the mitzvot, both light and grave, since the reward for the fulfillment of each precept is not known to man (Avot 2:1). The mitzvot were further divided into sikhliyyot (rational) and shimiyyot (revealed) by medieval Jewish philosophers (see *Commandments, Reasons for ). Other distinctions have also been made, such as commandments performed with the external limbs of the body and those by the heart; commandments regulating conduct between man and his Maker and between man and his fellows; and commandments applicable only to Ereẓ Israel and those not dependent upon Ereẓ Israel. Responsibility for the mitzvot is formally assumed by boys at the age of 13 plus one day, and by girls at 12 plus one day (see *Bar Mitzvah , Bat Mitzvah, and *Puberty ). Women are exempt from all affirmative precepts contingent upon a particular time or season, although the Talmud also makes those of the Sabbath, Ḥanukkah, Purim, and Passover obligatory on them. All negative precepts, whether limited to a certain time or not, are binding upon both men and women (Kid. 1:7). The performance of most mitzvot is preceded by a *benediction which is usually worded: "Who has sanctified us by His commandments and commanded us to…" The omission of the benediction, however, does not invalidate the performance of the mitzvah. The opposite of mitzvah is *averah , a transgression. A "precept fulfilled through a transgression" is considered as an averah, e.g., one does not discharge his obligation through a stolen lulav (Suk. 30a; see *Four Species ). Although mitzvot were not meant to provide material enjoyment (RH 28a), and the final reward for their performance is in the hereafter (Kid. 39b), true joy and sanctity can be attained only through their observance (Shab. 30b; Sifra 9:2). Man should not anticipate any material recompense for performing the mitzvot, but one mitzvah brings another in its train (Avot 1:3; 4:2). "God desired to make Israel worthy, therefore He enlarged the Law and multiplied its mitzvot" (Mak. 3:16).


M. Steckelmacher, in: Festschrift… A. Schwartz (1917), 259–68; J.M. Guttmann, in: Bericht des juedischtheologischen Seminars Fraenckel'scher Stiftung fuer das Jahr 1927 (1928); idem, Beḥinat Kiyyum ha-Mitzvot, in: Bericht… 1930 (1931); J. Heinemann, Ta'amei ha-Mitzvot be-Sifrut Yisrael, 1 (19543), 22–35; Alon, Meḥkarim, 2 (1958), 111–9; E.E. Urbach, ḤazalPirkei Emunot re-De'ot (1967), 279–347.

[Aaron Rothkoff]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.