In Judaism, a mitzvah (plural: mitzvot) is a commandment, obligation, or associated deed that serves as a means of fulfilling one’s religious duties and connecting with God. The term “mitzvah” is derived from the Hebrew word meaning “commandment” or “obligation.”
Mitzvahs encompass a wide range of actions, rituals, and behaviors that Jews are called upon to observe. They are derived from the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) and other sacred texts, and they provide a framework for leading a righteous and ethical life according to Jewish law and tradition.
A mitzvah can include both positive and negative commandments. Positive commandments instruct Jews to engage in specific actions, while negative commandments prohibit certain behaviors or actions. It is usual in fact that a broad enough mitzvah will have both associated with it, such as with Shabbat that has prohibited types of work (negative) but also a commandment to say kiddush (positive), or that one puts up mezuzahs on every doorpost but not for a bathroom etc..
The concept of mitzvah emphasizes the notion of divine command and obedience. By fulfilling mitzvot, individuals express their devotion to God and seek to align their lives with His will. Mitzvot are seen as a means of fulfilling one’s purpose and obligations within the context of a covenantal relationship with God.
There are different types of mitzvot within traditional Jewish practice, each carrying its own significance and level of obligation. Here are some of the main categories:
- Mitzvot DeOreita (Biblical Commandments): These are commandments explicitly stated in the Torah, most especially the Chumash (Five Books of Moses), which is the foundational text of Judaism. Mitzvot DeOreita are of the highest level of importance and form the core of Jewish religious obligations. Examples include observing Shabbat, wearing tefillin observing the dietary laws of kashrut, fasting on Yom Kippur, and refraining from idolatry, but also honoring one’s mother and father, and not wearing fabrics made with both wool and linen.
- Mitzvot DeRabbanan (Rabbinical Commandments): These are commandments instituted by the rabbis as an extension or safeguard of the biblical commandments. To be clear, this is not a rabbi in the modern sense, but those sages of the Talmud, the tannaim and amoraim. They derive their authority from the interpretation and application of the Torah by the rabbinic tradition, such that what they taught was in many cases passed down from the days of Moshe, if not derived from logic. Mitzvot DeRabbanan are considered binding and are an integral part of Jewish practice. Examples include lighting Hanukkah candles, reciting blessings before and after meals, and observing the laws of Purim. As mentioned, these are usually extensions of Mitzvot DeOreita.
- Minhag Yisrael (Universal Custom): Minhag Yisrael refers to customs that have become widely accepted and observed by Jews worldwide, transcending specific community boundaries. These customs have acquired broader significance and represent shared traditions among Jews.
- Minhag (Custom): Minhag refers to customs and practices that have been adopted by specific Jewish communities over time. While not mandatory from a halachic (Jewish legal) perspective, they hold great significance within those communities and are often followed to maintain tradition and foster a sense of unity. For example, kissing a mezuzah, waving hands and covering the eyes before lighting Shabbat candles if universally practices by Ashkenazi women, but it has no halachic source, even though it has a halachic rationale. Also, differences in tallit coloration, different liturgies (nusach) and most things that can be prefaced as “Ashkenazi” or “Sephardi” etc. way of doing something is a minhag. In many cases this means that within each group it has halachic weight as a communal tradition one needs to do.
- Mesora (Tradition): Mesora refers to the transmission of Jewish teachings, practices, and customs across generations, usually in a family. Particular customs of one’s parents are to a certain extent still binding for the children in their own homes. It ensures the preservation and continuity of Jewish practice and observance, while honoring one’s parents.
It is important to emphasize that in religious Jewish understanding, a mitzvah goes beyond a simple act of goodwill or favor. Mitzvot are specifically defined by their connection to divine commandments and religious obligations. That said, mitzvot like tzedakah (charity) and chesed (kindness) are not merely nice ideas but serious mitzvot with guidelines parameters like any other.
Mitzvot are regarded as integral to Jewish identity and spiritual growth. They are seen as a way to elevate oneself and bring holiness into daily life. By actively performing mitzvot, individuals strive to deepen their connection with God, strengthen their Jewish life day by day, and contribute to the betterment of the world. It might not feel like separating meat and milk would help to improve your life or indeed the whole world, but the mitzvahs are all ultimately their for human flourishing.