What’s a Mitzvah?

Torah- ancient scrolls in Jerusalem
Unfortunately the word mitzvah is usually translated as “commandment”, which generally has a negative connotation to most people. This has caused many people to shy away from the Torah and mitzvahs. Let us explain the real truth. The word mitzvah comes from the Hebrew “tzavta” which means “connection.” There are different types of mitzvahs, mostly they are grouped into three categories known as laws, ordinances, and decrees. It is important to note that God almost always told Moses to “speak” to the Children of Israel, not “command” them. HaShem knows what is best, and He gave us the mitzvahs for our benefit. Some of the mitzvahs are easy to understand, and some of them are quite complicated and involved. Some of them are considered to be beyond human understanding. We follow the mitzvahs because God knows what is best for us, not only because we find them to be rationally and morally acceptable.

It is generally accepted that there are 613 Mitzvahs or Mitzvot as they are known in the plural sense of the word. While this may seem like a lot of mitzvahs, there are more than 613 laws involved in driving a car or being a citizen of the United States. There are 248 positive mitzvahs and 365 negative mitzvahs. These correspond to the 248 human organs, and the 365 human sinews. This symbolizes the principle that humans were created to perform God’s will. While it may seem like there are still a lot of mitzvahs to deal with, a closer investigation will explain that the 365 negative mitzvahs are actually better known as sins. These are to be avoided at all costs, as they bring evil and darkness into the world. If we refrain from these we have more than half of them under control already. You should understand that doing a sin is much worse than not performing a positive mitzvah. By refraining from the negative mitzvahs you are actually fulfilling 365 mitzvahs every day!

The positive mitzvahs are arranged in different groups. Some of these mitzvahs can only be performed in the land of Israel. Many of the positive mitzvahs are done only once a year, some of them only every seven years, and a few of them only once in 50 years. Some of them are actually only done by certain people, and some are only done very rarely or not at all. Many of the positive mitzvot cannot be observed today because there is no Temple or Altar in use. There are approximately 90 positive mitzvot we can’t truly perform at this time. However HaShem counts the learning and study of these mitzvahs in place of us actually performing them at this time.

It is very important to understand that these 613 commandments are actually binding on Jewish people only. While Jewish women are supposed to know and understand them all, some of them are actually only observed by Jewish men. Some of these are called time-related mitzvahs, and we will explain this in greater detail. There are only a few mitzvahs that a non-Jew cannot do, mostly having to do with the Temple services and the offerings. Other than these few laws, many people are actually doing these mitzvahs and don’t even know it. We encourage everyone to do mitzvahs, and to help the Jewish People to do theirs. Of course we don’t overtly encourage people to convert to Judaism, however some people do. Before a person can become Jewish, they are supposed to learn and either perform or refrain from all 613 Laws. This is one of the ways how we know that there is nothing wrong with a non-Jew doing mitzvahs.

All the people of the world have a minimum of 7 mitzvahs they must do. These are known as The Seven Noachide or Noahide Laws. There is a separate explanation about these laws in The Mitzvah Project, however it must be understood that many of the 613 laws are related to them. These Laws are incumbent on all human beings, and are part of the 613. These are very similar to the Ten Commandments, however only 7 are actually binding on all humanity, otherwise there would be 8 Noachide Laws etc. These laws are found in the first five books of the Bible, commonly known as the Five Books of Moses or Torah. The word Torah means “Teachings” and is composed of two parts, the Written Law and the Oral Law. Sometimes the Written Law is referred to as the entire Bible or The Tanach. The Tanach includes the books of the Prophets and the books known as the Writings.

For our purposes we will refer to the Torah as the first Five Books of Moses, and the Oral Law that accompanies them. All 613 Mitzvot are contained in these books, and they cannot be changed now or forever. They are binding for as long as the Earth is in existence. The Oral Law was given to Moses during his lifetime, and was transmitted orally for many generations after his death. It was finally written down in books known as the “Mishnah” meaning “explanation,” and in the “Gemara” or Talmud. Much of the information was also written in the form of stories called Midrash. Much of the real “meat” of the Torah is found in the Midrash. Please refer to the recommended reading list we have prepared. Reading the Midrash is a must, and we cannot stress the importance of this enough. Actually all of the Oral Law is known as either “Midrash Halachah” which means legal teachings, or “Midrash Aggadah”, which are the ethical teachings.

It is important to refer to the section of the The Mitzvah Project that deals with the Thirteen Principles of Faith. These principles explain that punishment and reward stem from our ability to fulfill the mitzvot as best we can. Some of the reward we receive in This World (Olam Hazeh) and some in the World to Come (Olam Haba). According to the Talmud, Shabbos 127a, these are the precepts whose fruits a person enjoys in This World but whose principle remains intact for them in the World to Come. They are: the honor due to father and mother, acts of kindness, early attendance at the house of study morning and evening, hospitality to guests, visiting the sick, providing for a bride, escorting the dead, absorption in prayer, bringing peace between man and his fellow, (and between husband and wife), – and the study of the Torahs are equivalent to them all. This does not mean that study alone is equal to the other mitzvahs, as performance or refrain of the mitzvahs is the most important thing.

All of the concepts contained in the Torahs are extremely important to us. One of the most important of which is the explanation of the Blessings and the Curses. Some people don’t like to hear about this because they know deep down in their hearts that they are absolutely true. When we follow God’s will and obey his mitzvahs we receive blessings. When we reject His will we receive curses. The basic question here is how many curses do we want? Everyone wants the blessings, this should be obvious. The Mitzvah Project is dedicated to teaching and helping everyone learn more about God and His mitzvahs. We know this is the way to bring World Peace. Please get involved in doing your share of mitzvahs, whether you are Jewish or not. Doing a mitzvah is fun, and you can be sure that you are truly making the world a better place.

Women have asked why some mitzvahs are not binding on them, and the idea that women are second best in Judaism is completely incorrect. The fact of the matter is that women are created according to God’s will, and closer to his ideal of satisfaction. Part of the morning prayers or Shacharis service as it is known in Hebrew has a prayer that men say thanking God for not having made them a woman. The prayer splits at this point and the women recite a prayer thanking God for creating them according to His will. The women did not willfully donate gold for the Golden Calf that the men made in the Wilderness, nor did they pray to it. The women did not go along with the report of the spies not to go into the Land, and they did not die in the Wilderness like most of the men did. Women have always been the protectors of Judaism, and the “keepers of the flame”. We always remember the great Matriarchs, and the deeds of Miriam, Esther, Ruth, and Devorah as well. The women also raise the children, and protect the traditions. The Sabbath is also known as a bride or queen.

The men on the other hand are obligated to pray, and observe all 613 Mitzvot. They are not free from the time-related mitzvot, and are more likely to stray from the Torah’s teachings than the women. There are a few mitzvahs that do not directly affect men either, mostly having to do with childbirth or using the mikvah (ritual bath). We want you to enjoy doing mitzvahs, and we want you to learn them and study them. There are many levels of meaning behind each one. By performing these mitzvahs or refraining from the sins, we can correct every negative situation on Earth and in Heaven. We do not use the word “problem” because everything has a solution if we take the time to find it. Asking God for help is our secret weapon in our fight against the Evil Inclination. When there is a situation we don’t understand, we must ask God for help. Then surely if we are sincere, He will help us and show us what to do.

Please review the sections of The Mitzvah Project carefully and often. You should read the books suggested in the reading list, especially The Midrash Says. You should have a Hebrew calendar so that you know when the New Moons and the Holidays are. You should do your best to observe Shabbos and the Holidays if you are Jewish, and you should read the Torah portion for each week if you are Jewish or not. We suggest you review the list of 613 Mitzvot regularly, and research those you are not familiar with. You only need to look up a few new ones each week. Don’t feel badly if you cannot observe some of the mitzvahs, it takes time to become religious for some people. As you progress in your knowledge and observance of the mitzvot you will begin to feel more holy. There is a wonderful feeling you will get knowing that you are doing God’s will. Your life and the life of those around you will begin to improve dramatically. After a little while you will begin to look for mitzvahs to do. You will realize that the mitzvahs are no longer a burden for you, but an uplifting experience. You will begin to see the world becoming a brighter, more peaceful place. God is faithful to reward those who do His will.

Please do not reprimand someone in public for not obeying a mitzvah, unless it is a matter of life and death. You should never embarrass another person in public, as this is considered as murdering them. You should approach others privately, and always in a peaceful, positive way. Together we need to teach and practice the Laws. Do not think that The Seven Noachide Laws are simple and easy to follow. These Seven Mitzvot contain all the laws in our legal system today. Most of the situations we have to overcome are because people are breaking the law. It is impossible to have a civilized society when the inhabitants of the land are corrupt. It is the obligation of every able-bodied man, woman, and child to help his or her fellow when they are in danger or need help. We cannot sit back and think that things will get better by themselves. When we put forth effort first, then God will help us. All He asks is for us to give Him a tiny bit of trust, or bitachon as it is known in Hebrew. God promises if we do this sincerely He will throw the gates of blessing wide open for us.

We hope you enjoy The Mitzvah Project, and we thank you. Please visit us often, and do your best to help us in every way you can. Shalom and Baruch HaShem!