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published: 3/17/04
updated: 7/3/13

Mitzvot: The Commandments



What is Mitzot?

Jewish practices are grounded in Jewish law (halakhah, lit. "the path one walks." This law, which consists of an elaborate framework of divine commandments (mitzvot) combined with rabbinic laws and traditions, is central to Judaism.

According to Jewish beliefs, Halakhah governs not just religious life, but daily life: including how to dress, what to eat and how to help the poor. Observance of halakhah shows gratitude to God, provides a sense of Jewish identity and brings the sacred into everyday life.





The Mitzvot

The Hebrew word mitzvot means "commandments" (mitzvah is its singular form). Although the word is sometimes used more broadly to refer to rabbinic (Talmudic) law or general good deeds - as in, "It would be a mitzvah to visit your mother" - in its strictest sense it refers to the divine commandments given by God in the Torah. As direct instructions from God, the mitzvot are far more than rituals and customs. In the words of one Jewish writer:

mitzvotare required by Torah. Ceremonies are relevant to man; mitzvot are relevant to God.... Ceremonies are the like the moon, they have no light of their own. Mitzvot, on the other hand, are expressions or interpretations of the will of God. While they are meaningful to man, the source of their meaning is not in the understanding of man but in the love of God. {1}

The mitzvot traditionally consist of 613 individual commandments (taryag mitzvot). Many of these have to do with Temple ritual, which was central to Jewish life and worship when the Torah was written. Others only apply in a theocratic state of Israel. It has been estimated that only about 270 of them - less than 50 percent - are still applicable.

The number 613 was first given in the third century AD by Rabbi Simlai, who divided the 613 mitzvot into 248 positive commandments (what to do) and 365 negative commandments (what not to do). Since this figure was first announced, many have undertaken to enumerate the 613 commandments. Easily the one with the most lasting significance is the 12th century list by Maimonides in his Book of the Commandments.

Although there are minor discrepancies between lists of the taryag mitzvot, it is universally agreed that there are 613. The number has symbolic significance in that it is the numeric value of the word "Torah" plus the two commandments that existed before the Torah: I am the Lord your God and you shall have no other Gods before me. The division into 248 positive and 365 negative commandments is also universally agreed upon and itself carries numerological significance: there are 248 bones and organs in the male body and 365 days in the solar year.

The mitzvot are inextricably linked to the concept of the Jews as God's chosen people. Biblical commandments are often accompanied by a reminder of their special status:

You are a people holy to the Lord your God. Out of all the peoples on the face of the earth, the Lord has chosen you to be his treasured possession. {2}

Judaism's extensive system of ritual law is unique. It is what makes the lives of the Jews different from those in surrounding cultures. This is no accident - as seen above, the laws are explicitly designed to keep the Jewish people holy, a word which means "separate." Many rabbis have viewed this separation as the key to the survival of the Jewish people.

Rabbinic Law

In addition to the 613 mitzvot, Jewish law incorporates a large body of rabbinical rules and laws. These are considered just as binding as the mitzvot, although the punishments for violating them are less severe. Another difference is that it is possible, though unlikely, for the rabbinical laws to be changed, but no rabbi can change the Torah mitzvot. The rabbinical portion of halakhah falls into three groups: a gezeirah, takkanah, and minhag.

A gezeirah is a rule instituted by the rabbis to prevent inadvertent violation of a mitzvah. For instance, it is a mitvah to refrain from work on the Sabbath, but a gezeirah to avoid even the handling of any work instruments on the Sabbath.

A takkanah is a law instituted by rabbis that does not derive from the Torah. One example would be the lighting of candles on Hanukkah, a post-biblical holiday. Takkanot can sometimes vary by region: Ashkenazic Jews (who live in Christian nations) accepted a takkanah banning polygamy in c. 1000 CE, while Sephardic Jews (who live in Islamic societies) do not follow such a law.

A final type of rabbinical law is a minhag, which is "a custom that evolved for worthy religious reasons and has continued long enough to become a binding religious practice." {3} An example minhag would be the custom of celebrating certain holidays a day longer in the Diaspora than in Israel. The term minhag is sometimes used in a broader sense, to indicate the general custom or way of a particular community. While these are not formalized or universal, it congregants are still encouraged to follow the community minhag.

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References
  1. Abraham Joshua Heschel, "Toward an Understanding of Halacha," Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity (quoted in Essential Judaism, 220).
  2. Deuteronomy 14:2.
  3. Tracey R. Rich, "Halakhah," Judaism 101.