Mitzvah מצוה is Hebrew for "commandment" (plural mitzvot; from צוה, tzavah - command). The word is used in Judaism to refer to (a) the laws enumerated in the Torah (five books of Moses), or (b) any Jewish law at all. The term "Mitzvah" has also come to express any act of human kindness, such as the burial of the body of an unknown person. According to the teachings of Judaism, all moral laws are virtually and in their ultimate analysis divine commandments.
Mitzvah as Divine will
In rabbinic thought, God's will is the source of, and authority for, every moral and religious duty. The Mitzvot constitute the Divinely instituted "rules of conduct". The commandments are divided into (1) mandatory laws, mitzvot aseh מצות עשה and (2) those of a prohibitory character, mitzvot lo taaseh מצות לא תעשה. Judaism regards the violation of the mitzvot to be a "sin"; but note that the Jewish understanding of "sin" differs from that of other religions, see violations of Jewish law. (Obedience to the Divine Will is the first requisite of the moral life. This is the meaning of the Biblical account of Adam's offense. The first commandment was intended to test his obedience and thus to awaken his moral consciousness.).
The Rabbis came to assume that the Law comprised 613 commandments (Talmud, tractate Makkoth 23b): "Rabbi Simlai expounded: 613 commandments were given to Moses, 365 negative commandments like the number of days in the solar year, and 248 positive commandments like the number of bones in the human body."
The Mitzvot and the revelation
611 commandments are said to have been given through Moses; the first two commandments of the Decalogue were given by the mouth of God Himself. According to R. Ismael only the principal commandments were given on Mount Sinai, the special commandments having been given in the Tent of Meeting. According to R. Akiba they were all given on Mount Sinai, repeated in the Tent of Meeting, and declared a third time by Moses before his death. All divine commandments, however, were given on Mount Sinai, and no prophet could add any new one (Midrash Sifra to Leviticus xxvii. 34; Talmud, Yoma 80a).
Biblical and Rabbinical commandments
The commandments are called in the Talmud Mitzvot de oraita; commandments of the Law in contradistinction to the rabbinical commandments, Mitzvot de rabbanan. Among the latter are: (1) the benediction, or thanksgiving for each enjoyment; (2) ablution of the hands before eating; (3) lighting of the Sabbath lamp; (4) the 'Erub, on preparation for Sabbath transfer; (5) the Hallel liturgy on holy days; (6) the Hanukkah lights; and (7) the reading of the Esther scroll on Purim.
These seven rabbinical commandments are treated like Biblical commandments in so far as, previous to the fulfilment of each, this Benediction is recited: "Blessed be the Lord who has commanded us . . .," the divine command being implied in the general law (Deut. xvii. 11, xxxii. 7; Shab. 23a). Many of the Biblical laws are derived from the Law only by rabbinical interpretation, as, the reading of the Shema' (Deut. vi. 4-7), the binding of the tefillin and the fixing of the mezuzah (ib. 8-9), and the saying of grace after meals (ib. viii. 10).
The Mitzvot and Jewish Law
The system describing the practical application of the commandments is known as Halakha, loosely "Jewish Law". The Halakha is the development of the Mitzvot as contained in the "written law", via discussion and debate in the Oral law, as recorded in the classical rabbinic literature, especially the Mishnah and the Talmud. The Halakha dictates everything the traditional Jew does from the moment he or she wakes up to the moment they go to sleep. It includes codes of behavior applicable to virtually every imaginable circumstance (and many hypothetical ones).
- see Halakha and the laws of the Torah; Relationship between the Bible and the Mishnah
Many of these laws concern only special classes of people, such as kings or priesthood, Levites or Nazarites, or are conditioned by local or temporary circumstances of the Jewish nation, as, for instance, the agricultural, sacrificial, and Levitical laws.
A mitzvah which can be fulfilled only by the transgression of another law is considered unlawful.
The proselyte on being initiated into Judaism must be familiarized with commandments both of great and of small import (Yeb. 47b).
Are all of the commandments eternal?
The majority view of classical rabbis that the commandments will still be applicable and in force during the messianic era. However, a significant minority of rabbis held that most of the commandments will be nullified in the messianic era. Examples of such rabbinic views include:
- In the future all sacrifices, with the exception of the Thanksgiving-sacrifice, will be discontinued. (Midrash Vayikra Rabbah 9:7)
- All sacrifices will be annulled in the future. (Tanchuma Emor 19, Vayikra Rabbah 9:7)
- Then the grain-offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to God as in the days of old, and as in ancient years. (Malachi 3:4)
- Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Niddah 61b and Tractate Shabbat 151b. Most mitzvot will no longer be in force.
- Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Avodah Zarah 3a, 4b, states that today we should observe the commandments, while Rashi comments that this is so because we will not observe them in the world to come.
- Midrash Shochar Tov (Mizmor 146:5) states that God will permit what is now forbidden.
There is no authoritative answer accepted within Judaism as to which mitzvot, if any, would be annulled in the messianic era.
Works enumerating the commandments
In rabbinic literature there are a number of works, mainly by the Rishonim, that were composed to determine which commandments belong in this enumeration:
- Maimonides: Sefer Hamitzvot ("Book of Commandments") with a critical commentary of Nachmanides;
- Sefer ha-Chinnuch ("Book of Education"), attributed to Rabbi Aaron ha-Levi of Barcelona (the Ra'ah);
- Sefer ha-Mitzvoth ha-Gadol ("Large book of Commandments") by Rabbi Moses of Coucy;
- Sefer ha-Mitzvoth ha-Katan ("Small book of Commandments") by Rabbi Isaac of Corbeil;
- Sefer Yere'im ("Book of the [God-]fearing") by Rabbi Eliezer of Metz (not a clear enumeration);
- Sefer ha-Mitzvoth by Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (the "Chafetz Chaim") - this work only deals with the commandments that are valid in the present time.