Mitzvah (Religious Obligation)

Judaism speaks of the relationship between God and Israel in terms of an eternal Covenant. God promises to love and protect Israel, and Israel promises to love God and obey God's commandments. The term for commandment in Hebrew is mitzvah. The plural is mitzvot (commandments). The prevailing metaphor for how we live out our relationship with God derives from the legal realm: We have entered into a legal contract with God which obligates us. The terms of the contract are the mitzvot.

The Torah itself uses several terms to describe our obligations to God. Each has a slightly different connotation, according to the Sages. The terms and examples of each follow, and while the distinction make for interesting discussion, it is important to recognize that in Jewish tradition, all commandments are of equal importance. In Pirke Avot 4:2, Ben Azzai is quoted as saying, "Run to do a lesser mitzvah as quickly as you run to do an important one -- and flee from sin; for one mitzvah leads to another mitzvah just as one sin leads to another sin; for the reward for a mitzvah is another mitzvah, and the payment for a sin is another sin."








ordinances particularistic Jewish commandments which we would not have figured out on our own laws of kashrut, sha'atnez


judgments self-evident laws prohibitions against theft, murder, adultery

Traditional holds that the Torah contains 613 commandments. The Torah itself does not record this number; rather the Tannai'im (the sages who wrote the Gemara of the Talmud) are the source of the tradition that there are 613 commandments in the Torah. They taught that the 613 are comprised of 365 negative commandments (Thou shalt not's) corresponding to the number of days in the solar year because each day we are tempted to violate a commandment and therefore have the opportunity to refrain from violating the commandment by obeying God; and 248 positive commandments (Thou shalts) corresponding to the number of bones in the body (as they understood it) because this teaches that we can serve God with every part of our body and being. The Sages, for whom the world could be seen as a web of relationships, distinguished between mitzvot Bein Adam LaMakom (between a person and God, such as the commandments concerning Shabbat and prayer) and the mitzvot Bein Adam LeChavero (between people, such as the laws concerning business practices, marriage, divorce, and so on).

Another distinction that is drawn between the mitzvah are those which are Mi-d'Oraita (from the Torah) and those which are Mi-d'Rabbanan (commandments which the Rabbis inferred from the Torah). In Judaism, those which are stated explicitly in the Torah have a higher level of significance, but because the Talmud is considered torah, too, an effort is made not to exaggerate the distinction.

It should be clear by now that Judaism places great emphasis on what a person does. Indeed, however righteous one's thoughts and intentions, it is what one actually does in this world which determines who and what one is. We are judged for our deeds (both verbal and physical) and hence our behavior is enormously important. For a Jew, every aspect of one's life is an opportunity to serve God; indeed, every word and deed has religious ramifications. How we treat our friends and neighbors, how we treat the person at the checkout in the supermarket, whether we treat our teachers with respect, whether we treat our parents with due respect, how we conduct our business, all these are religious acts. There is a proper way to treat other people and conduct business, just as there is a way to keep Shabbat and festivals, and a Jewish way to pray.

While some have attempted to separate the "ethical" mitzvot from the "ritual" mitzvot, this distinction is not Jewishly authentic but rather the product of ancient western philosophies and modern secular thinking. In the world of Judaism, both the "ethical" and the "ritual" are inextricably interwoven; they inform one another and support one another. Our ritual convey the values of Judaism; our ethical laws explain how the values are put into action each day in our lives.

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