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LANGUAGE CORNER

The Many Modes of Mitzvah

Literally, mitzvah (plural mitzvot) means a command of the highest order – biblically from a king or, more often, from God: “You shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall you diminish from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you.” The sages of the Talmud divided mitzvot into two categories: “mitzvot aseh” or positive commandments, acts that should be performed, like “honor thy father and thy mother”; and “mitzvot lo ta’aseh,” negative commandments, acts that should not be performed, like “thou shalt not murder.” The sages counted 248 positive commandments – the same as the traditional number of human organs – and 365 negative commandments – the same as the number of the days in the year. Together they add up to the famous 613 mitzvot of Judaism.

The mitzvot also were divided into two other categories: those “between a person and his fellow human” and those “between a person and God.” Over the generations, further mitzvot, interpretations of mitzvot, and expansions on mitzvot were added to the original 613.

Figuring out what the 613 mitzvot plus additions are is not so simple. The most prominent method for listing all the mitzvot is the one outlined by Maimonides in his book Sefer Hamitzvot, in which the mitzvot are listed by subject. A different system is outlined in Sefer Hahinuch (the book of education), which outlines the mitzvot according to the order in which they appear in the weekly portions of the Torah.

Some of the mitzvot are mitzvot zeman (time related) and must be performed at a certain time, like building a sukka during the Sukkot festival. There are mitzvot sichliot (cerebral mitzvot) – those that are understood by intelligent human beings – as well as mitzvot shimiot (mitzvot of hearing) – inexplicable and ungraspable, but after the people of Israel have heard them, they must be kept.

Entering the world of mitzvot – becoming a bar or bat mitzvah, literally a son or a daughter of the commandment – means that from now on, observing the mitzvot is part of your duties. The bar or bat mitzvah ceremony can be followed by a se’udat mitzvah – the bar mitzvah feast. If you really like one of the mitzvot and make a special point of keeping it, this is called hidor mitzvah.

There are many Hebrew idioms connected to the mitzvot. For example, mitzvah haba’a be’avera refers to a mitzvah that is observed by violating another mitzvah. Such acts should not be performed and are not considered to be the fulfillment of a mitzvah, demonstrating that the end does not justify the means on the mitzvah scale. Then there is mitzvat anashim melumada, a mitzvah of learned people. This is a mitzvah that is observed out of habit and learning, which doesn’t count either because there is not kavana (good intention) in it. Mitzvah also appears in the popular Hebrew idiom “Matchil mitzvah omerim lo gmor” (“If you start something good, finish it”).

And finally, we have the milhemet mitzvah – the war that the people of Israel were commanded by God to wage, for example, against the former peoples of the Land of Israel. “For a war of mitzvah, everyone has to join,” says the Talmud, “even a bridegroom from his bridal suite and a bride from under the wedding canopy.” As Israel prepares for elections and formulates a response to the results of the Palestinian elections, let us hope that the days of milhemet mitzvah are behind us.

Yadin Roman

 

 

Other Language Corners:
Kayitz - Summer Extremes

The Language of Light
Tishrei - The Head of All the Months


Nadav Sollel and his classmates at the Ayanot school prepared to be called to the Torah for their bar mitzvot. (Danny Levinson)

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