What is a Mitzvah?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

In Jewish tradition, the term “mitzvah” describes a commandment from God. There are 613 mitzvot, divided into positive and negative mitzvot. Positive mitzvot are commandments which dictate that the faithful must do something, such as donating to charity or respecting parents. Negative commandments are explicit instructions about things which people should not do, like kidnapping and murdering. These commandments are rooted in the Torah, the religious text which is the foundation of Judaism.

Followers of Judaism hold the Torah in high esteem and consider it to be God's written law.
Followers of Judaism hold the Torah in high esteem and consider it to be God's written law.

In addition to being used to refer to these 613 commandments, the term “mitzvah” also more generally means a worthy, good, or kind deed. Many people of the Jewish faith believe that they should engage in mitzvot as often as possible as part of an expression of their faith, affirming their connection to God on a regular basis by doing acts of kindness in His name. A mitzvah can be large or small, with the intent of doing good being the focal point of the action.

The Star of David is a symbol often associated with Judaism.
The Star of David is a symbol often associated with Judaism.

Any number of actions could be considered a mitzvah. One could drive elderly people to medical appointments, donate to an arts organization, or volunteer at an animal shelter, for instance. The ability to use good deeds to connect with God allows people who are otherwise disadvantaged to establish a relationship with God and contribute to their communities. Homeless people, for instance, could not make tithes or donations, but they could volunteer to help collect garbage in the streets, or perform other mitzvot which benefit their communities.

Many religions have a long tradition of charity and encouraging good deeds, and Judaism is no exception. Acts of kindness to others are viewed as a good service, and they are encouraged among people of all ages. Even a small action, such as engaging in the common courtesy of holding a door open for someone else, or stopping to assist at an accident, could be viewed as a mitzvah. Some people try to make a regular habit of engaging in mitzvot, picking a particular day a week to volunteer with an organization, bring meals or companionship to someone who is housebound, and so forth.

The need to engage in acts of kindness is specifically spelled out in the 613 mitzvot, and those acts of kindness can be for any living organism, not just a human being. Rendering assistance to animals in need of assistance is a mitzvah, with one even dictating that people should to assist beasts of burden who have collapsed under a heavy load.

The 613 mitzvot calls for helping those in need and being kind to all other living things.
The 613 mitzvot calls for helping those in need and being kind to all other living things.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@Monika - I was astonished at the number of commandments too. I hope people aren't required to know all of them, but I guess it is like anything else, if you are determined to learn it, you probably will!

I am not Jewish, nor do I know that much about the Jewish religion, but I do believe this is a good idea to do on a regular basis.

We should all help each other out, and help animals out as well. I think it is nice that they include the smaller nice tasks as mitzvahs too, like the simple task of opening the door for someone else.

Even just smiling at others and as much as possible can go a long way. It will put you in a better mood, and usually put others in a better mood to. Just acknowledging someone and saying something as simple as "hi" can make a big difference in people's lives.

I think having at least one day a week dedicated to doing good deeds for others is great! If at all possible we should do good deeds for people every chance we get.

Since I am a Christian, I believe God is the one to be praised for these acts of kindness. Of course if someone does something nice for you, you should be appreciative and thankful to them as well as God.

If you are doing the good deeds, you shouldn't get conceited. Remember God is the one who made the best possible.


@indemnifyme - The idea of a miztvah does sound like a nice one. I'm a little bit blown away by these 613 rules commandments though. How does a person ever remember them all?


I'm not very familiar with the Jewish faith, but I think the idea of a mitzvah is a very nice one. If everyone did a small act of kindness every day, the world would be a much better place.

I also think it's nice the idea of a mitzvah can include animals too. I have a few friends that do a lot of volunteer work at animal shelters and I think that should "count" as much as good deed towards a person does.

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