mitzvah

Bar Mitzvah

[bahr mits-vuh or, Ashk. Heb. bahr; Seph. Heb. bahr meets-vah]

Jewish ritual celebrating a boy's 13th birthday and his entry into the community of Judaism. It usually takes place during a Sabbath service, when the boy reads from the Torah and may give a discourse on the text. The service is often followed by a festive Kiddush and a family dinner on the same day or next day. Reform Judaism substituted confirmation of boys and girls for the Bar Mitzvah celebration after 1810, but many congregations restored the Bar Mitzvah in the 20th century. A separate ceremony for girls, Bat Mitzvah, has been instituted in Reform and Conservative Judaism.

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This article is about commandments in Judaism. For the Jewish rite of passage, see Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah

Mitzvah (Hebrew: מצוה, ˈmɪtsvə, "commandment"; plural, mitzvos or mitzvot; from צוה, tzavah, "command") is a word used in Judaism to refer to the 613 commandments given in the Torah and the seven rabbinic commandments instituted later for a total of 620. The term can also refer to the fulfilment of a mitzvah.

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, or are derived from, divine commandments.

The opinions of the Talmudic rabbis are divided between those who seek the purpose of the mitzvot and those who do not question them. The former argue that if the reason for each mitzvah could be determined, people might try to achieve what they see as the purpose of the mitzvah, without actually performing the mitzvah itself.

Enumeration

The Rabbis came to assume that the Law comprised 613 commandments. According to Rabbi Simlai, as quoted in the Talmud, this enumeration of 613 commandments was representative of the following.

Three of the negative commandment fall under the category of Yeihareig ve'al ya'avor, meaning "one should [let himself] be killed rather than transgress the prohibition."

The number 613 can also be obtained by gematria (a traditional method of number substitution). The gematria value for the word "Torah" is 611, which corresponds to the number of commandments given via Moses, with the remaining two being identified as the first two of the Ten Commandments, which tradition holds were the only ones given by the Mouth of God Himself.

According to Rabbi Ishmael only the principal commandments of these 613 were given on Mount Sinai, the remainder having been given in the Tent of Meeting. Rabbi Akiba, on the other hand, was of the opinion that they were all given on Mount Sinai, repeated in the Tent of Meeting, and declared a third time by Moses before his death. According to the Midrash, all divine commandments were given on Mount Sinai, and no prophet could add any new one (Midrash Sifra to Leviticus 27:34; Talmud, Yoma 80a).

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"), on which there is a critical commentary by Nachmanides;
  • Sefer ha-Chinuch ("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 Mitzvot HaShem ("The book of God's Commandments") by Rabbi Boruch Halprin;
  • 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.

Rabbinical mitzvot

The Biblical mitzvot are referred to in the Talmud as Mitzvot d'oraita, translated as commandments of the Law. In contradistinction to this are rabbinical commandments, referred to as Mitzvot d'rabbanan. Among the more important of these latter mitzvot are:

These seven rabbinical commandments are treated like Biblical commandments insofar as, prior to the performance of each, a benediction is recited, i.e.:

"Blessed are You, O our God, King of the universe, Who has commanded us ..."

The divine command is considered implied in the general law to follow any instructions of the religious authorities (Deuteronomy 17:11, and 32:7; Shab. 23a). In addition, many of the specific details of the Biblical mitzvot are only derived via rabbinical application of the Oral Torah; for example, the reading of the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-7), the binding of the tefillin and the fixing of the mezuzah (Deuteronomy 8-9), and the saying of Grace After Meals (Deuteronomy 8:10).

Six constant mitzvot

Out of the 613 Mitzvot mentioned in the Torah, there are six mitzvot which the Sefer Hachinuch calls "constant mitzvot": "We have six mitzvot which are perpetual and constant, applicable at all times, all the days of our lives".

They are:

  1. To believe in God), and that he created all things.
  2. To not believe in anything else other than God.
  3. To believe in God's Oneness.
  4. To fear God.
  5. To love God.
  6. Not to pursue the passions of your heart and stray after your eyes.

Academic treatment

In modern Biblical scholarship, six different law codes are considered to compose the body of the Torah's text:

  • The Ten Commandments.
  • The Covenant Code follows, and provides more detailed laws.
  • The Ritual Decalogue, roughly summarising the Covenant Code, is presented after a brief narrative describing the design for the Ark of the Covenant and Tabernacle.
  • The Priestly Code, containing extensive laws concerning rituals and more general situations is given from above the mercy seat in the Tabernacle, once the Ark and Tabernacle have been completed. This code is extended further when events occur not quite covered by the law, causing Moses to ask Yahweh for greater clarification.
  • The Holiness Code is contained within the Priestly Code, close to the end, but is a distinct subsection placing particular emphasis on things which are holy, and which should be done to honour the holy. It also contains the warnings from Yahweh about what will occur if the laws are not followed, as well as promises for the event that the laws are followed.
  • The Deuteronomic Code is remembered by Moses, in his last speeches before death, both covering the ground of prior codes, but also further laws not recorded earlier, which Moses has, by this point, remembered.

In Biblical criticism, not universally accepted throughout the Jewish world, these codes are studied separately, particularly concerning the features unique, or first appearing, in each. Many of the mitzvot enumerated as being from one or other of these codes are also present in others, sometimes phrased in a different manner, or with additional clauses. Also, themes, such as idolatry, sexual behaviour, ritual cleanliness, and offerings of sacrifice, are shared among all six codes, and thus, in more religiously motivated theological studies, it is often the case that the mitzvot are organised instead by theme, rather than the location in which they are found within the bible.

The Mitzvot and Jewish law

In rabbinic thought, God's will is the source of, and authority for, every moral and religious duty. In this way, the Mitzvot thus constitute the Divinely instituted rules of conduct. In rabbinic thought, the commandments are usually divided into two major groups:

  • positive commandments (obligations) – mitzvot aseh מצות עשה
  • negative commandments (prohibitions) – mitzvot lo ta'aseh מצות לא תעשה

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 rabbinic literature of the classical era, especially the Mishnah and the Talmud.

The Halakha dictates and influences a wide variety of behavior of traditionalist Jews

Many of these laws concern only special classes of people, such as kings or the 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.

The majority view of classical rabbis was 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 by, or in, the messianic era. Examples of such rabbinic views include:

  • That 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)
  • That today we should observe the commandments. (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Avodah Zarah 3a, 4b).
  • That today we should observe the commandments, because we will not observe them in the world to come (Rashi).
  • That in the future all sacrifices, with the exception of the Thanksgiving-sacrifice, will be discontinued. (Midrash Vayikra Rabbah 9:7)
  • That all sacrifices will be annulled in the future. (Tanchuma Emor 19, Vayikra Rabbah 9:7)
  • That God will permit what is now forbidden (Midrash Shochar Tov, Mizmor 146:5).
  • That most mitzvot will no longer be in force. (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Niddah 61b and Tractate Shabbat 151b).

There is no authoritative answer accepted within Judaism as to which mitzvot, if any, would be annulled in the messianic era. This is a subject of academic debate and, not being viewed as an immediately practical question, is usually passed over in favor of answering questions of the practical halachah.

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