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In its primary meaning, the Hebrew word mitzvah ("commandment", מִצְוָה, [mit͡sˈva], Biblical: miṣwah; plural מִצְווֹת mitzvot [mit͡sˈvot], Biblical: miṣwoth; from צִוָּה ṣiwwah "command") refers to precepts and commandments as commanded by God. It is used in rabbinical Judaism to refer to the 613 commandments given in the Torah at biblical Mount Sinai and the seven rabbinic commandments instituted later for a total of 620. According to the Talmud, all moral laws are, or are derived from, divine commandments.
In its secondary meaning, Hebrew mitzvah, as with English "commandment", refers to a moral deed performed as a religious duty. As such, the term mitzvah has also come to express an act of human kindness. The tertiary meaning of mitzvah also refers to the fulfillment of a mitzvah.
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 latter 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 ("lishmah"), which would become self-defeating. The former believe that if people were to understand the reason and the purpose for each mitzvah, it would actually help them to observe and perform the mitzvah (some mitzvot are given reasons in the Torah).
The feminine noun mitzvah (מִצְוָה) occurs over 180 times in the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible. The first use is in Genesis 26:5 where God says that Abraham has "obeyed my voice, and kept my charge, my commandments (מִצְוֹתַי mitzvotai), my statutes, and my laws". In the Septuagint the word is usually translated with entole (ἐντολὴ). In Second Temple period funeral inscriptions the epithet phil-entolos, "lover of the commandments", was sometimes inscribed on Jewish tombs. Other words are also used in Hebrew for commands and statutes, for example the Ten Commandments (עשרת הדיברות) are the "Ten Words".
The Tanakh does not state that there are 613 commandments, and the tradition that 613 is the number of mitzvot in the Torah, first occurred in the 3rd Century CE, when Rabbi Simlai mentioned it in a sermon that is recorded in Talmud Makkot 23b. These are held to be representative of the following:
|“||365 negative commandments like the number of days in the solar year, and 248 positive commandments corresponding to a person's limbs||”|
—Talmud, Tractate Makkoth, 23b
Three of the negative commandments fall under the category of self-sacrifice under Jewish Law, meaning "one should [let himself] be killed rather than transgress the prohibition".
The number 613 can also be obtained by gematria (a traditional Jewish 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 heard from the Mouth of God Himself. (Jews are also reminded of the 613 commandments by the Tzitzit, known as 'fringes' or 'strings'.)
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 ones.
The Biblical mitzvot are referred to in the Talmud as mitzvot d'oraita, translated as commandments of the Law (Torah). In contradistinction to this are rabbinical commandments, referred to as mitzvot d'rabbanan. Mitzvot d'rabbanan are a type of takkanah. Among the more important mitzvot d'rabbanan are:
These seven rabbinical commandments are treated like Biblical commandments insofar as, prior to the performance of each, a benediction is recited, i.e.:
They give rise to the phrase "Keter Torah" ("The Crown of the Torah") as the numeric value of Keter is 620 (613+7).
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 (Mishna/Gemarah); for example, the reading of the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-7), the binding of the tefillin and the fixing of the mezuzah (Deuteronomy 6:8-9), and the saying of Grace After Meals (Deuteronomy 8:10).
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".
In modern Biblical scholarship, six different law codes are considered to compose the body of the Torah's text:
In Biblical criticism, not 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 by theme, rather than the location in which they are found within the Bible.
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] and 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 Kohanim (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 Age. 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:
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. It is important to note that in the Messianic era itself there are different stages. In addition there is a dispute between Maimonides and Nachmonides whether the ultimate Messianic state will be bodies with souls or souls alone. So that the various opinions as to the annulment of Biblical prohibitions need to be understood in this context.