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What is a Mitzvah?
by Rabbi Osher Chaim Levene

A mitzvah is a commandment -- one of the taryag mitzvot, 613 commandments, relating to Jewish observance and religious practice. The commandments are the centerpiece of Judaism because they are where faithfulness to God and His Torah translate into action! Every sphere of human activity falls under the Torah's authority. From rising in the morning to retiring at night, from birth until death, the commandments encompass every area of Jewish life.

Mitzvah observance gives the promise of living an enlightened and meaningful existence. This is because the Torah system differs from all other legal systems, as it is the God-given blueprint for living. There can be no claim that the Torah was of human authorship or even that it was divinely inspired -- the Jewish people in its entirety was present at Sinai when God Himself gave the Torah to His chosen people. This establishes the Torah laws as absolute and immutable in the same way that their Creator is Eternal.

The mitzvot reflect the infinite and eternal nature of their Author. Of course, modern developments require consideration of how Torah law is to be applied to new situations. Indeed, the Torah provides a method to guarantee for the continuation of its application. However, the mitzvot themselves remain unchanged. They are not susceptible to reform and cannot be influenced or swayed by public opinion or contemporary thought. The Torah transcends secular legal systems whose human authorship may be able to offer a framework for civilization but cannot provide an absolute benchmark for morality.

The importance of the mitzvah system is that it relates to the very nature of the Jewish people. When God gave His Torah to the Children of Israel, Moses brought down from Sinai the two tablets of stone, on which were engraved the Ten Commandments. The law was "set into the stone" so that the writing, in contrast to ink written on a parchment, became an inseparable and indivisible component of the material onto which it was engraved.

This is the symbolic template for mitzvah observance, since the commandments are similarly etched into the heart of every Jew. They are integral to his existence; they relate in a most intimate way to his very identity and to his soul.

This idea sets the scene for understanding how the Torah commandments come to define and explain what "living" means for a Jew -- namely the continual opportunities to connect to God, the Source of reality.

* * *

Mitzvah: Relationship with God

The greatest question of them all is "What is the purpose of life?" The Torah explains that the purpose of human existence is to achieve closeness to God. This is attained via living in accordance with the 613 commandments because each mitzvah, in its own unique way, contains the means for man to forge a relationship with God.

Judaism is not as much a religion as it is a relationship. It is only through mitzvah observance that man can build a deep, enduring, and meaningful relationship with God. The Jew knows that the key to every good relationship is the obligations that it confers. It is a given that the stronger and more intimate the relationship, the more intense the level of responsibility. A husband's commitment to his wife is naturally in a different league than his commitment to a casual acquaintance. Every mitzvah is a demonstration of the fulfillment of obligations because of the close relationship between man and God. That a mitzvah is the very process of forging the bond is contained within the very word mitzvah "commandment," closely related to the word tzavta, meaning "a connection" or "a binding." Mitzvah performance creates a connection between God, the Commander, and man, the one being commanded.

Every relationship has two components. There is an element of reaching out, of doing positive actions that build and foster the bond between the parties. Then there is an element of restraint, of holding back from any action that might sully or destroy the relationship. These elements are both found in the Torah commandments.

The 248 positive commandments are actions that build and further man's bond to his Creator. The 365 negative commandments are those forbidden activities that threaten to break down this relationship. While the former entail positive measures indicating love of God, not violating the latter reflects man's fear of God and desire not to ruin the relationship. Together, the 613 commandments forge the ideal relationship where the two parties become one. Interestingly, the numerical value of the phrase "kesher echad" (one unit, or one bond) between God and man, is 613 -- the total number of Torah commandments.

How is the physical action of a mitzvah the mechanism through which to create a meaningful, eternal relationship with God? What lies within a mitzvah that successfully unites the realms of physical and spiritual?

* * *

Mitzvah: The Sanctity of Connecting Worlds

Man is the paradoxical synthesis of two parts. He has a physical body, within which pulsates a Heavenly soul. How can these opposite forces unite? The physical and spiritual connect in the performance of a mitzvah. A mitzvah can be described as the action and force that expresses the spiritual world of God in the physical world of man. How the force of a mitzvah transforms the physical into the metaphysical reflects the fascinating relationship between two very different worlds.

Everything physical is a reflection and crystallization of a spiritual reality. Torah is the DNA of the universe. The physical universe was formed for mitzvah observance. mitzvot are not a result of a reaction to the reality of the physical world. Rather, the converse is true. The Torah system is the cause that results and translates into the existence and creation of the physical world. The spiritual energy of the mitzvah of mezuzah, for example, leads to the physical reality in which people dwell in homes with doors and doorposts with which to perform this commandment.

This means that physical phenomena are simply the projection of their originating spiritual forces. Access to the Heavenly realm requires the interaction through the conduit of the human body. Judaism requires the connection of Heaven and earth, spiritual and physical, through the mitzvot, which spiritualize the body through a physical action performed in the service of God...

A mitzvah is therefore the point of transcendence where man meaningfully connects with his Creator, where opposite realms converge, where the physical becomes spiritual, where finite actions dovetail into infinity, where the ephemeral becomes eternal.

The prescription to true fulfillment and contentment in Jewish life and to development of one's personality based upon an eternal connection and relationship to God is found only within the framework of mitzvah observance, an infinitely rich and rewarding experience.


Excerpted with permission from "SET IN STONE." Published by Targum Press, Inc. -
See the author's website at


Reprinted with permission from InnerNet Magazine



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