In its primary meaning, the Hebrew word mitzvah (, meaning "commandment", מִצְוָה, [mit͡sˈva], Biblical: miṣwah; plural מִצְווֹת mitzvot [mit͡sˈvot], Biblical: miṣwoth; from צִוָּה ṣiwwah "command") refers to precepts and commandments commanded by God, with the additional connotation of one's religious duty.
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. The 613 commandments are divided into two categories: 365 negative commandments and 248 positive commandments. According to the Talmud, all moral laws are, or are derived from, divine commandments. The collection is part of the larger Jewish law or halakha.
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).
In its secondary meaning, Hebrew mitzvah, as with English "commandment", refers to a moral deed performed within a religious duty. As such, the term mitzvah has also come to express an individual act of human kindness in keeping with the law. The expression includes a sense of heartfelt sentiment beyond mere legal duty, as "you shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18). The tertiary meaning of mitzvah also refers to the fulfillment of a mitzvah.
The feminine noun mitzvah (מִצְוָה) occurs over 180 times in the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible. The first use is in Genesis 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; the Ten Commandments (עשרת הדיברות), for example, are the "Ten Words".
The Tanakh does not state that there are 613 commandments. The tradition that the number is 613 began in the 3rd century CE, when Rabbi Simlai claimed it in a sermon, apparently to make the point that a person should observe the Torah every day with his whole body.
"Rabbi Simlai gave as a sermon (darash Rabi Simlai): 613 commandments were communicated to Moses, 365 negative commands, corresponding to the number of solar days [in a year], and 248 positive commands, corresponding to the number of the members [bones covered with flesh] of a man's body."
Writing in the 12th century, Abraham ibn Ezra observed that there were over a thousand divine commandments in the Bible, but fewer than 300 applied to his time. Nachmanides found that the number was in dispute and uncertain. The number 613 is a rabbinical tradition rather than an exact count.
According to Rabbi Ishmael, only the principal commandments of the 613 were given on Mount Sinai, the remainder having been given in the Tent of Meeting. Rabbi Akiva, 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 number 613 can 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'.
The Biblical mitzvot are referred to in the Talmud as mitzvot d'oraita, translated as commandments of the Law (Torah). In contradistinction to these 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.:
Blessed are You, O LORD our God, King of the universe, Who has commanded us ...
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 three daily prayers in any language and the recitation of the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-7) twice a day in any language, 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 Biblical criticism, 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, 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. Halakha is the development of the mitzvot as contained in the Written Law (Torah), 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, 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 accepted authoritative answer 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 halakha.