The Word "Mitzvah"

April 7th: Tzav and Shabbat Hagadol
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

The title word for this portion is TZAV (Tzadee Vav) which means command:
“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, Command Aaron and his sons….”
It comes from the same root as mitzvah / commandment, and it reminds us of the command structure in the Biblical system. There is a Commander (God) who gives commands (mitzvot) to various commandees (the Israelites or all humanity). They are not suggestions or ideas. They are commands, and the Biblical theology is quite explicit as to the rewards for obeying them and the punishments for disobeying them. The original definition of the word mitzvah is commandment.

 How, then, did we get to the various modern understandings of the word?

I think (and this is my own thinking on the subject) that some of this started in the Rabbinic Period (200 BCE – 200 CE). While the Bible presented a very active God, some of the Rabbis talked about God in less anthropomorphic terms. In particular, some of them referred to the Deity as HaMakom / The Place, as in the place where existence exists. They did not go all the way to panentheism, but they did speak of God more in passive terms than active: that God is the essence of Reality rather than a character that enters the world from time to time, taking various actions. In particular, the Rabbis taught that God’s revelations are no longer operative. Whereas God had certainly spoken and inspired the various Prophets in the Holy Scriptures, that was no longer the way the Deity worked. Now (from 200 BCE on), God has entrusted it to the Sages. They study the Torah, and they decide. They do not wait for new revelatory instructions.

One can see this kind of thinking through Jewish philosophy and mysticism from those Rabbinic days all the way through Kabbalah and Hassidism and various modern more panentheistic understandings of God and Torah. It has been a consistent theme.

Another development came in the hyperbolic use of the word mitzvah in Yiddish. While the original meaning was commandment, one can well see it being used as an intense encouragement. “Please do this. It’s a mitzvah”—meaning, the action is so good, it is as though it is a mitzvah (commanded by God). One can also make the case that, since God commands us to be nice to each other and helpful to strangers, any act of kindness and justice is therefore commanded by the Almighty—even though the Torah might not specify this particular good deed. In other words, the popular definition of mitzvah as a good deed is a secondary or tertiary definition, one that developed over time.

Another way to say that something is so good, it’s as though it’s a mitzvah, is to say something is compelling. Compelling does not usually carry with it the authoritarian structure of a commander/Commander, but it does speak of the authority of the situation or of reality compelling or commanding a particular behavior. In my mind, it harkens back to the Rabbinic notion of God being HaMakom, The Place of Reality, and the fact is that, in Reality, our principles and aspirations compel certain practices and behaviors.

There is also the modern post-Enlightenment understanding of individual autonomy in religious decisions. Rather than look at the mitzvot of Tradition as commands from the Most High, we look at them as the opinions of our ancient forebears on how humans can best live in relationship with God. We consider their opinions and try to appreciate their perspective, but, when it comes to our own religious thinking and practice, we choose what is compelling to us, and we defer those things that are not meaningful to us. Thus is the word mitzvah now used for those acts which are sanctifying—which help us to an apperception of the Divine and which help us in our relationship with the Divine.

At one level, this seems a far cry from the original sense of the Torah, but, then again, we are still concerned with the Ultimate Reality and how best we can understand it and consciously live in Its Presence.