THE MEANING OF A MITZVAH
What is a mitzvah? An obligation; a duty; a commandment. The Hebrew root, Tzadi Vav Hei means to ‘command’ and is first found in the Torah in the context of the Eternal One ‘commanding’ the people Israel, concerning the mishpatim and chukkim, the ‘laws’ and ‘statutes’ set out in various legal codes.
The rabbis took the concept of mitzvah and applied it to behaviours that are not mentioned in the Torah, like lighting Shabbat and Festival candles. They also spelt out mitzvot that they derived from the Torah. So, a rabbinic passage in the siddur – prayer book – from the Mishnah (Pe’ah 1:1) and the Talmud (Shabbat 127a), which opens with the mitzvah of ‘honouring one’s father and mother’, stated in the Torah, (Exodus 20:12), also includes: g’milut chasadim – ‘loving deeds’; coming early to the house of study in the morning and evening; hospitality to guests; visiting the sick; bringing in the bride [to the chuppah]; accompanying the dead; praying with sincerity; and making peace between one person and another. Interestingly, the passage concludes: v’talmud Torah k’neged kulam – ‘and the study of Torah is equal – or, equivalent – to them all.’ Unless one understands this to mean that one can fulfil all one’s obligations simply by studying, another translation, used in the Liberal siddur is, ‘And the study of Torah leads to them all.’
If we examine the list it is apparent that with the exception of studying and praying with sincerity, the mitzvot included focus on how we treat others, and belong to the category of what we call ma’asim tovim, ‘good deeds’. For most Jews, of all denominations, a mitzvah is first and foremost a very special kind of ‘good deed’, which is also a ‘commandment’; an act that we are obligated to perform. So, Jews don’t carry out good deeds simply because we are nice – although we may be that as well – but primarily because we understand that it is our duty to help and support others.
To remind us of the importance of doing good deeds, all sections of the Jewish community across Britain have agreed to designate an annual Sunday in November as Mitzvah Day. So, November 20th is Mitzvah Day, and a variety of activities have been arranged by the different synagogues in Brighton & Hove. For the second year running, BHPS will be helping out at the Moulescoomb Forest Garden, a project set up for the local community, which runs programmes specifically targeted at engaging young people who are experiencing difficulties at school. This year we have arranged to volunteer at the garden in conjunction with Brighton Voices in Exile, a local refugee project, which we also support. If you are interested in joining us, please contact the synagogue office.
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah