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Ask a Jew: What does “mitzvah” mean?

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By Neal Schindler

Q: What does “mitzvah” mean?

A mitzvah is a commandment. In Judaism there are 613. (Apparently the great medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides, aka Rambam, wasn’t able to dig up just seven more for a nice round 620.) They come from the Torah, which is why each mitzvah listed at the site linked above ends with a biblical citation. Some (“Not to entertain the idea that there is any god but the Eternal”) are pretty straightforward, at least if you believe in God. Others (“Not to stand by idly when a human life is in danger”) are quite universal and would make sense to most atheists.

Still others (“Not to castrate the male of any species; neither a man, nor a domestic or wild beast, nor a fowl”) aren’t a good idea in modern times and should, in my opinion, be ignored. After all, can you imagine how much worse West Central Spokane’s feral cat problem would be if its residents obeyed the anti-neutering mitzvah?

Of the 613 mitzvot, 248 are positive (“Thou shalt…”) and 365 negative (“Thou shalt not…”). Some Jews colloquially use the word mitzvah to mean “good deed,” something done above and beyond the essential tasks of being a decent person. However, mitzvah really does mean commandment. We’re not supposed to think of, say, honoring the old and the wise as the cherry on top of an already perfectly adequate Jewish life. Honoring seniors is the ice cream in the sundae, if you will; it’s part of the basic stuff of being Jewish.

About Neal Schindler

A native of Detroit, Neal Schindler has lived in the Pacific Northwest since 2002. He has held staff positions at Seattle Weekly and The Seattle Times and was a freelance writer for Jew-ish.com from 2007 to 2011. Schindler was raised in a Reconstructionist Jewish congregation and is now a member of Spokane's Reform congregation, Emanu-El. He is the director of Spokane Area Jewish Family Services. His interests include movies, Scrabble, and indie rock. He lives with his wife, son, and two cats in West Central Spokane.

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