May 22, 2024

Understanding the History Behind Different Types of Mitzvot

Two Women Volunteers Working at Pantry Packers

Jewish philanthropists have proven that community-wide giving is significant. But supporting children’s education and charities for widows with donations has the power to be rewarding in another way. According to ancient Jewish law, performing good deeds is part of one’s religious obligation and can bring spiritual fulfillment. Let’s explore how mitzvot – central values in Judaism – encourage acts of loving-kindness and giving back to the community.

What Does Mitzvah Mean?

Mitzvah is a Hebrew word that has been used in the Jewish faith for centuries. Its literal translation means “commandment” or “obligation” and it refers to the religious duties and deeds that are required of Jewish people. In Judaism, there are 613 mitzvot or commandments found in the Torah, which is the central text of Jewish law and tradition.

The concept of mitzvah is deeply ingrained in Jewish culture and plays a fundamental role in the way of life for Jews. These commandments cover all aspects of daily life, including family relationships, personal behavior, ritual observances, social justice, and more. Each mitzvah is seen as a way for Jews to connect with G-d and fulfill their purpose in the world.

A Mitzvah can be a physical action, such as lighting candles on Shabbat or wearing tzitzit (fringes) on clothing, but they can also be intangible actions like studying Halacha (Jewish law) and giving prayers and blessings to others.

Comparing Torah Level and Rabbinic Mitzvot

The origins of the concept of mitzvah can be traced back to when G-d made a covenant with Abraham, promising him that his descendants would become a great nation and inherit the land of Israel. This covenant was renewed with Moses at Mount Sinai when G-d gave the 613 commandments to the Jewish people.

These first mitzvot are referred to as Torah-level mitzvahs because they can be found in the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible). The commandments are believed to have been prescribed directly from G-d and serve as an ethical foundation for the beliefs of the Chabad movement.

Over Jewish history, prominent rebbes have developed additional good deeds by introducing Rabbinic mitzvot. There are seven in total, which, although not in the Torah, still hold great significance in the community.

The Seven Rabbinic Mitzvot:

  • Washing hands before bread
  • Lighting the Sabbath candles
  • Lighting the Festival candles
  • Making an Eruv (carrying area for Shabbat)
  • Reciting Psalms of Praise on holidays
  • Lighting the Chanukah Menorah
  • Reading the Megillah on Purim

Why Every Mitzvah Is a Commandment From G-d

It’s reasonable to wonder whether Rabbinic mitzvot hold the same weight as their Toral-level counterparts. If they were created after the fact, how can they be just as important? Moreover, why would we begin these prayers and blessings with the same statement “which G-d has commanded us” if rebbes are the ones who introduced these mitzvot?

Deuteronomy provides some clarity on these questions by emphasizing the importance of following Sages’ wisdom. It and other excerpts from holy Jewish text stipulate that the rulings of the Sanhedrin (high court), which legislate Rabbinic mitzvot, are binding and to be followed as if they were from G-d.

The Two Types of Mitzvot In Jewish Law

In Jewish law, there are two primary forms of mitzvots: positive commandments (mitzvot aseh) and negative commandments (mitzvot lo ta’aseh). See an explanation of each category and the types of mitzvah in each one below.

Positive Commandments

Positive commandments are actions that we are commanded to do, such as lighting Shabbat candles or giving tzedakah (charity). These 250 mitzvot are seen as a way to fulfill the will of G-d and bring holiness into our lives. They are also viewed as opportunities for personal growth and spiritual connection.

Negative Commandments

The opposite of positive commandments, negative commandments tell Jews what we should not be doing as observers of the faith. Well-known examples include eating non-kosher food and engaging in forbidden sexual relationships. Mitzvot lo ta’aseh play an important role in protecting us from harmful behaviors and ensuring that we live a moral and ethical life. There are 365 in total, one for each day of the solar calendar year.

Seven Examples of Important Mitzvot

It should go without saying that no commandment from G-d should be underappreciated. Each and every mitzvah, both in the Talmud and from rebbes, exists for a reason. However, there are some commandments with special significance to both Jewish history and community-building. This section lists seven alongside their respective meanings and purposes.

1. Tzedakah

One of the most well-known mitzvot is tzedakah, the act of giving charity or doing acts of kindness to help those in need. In Jewish tradition, tzedakah and philanthropy are seen as a pathway to Tikkun Olam, or repairing the world. This is the duty for which we have been put on this planet – to make it a better place for all in the image of G-d.

2. Mezuzah

A mezuzah is a small parchment scroll that contains the Shema, one of the most important prayers in Judaism. We are commanded to affix a mezuzah on the doorposts of our homes, symbolizing our dedication to living a Jewish life and remembering the presence of G-d in all aspects of our lives.

3. Ma’aser Kesafim

Ma’aser kesafim is the commandment to give 10% of one’s income to charity. This helps ensure that we do not become too attached or overly materialistic in our pursuit of wealth.

4. Tikkun Olam

The importance of community service in Jewish life has its roots in mitzvot like Tikkun Olam, which literally translates to ‘repairing the world’. There are different ways to do this – some choose to donate to non-profits for orphans and organizations that fight poverty, while others find it more meaningful to sign up for volunteer work.

5. Bikur Cholim

Bikur Cholim is a Hebrew term for visiting the sick. Jews are encouraged to do so frequently to bring comfort and support to those who are unwell. This concept is strongly tied to the idea of collective strength, or ‘Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Bazeh‘, which means all Jews are responsible for one another.

6. Shabbat

The observance of Shabbat, the day of rest, is considered one of the most important mitzvot in Judaism. It serves as a reminder to take a break from our busy lives and appreciate all that we have been given.

7. Kashrut

The laws of kashrut dictate what foods are considered kosher or permissible for consumption. While the specifics of these laws may vary between different Jewish communities, the overarching purpose of kashrut is to promote mindfulness and spiritual discipline in one’s daily life.

Honor the Jewish Tradition of Doing Good With Colel Chabad

If you’re looking to fulfill the mitzvah of tzedakah but aren’t sure where to start, consider Colel Chabad. Founded over two centuries ago by prominent Chabad figures, our organization is the oldest of its kind and exists with the main goal of bringing more loving-kindness to the world.

We aren’t just a charity for the poor or a local non-profit against hunger – rather, a large-scale network of support for Israeli families in need. Colel Chabad’s work ranges from helping widows and orphans, fighting against food insecurity, offering specialized community healthcare, and more.

Colel Chabad is the best Jewish charity to donate to at any time, but especially during Israel’s current struggles. Every donation goes towards an important cause, and there are plenty of ways to get involved. We are always looking for volunteers to join us in our efforts to bring each of the Eight Degrees of Giving into practice. No contribution is too big or too small, and no participant is too young or too old to make an impact.

What are you waiting for? Take action and donate today.


Yizkor Donation

בַּעֲבוּר שֶׁבְּלִי נֶדֶר אֶתֵּן צְדָקָה