By Leibel Estrin
The term mitzvah means “Commandment.” However, the word is connected to the phrase ‘tzavtza v’chibur, which means “Connecting and joining.” A mitzvah connects the One who commands (G-d) with the one who obeys (man). A mitzvah expresses the Will of G-d. By performing the mitzvah, the soul is able to unite with the Will of G-d and still continue to exist. In essence, the mitzvah is a garment for the soul.
The most well-known mitzvos of all are expressed in the aseres hadibros, “the 10 Commandments.” The 10 Commandments are found in Shemos, Chapter 20, Verses 1-14:
1. I am the L-rd your G-d Who has taken you out of the land of Egypt from the house of bondage.
2. You shall have no other gods before Me.
3. You shall not take the Name of the L-rd your G-d in vain.
4. Remember/Observe the Sabbath day to keep it holy.
5. Honor your father and mother.
6. You shall not murder.
7. You shall not commit adultery.
8. You shall not steal (kidnapping a person and selling that person into slavery).
9. You shall not bear false witness.
10. You call not covet.
These commandments were written on tablets and given to Moses on Mount Sinai. But they hint to, and include, many other commandments in the Torah. In all, the Torah contains 613 mitzvos. There are 365 negative mitzvos (you shall not…) and 248 positive mitzvos (you shall…). The 365 negative commandments correspond to 365 blood vessels in the body. The negative commandments also correspond to the 365 days of the solar year. Fulfilling a negative commandment purifies the body and elevates it to a higher level of holiness.
The 248 positive commandments correspond to 248 bones (sections) in the human body. Fulfilling a positive commandment strengthens and enhances the relationship of the body and soul to the Creator. In addition to the 613 mitzvos found in the Torah, there are seven mitzvos of the sages. They were decreed to enrich our relationship to G-d. The seven are:
- Lighting candles before Shabbos
- Celebrating Chanukah
- Celebrating Purim
- Ceremoniously washing hands before eating bread
- Making a blessing before eating or drinking and for certain
- Saying Hallel (psalms of praise) on holidays
- Turning a public domain/area into a private domain/area using a technique called an eruv
The total number of commandments is 620. By Divine Providence, the Torah section containing the 10 commandments has 620 letters. Most of the 613 commandments only apply when we have the Holy Temple, a King and sovereignty over biblical Israel. Others only apply to a king or high priest. As a result, only about 270 mitzvos apply today. Both men and women are obligated to perform these commandments. However, women are exempt from performing positive mitzvos that are associated with a specific time. For example, women are not obligated to wear tzitsis, (ritual fringes) because, according to the letter of the law, tzitsis, are only worn during the day.
There are, nevertheless, three positive mitzvos that have a special connection to women (although they apply equally to men): the mitzvah to separate a portion of dough to recall the portion that was given to the priests; the mitzvah of lighting candles before Shabbos and yom tov (holidays); and the laws regarding family purity. If there is a woman in the house, it is she, not her husband, who makes sure that the challah dough has been set aside, that the Shabbos lights have been lit, and that she has immersed herself in a mikvah at the proper time.
Virtually all the mitzvos deal with physical things. For example, women need to physically kindle Shabbos lights. Men must wear tefillin weekdays. The idea is that these mitzvos not only connect G-d to man, they also elevate the physical world, thereby preparing it to be a fit dwelling place for G-d’s presence. The act (whether it is in speech or deed) is called the “body” of the mitzvah. However, mitzvos also have a “soul” and that is the intention behind it. For example, we can put on tefillin while half-asleep and mumbling the words of prayer. Did we perform the mitzvah of wearing tefillin? Yes. On the other hand, we can concentrate on the meaning of tefillin as we don them and remind ourselves of their significance often during prayer. That’s an entirely different experience and receives a correspondingly different reward.
The intention behind any act is called the kavana. One can have an intellectual awareness of the mitzvah and its meaning, or an emotional desire to connect with G-d, or ideally, both. What wings are to a bird, love and awe (through understanding G-d’s greatness) are to a mitzvah. The more intention or kavana that you have, the “higher” the mitzvah goes in the heavenly spheres and the greater its ability to draw down Divine light and blessing.
An excerpt from the book “Judaism From Above The Clouds.”
Leibel Estrin has been writing about Jewish topics for four decades. He is working as a Jewish chaplain for the Aleph Institute. Leibel has recently published a work on Jewish perspectives and values entitled “Judaism From Above The Clouds.” To read more of Leibel’s writings and to purchase his book click here.
 Mitzvos fall into three broad categories: Edus means “Testimonies.” Edus recall or testify to a particular event. For example, the holiday and commandments associated with Passover testify to the Exodus from Egypt. Mishpotim means “Judgments.” Mishpotim include civil laws and commandments that we could have developed on our own. Chukim are “Decrees.” We don’t really know the reason for the commandment, but since G-d gave it, we must fulfill it. Chukim include the commandment to keep kosher and the commandment to use the ashes of the Red Heifer to cleanse one from the spiritual impurity caused by contact with the dead.