When people visit Mea Shearim, one of the most Orthodox communities in all of Israel, or observe the crowds gathered at the Western Wall of Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem, questions often arise: What motivates people to be so committed?
Why do some people shun leaven for eight days each spring? Why do some eat their meals in a portable structure made of branches during the feast of Succoth? What motivates them to fast each year on Yom Kippur? Moving into the secular world, Jewish parents who want to see their children exhibit a particular behavior could also be asked, Why?
The answer in each of these situations can best be stated in three words—words my mother often used to get me to do something or not to do something. In fact, she still uses them today, given the opportunity. She would tell me, “Do this…go there…don’t do that…because IT’S A MITZVAH !” Inevitably, those three words would freeze me, even if only for an instant, because mitzvot (plural) are at the heart of Judaism.
Mitzvah is defined in a number of ways. In its simplest form, a mitzvah is a command given by God; it is a divine precept. The definition has been expanded to include anything that promotes proper behavior. That change came about because the word mitzvah has also been translated to mean charity. Thus, another definition for mitzvah is good deed. Whether Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform, many Jewish people believe that performing a mitzvah is a means of purifying themselves, thus providing great satisfaction in doing the right thing.
There are 613 mitzvot in the Jewish Scriptures (Old Testament). They are divided into the “Thou shalts”—248 positive commandments that correspond in number to the parts of the human body—and the “Thou shalt nots”—365 negative commandments that correspond in number to the days of the solar year. They are also divided into three types of commandments. The first type is called hukim or statutes. Hukim are given by God, and their purposes are often difficult to understand. For example, it is prohibited to combine wool with linen in a garment (Deuteronomy 22:11). The second type is called mishpatim, which are judgments. These commands should be followed, even if the command from God did not exist. They consist of such things as honoring one’s parents, not stealing, or not murdering. The third division of laws, called edot, relates to being a visible witness to others, such as keeping Passover or wearing the tallit (prayer shawl).
While the triple division of mitzvot is God-given, there is an additional threefold division of mitzvot that is man-made. The first division is called minhag. These laws started as customs. The customs eventually became ingrained in the Jewish life experience and were just as binding as any Jewish law. An example of a minhag is religious men wearing the yarmulke (skull cap). The second division is called gezeirah. These laws were established by great sages to protect people from breaking the laws of the Scriptures. An example of a gezeirah is not touching a pen on the Sabbath because the law says not to write on that day. The last division of man-made mitzvot is called takkanah. These were created to help the general welfare of people within their communities and include such requirements as establishing elementary schools or drawing up a ketuba (marriage contract) to guarantee that a husband meets his obligations to his wife.
It is impossible for any person to obey all 613 biblical mitzvot because not all laws apply to all people. For instance, some laws relate only to the priests, who are of the tribe of Levi. Other laws involve the Temple, which at present does not exist. Still others exempt women because of their obligation to raise the family, a task involving a significant amount of time. In addition, it is believed that, by their very nature, men need more restrictions or restraints than women, who are regarded as more spiritually minded. One rabbi of recent times has taken all of these variables into account and estimates that the average person could follow 271 biblical mitzvot. He broke these down into 77 positive laws and 194 negative commands.
Surprisingly, Judaism teaches seven mitzvot that should be observed by Gentiles. These were given to Noah after the flood to be passed down through his sons. They are as follows: Believe in the one true God; do not blaspheme; do not kill; do not steal; do not be sexually immoral; set up courts of law; do not eat the flesh of an animal that was cut from it while it was still alive.
All these facts about mitzvot still do not explain the motivation behind performing them. Jewish people perform mitzvot to assure a right standing with the God of the universe. According to Judaism, each fall on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the good and bad deeds done by people throughout the year are weighed by God. The ten days between Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur are known as the Days of Awe. During these ten days, Jewish people try to perform as many mitzvot as possible to insure that their names will be sealed in the Book of Life for the coming year. But people never know if they have done enough.
The words of my mother—“Because it’s a mitzvah!”—motivated me to a given action. Now, as a follower of the Messiah, I know God’s Word is clear. “All our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). “For there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good and sinneth not” (Ecclesiastes 7:20). “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God—Not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8–9).
Thoughtful observers must ponder their own motivations for action. Do we perform good deeds to achieve a good standing with God? Or do we rest in the finished work of Christ on our behalf and desire to win others by our love and good deeds?