Religion & Beliefs

What’s a Mitzvah and What’s the Difference?

If you think that a mitzvah is a good deed then you've come to the right blog. Let's start by addressing common misconceptions: A mitzvah is not a good deed. A mitzvah is not a commandment. A mitzvah is not … Read More

By / June 6, 2007

If you think that a mitzvah is a good deed then you've come to the right blog. Let's start by addressing common misconceptions:

  • A mitzvah is not a good deed.
  • A mitzvah is not a commandment.
  • A mitzvah is not helping someone.
  • There are not 613 mitzvahs or mitzvot.

I'm not saying that a mitzvah isn't related to good deeds, but they are not the same.

So what is it already? A mitzvah is a certain type of transcendent connection that you create when you do some actions (such as good deeds) with the right frame of mind. Let's take the most basic example: You're walking outside and a stranger asks you for a handout. You give him a dollar. Did you do a mitzvah? Let's say for the sake of discussion that he uses the money to buy food to stay alive.

Survey says: You definitely did a good deed. But you didn't do a mitzvah!

It's not a mitzvah until you have in mind as you had him the dollar that you're doing a holy act that unites heaven and earth and imitates God as it were. A person can spend their entire life helping others and never do a mitzvah. If you are doing good things without knowing it, without consciously choosing, it means that you had parents who gave you good habits. It doesn't make you a spiritually-oriented person.

Judaism says that you were put on this planet for a purpose. Actually, you have two purposes, your meta-purpose and your specific purpose. Your meta-purpose is the same as mine, it is the general purpose of human existence. Your specific purpose is the details of how you are going to realize that meta-purpose.

Our meta-purpose is to transcend the auto-pilot and perceive the hand of God in every transaction of Nature and of Man. What makes this constant awareness so hard is that we have these bodies that have physical cravings and distract us from the spiritual awareness. One solution to this problem is to unite body and mind by focusing like a laser on the transcendence of the body's action. To put it simply, when I do a mitzvah with the proper focus – called kavanah – I am fulfilling my purpose in this life (in at least the general sense).

Now, how many mitzvahs are there? As I mentioned above, if you say 613, then you've come to the right blog to get your head fixed. Before I tell you the actual number, let's clarify one point: regardless of the number, the fact that there are a set number of mitzvahs means that there are x number of channels through which you can connect your physical existence to the Source in order that your existence be meaningful and not a pointless sham.

Each one of those channels is a unique opportunity to give your life transcendent meaning. So, for instance, giving tzeddakah gives you a different connection than not eating meat and cheese together.

But the uniqueness of a mitzvah compared to another mitzvah is only one facet. Another facet is the way you give tzedakah (or any other mitzvah). Your way is different from the way in which I do it. In order for us to bring the world into harmony, the world needs both your expression and mine of that mitzvah. If either of us fails to do a mitzvah, then our collective karma is lacking one connection that it would have otherwise had.

Therefore the true number of mitzvahs is really 613 times the number of Jewish people. Your mitzvahs affect me and mine affect you.

A mitzvah to the soul is like food to the body: it's good for you to do, but how you do it is just as important as what you do.

Below are three videos to compare and contrast. The first is a player piano recording of Scott Joplin himself playing "Maple Leaf Rag". It's undoubtedly a work of genius.

The second is a human being playing the same song. Which is more enjoyable for you to watch?

The third is a different human playing a different fast song.

What do you think? It seems to me that the contrast between these performances compares to doing a mitzvah on auto-pilot versus with all your heart and soul. You can test this: In the next 30 minutes, try to find a mitzvah to do, and do it with the awareness that you are creating a transcendental connection while you do it. Then let us know below on how it went.