Image: Photo of a wall decoration outside a synagogue in Zwolle, The Netherlands. By Jedidja/ The inscription reads, “Because My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” – Isaiah 56:7

A student asked me last night what “mitzvah” meant.

(I love my students; they keep me honest. I should have defined the term instead of just throwing it around.)

Mitzvah is Hebrew for commandment. In Yiddish and then in English, it acquired a colloquial meaning of “good deed,” and in truth, many good deeds are actually the fulfillment of commandments, but the literal meaning is the stern “commandment.”

Many modern Jews are resistant to that translation, because it fills our to-do lists to bursting. Our ancestors counted 613 commandments in the Torah, and no one has time for all of them. Some of them are impossible at this time (Temple sacrifices, for example) and others require equipment we don’t have right now (the Temple, again.) But we still have a long list of things we are commanded to do.

No one wants to be a failure.

What I said to the student last night was this:

“Commandment” means that it’s a serious thing. We have to deal with it, we can’t just ignore it and call ourselves good Jews.

Dealing with it may mean doing it, fulfilling it as perfectly as we can. (e.g. Keeping our tzedakah budget at a particular level and treating it as a budget item.)

Dealing with it may mean knowing that the commandment is there, as an ideal for behavior we regretfully cannot live up to at this time.  (e.g. Observing Shabbat as well as we can, in the hope that at some time in the future we will be able to do better.)

Dealing with it may mean acknowledging that it is there, on the books, and that it is inappropriate to observe it at this time. (e.g. Rebuilding the Temple would involve destroying someone else’s place of worship, against their will.)

Dealing with it may mean saying, no, we’ve misunderstood this one and we need to go back and study. (e.g. So-called mitzvot that exclude women from full participation in Jewish life are an antiquated mis-reading of Torah.) Going back and studying it is hard work, sometimes the work of generations. It is not an “easy way out.”


When we engage with the commandments, even if what we do is struggle with them, we’re on the Jewish path.

[Rabbi Tarfon] used to say: It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it. – Pirkei Avot 2:16