Mitzvot: A Mitzvah Is a Commandment
One often hears someone Jewish saying, “It's a mitzvah!” usually referring to a charitable, beneficial act performed by another person. However, while its Yiddish parallel “mitzveh” does have this connotation, the Hebrew word mitzvah does not mean “a good deed” in that sense. Mitzvah literally means “commandment.” In fact, Jewish tradition understands exactly 613 mitzvot (plural of mitzvah) to be derived from the Hebrew Bible. It is not simply a “good deed,” for example, to refrain from murdering or stealing. And similarly, the mitzvot which deal with feeding the poor, acting kindly to the stranger, or observing the Sabbath are much more significant in the Jewish tradition than mere divine suggestions on how to be good. Mitzvot are commandments, traditionally understood to come from God and to be intended for the Jewish people to observe.
Those of us who live in the western world are often uncomfortable with the idea of being “commanded” to do something, because it seems to deprive us of the right to choose how we behave. In fact, the Torah itself says that when God gave the commandments, God declared, “Behold, I have set before you the blessing [of observing the commandments] and the curse [the potential punishment for failing to observe the mitzvot]--therefore, choose life!" It seems that even God recognized that the Jews had a choice in the matter-- and was clearly hinting at the right choice.
But why should the biblical Israelites have bothered to accept and observe the mitzvot? After God rescued the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, God expected that the Israelites would in turn observe the mitzvot in eternal, loving gratitude for this redemption. Yet, gratitude only goes so far, especially when it comes to observing such commandments as keeping kosher (dietary) laws or Shabbat (resting and not working on the Sabbath day). For the past three thousand or so years, every generation of Jews, rabbis, and scholars, has analyzed and argued about exactly why the Jewish people should continue to observe the mitzvot.