Mitzvah Definitions

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September 4, 2004
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Jack Bloom

A couple of years ago I got curious about one of the most common words Jews use: “mitzvah.” What did my colleagues think it meant? So I posted this question on the online Conservative and Reform rabbi discussion lists.

“Friends and Colleagues,

For years I have been looking for an English rendering of the word mitzvah that comes at least close to expressing the word in its full overtones. Good deed is certainly inadequate.   Even God’s command doesn’t quite do it for me. (The preceding is not a theological statement.)

I am in the middle of the galleys of my book, By the Power Vested in Me, and have to footnote and/or translate mitzvah/mitzvot.

All suggestions would be appreciated.   One may even be used.

Thanks for thinking about this with me.

Jack H Bloom”

I received many responses.

They follow in edited form. The responses, mostly in bullet form, follow in the order in which they were received. The lists are closed lists. The original unedited results were shared with those who requested them with the names of the authors omitted. So to continue to protect everyone’s privacy no names are used here. Where I have taken the liberty of quoting a slightly longer response without attribution, I hope the author will excuse me. A line across the text indicates each response.

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Commitment, Mostly I decide to leave it as it is and that is my advice to you.   Don’t translate it.   Call it a “loan word” and explain it in notes or in the body of the text.   If English can absorb chutzpah, it can absorb Mitzvah

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“Jewish imperative” or

“essential Jewish act”?

… in Plaut’s “Shabbat Manual” – in a liberal sense, it can be translated as “opportunity.”

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…”ethical precept” …   I have also defined it as an awareness tool and a call to integrity.

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… the opportunities God gives us to be partners with the Divine

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…”life-sanctifying act”.   It’s an interpretation rather than a translation…how about “Moral Imperative”? To “perform a Mitzvah” then means to act in such a way as to acknowledge and appreciate the moral imperative of acting in this way and no other way.

I admit that “Divine Imperative” suits the Torah text better – to use the term “moral” is already relativizing it – but maybe a Divine Imperative is a better term for “Hoq”, a command without a specific moral reason.

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…”Moral Duty” and/or “Ritual duty” (depending on context) seem to be the best –

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I have used “meritorious action” very successfully…

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What about “precept?”

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Whenever I have used the word “Mitzvah” in lecture or teaching, I remember Heschel’s insightful “translation” of the word. He said that “Mitzvah” should be translated as “opportunity…in a strange way, it is a companion to Kaplan’s idea (Imagine; Heschel and Kaplan in one package); God is the power that allows for human expansion or salvation.)

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… “religious obligation” because it suggests both “commandment” and the sense of the individual’s choice in assuming the commandment.

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For my two cents, I’d say keep the word “mitzvah” in the book — but give a page at the beginning to discuss the various meanings of the word, since it has nuances that will make it impossible to translate into one word in English.

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Perhaps “obligation” or “responsibility” or a thesaurus equivalent thereof.

On the other hand, Max Kadushin was unflinching in his assertion that value concepts cannot be translated.   (And what is Heschel’s “The Sabbath” if not an explication of that which cannot be translated?

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I suggest “divine obligation”.   No matter what you use, I sincerely doubt one word will suffice… the essence of the difficulty is whether one thinks mitzvah is an “internal” or “external” obligation (or both) and what God may or may not have to do with any of this.

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… I translated “mitzvah” as “a deliberate act which brings us closer to the presence of God,” or “something we choose to do, because we believe God wants us to do it.”

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… duty or obligation. mitzvoth are our duties / obligations as faithful Jews to fulfill our part of the partnership/Brit with God.

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God’s expectation of me

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How about “response” (Larry Kushner’s idea)? Obviously, it means more than

“commandment.”

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“A sacred link”? Think about it.

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…”an obligation   mandated in classic Jewish texts — whose performance can have a unique impact on the creative survival of the Jewish people.” Sometimes… “an ultimate Jewish ought” that enables the process of Tikkun Olam.

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With thanks to A.J.Heschel,

1. commandment

2. Jewish act

3. good deed

(each succeeding definition being derived from the preceding)

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I do not believe there is an adequate translation for Mitzvah. So why not use the word “Mitzvah” and write a brief paragraph about what it means?

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I have taken to translating mitzvah as “divine directive”, mitzvot as divine directions.

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… impossible to define “mitzvah” in one or two English words, hope that this helps. Best of luck.

How about Mitzvah= religious imperative ????

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… use both meanings–the technical “commandment” and the popular “good deed” as your footnote.

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hmmm.

“religious obligation” ?

“holy imperative” ?

“urge of the yetzer ha-tov” ?

“function of the compassionate aspect of God” ?

this is fun.   I’m going to ask my Torah study class to try it.   I’ll get back to you with their insights.

Thanks for asking!

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… maybe, “Religious Act”[reflecting God’s will],   or “Divine Commandment”.

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… you shouldn’t translate it… footnote the first mention and explain the many variations of the meaning of the word, then continue to use it within the text and let the reader draw his/her own connotation from it.

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… over the years I have come to use the phrase “opportunity for holiness”…

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“A mitzvah is a behavior, either positive or negative (‘negative’ meaning a behavior of restraint from action, such as fasting), the enacting of which has the effect of drawing one closer to God and to the Jewish people.”

Granted, this may not do the job adequately, but I have yet to encounter a definition that does

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I’ve also struggled with this, and have taken to referring to mitzvot as “sacred commandments.”… a straightforward way to convey “commandedness” along with the “holiness” of the act.

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A silly suggestion: don’t translate _mitzvah_ but insert a paragraph explaining it. Perhaps it could be “Englished” as “cultic/cultural religious covenantal duty,” although I gag when I utter it.

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I asked my minyan tonight to translate mitzvah, and a 5-year-old precious girl said, “A friendly act.” Well, maybe not exactly, but not bad.

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… “sacred obligations.”   whether that passes as a translation….?

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“Doing the Right Thing”…

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… “religious obligation”.

I say of Bnai Mitzvah that they become obligated religiously at 13, or that the “real” meaning of the term is “commandment accountable”.

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I use “religious obligation” most often, sometimes “religious responsibility.”   Contemporary Americans understand the idea of obligation and it doesn’t require a /me’tsaveh/ the way “commandment” does.   I include the adjective “religious” for much the same reason, I think, that Kaplan included it in his definition of Judaism as “the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people”; because however you understand God and religion, /mitzvah/ grows out of and fits into a religious context.

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… “a sacred Jewish practice.”   This rendering avoids the questions of   personal m’tzaveh   (Who commanded me to do this?) the quandary of God (if God has command me to do this, how can I not do it?), and even the Origin question (is it miD’oraita or miD’rabbanan). It has served me well…

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… obligation or responsibility …

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A Jewishly / Divinely ordained obligation.

These fall into two categories:   (1) Those that are defined and interpreted by the rabbis as originating from the Torah most directly (D’Oraita — Torah-idic) and those which are the result of secondary, rabbinic interpretation (D’rabbanan).

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Sometimes… “religious obligation” or just “obligation.”   Duty is another possibility.   Obligation and duty are certainly different from commandment but they do carry some meaning about an act that is required….in David Hartman’s *A Heart of Many Rooms.*    He cites Abraham Joshua   Heschel in *Man’s Quest for Meaning*: “What is a mitzvah, a sacred act?   A prayer in the form of a deed.”

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Dear Jack

… sacred deed, or even sacrament (sacramental deed), and speak of Judaism as the sacramentalization of every day life.

Larry Kushner has frequently cited an Aramaism with the root   tsadee-vav-heh that translates, “to enjoin.”   This English word   conveys the double meaning of a command that also draws the

commander and the commandee into relationship.   Based on that   reading, I frequently translate mitzvah as “an enjoinment.”

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An expression that envelops many of the formal ideas that “mitzvah”denotes, in is “sanction.”   I got this idea by calling to mind the term “sancta” used by M. Kaplan.

(1) A one-word English designation is, for publishers, desirable.

(2) Besides its preferability because of the inescapable legal connotation of the word, in most cases expressions like “sacred obligation” might overstate Scripture’s meaning.

(a) “Obligation” is some that one is required to do.   The term is rarely used in the context of something that we are NOT supposed to do (and “do not’s” outnumber the “do’s”, 365-248).

(b) While an “obligation” may be morally compelling, it does not connote to me the idea that the transgressor is punished (whether in this world or the next).   Yes, yes, we are “obliged” to visit the sick.   But visiting is not just a nice thing to do.   Mitzvah implies that, if we fail to do it, we have transgressed and will be punished.

(3) On the other hand, while the formal definition of “sanction” is a “law” or “decree” – in our case from the M’tsaveh – these days we often think of it as the penalty therefrom as well (and so the downside of this definition).

(4) “Sanction” also has the advantage of carrying the “sacred” nature of the divine “decree” (another possible definition, implied in rabbinic theology).

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I’ve always liked “obligation” as a translation of “mitzvah.”

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… Divine obligation–in the sense of obligation to the Divine rather than of the Divine… a mitzvah is something I feel obligated to do even when it is not convenient.

I’ve heard some Jewish Renewal folks call it “connection”, cognate from the Arabic I’m told.

Last year, in a discussion of mitzvah, I asked a committed congregant   where her sense of obligation (to do the mitzvah) came from. Her answer was “I don’t do ‘obligation.'” I changed it to “motivation” and she was much happier. This interchange seems to me to be a paradigm for where our people are at.

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…   ‘sacred obligation’

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Whenever I translate “mitzvah”, I say it means “obligation/opportunity”.

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…Mitzvah/mitzvot (n) are actions or behaviors Jews are called upon to do because they are tied to the normative Jewish understanding of how God expects us to relate both to God’s self and to one another. This normative understanding is based on the chain of tradition passed down through the generations starting with Moses at Sinai, as written and oral Torah.   Mitzvot can be ritualistic, ethical or moral in nature, and function as a way to give Jews guidance and set high standards in every sort of interaction and relationship.

Then give an example of each…

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…If I have to choose a direction, I prefer the direction of command, i.e. “divine obligation,” of which “good deeds” are a subset.

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… religious obligation. _________________________________________________________

The “connection” connection is made from the Aramaic “b’tzavta” (also

evident in the modern Hebrew “tzevet”).

… obligation/motivation: _________________________________________________________

… a “God Value,”   How we act upon it is up to us.

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” Mitzvah to me means the sacred steps to the Holy of Holies which is   achieved step by step.

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I like Lawrence Kushner’s translation in The Book of Words: Response.   I would expand, response to Divine will.

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… “sacred obligation” __________________________________________________________

… “commanded deed.” it’s alliterative and resonant, ….

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… both the literal meaning and implicit understanding of the Hebrew “Mitzvah” carries with it both the denotation and connotation of Command. Something you must do. An Imperative.

… for most Jews today, that kind of language does not inspire let alone motivate…(so)I often invoke Sacred Challenge when defining Mitzvah. As if God is challenging us to transcend our mortal status and rise above ourselves to the potential for Kedushah. There’s something about “Doing it for the Gipper…” that works for us post-moderns.

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… I would suggest that mitzvah not be translated at all. Rather, the   meaning of the concept should be taught (this cannot be done in two or three words) and then left untranslated.

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How’s about ” God Deed ” …as in “Doing a Mitzvah is doing a God Deed, or a deed for God.

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“sacred obligation”

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I translate it as “ought”…as in, “do a Jewish ought.”

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… what a Jew ought to do in response to God and tradition

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.., my “functional” definition of Mitzvah … is “to make a deposit in the bank of Jewish continuity by either   performing or avoiding a deed.”

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…”sacred act”. i.e.: A sacred, or literally, “commanded,” act…. doing this captures more of the flavor of what a mitzvah IS, even if that’s not literally what “mitzvah” MEANS.

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… both ethical and ritual obligations are included;   otherwise lighting Shabbat candles and making a kiddush over wine would not be mitzvot if only the ethical and moral dimension of Judaism were being singled out for prominence.

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How about Divine obligations?

(And how about “Holy Instruction”)

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… “sustaining acts” … disposes of the distinction between ethical and ritual

mitzvot that is the heart of so many boundary distinctions associated with mitzvot–e.g., “Helping an elderly person across the street is a mitzvah, but kashrut — ugh, that’s *Jewish*!”

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I believe that our personal obligations mostly come from our connections with others   and the Other. It works the opposite way too, the acts of doing “for   others” connect us with the other… mitzvah is both an expression of our connections and one of the means of connecting.

To put the language of obligation first turns our people off,

violates their sense of autonomy and adulthood, and often drives them

away from mitzvah rather than towards it. Now, I do think that   Judaism and reality both eventually teach us that we are not as “autonomous” as we thought we were when young, and not so adult   either. But that lesson comes a ways down the road, not at the beginning.

Within our people there is a great yearning to connect. We   should use mitzvah to help them connect, not to drive them away. When   the satisfactions of connection (to others and to the One) become evident in their lives and the ambition to learn more so that they can be more connected more often arises, then it may be time to learn about mitzvah as obligation. But not in the beginning, and there are always beginners among those we address.

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… “mitzvah,” in Hebrew, means “commandment.”   “Mitzveh,” in Yiddish, means “good deed,” or even “favor,” as in “do me a mitzveh and get that down from the cupboard for me

Now, how we.. deal with the concept of “commandment” is a sticky wicket, indeed.   But I don’t have any trouble with the word, with

translating it as “commandment,” with what it means.   I’m baffled as to why I seem to be alone in that!   It seems clear to me that in the Torah, God

gives commandments.

But I am baffled by this discussion.   All these proffered definitions,

“sacred obligation” and “connecting with the Divine”, seem to me lovely

drash, but not what “mitzvah” actually means.   I admit there are words in

Hebrew that have no English equivalent and which I would leave untranslated.

(like tameh and tahor), but I think the English “commandment” means the

same as the Hebrew “Mitzvah.”

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I checked a Thesaurus and found a list of terms to parallel “command” (n).

The range of meanings seems to stretch from “adjuration” to “ultimatum.”

Seems to me that one’s personal philosophy of religion or theology could turn on how one translates “Mitzvah.”    While it may be vogue to use such terms today as ethnic markers in the daily life of the American Jewish community and as part of the poetry of synagogue life, somewhere more precise, nuanced discussion is…. shall we say…. imperative.   I am enjoying the “Mitzvah” discussion.

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N.B.

What actually happened is I translated mitzvah in a way that I said in my post “didn’t do it for me. A footnote on p.276 of “The Rabbi as Symbolic Exemplar “where I fn Mitzvah as “fulfilling God’s command>”: On page 167   I slipped mitzvah in without any explanation at all. As the Italians say; “” Tradutorre Traditore”- He who translates is a traitor. The only question is degree.

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