A God-commanded work of love. Plural: mitzvot.
The Mitzvah as Love Offering
The mi in front of the root tzavoh, command, makes it passive, a “good work” or “love offering,” but not commanded. However, metzaveh is active, a real command. God commanded us, “All the commandment [kol ha-mitzvah] which I command [anokhi metzaveh] you this day you shall be careful to do” Deut 8:1. In these words God commanded his people Israel to do all of the Torah’s 613 mitzvot (plural) as love offerings.
This is why Rabbi Yeshua declared, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets” Mt 22:37–40.
Note especially the last verse, “On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets” Mt 22:40. “The law and the prophets” is a familiar Jewish reference to the Hebrew Scriptures.
Salvation and Sanctification
Catholics recognize that God‘s Messiah, Rabbi Yeshua, has already come. He redeemed us from the original sin and thereby opened paradise for us Lk 23:43. Catholics understand salvific to mean contributing to our salvation, our reaching paradise. If a Catholic understands the mitzvot to be salvific, he lacks full confidence in Rabbi Yeshua‘s New and Eternal Covenant to sanctify us, prepare us for life with him in heaven.
In Judaism salvific invites the Messiah’s coming, reflecting the Jewish belief that he has not yet come. Beit Shammai understood the mitzvot to be salvific. Beit Hillel understood them to be sanctifying, improving us in holiness, preparing us to be saints. The rabbis now follow Beit Hillel, with the understanding that after the Messiah comes they will follow the stricter interpretations of Beit Shammai.
Promise and Fulfillment
The third paragraph of the Shma Num 15:38–41 includes, “So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and be holy to your God” Num 15:40. Jewish tradition understands this to be a promise-and-fulfillment, with God saying in effect, “If you observe my mitzvot you will be holy. Observance is the means of sanctification, rather than the result. Jews pray before performing a ritual commandment, “Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us by your mitzvot, and commanded us to …”
Mitzvah as Imitation of God
Abraham Joshua Heschel, in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, p. 278, therefore sees in this, “The mitzvot are the Jewish sacraments, sacraments that may be performed in common deeds of kindness.” One explanation comes from God‘s phrase “my mitzvot” Lev 26:3, which some rabbis understand as God‘s mitzvot, the mitzvot that God observes. A Jew who keeps them in this life is thereby imitating God.
Mitzvah as Communion With God
Heschel, in God in Search of Man, p. 287, takes this to the next step:
A mitzvah is an act which God and man have in common. We say: “Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His mitzvot.” They oblige Him as well as us. Their fulfillment is not valued as an act performed in spite of “the evil drive” [yetzer ra] but as an act of communion with Him. The spirit of mitzvah is togetherness. We know, He is a partner to our act.
The New and Eternal Covenant
Rabbi Yeshua‘s New and Eternal Covenant is very similar. Where the mitzvah is observed by man together with him, Rabbi Yeshua‘s covenant is an exchange of persons. He gives himself to us, and we give ourselves to him.
Integral Understanding of the Law
God’s people Israel had an integral understanding of the Law. An Israelite who transgressed any one mitzvah was guilty of transgressing them all.
The Catholic Church understands God’s law the same way. A single unrepented mortal sin can send us to hell for all eternity § 1857. Our first parents committed only one mortal sin Gen 3:6, and were driven out of paradise Gen 3:24. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in its Glossary, states under Punishment, Eternal, “The penalty for unrepented mortal sin, separating the sinner from communion with God for all eternity; the condemnation of the unrepentant sinner to hell” p. 896.
The 613 mitzvot foreshadow Jeremiah’s prophecy,
Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people Jer 31:31–33.