The English translation of the word mitzvot (the plural of the word mitzvah) is ‘commandments’. Judaism teaches that God revealed His will in the Torah in the form of mitzvot which have since been amplified by rabbis around the world. Mitzvot control many aspects of human life, representing a network of obligations and prohibitions which govern a Jew’s thoughts and actions. Mitzvot are classified into 3 main categories:
These are the ‘mitzvot of justice’. These mitzvot are logical: their meaning is self-evident in that everyone accepts them as desirable and necessary. Mishpatim include prohibitions against theft and murder. They are laws that keep society under control.
This literally means ‘commemorative’ mitzvot or ‘testimonials’. Examples of these mitzvot are the rules of the festivals which commemorate important events in Jewish history.
These are ‘statutes’ or ‘decrees’ that God has set out for us to follow. Chukkim have no discernible rationale. Of the three mitzvah categories, chukkim alone are the ultimate test of faith. With mitzvot such as mishpatim, one need not be particularly devout to obey the law against murdering, or with edot, one may indeed enjoy celebrating Passover. However, chukkim are observed only because God told us to do so.
The Torah contains 613 mitzvot: 248 of these are positive commandments which require us to do something, such as “honour your mother and father” and 365 are negative commandments which require us to refrain from certain actions, such as “you shall not eat anything on the Day of Atonement”.
The Hebrew word ‘taryag’ is used to refer to the list of mitzvot, as in the phrase ‘taryag mitzvot’. The word taryag is made up of the letters tet, resh, yud and gimmel, which collectively add up to the number 613. (The Hebrew alphabet has no numbers per se, but each letter is allocated a numerical value and may be used to indicate that numerical value.)
INFORMATION ABOUT MITZVOT ON OTHER SITES:
Aish Hatorah: Mitzvot
Being Jewish: The Mitzvos Gateway
Chabad: What is a Mitzvah?
Chabad: The 613 Mitzvot (Commandments)
Jewish Virtual Library: Mitzvot
My Jewish Learning: Mitzvah: A Commandment
Orthodox Union: Meaning in 613 Mitzvot
Jewish Magazine: The Inside and Out of Mitzvoth
Judaism 101: A List of the 613 Mitzvot (Commandments)