The rendering in the English Bible versions of the Hebrew , which, in its technical sense, is used in the Bible of a commandment given either by God or by man (I Kings ii. 43). According to the critical schools, it is a word of comparatively late coinage, as it does not occur in documents earlier than D and JE. In the singular it sometimes denotes the "code of law" (II Chron. viii. 13; Ezra x. 3; Ps. xix. 9), or even "Deuteronomy" alone (Deut. vi. 25, viii. 1); and as such is parallel to "Torah" (Ex. xxiv. 12). In the plural it designates specific commands contained in the code, which are as a rule expressed in sentences beginning with "Ye shall" or "Ye shall not," and is sometimes combined with "ḥuḳḳim," "ḥuḳḳot" (statutes), "mishpaṭim" (ordinances), and even "'edut" (testimonies).
In rabbinic terminology "miẓwah" is the general term for a divinely instituted rule of conduct. As such, the divine commandments are divided into (1) mandatory laws known as , and (2) those of a prohibitory character, the . This terminology rests on the theological construction that God's will is the source of and authority for every moral and religious duty.
In due logical development of this theology, the Rabbis came to assume that the Law comprised 613 commandments (see Commandments, The 613), of which 611 are said to have been given through Moses (Deut. xxxiii. 4, being numerically equal to 611); the first two commandments of the Decalogue were given by the mouth of God Himself (R. Joshua b. Levi, in Pes. R. xxii.; compare Mak. 24b-25a; Hor. 8a; Pirḳe R. El. xli.). According to R. Ismael only the principal commandments were given on Mount Sinai, the special commandments having been given in the Tent of Meeting. According to R. Akiba they were all given on Mount Sinai, repeated in the Tent of Meeting, and declared a third time by Moses before his death (Soṭah 37b; compare Mek., Mishpaṭim, xx. to Ex. xxiii. 19, and Sifre, Debarim, 104). All divine commandments, however, were given on Mount Sinai, and no prophet could add any new one (Sifra to Lev. xxvii. 34; Yoma 80a). Many of these laws concern only special classes of people, such as kings or priesthood, Levites or Nazarites, or are conditioned by local or temporary circumstances of the Jewish nation, as, for instance, the agricultural, sacrificial, and Levitical laws.
The Biblical commandments are called in the Talmud "miẓwot de oraita"; commandments of the Law in contradistinction to the rabbinical commandments, "miẓwot de rabbanan." Among the latter are: (1) the benediction, or thanksgiving for each enjoyment; (2) ablution of the hands before eating; (3) lighting of the Sabbath lamp; (4) the 'Erub, on preparation for Sabbath transfer; (5) the Hallel liturgy on holy days; (6) the Ḥanukkah lights; and (7) the reading of the Esther scroll on Purim. These seven rabbinical commandments are treated like Biblical commandments in so far as, previous to the fulfilment of each, this Benediction is recited: "Blessed be the Lord who has commanded us . . .," the divine command being implied in the general law (Deut. xvii. 11, xxxii. 7; Shab. 23a). Many of the Biblical laws are derived from the Law only by rabbinical interpretation, as, the reading of the Shema' (Deut. vi. 4-7), the binding of the tefillin and the fixing of the mezuzah (ib. 8-9), and the saying of grace after meals (ib. viii. 10). "While reciting the Shema' every morning the Israelite takes upon himself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven; while reciting the chapter 'We-hayah im shamoa'' [Deut. xi. 13-22] he takes upon himself the yoke of the divine commandments" (Ber. ii. 1). "In fulfilling a divine commandment one must do it with the intention of thus fulfilling God's will" (Ber. 13a, b; Naz. 23a, b). A hundred miẓwot ought to be fulfilled by the Israelite each day (see Benediction), and seven ought to surround him constantly like guardianspirits (R. Meïr, in Yer. Ber., end; Tosef., Ber., end). "Also, the commonest Israelite is as full of merit by fulfilment of divine commandments as the pomegranate is of seed" (Cant. R. iv. 3). The fulfilment of a divine commandment is a merit ("miẓwah"); the neglect, a transgression ("'aberah"). These are weighed against each other in the balance on the day of judgment to decide whether a man belongs to the righteous or to the wicked to be accordingly rewarded or punished ('Ab. Zarah 2a, 3a; Ḳid. 39b).
The sons of Noah were also considered to be under the obligation to obey the will of God as revealed in direct specific orders or miẓwot promulgated for them. These are variously enumerated as five, six, and ten. In Tos. 'Ab. Zarah viii. 4 seven Noachian commandments are enumerated: (1) to establish courts of justice, (2) to abstain from idolatry, (3) from blasphemy, (4) from incest, (5) from murder, (6) from robbery, (7) from eating flesh cut from living animals. In Gen. R. xvi.-xxiv. (compare ib. xxiv.; Lev. R. xiii.), only six are mentioned as having been given to the first man. In Sanh. 56a, 57a, seven Noachian commandments are spoken of, and derived partly as Adamitic, from Gen. ii. 16, and partly from Gen. ix. 4 et seq. To these some tannaim add three: the prohibition of blood from living animals, of castration, and of witchcraft. In Ḥal. 92a thirty commandments are mentioned as having been accepted, but not observed, by the sons of Noah (compare Gen. R. xcviii.; Midr. Teh. Ps. ii. 5; Yer. 'Ab. Zarah ii. 40c). In the Book of Jubilees (vii. 21) only the three capital sins are specified (see Noachian Laws).
"Miẓwah," in the parlance of the Rabbis, came to express any act of human kindness, such as the burial of the body of an unknown person ("met miẓwah"; compare Bernays, "Gesammelte Schriften," 1885, i. 278 et seq., on the Buzygian laws mentioned by Philo in connection with these "commandments" of humanity; Sifre, Naso, 26; Naz. 47b). A miẓwah which can be fulfilled only by the transgression of another law is considered unlawful ("miẓwah ha-bo'ah ba'aberah, 'aberah"; Suk. 30a; Yer. Shab. xiii. 14a). The proselyte on being initiated into Judaism must be familiarized with commandments both of great and of small import (Yeb. 47b). This rule seems to be directed against the older practise followed by the Christian Church (see Didache). The fulfilment of a commandment is a protection against evil powers (Ber. 31a; Pes. 8a; Soṭah 21a; Ḳid. i. 10), and becomes a guardian angel pleading for reward in the future life (Soṭah 3b).
According to the teachings of Judaism, all moral laws are virtually and in their ultimate analysis divine commandments. Obedience to the Divine Will is the first requisite of the moral life (see Duty). This is the meaning of the Biblical account of Adam's offense. The first commandment was intended to test his obedience and thus to awaken his moral consciousness (see Sin; Original Sin, Dogma of). In the Pentateuch the Ten Commandments are not designated as "Miẓwot," but are called the "Ten Words" (). In Jewish literature they are spoken of as the (see Decalogue).