According to Maimonides there are 613 Mitzvot that God commanded us. To the best of my knowledge most traditional halakhic authorities clearly state that “good-deed” is not an accurate translation of mitzvah. Commandment is. It seems to me, however, that my understanding is wrong and the concept of mitzvah has indeed changed over time to include a wider range of behaviors such as “good-deeds”.

I have heard actions such as, for example, a child cleaning up their toys, paying a shiva-call, giving a lift to a friend, being texted to help make a minyan, loaning a sweater to someone going out on a date, allowing someone to use your cell to make a call while theirs is recharging, etc., etc., all being referred to as mitzvahs. Am I being too literal or are such behaviors actually mitzvahs? Does context matter?

It just seems to me——although I admittedly cannot prove it——that far too many people these days over use the term mitzvah when describing a rather ordinary act or to guilt someone into doing something for them; oh, please do this favor for me, it’ll be a mitzvah. Is this perhaps a reflection of society as a whole where grade-inflation, political-correctness, etc. is en vogue? Could it be misleading to make people think they are accumulating so many mitzvahs when they are simply doing the right thing?

  • The Talmud and midrashim from the land of Israel do in fact use מצוה to mean "good deed," or more usually "charity"
    – b a
    Feb 18, 2018 at 17:54

2 Answers 2


The word mitzvah means commandment. However, there is a commandment to do kindness for others, and to emulate G-d in his selfless giving to humankind. Therefore, it is not much of a stretch to call any kindness a mitzvah.

That said, one probably shouldn't call anything other than an actual commandment a mitzvah, as it causes people to equate actual commandments with other things. So I wouldn't call them mitzvos, but they aren't technically wrong (except for maybe having a child clean up his toys if it is not for the sake of the Sabbath, etc. Having him share them, though, is another story.)

  • You and I are thinking along the same lines. Are you aware of a source for limiting the use of the term mitzvah? Conversely, are you aware of any sources of halakhic authority expanding the literal meaning? Any anecdotals such as a famous rabbi who commented “you did a mitzvah loaning me your raincoat”?
    – JJLL
    Feb 18, 2018 at 16:12
  • 1
    I don't know of any source for limiting the use of the term; it's kind of hard to prove a negative, and this is the definition of the word as well as how all of the Rishonim describe it. Every anecdote I know of used the term Chesed (again, it's hard to prove a negative). Several years ago this bothered me, and I asked many prominent Rabbanim; they all gave me the same answer - this one - and then several recommended that I not do so myself. Feb 18, 2018 at 16:23
  • listening to your parents is a mitzvah
    – Menachem
    Feb 18, 2018 at 16:29
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    That's not one of the thing she asked about, but normally, yes, assuming that their request doesn't go against the Torah, and, possibly, that it relates to feeding and/or clothing and/or directly respecting them in some way. Feb 18, 2018 at 16:31
  • She? Anyway, the intent of my question was to better understand how the concept of mitzvah/commandment has or has not changed over time. It just seems to me—can’t prove it one way or another—that many people over use the term mitzvah these days to describe an ordinary act or to guilt someone into doing something as in, do me a favor it’ll be a mitzvah.
    – JJLL
    Feb 18, 2018 at 17:19

Although there are 613 commands, mitzvahs, an act that serves as pro hac fulfillment of one of those commands is also (in my experience) colloquially called a mitzvah. Thus, the command is to wear tefillin; wearing them each time is considered doing a mitzvah even though "doing a command" makes no sense. Likewise, there's a command to revere one's parents; each time one restrains himself from contradicting his parent, he's said to be doing a mitzvah.

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