Rabbis Without Borders
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I know, I should say something. But I don’t. I’m sorry. Every time someone calls a joyous event a “mitzvah,” I cringe. And, most of the time, I say nothing. I should gently correct folks, and say, “I think you mean a simchah.” But I don’t. I think to myself: “Will I embarrass or shame them?” There’s clear Jewish teaching not to do that. Maybe that’s why I say nothing.
Instead, I perpetuate a mistake. And that, too, is a problem. After all, I am a rabbi, a teacher. My job is to bring Jewish learning to people and people to Jewish learning. So why don’t I offer a correction? I don’t know. Nor do I know how this word confusion happened. Is it everywhere? Or is it just a Midwest thing? Questions, questions.
And some answers that maybe soon I will share verbally. Here’s the thing, folks: Simchah means joy. By extension, a simchah is a joyous event — in Jewish-event terms, it’s a bris or other baby-welcoming ritual, a wedding, a bar/bat mitzvah celebration. Happy times!
A mitzvah, on the other hand, is a commandment, traditionally, a commandment given by God for us to fulfill. Oft times in our lives, a mitzvah is spoken of as a good deed. And, also common, is to think of a mitzvah exclusively as a word relating to deeds of helping people.
In fact, though, mitzvot (plural of mitzvah) are myriad in their type and action. Some indeed include helping others, but mitzvot cover more than that, encompassing a broad expanse of ritual and ethical deeds of Jewish life. Mitzvot include giving tzedakah, feeding the hungry, lighting Shabbat candles, hearing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, eating matzah on Passover, dwelling in the sukkah, comforting mourners, saying the Shema twice/day, behaving ethically in business, protecting the disadvantaged, saying Berachot (blessings) for innumerable moments of our lives, pursuing justice, and many, many more. The list is long and rich. There are 613 in Torah!
Now, to make it a little confusing, sometimes, a mitzvah and a simchah are linked. What do I mean? First, there is the joy of doing a mitzvah in Jewish tradition, aka simchah shel mitzvah. And second, there are mitzvot that are part of s’machot, or simchas, in common parlance. For instance, the Torah is read on Shabbat at a service in which a young person is called to the Torah as a bar/bat mitzvah — a simchah, or joyous event. And a baby boy is circumcised on the 8th day, a commanded act, as part of a bris, another type of simchah, or joyous event. And, to make it potentially even more confusing, there is something called a se’udat mitzvah — or meal of a commandment — a meal linked to a celebration (simchah), like the meal that would follow a bris, wedding or bar/bat mitzvah celebration.
But, back to the basics — simchah vs. mitzvah. A simchah is a joyous event, and a mitzvah a commandment or good deed. Where, when, and how, did a joyous event start to be called a mitzvah? How did this word confusion kick in?
I don’t know. Maybe the word simchah fell out of use. Maybe usage of the word mitzvah amped up as the instruction to “do a mitzvah” (i.e. help another) gained traction in common parlance in the liberal Jewish community, and so folks substituted mitzvah for simchah. Aka, we got confused.
In the end, what I know is that this confusion is deeply embedded in the community in which I work and live. In individual lives, in conversations, in business advertising. Folks speak of “My/our/her mitzvah” when they speak about a bar mitzvah or a bat mitzvah, a wedding or another joyous event, and professionals whose work links to such events advertise that they can do x for your “mitzvah.”
And what I know is that I will be silent no more! This confusion bothers me to no end. And, as I’ve admitted here, up ‘til now I’ve done essentially nothing. But today, this changes. Today I take on a crusade, perhaps a one-woman/one-rabbi crusade to change the tide of language usage. Won’t you join me?