In Jewish tradition, the term “mitzvah” describes a commandment from God. There are 613 mitzvot, divided into positive and negative mitzvot. Positive mitzvot are commandments which dictate that the faithful must do something, such as donating to charity or respecting parents. Negative commandments are explicit instructions about things which people should not do, like kidnapping and murdering. These commandments are rooted in the Torah, the religious text which is the foundation of Judaism.
In addition to being used to refer to these 613 commandments, the term “mitzvah” also more generally means a worthy, good, or kind deed. Many people of the Jewish faith believe that they should engage in mitzvot as often as possible as part of an expression of their faith, affirming their connection to God on a regular basis by doing acts of kindness in His name. A mitzvah can be large or small, with the intent of doing good being the focal point of the action.
Any number of actions could be considered a mitzvah. One could drive elderly people to medical appointments, donate to an arts organization, or volunteer at an animal shelter, for instance. The ability to use good deeds to connect with God allows people who are otherwise disadvantaged to establish a relationship with God and contribute to their communities. Homeless people, for instance, could not make tithes or donations, but they could volunteer to help collect garbage in the streets, or perform other mitzvot which benefit their communities.
Many religions have a long tradition of charity and encouraging good deeds, and Judaism is no exception. Acts of kindness to others are viewed as a good service, and they are encouraged among people of all ages. Even a small action, such as engaging in the common courtesy of holding a door open for someone else, or stopping to assist at an accident, could be viewed as a mitzvah. Some people try to make a regular habit of engaging in mitzvot, picking a particular day a week to volunteer with an organization, bring meals or companionship to someone who is housebound, and so forth.
The need to engage in acts of kindness is specifically spelled out in the 613 mitzvot, and those acts of kindness can be for any living organism, not just a human being. Rendering assistance to animals in need of assistance is a mitzvah, with one even dictating that people should to assist beasts of burden who have collapsed under a heavy load.