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Beyond Exemption


I. Mitzvah Agency

Personal involvement in mitzvah performance, rather than through a representative, is intuitively compelling. If you view the opportunity to fulfill God’s commandments as a privilege and not a burden you will try to do so yourself. If so, why did Avraham, in arranging food for his guests, pick out an animal but give it to Yishmael (the young man) to prepare (Gen. 18:7)?

The simple answer is that he was too old. Rashi offers another explanation that is somewhat more complex. Avraham had Yishmael slaughter and cook the cow because Avraham wanted to educate his son in mitzvos. While Rashi’s plain meaning is clear, I would like to take them in a pilpulistic direction. Within that framework, we can ask which commandments Avraham was trying to teach? Hakhnasas orechim, caring for guests, is only one mitzvah yet Rashi speaks about commandments in the plural. Perhaps Avraham was trying to educate Yishmael, not in a specific mitzvah but in a general attitude to all mitzvos.

II. Honor to a Scholar

The Gemara (Bava Metzi’a 30a) says that when an elder finds a lost object, he does not have to return it if doing so is contrary to his honor. For example, if he sees a lost wallet in a pig pen, he does not have to enter that dirty and disreputable place to pick it up. Anyone for whom retrieving an object is a disgrace need not take it. The general rule is that if you would not pick up your own wallet in such a circumstance, you need not pick up someone else’s. R. Elchanan Wasserman (Kovetz Shi’urim, Kesuvos #266) quotes the Ramban who says that this exemption applies to every interpersonal mitzvah. A scholar is exempt if fulfilling it puts him in a position contrary to his honor.

The Mishnah Berurah (Bi’ur Halakhah 250 sv. ki zehu) uses this concept to explain why the Shulchan Arukh (ad loc., 1) says that even the greatest Torah scholars must prepare their homes for Shabbos because “that is his honor.” You might have thought that a Torah scholar would not have to sweep his floor or chop wood for Shabbos because doing so is not according to his honor. However, in this case, when it is obviously for a mitzvah, it is his honor. Any time, the Mishnah Berurah writes, that it is obvious that what you are doing is for a mitzvah, there is no exemption for a Torah scholar from work beneath his honor. But when it isn’t obviously for a mitzvah, such as when he finds a lost object in a dirty place, he is exempt from the commandment.

III. Forgoing Honor

The Rambam (Moshneh Torah, Hilkhos Gezeilah 11:17) rules that a Torah scholar may–should–return a lost object even when he is exempt. If he follows the path of the good and the just, he will do it even if it beneath his honor. However, the Rosh (Bava Metzi’a ch. 2 no. 21) rules that he is not allowed to set aside his honor because it isn’t his honor at stake but the Torah’s honor. The Shulchan Arukh (Choshen Mishpat 263:1) rules like the Rambam while the Rema rules like the Rosh. However, the Arukh Ha-Shulchan (ad loc., 4) adds an intuitive but important qualification: If it isn’t according to your honor because you are a Torah scholar, you may not set aside the exemption and disgrace the Torah (unless, as the Mishnah Berurah points out, it is obvious you are performing a mitzvah). But if it isn’t according to your honor because you are rich or politically important, then you are allowed to be strict and return the lost object because the Torah’s honor is not at stake. With this, we can return to Avraham’s education of Yishmael.

Avraham could not slaughter the animal, which would certainly dirty him and his clothing, because it was not according to his honor. Even though he certainly wanted to do prepare food for his guests, he was not allowed to because, as a Torah scholar, he was required to sustain the Torah’s honor. On the other hand, Yishmael, at the time Avraham’s only heir, was certainly rich but he was not a Torah scholar. Both were exempt from dirtying themselves by slaughtering and cooking the cow for the guests but Yishmael, unlike Avraham, was allowed to forgo his honor.

Avraham, in instructing Yishmael to prepare the cow, was teaching him to be unsatisfied with the bare minimum of performance. He was instructing him to want to do what is good and just. Avraham had Yishmael do these acts to teach him that this is the proper attitude to mitzvos–go beyond what is required. Do as much as you can, even if you are not obligated. This was how Avraham educated Yishmael in mitzvos.


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Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of Torah Musings.

The opinions and facts here are presented solely by the author. Torah Musings assumes no responsibility for them. Please address religious questions to your rabbi.

7 Responses

  1. Mike S. says:

    Is getting blood on your clothes from doing a mitzvah a disgrace? The gemara points out they they stoppered the drains in the beis hamikdash on erev pesach so the cohanim would be walking in blood up to their knees, and calls it a kavod, not a disgrace that is overridden because of the mitzvah (since they could have let it flow out).

  2. Tal Benschar says:

    “The simple answer is that he was too old.”

    Based on what? Avraham lived another 76 years from this event (he was 99 when he was informed of the birth of Yitzchok one year later), and as far as we can tell still was able to function fully. He certainly had no trouble saddling his donkey and schlepping the wood to the Akedah, not to mention quite ready to do the act of shechitah to his son. I think he certainly could have handled shechting a calf or three.

  3. Hirhurim says:

    Mike: I think walking around with blood on your clothing is embarrassing. If you’re in the Beis Hamikdash, maybe not so embarrassing.

    Tal: Good point

  4. Shlomo says:

    וּנְקַלֹּתִי עוֹד מִזֹּאת, וְהָיִיתִי שָׁפָל בְּעֵינָי

    And David was a Torah leader, not just a king, although the king as משיח ה’ should also be unable to give up his honor since it is not his own (see http://www.mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt08a24.htm#6). Nevertheless for a mitzvah purpose it is apparently permitted.

    As for the Rosh/Rema who disagree, that would seem to be a case where it is not clear to other people that your disgrace is due to a mitzvah. But with David, and also with the bloody cohanim, it is clear, so disgracing yourself is looked favorably upon (or perhaps we are not supposed to consider it a disgrace).

    It has been suggested that Michal was against David’s actions because she was a second generation royal, while David was born a commoner, and it was more natural (in whatever sense) for him to act like one. Perhaps it is relevant that Avraham too was first generation.

    (Now going off topic) In pshat Michal’s not having a kid is due to David choosing not to sleep with her. In the previous verse David makes it pretty clear that this is his intention.

  5. Anonymous says:

    >The simple answer is that he was too old.

    I also disagree. The simple answer is the same one as why, probably, if you had guests come over in all likelihood another member of the household/staff would be the one to prepare food for the guest, and not you.

  6. Rafael Araujo says:

    I saw that the Alsich says that he gave the job to Yishmael for chinuch, but when he “didn’t come through” he did it himself. Or something to that effect.

  7. MiMedinat HaYam says:

    gil — blood on clothing — SA specifically forbids it for tfillah, but i would agree in Bet Mikdash. though SA case is a shochet, who has similar arguments as you do. and for some reason, i feel this halacha is not followed in practice, but i have no personal knowledge.


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