Giving Away a Mitzvah

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by R. Gil Student

I. Paying for a Mitzvah

We spend money on mitzvos. Some mitzvos are free, some are not, and some come with hidden costs. But whether paying yeshivah tuition or buying an esrog, we gladly spend the money G-d gave us to fulfill our religious obligations. What about giving up some of your mitzvah so someone else can fulfill his mitzvah? An obscure law about the Chanukah menorah offers a surprising answer.

Are you obligated to buy someone an esrog if he will not buy it for himself? If he cannot afford it, then this falls under tzedakah. Setting that aside, what if someone has the necessary money to pay for a mitzvah but lacks the opportunity to do it. For example, if he becomes busy with work and lacks the time necessary to buy an esrog. Are we obligated to buy one for him?

All Jews are responsible for each other hence “Kol Yisrael areivim zeh la-zeh” (Sanhedrin 27b). All Jews are responsible to ensure that we act properly and therefore are punished collectively when others sin. Fulfilling this obligation takes great tact and sensitivity, which everyone thinks they have, sometimes incorrectly. What seems to encourage some people to fulfill their religious obligations might turn others off, leading them to neglect their obligations even more. However, if we can spend a few dollars to enable someone to fulfill a mitzvah, that seems like an easy win.

Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl (Yerushalayim Be-Mo’adeha, Chanukah, p. 43) quotes Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach as saying that you are not obligated to pay for someone else’s mitzvah. You can choose to pay for it, but that is optional, above the required behavior. In terms of obligation, you do not have to pay for someone else’s esrog. If so, it would seem that the same should apply to Chanukah lights.

II. The Special Mitzvah of Chanukah Lights

In terms of priority, the Gemara (Shabbos 23b) declares that someone with limited funds should choose Shabbos candles over Chanukah candles. Shabbos candles light the family meal and bring peace to the home. However, the Gemara continues, someone who cannot afford both wine for kiddush and candles for Chanukah should choose the latter. Chanukah lights publicize the great miracle, and that mitzvah takes priority over kiddush.

The core mitzvahof Chanukah lights is one light per home each night of Chanukah. However, the mehadrin min ha-mehadrin (extra special way) to fulfill the mitzvah is to light additional candles each day (and, for Ashkenazim, for everyone in the home to do so; Shulchan AruchOrach Chaim 671:2).

Magen Avraham (671:1) says that if you have just enough oil for your own lights and your friend cannot afford any, you should light only one in your home (the core mitzvah) and give to your friend so he can fulfill the mitzvah also. In other words, you are obligated to give up some of your mitzvah to enable someone else to fulfill a mitzvah. Doesn’t this conflict with what we said above that you do not have to pay for someone else’s mitzvah? If you don’t have to buy your friend an esrog, why do you have to pay for his Chanukah candles?

III. Giving Away a Hidur Mitzvah

In prior centuries, esrogim were rare and expensive. It was common for a community to have one esrog that everyone shared. Sometimes, a town could not even acquire a single esrog and the residents could not fulfill the mitzvah that year. Magen Avraham (656:2) says that if you have your own esrog and a nearby town has none, you should send your esrog to that town and use your local community’s esrog. In other words, you should give up your hidur (extra) mitzvahof owning an esrog so that others can fulfill the core mitzvah. However, Rav Nebenzahl (ibid., p. 42n) suggests that this case is different from Chanukah lights because you are enabling an entire community to fulfill the mitzvah, not just an individual. A communal mitzvahcarries greater weight than an individual mitzvah (Berachos 47b).

Rav Nebenzahl (ibid., p. 43) argues that giving your extra Chanukah lights really does not constitute paying for someone else’s mitzvah. You bought this oil or these candles for the mitzvah of Chanukah lights. Whether you use them yourself or give them to someone else, you are spending the same amount of money on Chanukah lights. However, while you do not have to surrender your money to enable someone to do a mitzvah, you do have to surrender your hidur mitzvah. Your responsibility for your fellow Jew’s religious obligations makes his mitzvahyour obligation. Therefore, this arvus (responsibility) requires you to forfeit your hidur for his mitzvah.

In a somewhat similar case, Rav Nebenzahl was asked about Purim that falls out on Friday. If you accept Shabbos a bit early and then someone comes to you and asks for your help because he has not yet heard megillah, what do you do? Rav Nebenzahl (Yerushalayim Be-Mo’adeha, Purim, p. 442) says that are you obligated to undo the acceptance of Shabbos through hataras nedarim and then read the megillah to him. Your obligation of arvus, your responsibility for your fellow Jew’s mitzvos, overrides the inconvenience of reversing your Shabbos acceptance and requires you to read the megillah so he can fulfill the Purim mitzvah.

 

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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