Is Performing a Mitzvah a Benefit?

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Petihah Kollelet: Is Performing a Mitzvah a Benefit?

In paragraph 29, Peri Megadim announces he is taking a pause from listing the types of mitzvot (we might be confused, because he has been talking about makkat mardut recently; for him, that’s part of his exposition of de-rabanan, rabbinic obligations). He will return to it in a bit, after some digressions, a first one about mitzvot lav lehanot nitnu, the idea that mitzvah observance is not considered a financial benefit to a Jew. (He labels another one a “kuntres,” a separate essay, about bal tosif, what the Torah means when it prohibits adding to the Torah; as we will see, he has several smaller side discussions as well, about other aspects of rabbinic legislation).

For Rabbinic Mitzvot, Too?

The primary ramification of mitzvot lav lehanot nitenu comes when one person is mudar hana’ah, forswore deriving benefit, from another Jew (or been forsworn, the other Jew the one who took the oath). [This is not a common idea today, and seems odd, so let me suggest how it could come about: imagine one person being supported by, receiving many gifts or favors from another, and is worried about becoming too dependent. To force him/herself into autonomy, s/he takes the oath. Or, for the flip side, imagine one Jew thinks another is freeloading and wants to stop it, so s/he is madir be-hana’ah, forbids the other from any benefit. As a reminder: halachah doesn’t like this, thinks oaths are a poor and risky way to achieve such goals. We can consider why Gd created the possibility of doing it another time.]

If we say mitzvot do not constitute a benefit, the forsworn Jew can benefit from the mitzvah performance of the other, such as hearing him blow shofar.

Ba’al Ha-Ma’or limited the idea to Biblical mitzvot. For example, blowing trumpets on a fast day, which he was sure is a rabbinic issue, would be a problem of deriving benefit, and a Jew who had made such a vow could not hear the trumpet blasts from the other. [I wasn’t sure how Ba’al Ha-Ma’or knew these are rabbinic, and it took me awhile to find an answer. Shu”t Maharya Ha-Levi 2;152, by R. Yitzhak Aharon Ha-Levi Ettinger, brother in law of R. Yosef Shaul Nathanson, suggests that for the purposes of blowing trumpets as a Biblical matter, the fast day must include a national gathering. Any other fast day’s trumpet blowing is rabbinic.]

Ran disagrees, thinks rabbinic mitzvot too are not lehanot, not a matter of benefit, and therefore could be performed by the forsworn Jew.

[Peri Megadim does not discuss the conceptual ramifications. To say mitzvot do not confer a monetary benefit seems to me to segregate them from ordinary human life in a way I think sheds light on how halachah views religious observance. Another time.]

Prospective or Retrospective?

Mishneh le-Melech detected a disagreement between Rambam and Tosafot regarding the application of this principle. He thought Rambam allowed it only bedi’avad, usually meaning retrospectively, where it has already happened. Peri Megadim notes this would mean a Jew could only blow shofar on behalf of a mudar hana’ah if there are no other options [this is an example of bedi’avad invoked prospectively, because the situation is already after the fact; when there is no one else who knows how to blow shofar, it is a bedi’avad, and the forsworn Jew can hear shofar even if mitzvot lav lehanot only works bedi’avad.]

In Orah Hayyim 589;7, the Shulhan Aruch frames the issue as Mishneh Le-Melech would expect for someone following Rambam’s view, the mudar hana’ah can only hear shofar from the other if he is blowing anyway, to fulfill his own obligation (or, I think, is blowing on behalf of an entire congregation and the mudar hana’ah slips in). In Yoreh De’ah 221;12, he issues a blanket permission. Peri Megadim notes the two without telling us how he would reconcile them.

Later in the discussion, he gives another example of the idea of mitzvot being a benefit or not. Suppose a Jew has forsworn benefit from a certain kohen; can that kohen offer a sacrifice on his/her behalf? [Ways this could happen are full of irony, either the kohen is the one on duty when this Jew happens to come, or this Jew seeks out this kohen to throw in his face the fact he is offering this celebratory offering. Or the like.] According to the view in the Gemara that kohanim in the Temple represent the people coming to bring their offering (as opposed to shluhei de-rahmana, messengers of Gd, the other view in the Gemara), Ran holds one cannot have the kohen perform the offering. Always other kohanim around, so it’s not a bedi’avad.

Candlelight, Hanukkah or Shabbat

At first glance, the idea of mitzvot lav lehanot nitenu should also mean we could use issurei hana’ah, items where a Jew may not benefit, for mitzvah performance as well. For example, olives in the first three years of a fruit tree’s growth are orlah and assur be-hana’ah, prohibited to benefit; however, since mitzvot lav lehanot, a mitzvah is not a benefit, if we follow Ran and extend the idea to rabbinic mitzvot, we should be allowed to use orlah oil for Hanukkah lights.

Peri Megadim points out that would be true only if the Jew has no other oil (along the lines of saying we can only rely on the principle bedi’avad, as we saw above), but here for another reason: the Jew is obligated to use some oil, so allowing him/her to use oil that is otherwise assur be-hana’ah saves the Jew actual money. (He refers us to his comments to Shulhan Aruch itself, where he raises other issues, such as whether items like orlah are considered not to have a shi’ur, an amount, and therefore could not be used, and how Shabbat candles clearly could not use orlah oil, because the point of Shabbat candles is to provide light for people’s use).

Gezerah Le-Gezerah

Theoretically, Hazal do not make protective ordinances to protect a previous rabbinic ordinance, an idea known as ein gozerin gezerah le-gezerah, they do not make a decree for a decree. Peri Megadim notes the rule is not absolute, sometimes another decree is needed for the first one to remain in effect. [The Gemara does use that phrase sometimes; it also has the idea of kula hada gezerah, it is all one decree, meaning what seems like a separate issue was really part of the original rule.]

Taking us back to a topic we saw awhile back, Peri Megadim suggests if a rabbinic rule has an asmachta hashuvah, a verse that hints to the idea fairly strongly, Hazal could then make another gezerah as well. Rashba seems to disagree, he concedes, in discussing the case of a non-Jew who on his/her own volition lights a candle on behalf of a Jew on Shabbat. Amirah le-akum, the rabbinic rule Jews may not ask non-Jews to act on Shabbat in ways the Jews themselves may not, has an asmachta hashuva, because the Torah says (Shemot 12;16) all creative activity lo ye’aseh, shall not be done, the passive voice hinting even non-Jews may not do it.

Peri Megadim thinks the fact of the asmachta hashuvah paved the way for Hazal to make the additional decree of prohibiting where the Jew did not speak about the act at all, the non-Jew just decided to do it. Rashba’s saying it was a matter of kula hada gezerah, it was all one rule, tells us he did not think the asmachta hashuvah worked. (Peri Megadim also sends us to his glosses to Taz Orah Hayyim 244, where he saw more room to allow amirah le-akum for rabbinically prohibited activities, since the asmachta would not have included it.)

He’emidu Divrehem

He also thinks Hazal had tiers of legislation, rules they made for its own purpose, and lo pelug, rules they made because they did not want to blur an original rule. (He based the idea in a rule about where a kohen leading services can interrupt his repetition of the Amidah to confer the priestly blessing; for the discussion, he refers us to his Eishel Avraham 128;30).

The issue matters when a rabbinic rule conflicts with a Biblical one. Hazal could and did insist on following their rules even when it would prevent a person from fulfilling a Biblical obligation, but only for the essential rule, not the lo pelug.

(R. Eisenberger in the notes gives a good example: Hazal required a convert to treat him/herself as if s/he was tamei met, ritually impure, and needs sprinkling with Parah Adumah water; a rabbinic rule prohibited such sprinkling on Shabbat, even if it was the day of sacrificing the Pesah sacrifice and this convert’s second sprinkling was that day. The two rabbinic rules, the need for sprinkling and prohibition of doing it on Shabbat, will stop this convert from fulfilling the mitzvah of offering the Pesah sacrifice that year. Had there been a lo pelug extension of a rule, though, it would not have led to the same conclusion.)

Other Elements of Rabbinic Rules

He briefly notes a question about whether rabbinic obligations push aside Biblical ones. While Berachot 47b seems to portray R. Eliezer as setting aside a Biblical obligation (he fully frees a partially converted non-Jewish slave) to secure a minyan for prayers, Peri Megadim thinks the example of megillah, which does not allow for setting aside any Biblical obligations, shows we have to re-read Berachot, to realize there was no Biblical obligation implicated. On the other hand, within rabbinic rules, obligations push aside prohibitions, and more significant or stringent ones push aside lesser, just as would be true within Biblical commandments.

Magen Avraham 64;3 pointed out another difference, rabbinic rules do not require intent even according to the view intent is needed for Biblical commandments. Peri Megadim glossed the idea, because berachot usually do require kavannah, but later in Shulhan Aruch seems to have backtracked, to agree they do not (and berachot would be a different issue).

Last for this time, just as women are generally exempt from obligations with a time component, they would be so in rabbinic ones, other than where they have a specific connection, such as with megillah, where they were part of the miracle.

That’s his wrap-up of rabbinic rules. Next time, we’ll see his views on Bal Tosif, the prohibition against adding to the Torah, then on to other categories of obligations.

About Gidon Rothstein

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