Petihah Kollelet: Part Three, Letters 1-4, Kinds and Levels of Mitzvot

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

A long time ago (before Rosh Hodesh Elul, before we completely changed ourselves through repentance), we were studying Peri Megadim’s Petihah Kollelet. We finished the first two parts, and now return to study the three parts left, two of them substantive, the last one a short set of additional notes to the previous four. I’m hoping to finish all this while the public Torah reading is still in the book of Bereshit, because I have a new project in mind for when we get to the more legal/mitzvah part of the Torah.

Mitzvot of Value, Mitzvot of Obligation

Peri Megadim points out the Torah establishes two kinds of obligations: absolute ones, where a Jew must do act, such as eat matzah on the first night of Pesah, eat in the sukkah the first night of Sukkot, wear tefillin every day, hear shofar on Rosh HaShanah.

Other mitzvot he calls hovah, where the Jew fulfills the Torah if s/he acts a certain way but there is no specific requirement to do so, such as sending the mother bird away before taking eggs or chicks from a nest, giving charity beyond the minimum. (He has prohibitions of each type, too, such as owning hametz on Pesah, where a Jew must get rid of all hametz on the fourteenth of Nisan, as opposed to prohibitions of refraining, where there is no particular moment of fulfillment. There is no specific time to not murder, we just never murder).

Rambam in Laws of Shabbat 5;1 contrasts the hovah—absolute obligation—to light Shabbat candles to the mitzvah of washing hands before eating bread, needed only if a Jew wants to eat bread, or make an eruv hatzerot, necessary only to carry in a jointly-owned private space. He also has the idea of reshut, even more a matter of choice.

There’s what we must do, what we must do only if we decide to take a certain path, and what is laudable if we choose to do it.

Fences Around What Part of Torah

In the first part of this PetihahPeri Megadim had said Hazal had the right to make protective ordinances for prohibitions. Here, he acknowledges they often made such rules to avoid violations of asehs, obligations. He has a yibum example, where a widow theoretically supposed to marry her brother in law is prohibited to him because of an issur aseh, an obligation that creates a prohibition [such as a High Priest’s obligation to marry a woman who has never been married]; while the obligation of yibum would push aside the prohibition for the couple’s consummation of marriage, it does nothing beyond that, leading the rabbis to rule out even that first marital act, to require halitzah instead.

More practical examples are their ordinances against eating in a sukkah where the table is in the housefor fear of being drawn to the house, and about how we may or may not mend garments close to where the tzitzit are, for fear the person will mistake a repaired string for a tzitzit string.

Where an obligation came from derivation of a verse, or an halachah le-Moshe mi-Sinai, a law received orally at Sinai, Hazal do not make such protective ordinances. The right to legislate comes from VaYikra 18;30, u-shmartem et mishmarti, part of Hazal’s role is to protect Gd’s mishmeret, not their own.

(He gives an example showing the malleability of this idea: although the prohibition of fowl with milk is rabbinic, the rabbis included hatzi shiur, less than the minimal amount for a full violation, in the rule. We may not eat less than an olive’s size of chicken cooked in milk, despite hatzi shiur being derived or a rule established by halachah le-Moshe mi-Sinai,. A hatzi shiur doesn’t usually merit protective ordinances.

As he says, this is an example of the rabbis’ not-infrequent ordaining against one act because it is essential to maintain the effectiveness of another ordinance, referred to as i lo ha, without this, lo kayma ha, this other would not stand. Were chicken in milk permitted in less-than-olive amounts, people would eat it that way, and the rabbis’ ban on fowl and milk would fall apart. He notes other versions of this, such as kulah hada gezerah, it is all one ordinance.)

They only protected clear obligations, though.

Other Ways to Spot a Hierarchy

We also see a sense of relative significance of mitzvot in the discussions of which can be doheh, push aside, which. Clearly, aseh doheh lo ta’aseh, an obligation pushes aside a prohibition [this is the reason a Jew could theoretically wear linen garments with tzitzit, although techelet strings will necessarily be sha’atnez with the linen. The aseh of tzitzit is doheh the lo ta’aseh, as long as one is wearing full tzitzit, with proper techelet].

Peri Megadim notes asehs of greater weight, such as those with a karet possibility (the Pesah sacrifice or circumcision) pushing aside a non-karet mitzvah, or a mitzvah of the community pushing aside an individual’s obligation (his examples would take us too far afield, and are not his main point here, because he is focused on the next one).

Similarly, he holds an explicit obligation will push aside one derived through a principle of inference or known through an halachah le-Moshe mi-Sinai [another reminder that how we know a certain law matters, even within those laws we think of as Biblical].

He raises another complication, a prohibition with no possibility of lashes; does it count as a lav, or is it more like an aseh in having no court-administered punishment?

The Location of Obligations

Mitzvot come as action, speech, or thought (R. Eisenberger, editor/commentator of the excellent edition I use, points out Rambam had four segments to this distinction, action, speech, de’ot, beliefs, and middot, character traits. Peri Megadim will adopt Rambam’s categorization in the fifth part of this Petihah Kollelet). Most mitzvot are of action.

Reciting Shema, Grace After Meals, and the haggadah on Seder night are all Biblical speech obligations; the berachah of al ha-mihyah, recited after eating grain products or the seven species for which Israel is renowned, and the berachah before studying Torah might be rabbinic; reading the Megillah on Purim and saying Hallel (according to Ra’avad) are obligations laid out in non-Biblical scripture, although Rambam held the latter to be rabbinic. In all the times or types of legislation, speech acts were part of the mitzvah picture.

His prime example of a mitzvah of thought is the first of the Aseret Ha-Dibberot, to believe (in thought, he adds, an evocative locution I am going to leave for another time) the world has a Manhig, a guide. [More than just that there is a Gd, this allocates to Gd a guiding role to the world. Although Peri Megadim is explicitly working off of the first paragraphs of Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, some read Rambam to discuss only a vague version of Gd, a force that keeps the rest of the world going. Peri Megadim disagrees.] As Rambam said, this one mitzvah grounds all the others (a way for Peri Megadim to remind us “thought” mitzvot can be crucial despite being largely invisible).

Another version of thought mitzvot relates to more practical issues, such as nullifying one’s ownership of hametz before Pesah. The Torah prohibited ownership, and the purely mental decision not to own something is effective. While Hazal added an obligation to search for and physically remove hametz, a Jew could avoid transgressing the prohibition by nullifying the material [as should be done by a Jew who finds him/herself in a place where the hametz is not accessible].

This last category of mitzvot has no berachah, Peri Megadim says. We make a berachah before searching for and removing hametz, but if the Jew forgot and only remembered the next morning (when s/he is going to nullify it), there would be no berachah.

The Thin Line Between Thought and Speech

Berachot 20b brings up a topic Shulhan Aruch seems to leave unresolved, whether hirhur, thought, can count as speech. Shulhan Aruch and our current practice seems to think if one only thought some speech act (like reciting Shema), we will accept it after the fact, even as we generally require a person to hear his/her own words, or at least be sure s/he produced sound during the recitation.

Peri Megadim is certain of a preference for speech over thought in those situations—even for those who say hirhur, thought, can count as speech—because we do not recite blessings on thought, yet do recite blessings on speech (such as the blessing before saying Hallel or counting the Omer). He is not sure why, though: if thought can count after the fact, should that not rule out a blessing? He suggests even those who adopt the idea of hirhur ke-dibbur, thought can count as speech, do not mean it is exactly the same; they, too, would say halachah requires speech, the reason a blessing is included.

That being said, Peri Megadim wonders why this idea could not solve the problem of doubts about blessings. Normally, we say safek berachot le-hakel, we rule leniently in cases of doubt about blessings, because they are rabbinic, and we do not wish to risk using Gd’s Name needlessly. One ramification is that if we have a doubt about whether we recited a blessing properly (we don’t remember if we said Minhah), we do not go back. But if hirhur can work, why not just think all those blessings?

[He seems to assume that even if we say hirhur ke-dibbur, it carries no problem of saying Gd’s Name unnecessarily; I would have thought that if we hold hirhur ke-dibbur, thinking a berachah is fully like saying the words and whatever problems attach to an unnecessary recitation attach to this thought as well].

For our last distinction: while the question of attention to mitzvot is also a continuing and unresolved debate, speech acts clearly need more attention than acts [he predated R. Chaim Brisker, who had three versions of kavanah: the knowledge one is performing a mitzvah, awareness of the meaning of the words, and the highest form, the full awareness of the concerns and interests of the mitzvah. Peri Megadim is saying the middle kind is vital for speech mitzvot, because unless we know what we are saying, we are not saying it.]

He will continue the theme of kavanah next time. For now, he has shown us that despite the importance of being careful about all mitzvot, there is also a hierarchy within the system, some mitzvot having more systemic significance than others.

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