Petihah Kollelet, Third Part, Letters 5-8: Objection, Attention, Intention

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Last time, we began to see the role of kavannah, intention or awareness of what one is doing, in mitzvot. It started with mitzvot of speech, which Peri Megadim held clearly need more awareness than ordinary mitzvah actions. Before he comes back to that, he detours briefly to note Magen Avraham 60;3 said rabbinic mitzvot in general did not need kavannah, evidence to Peri Megadim that Magen Avraham must have thought Megillah on Purim was divrei kabbalah, a mitzvah established by post-Sinaitic Scripture, because it clearly does require attention and awareness.

The Intention Not to Fulfill a Mitzvah

Yet again before we return to speech-mitzvotPeri Megadim advances the claim negative intent effectively prevents fulfillment of a mitzvah, even in rabbinic obligations, where we had said last time that many opinions held kavannah was not needed for fulfillment of the mitzvah.

[The example I always think of, which will come up later in this discussion, is the longstanding question of how men who prayed in shul on Friday, with a form of kiddush in the prayer itself, can recite kiddush for those who did not pray, when those other people—such as women– still have a Biblical obligation in kiddushPeri Megadim’s idea opens the door to the possibility we see them as having tacit intent not to fulfill the mitzvah.]

He sees the idea as an extension of a rule about shehitah, ritual slaughter, where intent does not seem necessary, as long as the act is performed properly. Even so, Peri Megadim points out, negative intent ruins the act, such as were the person to intend nehirah, a clearly non-shehitah form of slaughter. It seems specific intent not to fulfill a mitzvah has an impact.

[R. Eisenberger’s notes point out complications, because Maharsha”l held shehitah does need kavannah, just the act of slaughter itself is expressive enough of kavannah to satisfy the need. For his view, kavvanah she-lo latzet, the intention not to have this count as ritual slaughter, does not tell us about such negative intent in general, where we might not require kavannah at all.]

Eating Produces Results With or Without Kavannah

Speech needs intent, eating does not, we find out in Orah Hayyim 475, where Shulhan Aruch codifies the Talmudic idea that if one is forced to eat matzah on Pesah night, the person has already fulfilled his/her obligation, because the physical hana’ah of the eating has occurred. We usually translate hana’ah as benefit or pleasure, but hold off a bit. We at least mean that since the food has entered this person’s body, the act of eating has occurred, regardless of intent, and the mitzvah therefore has been fulfilled.

On the other hand, Rema Orah Hayyim 204;8 says one would not recite a blessing for such eating, surprising Taz and Magen Avraham, because what’s the difference? Peri Megadim suggests the rabbis instituted blessings for desired eating, where the rule about matzah on Pesah is about having ingested matzah. The distinction should mean such a person would recite the Biblical Grace After Meals, a blessing that would seem to focus on whatever the Torah regarded as eating. A book called Hemed Moshe gave reason to dispute even the last point, that perhaps blessings (even Biblical ones) are about thanking Gd for eating, so that whenever one would have preferred not to have eaten the item, there is no blessing. [Coercion to eat matzah is still coercion, even if a mitzvah is fulfilled in the act.]

Peri Megadim limits the ability to fulfill the mitzvah of eating matzah on Pesach with a coerced act to where the person knows it is Pesah and eating matzah is obligatory [R. Eisenberger’s notes tell us of others who disagree: Be’er Ha-Golah thought that was only the view of Ran, where Be’ur Halachah argued everyone accepted the idea]. This would mean awareness is needed, even if not intent.

Second, Peri Megadim floats the possibility someone forced to eat maror, a bitter herb, would not fulfill the mitzvah, because there is no hana’ah, pleasure or benefit. He is aware of the counterargumentnmaror nowadays is rabbinic and does not need any kind of kavannah anyway, but rebuts it, because being forced to eat maror sparks an implicit intent not to fulfill the mitzvah, and that always works.

[R. Eisenberger cites Shu”t Ketav Sofer, by R. Avraham Schreiber, son of the Hatam Sofer, who provided a reasonable alternative view, the idea ingesting food inherently fulfills an obligation she-ken neheneh means the bodily experience produced by this food has been had, regardless of pleasure or benefit. If so, maror produces its bodily experience whenever eaten, even if forced, and therefore should have the same rules.]

The Special Intention of the First Line of Shema

It’s well known that the first line of Shema requires more than the usual kavannah, except Peri Megadim has already said all speech requires kavannah. He suggests it means the person must know the meaning of the words, where the Biblically obligated rest of Shema would require only kavannah la-tzet, the intent to fulfill the mitzvah, or no kavannah if it is rabbinic [for the range of views about how much of Shema the Torah obligated, R. Eisenberger points us to Eshel Avraham to Magan Avraham 60;4; Peri Megadim refers to Rosh Yosef, his novellae on the Talmud, where he took the position only the first line of Shema is obligated by the Torah.]

Problem is, we have plenty of reason to think halachah requires us to understand what we are saying in other parts of Shema. As Magen Avraham 62;1 noted, a Jew may say Shema in languages other than Hebrew only if s/he understands the new language, a requirement for prayer and Birkat Ha-Mazon, too. It sounds to Peri Megadim like one reciting them in Hebrew also needs to understand them (as opposed to Megillah, for example, where a Jew can fulfill his/her obligation with a Hebrew reading, apparently without being able to decipher the language.

[R. Eisenberger alerts us to a debate among authorities on this question as well, Sheyarei Kenesset HaGedolah taking Peri Megadim’s position, even Hebrew must be understood for Shema, where Magen Avraham and others—including, seemingly, Peri Megadim there—think Hebrew just works. If so, we could say it does not for the first line of Shema, and that would be our needed distinction. Peri Megadim offered another one.]

He suggests the first line of Shema requires comprehension of the words at the time the person is saying them, an awareness and understanding of what s/he is saying, not the theoretical ability to translate what was said if asked, In other obligatory speech, the person needs to know what the words mean, and intend to be saying them, but can still fulfill the obligation if s/he said it hurriedly, without true awareness.

How Rabbinic Rules Affect Biblical Observances

He next takes up the impact of rabbinic regulations on mitzvah observance. Suppose the Torah allowed a certain version of fulfillment of a mitzvah—large squares of wood, for an example he gave—and Hazal prohibited it (in this instance, for fear it looked too much like an ordinary roof, would mislead people into thinking they could fulfill the mitzvah of living in a sukkah by living in their usual homes). Where the person has no other options, should he live in such a sukkah, to salvage something, or did Hazal’s rule include the rider a Jew may no longer fulfill the mitzvah this way, no matter what, for fear people will become accustomed to acting this way, in effect nullifying the rabbinic decree?

Peri Megadim is originally confident the Jew would not recite a blessing on such a performance, because all such berachot came from the rabbis, who likely did not want a Jew blessing an action they had said should not occur. Later, he takes it back, thinks perhaps the rabbis would not have objected to such a berachah, and then wonders whether someone who fulfilled the mitzvah of sukkah in a way the rabbis did not want, and said the berachah, would then say another berachah should the opportunity arise to fulfill the mitzvah in a rabbinically preferred way (without any interruption in between).

Tosafot in Sukkah imply Hazal uprooted the observance completely, took away its standing as a fulfillment of a mitzvah (the example was a story where rabbis told R. Yohanan b. Ha-Hornit he had never fulfilled the obligation of sukkah if he had eaten with the table in the house, a clearly rabbinic disqualification), as did Rabbenu Yonah in Berachot, when he assumed Hazal completely ruled out reciting Shema after midnight, even though the Torah allowed it all night.

In the end, Peri Megadim accepts the view of Magen Avraham, 629;23, who said a person who has only rabbinically invalid sechach may use it, but remained unsure about whether one would recite a berachah for any such observance.

[R. Eisenberger adds the perspective of Aruch La-Ner, who thought this circumstance slightly different from other rabbinic rules. Here, the rabbis disqualified valid sechach for fear people would extrapolate to allow another rabbinically invalid sukkah. Other rabbinic rules worry about possible Biblical violations, like the reason we do not blow shofar on Shabbat, lest we carry it in public. Where the ultimate concern would have only been rabbinic anyway, Aruch La-Ner was sure Hazal would not have uprooted the observance if there was no other option, because how could it be worse?]

The idea brings him back to the kiddush issue we started with, if someone recites kiddush during prayers (just saying the day is Shabbat counts as kiddush at a Biblical level), despite the rabbinic requirement to recite it over wine, has that person fulfilled the obligation and cannot therefore perform the act on behalf of someone still obligated at a Biblical level? Or did the rabbis uproot the original act and the two people are still both Biblically obligated?

As I noted earlier, if the person who went to shul had intent not to fulfill the mitzvah, as Peri Megadim had said is effective, the problem goes away.

Either way, our discussion this time leaves us with more of a sense of the role of intent in halachah, as well as of the interplay between rabbinic and Biblical rules.

About Gidon Rothstein

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