Petihah Kollelet, Third Part, Letters 9-14

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

When the Thought Really Counts

The time before last, Peri Megadim raised some questions about hirhur ke-dibbur, the possibility a thought could count as much as speech for some halachic purposes. In paragraph nine of this third part, he returns to the issue, because while it played some questionable role for prayer or blessings, and clearly no role in business dealings or weddings, it works to a significant extent for hekdesh, matters having to do with the Beit Ha-Mikdash (Temple) and the sanctified items related to it.

Thinking Donations or Vows

Rambam codifies (Hilchot Ma’aseh Ha-Korbanot, Laws of Sacrificial Procedure, 14;12) the effectiveness of an internal decision to donate an item to the Temple, either as sacrifice or donation. Although no one else would know, the person who made such a decision, in his or her head, is now obligated to fulfill the promise, despite no words having been uttered. Shevu’ot 26b quotes Shemu’el making two points about thoughts, that with vows, the person’s internal decision must match the words s/he said, and with kodashim, sanctified items, just thought is enough.

The Gemara refers to kol nediv lev, all whose hearts moved them (or were willing), as the source, because it speaks of the heart making the donation. The phrase appears in Shemot 35;22, although rishonim did not think that was what the Gemara meant, I think because that verse described people who brought items for the construction of the Mishkan, meaning they translated their thoughts into action. The Gemara was offering proof the thought alone has an impact.

Rambam instead quoted Shemot 35;5, where the Torah calls for donations, kol nediv libo, from anyone who heart moves him/her to generosity. Rashi and Tosafot turned to Divrei Ha-Yamim II 29;31, where the exact phrase kol nediv lev appears, although that is not in the Torah. Tosafot also noted Bamidbar 18;27, where the Torah speaks of ve-nehshav lachem terumatchem, your terumah will be considered (thought) for you.

Whatever the verse—and Peri Megadim notes Rambam’s verse also referred to taking a terumah, so that could have been the source for terumah being taken in thought—we see that just the thought of donation can create the donation. However, as he notes later, Rashi consistently assumed thought in these contexts were all expressed in speech. For Rashi, pure thought does not produce halachic effects.

Charitable Thoughts

Before he gets there, he brings up a real-world question, whether this standard applies to charitable gifts as well. Rema, Yoreh De’ah 258;13, quotes two views and says general practice assumes a thought to donate does count. In Hoshen Mishpat 212;8, however, Rema refers only to being stringent for the view that thought alone makes the donation.

Thought more clearly works for voluntary fast days, where the person needs to accept such a fast the day before, and Orach Hayyim 562;6 says just thinking the acceptance works. Taz explains the difference from tzedakah, that a fast day counts as a sort of personal sacrifice, the fat and blood one loses during the day being an offering to Gd.

The room to deny charity is a firm obligation until spoken could explain why a Mishnah on Kiddushin 28b says amirato le-gavoha ke-mesirato le-hedyot, verbal commitment to donate to sanctified purposes works like actually transferring an item in ordinary transactions, when we have said thought alone was good enough (for Rambam). If charity is part of the idea, it would explain the Gemara, because promises ot give to charity might need to be said [which is better for all of us; I remember having heard this idea from mori ve-rabi R. Herschel Schachter, afterwards thinking to myself “oh, I’ll give that amount to this charity,” only to realize it was too much and then have to consider how fully I had decided on that earlier amount.]

Thinking and Repentance

Both thought and speech are needed for repentance, the internal recognition of sin and decision/determination not to repeat it, then the spoken vidui, articulation of sin necessary to the process [the way Rambam presented the laws of teshuvah led some, such as Minhat Chinuch, to assert he saw vidui as the only obligatory part, an idea my teachers rejected]. For sins towards others, some speech is needed, because Gd does not forgive such sins until the person hurt by them has been placated.

There might be value to penitential thoughts alone, however, as shown in the realm of testimony. Kiddushin, the first stage of Jewish marriage, must be witnessed. Halachah excludes serious sinners from service as witnesses, with “serious” perhaps including all who knowingly violated any Biblical prohibition [when I was growing up, the state of observance in the United States was such that I knew of more than one rabbi who brought witnesses with him when performing a wedding, just in case].

Should those sinners have repented, they are restored to good standing for testimony. Peri Megadim argues it is sufficient to think the repentance [I know rabbis with the blanket practice to encourage the witnesses to repent before their service as part of a wedding, for this exact reason; as we saw in Mabit’s ideas about teshuvah, he too held just the thought of repentance restored a Jew to full righteousness].

The matter is more complicated for sins where a court is supposed to administer punishment. Hoshen Mishpat 34;29 says that bearing the punishment restores the sinner to being able to bear witness, where other kinds of sins require repentance. Peri Megadim is therefore unsure about a person who explicitly rejected a warning and then transgressed a sin, yet courts do not administer that punishment in our times (such as lashes). He thinks repentance might be good enough, but is not sure.

Essential or Incidental Thought

A quick last point on thought. Bah, Orah Hayyim 534 suggested messengers cannot think on behalf of a person who sent them, such as nullifying hametz. Peri Megadim is surprised, since a verse about terumah helps establish the halachic concept of shelihut, the effectiveness of messengers, and terumah can be set aside with thouth alone. Why would a messenger be able to think which grain is given to a kohen as terumah, but not nullify hametz?

He explains that nullifying hametz is more crucially about thought than separating terumah. While the thought of terumah can make part of the produce into the gift for the kohen, the whole and only way to nullify hametz is with thought, and that is what Bah held could not be given over to a messenger.

Thoughts clearly matter in halachah, but in different ways and to different extents, depending on the context.

The Sense of Hearing

Mitzvot can employ the sense of hearing, such as shofar at the Biblical level, Megillah at the rabbinic (or divrei kabbalah) level. To emphasize the significance of hearing, Peri Megadim opens his discussion by noting the Torah repeatedly uses shema, hear, as metaphor for acceptance (as in Shema, Hear O Israel) or obedience (the second paragraph of Shema, ve-haya im shamo’a, if you will “hear” the mitzvot).

Hearing is part of speech as well, since we generally assume the person reciting some obligatory text must hear him/herself, other than in prayer, where some opinions thought prayers should be uttered but not loud enough to be heard even by the person reciting them.

Speech Also Works

Speech also can have great impact, such as edim zomemin, who can be put to death for their false testimony. So, too, just the statement that some power other than Gd rules one’s life (saying eli atah, you are my governing power) is full-on avodah zarah, punishable by stoning. [It is not his point, but one I think we are well-advised to repeat to ourselves: avodah zarah is as much about what we say and think as about what we do, and the statement some power other than Gd “really” runs our life can, Gd forbid, amount to avodah zarah.]

There can be lashes for speech, such as for failing to fulfill an oath, cursing another Jew using Gd’s Name, or verbally stopping an animal from grazing while it works.

[These digressions to hearing and speech came here because he had been discussing whether thoughts needed to be concretized in speech and/or hearing. Now he goes back to thought.]

Thought and Deed

One more way thoughts matter is in their link to actions. A Jew who violates Shabbat without realizing s/he was committing a sin will count as a shogeg, with different consequences than if s/he knew what was going on.

However, Gd generally separates thought from deed regarding sin; just the intent to sin does not yet count against a person, including especially in human courts, which do not punish for thoughts, even if the sinner confesses. Gd will count good thoughts against negative ones to the person’s credit, though, so it is a good idea to think of Torah and good deeds, because the thoughts themselves-even if circumstances prevent them from coming to fruition—count as merits.

As a further example of the separation, Peri Megadim argues Gd punishes thoughts only in ways affecting a person in thought. The body took no part of the original thoughts, and will not bear any of the suffering of punishment, either.

He closes letter fourteen with discussions of owning hametz on Pesah, where the Gemara envisions punishments, leading Peri Megadim to wonder how we know the Jew has not intended the hametz to be batel, nullified, not his, and therefore not in violation. His main answer (for a few permutations of the question) is that accepting warning without protest shows a person has not thought to be rid of this hametz.

More on thought next time, too, so be thinking about it this week!

About Gidon Rothstein

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