Overspending on a Mitzvah?

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by R. Moshe Kurtz

Lomdus on the Parsha: Vayechi

Based on the Acclaimed Sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon

Q: Is there a limit to how much one may spend on a mitzvah?

Zevulun shall dwell by the seashore; He shall be a haven for ships, And his flank shall rest on Sidon. (Genesis 49:13)

Zevulun was mentioned before Issachar even though Issachar was the elder. Why? Zevulun was engaged in commercial activity, while Yisachar devoted himself to the study of the Torah, and they had agreed that Zevulun’s earnings would be shared by Yisachar. That is why Moses blessed them: Rejoice, Zevulun, in thy going out, and Yisachar in thy tents (Deut. 33:18). Rejoice, Zevulun, in going about to do business, for Yisachar is in your tents studying the Torah. Why should he rejoice? Because the Torah is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her, and happy is everyone that holdeth her fast (Prov. 3:8). Therefore Zevulun preceded Yisachar. If it had not been for Zevulun, Yisachar could not have studied the Torah. Since Yisachar engaged exclusively in the study of the Torah, and was not concerned with business nor did any kind of work, it is written about him: And the children of Yisachar, men that had understanding of the times (I Chron. 12:33).  (Medresh Tanchuma, Vayechi 11:1)

Our sages teach us that Yisachar and Zevulun agreed to an arrangement in which the former would study the Torah while the latter would provide the sustenance. Based on this agreement, Zevulun was giving away significant sums of assets which would seem to be at odds with the Talmudic (Archin 28a, Kesubos 50a, 67b) dictate of hamivazveiz al yivazveiz yoser m’chomesh – one should not expend more than a fifth of their assets in order to perform a mitzvah.

A similar question can be raised vis-a-vis the spending habits of Hillel the Elder, who the Talmud (Yoma 35b) tells us “that each and every day he would work and earn a half-dinar – half of which he would give to the guard of the study hall and half of which he spent for his sustenance and the sustenance of the members of his family.” How was it acceptable for Hillel to expend half of his earnings on the mitzvah of studying Torah when the upper threshold is capped at twenty percent? 

R. Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, the Netziv, in his Ha’Emek Sheilah (19:4) suggests that this principle may be subject to the following Talmudic (Eruvin 55a) dispute: 

Avdimi bar Ḥama bar Dosa said: What is the meaning of that which is written: “It is not in heaven…nor is it beyond the sea” (Deut. 30:12–13)? “It is not in heaven” indicates that if it were in heaven, you would have to ascend after it, and if it were beyond the sea, you would have to cross after it. 

Rava said: “It is not in heaven” means that Torah is not to be found in someone who raises his mind over it, like the heavens i.e. he thinks his mind is above the Torah and he does not need a teacher; nor is it to be found in someone who expands his mind over it, like the sea.

The Netziv infers that according to the first opinion in the Gemara, one would even be required to expend an exorbitant amount of resources to ascend heaven or cross the sea in order to study Torah. Whereas, according to Rava, who rejects such an interpretation, one would be permitted to expend more than a fifth of their finances in order to perform a mitzvah, but would certainly not be required to do so. Rava’s interpretation in the Gemara would appear to be the favored one (see Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Talmud Torah 3:8), which leads us to assume that Zevulun and Hillel, who expended more than twenty percent of their income on Torah study, simply did more than what was demanded of them and opted to go beyond the call of duty

However, it is not clear that one may even opt to give more than a fifth. The Talmud, in its discussion of not expending more than a fifth of one’s property, continues:

And an incident occurred involving a certain individual who sought to dispense more than one-fifth of his property as charity, and his friend did not let him act upon his wishes. And who was this friend? Rabbi Yeshevav. And some say that Rabbi Yeshevav was the one who wanted to give too much charity, and his friend did not let him do so, and who was the friend? Rabbi Akiva.

This anecdote indicates that it is not simply that one is not required to spend a fifth of their assets, but that it is forbidden to do so. If that is indeed the case, how can we make sense of Zevulun and Hillel’s seemingly sanctimonious practices? 

(1) The baseline assumption is that one may opt to spend as much money on a mitzvah as they wish. The passages in the Gemara which forbid doing so are limited specifically to the mitzvah of donating to charity. This is indicated by the justification given in the Gemara, “perhaps he will descend from his holdings” or “perhaps he in turn [will become poor] and necessitate support from society.” It would be inherently counterproductive to give so much money to charity that it results in the giver becoming a recipient. While this threshold serves as a benchmark for how much one should spend on other commandments, it is regarded simply as a guideline in those instances. (See Rema O.C. 656:1, whose formulation, R. Carlebach suggests, is in line with this elucidation.) 

(2) Alternatively, we can resolve this difficulty from the opposite angle by positing that one is prohibited to spend more than twenty percent on any commandment by default. However, R. Yisrael Meir Kagan, suggests that the mitzvah of Torah study, due to its overarching and supreme importance, is the exception to the rule (see Likutei Halachos, Yoma 12b). Some have elucidated that Torah study supersedes the twenty percent limit because every word of Torah is classified as its own distinct mitzvah. Thus, while one would theoretically be limited to expending no more than a fifth on one word of Torah, practically with all the words there are to learn there is effectively no upper limit to how much can be expend on this holy pursuit. (This is similar to the Minchas Chinuch 423:4 who espouses a stringent position regarding the mitzvah of mezuzah, since every moment is considered its own unique mitzvah. However, see Magen Avraham 19:1 who offers an alternative conceptualization of the mitzvah.)

(3) The limitation on expending more than a fifth on a mitzvah only regulates how one utilizes their own assets. In the case of Yisachar and Zevulun, the latter was not making a monetary donation but entered into a partnership agreement whereby half of his earnings automatically belonged to Yisachar. This would be no different than two business partners who agree to divide their collective profits. (However, we should note this does not resolve the practice of Hillel who was not giving money as part of a partnership arrangement.) 

This arrangement is unique, because many (see Responsa Igros Moshe Y.D. 4:37) understand that Zevulun was not simply supporting Yisachar’s Torah, but was actually detracting a share from the merit that Yisachar’s Torah study generated. The Rema (Y.D. 246:1) writes: “And a person is able to make a condition with his friend, that he will study Torah and he will support him, and he will split the reward with him.” This is fascinating not only on a halachic level, but raises theological questions about the extent that Divine reward can and cannot be simply transferred as human currency. (For further reading, see Responsa Maharam Alashkar no. 101, Responsa Minchas Yitzchak 6:100, Responsa Divrei Malkiel 4:80, Responsa Tuv Ta’am V’Da’as 1:217, and Rationalism VS. Mysticism: Schisms in Traditional Jewish Thought, Ch. 14.)

Note: This series is not intended to dispense practical halachic conclusions. The Torah presented here is but a small extraction from the breadth of the sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon and is not affiliated with the author in any official capacity. Translations are adapted from Sefaria, Chabad.org, Mechon Mamre, and my own. Contact: [email protected]

About Moshe Kurtz

Rabbi Moshe Kurtz is Assistant Rabbi at Congregation Agudath Sholom of Stamford, CT. He welcomes questions, feedback and speaking requests at: [email protected].

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