Let's Have a Party!: Bava Kamma 87

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

In our last post we discussed Rabbi Yehuda’s (rejected) view that the blind are exempt from mitzvoth. This exemption actually brought great joy to Rav Yosef. Being blind himself he was exempt from mitzvoth yet he performed them voluntarily. He surmised that he would thereby receive a greater reward for being meticulous in observance of mitzvoth even though there was no obligation to do so. After all he went beyond the call of duty. Yet when he heard what Rabbi Chaninah said;”gadol, greater is one who is commanded and does mitzvoth more than one who is not commanded and does them” he said “that I will make a Yom Tov for the one who tells me the law is not like Rav Yehuda. Why? Because now that I am commanded I will receive a greater reward.” (Bava Kamma 87a)

This little personal vignette is a most powerful one. Firstly we can learn from Rav Yosef that there is nothing wrong with wanting and rejoicing for the reward for performing mitzvot. While we must observe regardless of the potential reward or lack thereof, finding out that one gets a larger reward is a great reason to throw a party.

On the surface it is difficult to understand Rav Chaninah's assertion that one who is obligated is greater than the volunteer. Yet on deeper reflection we can see how Rabbi Chaninah was right on the mark. For starters a volunteer can come and go as they please and feels little guilt if they don’t volunteer 50 or 60 hours a week. One obligated to show up to work has no such option. It is the daily obligation to mitzvoth, 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week that is much more difficult and meaningful. Furthermore volunteers can pick and choose where they would like to help. They can and will often avoid the mundane or the difficult task that every worker faces from time-to-time (or more often). Volunteers are great but no successful organization can function on volunteers alone.

Additionally man by his very nature is inclined to say no when told he must do something. Who are you to tell me what to do when? It is not easy to overcome the yetzer hara to say no and those who do deserve a greater reward. 

Interestingly the Gemara never tells us if someone did tell Rav Yosef if the blind are obligated in mitzvot – and hence whether he ever did throw that party.

While we do not know if Rav Yosef made his party this story has served as the basis for hundreds of thousands of others who have made a feast. The Maharshal, Rav Shlomo Luria (Yam Shel Shlomo, Bava Kamma 7:37) cites this story as the source for celebrating a bar-mitzva. “There is no greater seudat mitzva than this, and [even] its name proves it[1].” No other meal -not Shabbat, Pesach seder a brit milah, a wedding, not even Purim – have the appellation "mitzvah" attached to its very name. There is nothing as joyous as becoming obligated in mitzvoth, in being commanded to follow the will of G-d.  

Ultimately it matters little whether one is technically obligated in mitzvoth[2]. Mitzvot represent the will of G-d and properly observed create a model society. We must all observe mitzvoth to the best of our ability – and have confidence that ultimately our due reward awaits us.

[1] While he refers to bar-mitzva the same logic would apply for a bat-mitzva. Of course in 16th century Poland bat-mitzvas were not publically celebrated. And even the celebration bar-mitzva seems to have been an Ashkenazic practice as he introduces his comment with the phrase “and the bar-mitzva seudah that the Ashkenazim do.”

[2] I am not dealing with the technical halachic issue that one who is not obligated in a mitzva cannot perform it on behalf of another. Thus while a mother can recite kiddush for her 12 year old son the son is unable to do so for his mother. It is interesting to note that the Gemara (Pesachim 116b) tells us that Rav Yosef and Rav Sheshet both of whom were blind led the Pesach seder i.e. recited the hagadah on behalf of all those assembled.