Menachot 99: Loving Mitzvoth

By: rabbi jay kelman |

The Sochochover Rebbe, in the introduction to his classic work on the laws of Shabbat, Eglei Tal, explains that Torah study is meant to be enjoyable. This should be rather obvious; it was King David (Tehillim 100:2) who taught that we should “worship G-d with joy”, something we say in our davening every day. That learning is an act of joy is reflected in the halacha that a mourner is prohibited from studying Torah.

Yet, the Eglei Tal notes, many people have the impression that the more we enjoy a mitzvah, the less we can be said to be doing the mitzvah lishma, for its own sake—i.e., for the sake of G-d. If we are deriving pleasure from the mitzvah, would that not mean that we are doing it, at least partially, for our own sake? (While the Eglei Tal references the mitzva of Talmud Torah, the same should hold true for all mitzvot). To disabuse us of such a notion, the Eglei Tal explains that it is the exact opposite; the more pleasure we derive from mitzvot, the higher the level of lishma[1]. What greater pleasure could there be than carrying out the will of G-d? Any lack of joy in doing mitzvot has a corresponding impact on lowering the level of lishma

It is far from ideal when one performs mitzvot out of a sense of obligation. This invariably leads one to ask what one needs to do to fulfil one’s obligation, as opposed to asking how this mitzvah will bring me closer to G-d and those created in His image. While mitzvot are obligatory—that is, after all, the meaning of the word—they should be done out of love and joy. “In the school of Rabbi Yishmael it was taught: The words of Torah should not be considered as an obligation upon you, yet you are not permitted to exempt yourself from them” (Menachot 99b).

Mitzvot take on so much more meaning when we do them because we want to, not because we have to. This idea is highlighted by the Torah’s introduction to the mitzvah of tzedakah—the raison d’etre of the Jewish people[2]. “Eem, if you lend money...the poor shall be with you” (Shemot 24:22). Rashi, quoting our Sages, notes that this is one of the three places in the Torah where “if” actually means “when”—giving tzedakah is not optional, but obligatory. 

But unless one questions this Rashi, one misses the entire point of this teaching. If the Torah had wanted to say “when”, it easily could have done so. What right do our Sages have to change the very clear meaning of “if” to “when”?

As the Maharal explains (Gur Aryeh, Shemot 20:22) it is not they who changed it, but rather, the Torah itself[3] is teaching a most powerful lesson. While we must give tzedakah we should do so not because we have to, but because we want to. Would we want one to say, I have little desire to help this person, but what can I do, the Torah obligates me to do such? We should feel blessed that we have the opportunity to help those in need. 

Even the Rambam, who argues that one should not say that pork is disgusting, but rather that I would love to eat pork, but the Torah prohibits me from doing so, would seem to agree that we should feel blessed to have the opportunity to observe the laws of kashrut. It is no contradiction to want to do something, but realize we are blessed in being unable to do so. 

It is not coincidental that the Rambam chose kashrut as the example of a mitzvah that we may wish we could violate. The Torah links the mitzvah of kashrut to holiness, concluding its detailed laws of kashrut with back-to-back exhortations regarding holiness (see Vayikra 11:44-45). And when one opens the Rambam's Sefer Kedusha, the Book of Holiness, one finds the laws of forbidden foods (and forbidden sexual relations). Holiness[4] is a great blessing, and surely is something we desire for its own sake, not to fulfill some obligation.  

In our last post, we discussed the retort of Rabbi Yishmael to his nephew, where he argued (at least polemically) that one is obligated to learn day and night. “And Rabbi Yishmael’s view argues with that of Rabbi Shmuel bar Naḥmani, as Rabbi Shmuel bar Naḥmani said in the name of Rabbi Yonatan: This verse [‘and you shall delight in them day and night’, (Yehoshua 1:8)] is neither an obligation nor a mitzvah, but a blessing”.

Rabbi Yonatan argues—and this is the final view cited in our sugya[5]—that learning full time, as beautiful as it may be, is not only not obligatory, it is not even a mitzvah. It is, however, something more special—a blessing from G-d enabling us to engage with and bring the Divine to earth. 

A similar idea can also be seen in our attitude towards prayer. There are few more basic obligations that that of prayer. The Rambam, in his list of 613 mitzvot, lists prayer as the fifth mitzvah, attesting to its importance[6]. Yet according to most authorities, there is no Biblical obligation to pray. The Ramban (Sefer HaMitzvot, comments on Rambam, Aseh 5) claims that, rather than an obligation, prayer is a gift from G-d, a great act of gemilut chasadim, allowing lowly man to approach G-d with our requests. Imagine how different our tefillot would be if we could manage to internalize this idea! 

We as Jews are blessed to have many obligations: “Rabbi Chaninah ben Akasya said:  ‘G-d wanted to give merit to Israel, therefore he gave to them many laws and commandments’” (Makkot 23b). May we merit recognizing the great blessing offered to us. 

 

[1] Perhaps this is the reason Rava began every shiur by telling a joke (Shabbat 30b), something every good speaker knows. 

[2] As the Torah (Breisheet 18:19) notes, G-d chose Abraham as the founder of the Jewish people because he would teach his children Tzedakah u’Mishpat

[3] This is a common technique that the Torah, a self described work of poetry, often uses. Perhaps the most famous is “an eye for an eye”, where the Torah purposely chooses not to mention what it really means—i.e., monetary compensation—lest one think one can put a monetary value on an eye.  

[4] The exact definition of holiness need not concern us here, save to note that the Torah’s command kedoshim teheyu, to be holy, is rooted in becoming G-d-like, “for I your G-d am holy” (Vayikra 19:2). 

[5] An indication that the discussion regarding this verse is of an aggadic and non- halachic nature is the fact that the Talmud does not try to resolve the debate with proofs, counter-proofs or other parallel teachings. This is a feature that is the bread and butter of halachic discussion, but absent in aggadic teachings, which are generally presented as is, with no attempt to resolve conflicting views or to determine which view is to be followed.

[6] According to the Rambam, the first four mitzvot are to know that there is a G-d, to acknowledge His unity, to love Him and to fear Him.