He Who is Engaged in a Mitzva is Exempt from other Regligious Duties

  • Rav Shmuel Shimoni

 

 

            The closing folios of the second chapter of tractate Sukka (25a and on) deal with the mitzva of dwelling in a sukka, but we in fact will begin our study with those who are exempt from dwelling in a sukka. The exemption that we shall deal with in this shiur is not specific to the mitzva of sukka, but rather a general exemption – he who is engaged in a mitzva is exempt from other religious duties - which our Mishna applies to the mitzva of sukka: "Those on a religious mission are exempt from sukka." Some Rishonim understood that the very existence of such an exemption is the subject of a tannaitic controversy (e.g., Rashi 26a, s.v. mishum); we, however, shall focus on those who maintain that this exemption has been accepted as normative law.

 

            The Gemara cites two sources for the exemption granted to one who is engaged in a mitzva. The first source is the verse in Keriat Shema which states: "When you sit (be-shivtekha; lit., "in your sitting") in your house and when you walk (be-lekhtekha; lit., "in your walking) by the way" (Devarim 6:7). The Gemara understands that the terms be-shivtekha and be-lekhtekha restrict the commandment to optional sitting and optional walking, for otherwise the verse should have read "be-shevet… be-lekhet," "while sitting… while walking." The added pronominal suffix, the khaf ("your"), implies that we are dealing with sitting and walking that is yours. This derivation leads to the very interesting idea that the Torah's commandments relate exclusively to the unhallowed world, and that when a person is already engaged in sacred activity, the other mitzvot do not relate to him whatsoever. [Perhaps this idea parallels a similar principle found elsewhere in the Talmud: "One prohibition does not take effect where another prohibition already exists." It is possible that there too the idea is that the Torah relates exclusively to the world of permitted activity. This, however, is not the topic of our present discussion.] We shall see below that this explanation fits in well with one approach taken by the Rishonim, but that according to another approach, the law regarding one who is engaged in a mitzva must be understood differently.

 

            The second source is not an extraneous word, but conduct: When the Jews were wandering in the wilderness, a number of them involved themselves in burial of the dead shortly before Pesach, despite the fact that they knew that this would bar them from bringing the paschal offering at its proper time. The Gemara argues that both sources are necessary:

 

It is necessary. For had we been told [only] that one [regarding the paschal offering] – because the time of obligation regarding the paschal offering had not yet arrived, but here where the time for reciting Shema already arrived, I might have said, no. [Therefore,] it is necessary. And had we been told [only] this one [regarding Shema], because there is no karet [excision]. But there where there is karet, I might have said, no. [Therefore,] it is necessary.

 

            Whenever we encounter a tzerikhuta argument of this type, we can understand its conclusion in two ways: It is possible that while there are two sources, there is only one law regarding one who is engaged in mitzva, that applies even if the time of obligation of the other mitzva has already arrived, and even if that other mitzva bears the stringency of karet. It is, however, possible, and thus Tosafot have been understood (25b, s.v. mishum), that even according to the conclusion there are two separate laws. One law applies even if the time of obligation of the other mitzva has arrived, but not when the other mitzva bears liability for karet. And another law applies even when the other mitzva bears liability for karet, but not when the time of obligation of the other mitzva has already arrived.

 

            If we follow the second approach, then it turns out that we are dealing with two laws having very different natures. The first law, as we have explained, provides immunity from additional commandments to anyone who is already engaged in a mitzva, with the exception of commandments that bear liability for karet. The second law is not really a law that one who is engaged in a mitzva is exempt from other religious duties. For it is not the occupation with the dead that prevents a person from bringing the paschal offering, but rather the fact of ritual impurity. While the person could have taken this into account and refrained from dealing with the corpse, at the time that he did so, he was not yet obligated to bring the paschal offering. At that time, the operative principle was "one must not forgo the occasion of performing a mitzva" (ein ma'avirin al ha-mitzvot") – when the opportunity presents itself to perform a mitzva now, do so immediately, and do not consider how that will affect your performance of mitzvot in the future. This principle is not self-evident, for it is valid even in a case where the future mitzva is more severe than the present one. As Rashi says: "This implies that a light mitzva that presents itself now must not be set aside on account of a more severe mitzva that will present itself in the future."

 

            Why, in fact, should one not consider the severity of the future mitzva? Perhaps, the reasoning is that a person must consider only his present situation, his current state and circumstances, and not give preference to future plans over a mitzva that is standing before him at this very moment. The Rambam, in his commentary to the Mishna, proposes a different understanding, but in contrast to our position here, he presents it both with respect to the principle that "one must not forgo the occasion of performing a mitzva," and with respect to the law that one who is engaged in a mitzva is exempt from other religious duties.

 

            The Mishna in Pirkei Avot (2:1) states: "Be careful of a light precept, even as of a grave one, for you do not know the reward for the commandments." On this, the Rambam writes:

 

The reason for this is that you do not know the reward [for the commandments]. The meaning of this is as follows: The Torah in its entirety is composed of positive commandments and negative commandments. As for the negative commandments, Scripture clarifies the punishment for each one of them, barring a few [exceptions], imposing on some capital punishment, on others karet, or death at the hand of heaven, or flogging. And we know from the punishments imposed upon all the negative commandments, which prohibition is most severe and which less so… And from these gradations we know the enormity or the smallness of the sin. But as for the positive commandments, the Divine reward for each of them was never clarified, so that we might know which of them is more important and which less so. Rather God commanded [us] to perform certain acts, but did not make known which of them carries the greater reward. It is, therefore, fitting to strive [to fulfill] all of them. On account of this principle, [the Sages] said: "One who is engaged in a mitzva is exempt from other religious duties," without distinguishing between the mitzva in which he is engaged, and the other which will vanish. And therefore they also said: "One must not forgo the occasion of performing a mitzva." That is to say, if the performance of a mitzva presents itself, do not forgo and forsake it in order to perform a different mitzva.

 

            According to the Rambam, the reason that one must not prefer the severe mitzva to the light one is that one does not really know whether indeed the one is more severe than the other. What is interesting is that according to the Rambam this is also the rationale for the law that one who is engaged in a mitzva is exempt from other religious duties. That is to say, even when the time of obligation of the other mitzva has already arrived, the reason that you should continue with the mitzva in which you are presently engaged is not some immunity that you enjoy because you are already engaged in a mitzva, but rather the lack of certainty that the other mitzva is in fact more important than the one in which you are currently occupied. In such a situation of uncertainty it falls upon you to refrain from deciding the matter, the practical ramification of which is to continue with the mitzva in which you are presently engaged.

 

            These two understandings find expression in a controversy between the Rishonim on our passage regarding the scope of the law that one who is engaged in a mitzva is exempt from other religious duties. The Tosafot write:

 

Those on a religious mission – those traveling for the sake of a mitzva, e.g., Torah study, greeting one's teacher, or redemption of captives, are exempt from the sukka, even when they camp. So explains Rashi…. But there is a question. If they are capable of fulfilling both mitzvot, why should they be exempt? If a person casts tzitzit on his garment or dons tefilin on his head, is he thereby exempt from the other mitzvot…. One must say that here too we are dealing with a case where if he would trouble himself with the fulfillment of the mitzva of sukka, he would be unable to fulfill [other] mitzvot.

 

            The Tosafot assume as obvious that if a person is able to fulfill the other mitzva without sacrificing the present one, he is obligated to do so. This assumption is particularly reasonable according to the Rambam, for if the basis for the exemption is that a person does not know the reward for the commandments, then clearly if it is within his capability to fulfill both mitzvot, he must do so.[1]

 

            The Ran (11a in Alfasi, s.v., ve-ika), however, disagrees, for he writes:

 

One who is engaged in a mitzva is exempt from other ritual duties even if he can do both… As long as a person is engaged in God's work, the Torah does not obligate him to trouble himself and fulfill other mitzvot, even though it would be possible for him to do so.

 

            As stated above, in order to extend the exemption to situations in which the fulfillment of one mitzva does not come at the expense of another, it is not enough to accept the view of the Rambam in his commentary to the Mishna, that one does not know which mitzva is preferable, but rather one must accept the premise that the Torah provides immunity from its commandments to one who is already engaged in a mitzva. This indeed is the implication of the words of the Ran.

 

            It is interesting to note that the Or Zarua (II, no. 299) also agrees with the Ran's conclusion. He understands that while the Rambam's approach leads to the position of the Tosafot, if that position were correct, there would be no need for a verse:

 

If one is incapable of fulfilling both of them, why is a verse necessary to exempt him? Why should he abandon the mitzva in which he is engaged, and occupy himself in a different mitzva? He should not even abandon a light mitzva for the sake of a severe mitzva, because a person does not know the reward for the commandments. And furthermore: "Be not like servants who minister to their master for the sake of receiving a reward" (Avot 1:3). Rather, without a doubt, even though he would be capable of fulfilling both of them, the Torah exempts him. This is a royal decree.

 

            It should be noted that the position of the Ran and the Or Zarua is conceptually not at all simple. The fulfillment of mitzvot includes the dimension of obeying the command of God, and from this perspective it is understandable that one who is already engaged in the fulfillment of one of God's commandments should be exempt from all other obligations. However, the fulfillment of mitzvot includes another dimension, the unique value of each and every mitzva, and it is not at all clear how this dimension is taken care of by the exemption granted to one who is already engaged in another mitzva. It may be that this dimension in and of itself does not suffice to impose a formal obligation. But this is what underlies the Ran's expectation that if a person is able to perform the second mitzva without special effort, he should do so, as will be explained below.

 

            As cited above, the Tosafot offer proof that the exemption does not apply to one who is capable of fulfilling both mitzvot: "If a person casts tzitzit on his garment or dons tefilin on his head, is he thereby exempt from the other mitzvot?" The Ran struggles with this proof, and suggests that the exemption was only given to one who is presently occupied in God's work, and not to anyone who is now fulfilling a mitzva. A person who is engaged in a mitzva does in fact enjoy immunity from other mitzvot (with the possible exception of mitzvot that bear liability for karet). The Ran, however, agrees that if he can fulfill both mitzvot without excessive effort, he must do so, but this is only because of "Rather than being good, do not be called evil."

 

            This last point raises a new question. Thus far we have discussed the basis and the scope of the exemption. But what happens when the exemption is in effect, but nevertheless a person wishes to fulfill the mitzva from which he is exempt. Does the law that states that one who is engaged in a mitzva is exempt from other ritual duties, define his fulfillment of another mitzva as void of halakhic significance, or are we still dealing with a religious act, albeit one which he is not obligated to perform?

 

            It stands to reason that the answer to this question also depends on the two approaches that we have already encountered regarding the foundation of the law. According to the approach of the Rambam, who maintains that one must not give preference to another mitzva over the current one, because one does not know the reward for the commandments, it stands to reason that if a person decides to abandon the present mitzva and fulfill a different mitzva, he is indeed acting inappropriately, but nevertheless he fulfills the second mitzva. In contrast, according to the approach of the Ran, who maintains that the Torah does not impose other mitzvot upon one who is already engaged in God's work, there is room to say that even if he performs another mitzva, it is not regarded as a mitzva, because he was never commanded about it.

 

The Rishonim, however, reject this correlation in both directions. The Ran, as stated above, emphasizes that there is no absolute cancellation of the other mitzva, and because of "Rather than being good, do not be called evil," it is fitting to fulfill both mitzvot.

 

            On the other hand, the Ritva agrees with the approach adopted by the Tosafot, but nevertheless he sees the performance of the second mitzva (when it contradicts the first mitzva, for otherwise, according to him, the exemption granted to one who is engaged in a mitzva does not apply) as an optional act having no religious value. As the Ritva states:

 

Because one who is engaged in a mitzva is exempt from other religious duties. And for this the Gemara cites a verse. And it may be asked: They certainly only said that one who is engaged in a mitzva is exempt from fulfilling another mitzva, in a case where he is incapable of fulfilling both of them…. Now, if he is only exempt while he is engaged in the mitzva, why is a verse necessary? This is obvious! Why should he abandon one mitzva for the sake of another? It may be suggested that it comes to teach us that even if one wishes to abandon one mitzva in order to perform a different mitzva that is greater than it, he may not do so. One might have thought that he is exempt from the second mitzva, but if he wishes to abandon the first and perform the second, he is permitted to do so. Thus, the verse teaches us that since he is exempt from the second mitzva, it is now considered for him as an optional act, and one must not abandon a mitzva for the sake of an optional act.

 

            The Ritva maintains that even though we are not dealing with immunity, but with preference given to the current mitzva when the second mitzva would come at its expense, the Torah teaches that in such a case the second mitzva is cancelled, and if the person performs it, it is regarded as an optional act having no religious value.

 

Let us now examine the practical ramifications of the last question – does the law governing one who is engaged in a mitzva absolutely cancel his obligation regarding the second mitzva, or is it merely a superficial exemption. As we all know, a person who missed a prayer service is obligated in a compensatory prayer. This law, however, only applies when the person was obligated in the missed prayer. Therefore, the Shulchan Arukh (Yore De'a 341:2) rules that an onen – a person who is in acute mourning on the day of the death of a close relative – who missed a prayer service does not have to make it up, because at the time of that prayer he was exempt from all positive commandments. What is the law regarding one who is engaged in a mitzva? The matter depends on the various positions that we saw above: If the first mitzva absolutely cancels out the second obligation, turning it into a mere optional act, it stands to reason that the person should not be considered as a person under obligation. If, however, the second mitzva is still regarded as a mitzva act, albeit non-obligatory, it seems that he should be able to recite the compensatory prayer. The Taz and the Derisha disagree on this point:

 

In Yore De'a, sec. 341, no. 2, [the Shulchan Arukh] writes that someone whose close relative died on Shabbat should not recite the evening prayer on Motzaei Shabbat, and in the morning he is not obligated to pray twice in order to compensate for the evening prayer, for its time has already passed. This cannot be compared to the case where a person forgot to recite the evening prayer who must pray twice in the morning, because [here] he had not been obligated to pray at night. Thus far, the words [of the Shulchan Arukh]. And the Derisha writes there: From here it would seem that the same law applies to one who is occupied with public affairs or the like at prayer time and is [therefore] exempt from prayer, as the Tur says in sec. 93, and over the course of his occupation, the time for that prayer passed. He too is not required to make it up during the next time of prayer, praying twice, one for compensation, because at the time of his occupation he too was exempt from prayer, as in the case of mourning. For what difference is there between mourning and occupation in a mitzva? And it seems to me that it is all the more so, for in the case of public affairs, he also engages in the service of God. Thus far, the words [of the Derisha]. I question whether these words issued forth from the mouth of that righteous man. For anyone who falls into the category of ones (circumstances beyond a person's control) is exempt from prayer, and here it is explicitly stated that if a person is prevented [from praying] because of ones, he prays twice [at the next prayer service]. And furthermore it is written in the Terumat ha-Deshen, no. 5, regarding one who was occupied with an official because of a debt, and he was unable to excuse himself without suffering a financial loss, and in the meantime the time for prayer passed, that this is called ones, even though it was on account of money, and afterwards he prays twice [at the next prayer service]. Here you have it stated explicitly that even though he had been exempt at the time of prayer because of his affairs, it is called ones. And the same applies to one who is exempt because of the trouble of the mitzva of [involvement in] public affairs. For the entire reasoning of the Terumat ha-Deshen's responsum is that it is regarded like the trouble of a mitzva. And so the view of the author of the Derisha is contradicted. And there is no comparison to the exemption of mourning, for there he can pray for he is doing nothing, but the Sages exempted him, and therefore there is no room for compensatory prayer, because that is not called ones, but rather an exemption, which is not the case here. For here there is no exemption, but rather ones, for he was unable to pray, because he had no time. He is like a sick person who is unable to pray or a drunkard. All this is called ones, since he himself is obligated, and for this they enacted a compensatory prayer. In my humble opinion, this is obvious. (Taz, Orach Chayyim 108:1)

 

            Let us now examine the status of a person who is exempt from a certain mitzva because of the law governing one who is already engaged in a mitzva, but nevertheless he chooses to be stringent and performs the mitzva. Let us assume that the performance of the second mitzva did not come at the expense of the first mitzva, and that even in such a case, the person is exempt, as argued by the Ran. As stated above, the Ran's wording implies that in such a case the person fulfills the mitzva, whereas the Ritva seems to be saying that his action is regarded as optional conduct (for our purposes it is immaterial that according to the Ritva the exemption does not apply in such a situation). To clarify this question, we must relate to three possible practical ramifications:

 

1) When the person is no longer engaged in the first mitzva, will he be obligated to perform the second mitzva a second time, or perhaps he fulfilled his obligation when he performed the mitzva at a time that he enjoyed an exemption. The Shulchan Arukh in Hilkhot Pesach 475:5) writes (following the Gemara in Rosh ha-Shana 28a): "If a person ate an olive-sized portion of matza during a period that he suffered from madness, and then he recovered, he is obligated to eat [another portion of matza] after he has recovered, because his [original] eating was at a time that he was exempt from all the mitzvot." For our purposes, the question is whether a person who is engaged in a mitzva is removed from other mitzvot as is a madman, or basically he is connected to the mitzvot, but enjoys an exemption.

 

2) Is a person who is engaged in a mitzva permitted to recite a blessing over the second mitzva? Ashkenazim rule in accordance with the view of Rabbenu Tam, according to which a woman is permitted to recite a blessing over time-bound positive precepts, despite the fact that she is exempt from them, based on the assumption that her action is regarded as a religiously significant act, despite the exemption. Does the same apply to one who is engaged in a mitzva?

 

3) If one is already engaged in a mitzva but decides to perform a different mitzva, can he perform that second mitzva on behalf of others, e.g., shofar blowing or the like? The Gemara in Rosh ha-Shana 29a states that a man who is obligated in shofar can discharge the obligation of others even if he himself has already fulfilled his own obligation, this being based on the law of arevut, mutual responsibility. A woman, on the other hand, cannot discharge the obligation of other men, even if she had not yet heard the shofar blowing. While a woman has an advantage over a man who has already blown for himself, in that according to Rabbenu Tam she can recite a blessing for herself, as opposed to the man who cannot, she also has a disadvantage, in that she is not regarded as a person who is obligated in the mitzva and so she cannot discharge the obligation of others. Returning to our issue, is a person who is already engaged in a mitzva regarded as a person who is obligated in the second mitzva?

 

The Maharach Or Zarua (Responsa, no. 183) addresses these last two questions:

 

Young men traveling to study Torah are exempt from all mitzvot as long as they are in their master's house, like Rav Chisda and Rabba bar Rav Huna who were exempt as long as they had not yet heard the lecture. Nevertheless, if they wish to recite a blessing over tzitzit and tefilin, they may do so, just like women. For Rabbenu Tam, of blessed memory, ruled that women may recite a blessing over any time-bound positive commandment. And, therefore, they can blow shofar for those who are obligated [in that mitzva]. And we do not say that someone who is exempt, even by rabbinic law, cannot come and discharge the obligation of someone who is obligated, for all of Israel are responsible for one another. As it is stated in Rosh ha-Shana that regarding all blessings, even though a person has already fulfilled his own obligation, he can discharge the obligation of others.

 

The Maharach Or Zarua bases his position on the model of the status of women with respect to time-bound positive mitzvot, according to Rabbenu Tam. Thus, he understands that here too there exists an intermediate level: fulfillment of a mitzva on the level of one who is not commanded about it, but yet fulfills it. As opposed to women, however, here we are dealing with men who in and of themselves are bound by the mitzva under discussion, and therefore they can even discharge the obligation of others.[2] The Maharach Or Zarua does not explicitly relate to the first question, but it is reasonable to assume that he would say that a person can fulfill his obligation even at a time that he is exempt, because his action has the quality of a mitzva-act.

 

The Mishna Berura also deals with these questions, but I fail to understand what he says, and therefore I would be very grateful to anyone who proposes an explanation of his words. As mentioned above, the Shulchan Arukh in Hilkhot Pesach writes: "If a person ate an olive-sized portion of matza during a period that he suffered from madness, and then he recovered, he is obligated to eat [another portion of matza] after he has recovered, because his [original] eating was at a time that he was exempt from all the mitzvot." The Mishna Berura explains (no. 39): "He means to say that he was then in the category of a madman, and not a man." In his Sha'ar Tziyun, he adds:

 

To the exclusion of one who is watching over a found object or guarding a corpse. Even though such a person is also exempt from all the mitzvot, if he ate matza, he has fulfilled his obligation, because he is a man, only that then he was not obligated by the Torah, since he was engaged in a different mitzva. Nevertheless, I am in doubt whether he can then recite the blessing over eating matza, "who has sanctified us in his commandments, and commanded us, etc.," for at that time he is not commanded.

 

            It is clear to the Mishna Berura, that if a person who was already engaged in a mitzva ate matza, he is not obligated to eat matza a second time. This assumption is not self-evident, for according to the Ritva, what he did then falls into the category of optional behavior having no religious value, and it is difficult to say that such behavior can constitute the fulfillment of his obligation. Also according to the Maharach Or Zarua, his eating falls into the category of "one who is not commanded regarding a mitzva, but yet fulfills it," and it is by no means obvious that he should not be obligated to fulfill the mitzva a second time as "one who is commanded regarding a mitzva and fulfills it." The Mishna Berura must understand, in contrast to these positions, that the person's action has the status of a religious act, despite the fact that he is not commanded to perform it. But if this is the case, how can he say that a blessing may not be recited over such an action? Surely it is an action through which the person fulfills his obligation!

 

FOOTNOTES:

 

[1] The Rambam (Hilkhot Sukka 6:4) makes not the slightest allusion to the forced explanation of the Tosafot. Further study is required to determine whether or not he later retracted the position that he had put forward in his commentary to Avot.

 

[2] The Meiri in Berakhot 17b records a dispute about this question: "[An onen who is exempt from all other obligations owing to his anxiety about the mitzva of burial that falls upon him] does not recite the Ha-motzi blessing. That is to say, he is not required to recite the Ha-motzi blessing for himself. Some explain that if he recited the blessing, other people cannot fulfill their obligation with it, since he is exempt. Nevertheless, it seems to me, that bedieved, they fulfill their obligation."

 

 

            In our next shiur, we will deal with the law of mitzta'er and "dwelling similar to ordinary residence." Please review the Gemara, p. 25b, and especially, "Ve-amar Rabbi Abba bar Zavda amar Rav: Avel chayyav be-sukkaiba'I lei le-yituvei da'atei"; and continue on p. 26a, "Tanu rabbanan: Shomerei ha-ir… mitzta'er hu patur meshamshav lo"; [29a, "Tanu rabbanan: Haya okhel be-sukka ve-yaredu… amud ha-shachar"].

Additional sources:

 

1.         Mordekhai, sec. 740, "De'amar Rava…," and marginal stricture; Rosh, 7; Rashi, 25b, s.v. tza'ara demimela.

 

2.         [Shulchan Arukh 640:4-5; Taz, nos. 7-8].

 

3.         Tosafot 26a, s.v. holkhei; Ritva 26a, s.v. pirtza, "u-mai de-darshinan be-khol dukhta"; Ritva 28b, s.v. Rava, "ve-yesh lish'ol."

 

4.         Shomerei ganot u-pardesim – Rashi; Shitat Ribav (12a in Alfasi), "Abaye amar… bein ba-laila"; Ritva, s.v. tanu rabbanan, shomerei, pirtza; Ran 12a, s.v. Rava amar.

 

5.         [Rema, 639:7; Be'ur Halakha, s.v. ve-khol, s.v. hedyotot; Be'ur Halakha, beginning of sec. 640].

 

 

(Translated by David Strauss)