Avoiding Obsessing Over Mitzvos
In our Gemara on Amud Aleph, we encounter a compelling argument regarding the use of Temple vestments by a Cohen for personal purposes. The Gemara boldly states:
“שֶׁלֹּא נִיתְּנָה תּוֹרָה לְמַלְאֲכֵי הַשָּׁרֵת.”
“The Torah was not given to the ministering angels.” That is to say, since it would be impossible to calculate the precise moment when the service was finished, expecting the Cohen to immediately disrobe, we just conclude the Torah allows the vestments to be worn for personal benefit too.
This argument, found in various areas of halakha, reminds us that when certain technical requirements of a mitzvah (commandment) or prohibition seem unattainable, we must seek alternative interpretations. Beyond the realm of halakha, this concept serves as a moral and theological reminder not to fall into the trap of obsessive perfectionism when it comes to mitzvos and halakha.
A powerful example is found in Sichos Haran (235) and Likkutei Moharan (II:44), which states:
וְאָמַר אָז: “שֶׁאִיתָא: שֶׁרָאוּי לְכָל אָדָם שֶׁיִּבְחַר לְעַצְמוֹ מִצְוָה אַחַת, שֶׁבְּאוֹתָהּ הַמִּצְוָה יְדַקְדֵּק הַרְבֵּה וִיקַיֵּם אוֹתָהּ הַמִּצְוָה עִם כָּל הַחֻמְרוֹת וְהַדִּקְדּוּקִים, (וּכְעֵין שֶׁמָּצִינוּ בַּגְּמָרָא (שַׁבָּת קיח:): ‘אָבִיךָ בְּמַאי זָהִיר טְפֵי’ וְכוּ’).”
The Rebbe also emphasized, “It is written that every person should choose one observance and observe it meticulously, paying attention to all its nuances. The Talmud alludes to this when Rabbi Joseph asks Rabbah’s son, ‘With what observance was your father most careful?’ (Shabbos 118b).”
“וְאַף עַל פִּי כֵן, גַּם בְּאוֹתָהּ הַמִּצְוָה, אַל יִכְנֹס בְּחֻמְרוֹת שֶׁל שִׁגָּעוֹן וּשְׁטוּת וּמָרָה שְׁחוֹרוֹת, רַק יְדַקְדֵּק בָּהּ בְּלִי שִׁגָּעוֹן בְּכָל הַחֻמְרוֹת.”
“Even in this observance, one should not become overly stringent to the point of foolishness. Certainly, do not let it lead to depression. Simply observe all its finer points without fanaticism.”
“אֲבָל בִּשְׁאָר כָּל הַמִּצְווֹת אֵין צְרִיכִין לְהַחְמִיר כְּלָל. וְהַלְוַאי שֶׁנִּזְכֶּה לְקַיֵּם אֶת כָּל מִצְווֹת הַתּוֹרָה כִּפְשׁוּטָן מַמָּשׁ בְּלִי שׁוּם חֻמְרוֹת.”
“However, when it comes to other mitzvos, there’s no need for unnecessary strictness. It would be sufficient if we observed them according to the law, without adding unnecessary restrictions.”
וְגַם בְּעִנְיַן הַחֻמְרוֹת יְתֵרוֹת בְּפֶסַח לֹא הָיָה מַסְכִּים כְּלָל עַל הַמַּרְבִּים לְדַקְדֵּק יוֹתֵר מִדַּאי וְנִכְנָסִים בְּמָרָה שְׁחוֹרוֹת גְּדוֹלוֹת. וְהֶאֶרִיךְ בְּשִׂיחָה זוֹ אָז, כִּי אִישׁ אֶחָד מֵאֲנָשֵׁינוּ שָׁאַל לוֹ ז”ל שְׁאֵלָה אַחַת בְּעִנְיַן אֵיזֶה חֻמְרָה בְּפֶסַח ‘אֵיךְ לְהִתְנַהֵג?’. וְאָז הִתְלוֹצֵץ מִמֶּנּוּ מְאֹד.
The Rebbe was also very much against all the special stringencies that are observed on Pesach. Many people go so far in observing many fine points of custom that they are literally depressed by the holiday. He spoke about this at length. One of his followers once asked the Rebbe exactly how to act with regard to an ultra-stringent observance. The Rebbe made a joke of it.
וְהִרְבָּה לְדַבֵּר מֵעִנְיַן זֶה – שֶׁאֵין צְרִיכִין לְחַפֵּשׂ אַחַר חֻמְרוֹת יְתֵרוֹת וְשִׁגָּעוֹן וּבִלְבּוּלִים. וְאָמַר שֶׁהוּא בְּעַצְמוֹ גַּם כֵּן כְּבָר הָיָה שָׁקוּעַ בְּעִנְיָן זֶה מְאֹד שֶׁהָיוּ עוֹלִים עַל דַּעְתּוֹ חֻמְרוֹת יְתֵרוֹת מְאֹד מְאֹד.
The Rebbe spoke about this quite often. He said that these ultra-strict practices are nothing more than confused foolishness. He told us that he had also been caught up in this and would waste much time thinking up all sorts of unnecessary restrictions.
[Blogger’s note: It appears as if in his younger years, he suffered from something analogous to OCD.]
וּפַעַם אֶחָד הָיָה חוֹשֵׁב מַחֲשָׁבוֹת בְּעִנְיַן הַמַּיִם עַל פֶּסַח שֶׁחָשַׁשׁ שֶׁמָּא יֵשׁ אֵיזֶה מַשֶּׁהוּ בַּמַּיִם שֶׁשּׁוֹאֲבִין. וְאִם יָכִין לוֹ מַיִם עַל כָּל יְמֵי הַפֶּסַח כְּמוֹ שֶׁנּוֹהֲגִין קְצָת, גַּם זֶה לֹא הוּטַב בְּעֵינָיו, כִּי קָשֶׁה לִשְׁמֹר הֵיטֵב הַמַּיִם מֵעֶרֶב פֶּסַח עַל כָּל יְמֵי הַפֶּסַח.
Once he worried about the drinking water used during Pesach. He was afraid that a small amount of leaven might have fallen into the well from which they drew water. The only alternative would be to prepare water in advance for the entire Pesach week, as some people do. But this also was not good enough, for the water had to be carefully safeguarded from leaven from the day before Pesach, and this was very difficult.
וְלֹא הוּטַב בְּעֵינָיו שׁוּם מַיִם, רַק מֵי מַעְיָן הַנּוֹבְעִים וְיוֹצְאִים וְהוֹלְכִים וּבָאִים מַיִם חֲדָשִׁים בְּכָל עֵת. אֲבָל בְּמָקוֹם שֶׁהוּא ז”ל הָיָה יוֹשֵׁב לֹא הָיָה שׁוּם מַעְיָן כָּזֶה, וְהָיָה בְּדַעְתּוֹ לִנְסֹעַ עַל פֶּסַח לְמָקוֹם שֶׁיֵּשׁ שָׁם מֵי מַעְיָן כָּזֶה, כָּל כָּךְ נִכְנַס בְּחֻמְרוֹת וּמָרָה שְׁחוֹרוֹת וְדִקְדּוּקִים יְתֵרִים.
The Rebbe finally came to the conclusion that the only satisfactory water would be that drawn from a flowing spring, just as it emerges from the ground. He could then obtain perfectly fresh water without any possibility of its being contaminated. The problem was that the only such spring in the area was very far from his home. He thought about traveling to a place near a spring and spending Pesach there. This is an example of how deeply the Rebbe had become involved in such unnecessary strictness.
אֲבָל עַכְשָׁו הוּא מִתְלוֹצֵץ מִזֶּה, כִּי אֵין צְרִיכִין לְחַפֵּשׂ אַחַר חֻמְרוֹת יְתֵרוֹת, אֲפִלּוּ בְּפֶסַח.
But now he ridiculed this and taught that such ultra-strictness is unnecessary, even on Pesach.
וְהֶאֱרִיךְ בְּשִׂיחָה זוֹ הַרְבֵּה אָז, כִּי עִקַּר הָעֲבוֹדָה בֶּאֱמֶת הוּא: תְּמִימוּת וּפְשִׁיטוּת, לְהַרְבּוֹת בְּתוֹרָה וּתְפִלָּה וּמַעֲשִׂים טוֹבִים, בְּלִי לְחַפֵּשׂ לְחַדֵּשׁ דַּוְקָא חֻמְרוֹת יְתֵרוֹת. רַק לֵילֵךְ בְּדֶרֶךְ אֲבוֹתֵינוּ הַקַּדְמוֹנִים. וְלֹא נִתְּנָה הַתּוֹרָה לְמַלְאֲכֵי הַשָּׁרֵת.
When the Rebbe spoke about this, he continued, “True devotion consists mainly of simplicity and sincerity. Pray much, study much Torah, do many good deeds. Do not worry yourself with unnecessary restrictions. Just follow the way of our forefathers. ‘The Torah was not given to the ministering angels.’
וְהֶאֱרִיךְ בָּזֶה עוֹד. וְאָמַר אָז שֶׁאֵין שׁוּם דָּבָר שֶׁיִּהְיֶה חִיּוּב בְּדַוְקָא וְאִם לָאו וְכוּ’. רַק אִם יוּכַל – יוּכַל וְאִם לָאו – אֹנֶס רַחֲמָנָא פַּטְרֵהּ (וּכְבָר מְבֹאָר זֹאת בְּמָקוֹם אַחֵר).
The Rebbe spoke at length along these lines, concluding, “There is nothing that you absolutely must do and if not…. [blogger’s note:I believe he does not finish the sentence on purpose so as not explicitly sanction sin, but he means to say, “If you can’t, we’ll then you cannot”] …. Rather, If you can, fine, but if not, ‘God exempts a person under extreme duress and factors beyond his control’” (Bava Kama 28b; see “His Wisdom” #14, #27).
In conclusion, the Rebbe’s guidance offers a valuable perspective on resisting excessive piety driven by guilt or fear. True devotion and stringencies should stem from a genuine desire to express love and dedication to the Creator, leading to happiness and satisfaction. When considering additional religious stringencies, ask yourself, “Does this contribute to happiness and contentment for myself and those around me?”
Extralegal and Legal Actions and Intentions
Our Gemara on Amud Beis considers the moral and halakhic dilemma of what to do if by violating a minor prohibition, one can accomplish a great merit. Our Gemara discusses the case of an animal found in Yerushalayim, which is assumed to have been dedicated for a sacrifice. Since it is of unknown designation, it cannot be brought as is on the altar, as each sacrifice has different procedures. Redeeming a non-blemished animal is forbidden, but the transaction would be binding. Thus, one might think he could redeem this animal in order to include the money in the purchase of a variety of sacrifices that it might have been, so as to accomplish its original purpose. Even though this would be a great merit to the original owner who has lost his animal, Rabbi Yochanan rules that it is not permitted to commit even a minor violation for the large merit of another.
However, this would seem to contradict a different Gemara (Eiruvin 32b), where Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi states that it is preferable for a sage to commit a minor sin of tithing on non-adjacent produce in order to protect a less observant Am Haaretz, who will buy the produce, and possibly neglect to tithe.
Rashba (Shabbos 4a, and Tosafos Eiruvin 32b) quotes Rabbenu Tam who draws a distinction between the case in Eiruvin and the case in our Gemara. In our Gemara, the person who found the animal had no hand in the mishap, therefore he has no obligation to even commit a minor sin to forestall the other person’s loss. However, in the case of Eiruvin, since the produce originally belonged to the sage, he has more of an obligation to prevent the sin of the Am Haaretz and should tithe even from non-adjacent produce.
Yismach Moshe (Ki Tisa 3) uses this principle to explain Yaakov’s behavior in running away from Esau, via a complex halakhic and moral calculus. He first discusses the halakhic dispute between Rambam and Rabbenu Yerucham as to whether one can voluntarily martyr himself instead of violating a prohibition, even if it is not one of the three sins of idolatry, sexual immorality, and murder. Rambam rules one is not allowed, while Rabbenu Yerucham permits it. He also concludes that an exceedingly pious person is expected to martyr himself even so as not to violate a positive commandment (See Shulkhan Arukh YD 157:1, Rama, and Shach 157:1). Based on this assumption, Yismach Moshe wonders how Yaakov could have abrogated his obligation to honor his parents by running away, even if his life was in danger. A tzaddik of Yaakov’s proportion should have been willing to risk martyrdom in order to not lose out on even a single mitzvah, let alone a major one such as honoring parents.
Yismach Moshe’s answer is that since Yaakov had a hand in Esau’s murderous rage, he also was obligated to commit a relatively minor violation instead of the possibility of Esau committing murder.
This is a clever use of the principles we discussed, but one must wonder why Yismach Moshe didn’t utilize a simpler and more logical argument: If Yaakov would give up his life, ironically to fulfill the mitzvah of honoring his parents, how would this ultimately be his parents’ will? Would they rather a dead son, who might have been able to have a bit more time to honor them, or a live son living safely far away?
The answer to this lies in the depth of legalisms in halakhic and ethical thinking. Do we allow obvious moral considerations to enter into our evaluation of the strict letter of the law? For example, technically Yaakov was obligated in the mitzvah of honoring parents no different than any other mitzvah, such as shaking a Lulav (Assuming the Avos kept the Torah, see Yoma 28b). If so, would he be allowed to reason that paradoxically if he stayed around to fulfill honoring his parents, they would suffer more grief from his death? Or, is that irrelevant to his personal obligation to fulfill the mitzvah? While this thinking seems overly legalistic and counterintuitive, halakha is, in fact, legal, and law is about compliance as much as the spirit of the law.
There is a similar example regarding a tragic Talmudic story of Rabbi Rechumi and his wife (Kesuvos 62b):
כִּי הָא דְּרַב רְחוּמִי הֲוָה שְׁכִיחַ קַמֵּיהּ דְּרָבָא בְּמָחוֹזָא, הֲוָה רְגִיל דַּהֲוָה אָתֵי לְבֵיתֵיהּ כֹּל מַעֲלֵי יוֹמָא דְכִיפּוּרֵי. יוֹמָא חַד מְשַׁכְתֵּיהּ שְׁמַעְתָּא. הֲוָה מְסַכְּיָא דְּבֵיתְהוּ: הַשְׁתָּא אָתֵי, הַשְׁתָּא אָתֵי. לָא אֲתָא. חֲלַשׁ דַּעְתַּהּ, אַחִית דִּמְעֲתָא מֵעֵינַהּ. הֲוָה יָתֵיב בְּאִיגָּרָא, אִפְּחִית אִיגָּרָא מִתּוּתֵיהּ וְנָח נַפְשֵׁיהּ.
This is as it is related about Rav Reḥumi, who would commonly study before Rava in Meḥoza: He was accustomed to come back to his home every year on the eve of Yom Kippur. One day he was particularly engrossed in the halakha he was studying, and so he remained in the study hall and did not go home. His wife was expecting him that day and continually said to herself: Now he is coming, now he is coming. But in the end, he did not come. She was distressed by this, and a tear fell from her eye. At that exact moment, Rav Reḥumi was sitting on the roof. The roof collapsed under him, and he died. This teaches how much one must be careful, as he was punished severely for causing anguish to his wife, even inadvertently.
The ironic and obvious question here is how did this punishment vindicate Rav Rechumi’s wife? Not only did she have no husband for this Yom Kippur, but she now also became a widow? We must consider that despite the illogic of this, Rav Rechumi was punished for the sin of neglecting his wife, and that sin was independent of her own wishes though obviously related in a moral sense.
To understand Torah, one must appreciate that it operates on two levels. There is the law, which is about rules, and then the deeper meanings, purposes, and intentions. Though arguably the most important part of the Torah is the intention and spiritual content, the law is still the law.
Our Gemara in Amud Beis uses a derash to derive that mixed species in the vineyard are forbidden to benefit from.
בְּכִלְאֵי הַכֶּרֶם מְנָלַן? אָמַר חִזְקִיָּה: אָמַר קְרָא: ״פֶּן תִּקְדַּשׁ״ – פֶּן תּוּקַד אֵשׁ.
From where do we derive that one is prohibited from deriving benefit from diverse kinds in a vineyard? Ḥizkiyya said: The verse states: “You shall not sow your vineyard with diverse kinds; lest the growth of the seed that you have sown be forbidden [pen tikdash], together with the yield of the vineyard” (Deuteronomy 22:9). Ḥizkiyya makes a play on words, “lest the growth of the seed that you have sown be forbidden [pen tikdash]” as: Lest it be burned [pen tukad esh], indicating that the seed of diverse kinds must be destroyed by fire, so that no benefit is derived from it.
The Chida (Chomas Anakh Devarim 22:9 and Rosh Dovid Ki Tetze 10) discusses a different kind of mixed species by metaphor. The Torah is like a vineyard, and by metaphor, this prohibition also reminds us that we too must be careful not to mix sin into our performance of mitzvos. He gives common examples such as giving Tzedaka while berating or degrading the person, or celebrating the joys of Shabbos while discussing profane matters at the Shabbos
As a counterpoint to what we discussed in yesterday’s Daf Kiddushin 35, here one must be sensitive to the spirit of the law and not merely the legality. Be careful not to undermine or contaminate a mitzvah with other sinful behavior. This also relates to what we discussed earlier in Psychology of the Daf Kiddushin 53, that one should avoid quarrels about the performance of a mitzvah, even if that means withdrawing from the effort. The ways in which a person’s arrogance and ego can interfere and undermine faithfulness are infinite, and we must always be on guard when we become too zealous about “the principle of the thing.”