There is much evidence to support an assertion that the focus of Torah is on behaviour. We would be grossly mistaken, though, to assume therefore that the Torah is, thus, solely concerned with action. It is not simply that the Torah also speaks to beliefs and ideas. Action itself is not deemed to exist in a vacuum; the thought that accompanies an action can actually have great significance in how the Torah looks at and defines the behaviour. It is not simply about what you do. It is also about what is in your mind when you perform the action. It is not simply about the end for the means to the end are also vitally important – and if these means are problematic, it may suggest that the end itself is unacceptable as well.
The most basic concept that may reflect this idea that the focus is not solely on action is that of mitzvot tzrichot kevana, that for an action to count as a fulfillment of a mitzvah requirement it must be done with the proper intent.1 T.B. Rosh Hashanah 28a,b raises this question in regard to the mitzvah of blowing shofar on Rosh Hashanah, discussing whether a person must have the proper intent in order to have fulfilled the command or whether the simple action of blowing2 is enough. The fact is that, while there were divergent halachic opinions on this question in Talmudic times, Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 589:8 clearly concludes that one who does not blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah with the intent to thereby fulfill the Divine obligation to do so has not fulfilled his obligation.3 The action by itself is not enough. It must be accompanied by the thought that one thereby is fulfilling a mitzvah.
Another example that indicates that the theoretical knowledge behind the performance of a halachic action is of necessary significance could be the parameters of the prohibition of bal tosif, not to add onto the Torah commands,4 as defined by Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Mamrim 2:9. The simple question is: if there is a prohibition to create new mitzvot and add on to the laws of the Torah, how could the Rabbis have made the many laws that they did and how can we follow these various halachot?5 Rambam’s response is that the prohibition is only applicable when one assigns Biblical propriety to a Rabbinic command. If the law, for example, prohibiting the eating of chicken and milk together is presented as having Biblical force, then we have a violation of bal tosif. If one, however, recognizes that it is Biblically permitted to eat chicken and milk together but that the Rabbis prohibited this mixture, and then he/she acts accordingly, there is no violation. Again in this case, the nature of the mitzvah is not solely defined by action but, rather, the accompanying thought is most important. An incorrect understanding of the force of law in this case may even result in an action of mitzvah becoming sinful.
The thought that is connected to an action may also halachically impact on how another is to respond to a person’s actions. Sifri, Re’eh 120 states that if a person, for the purpose of improving one’s piety, undertakes a more stringent behaviour not required by the actual law,6 out of respect for this attempt at furthering one’s Torah growth, another should not act pursuant to the more permissible, actual halachic standard in front of this person. Torah Temima, Devarim 14:20, note 35, however, writes that this specifically only applies when this person is acting in this more restrictive manner for reasons of personal Torah growth. In other words, this respectful consideration is only to be applied when the person undertaking this stringency knows that according to the actual law this behaviour is not demanded. In such a case, we should show such respect. If, however, this person believes that this stringent behaviour is actually the halachically demanded correct behaviour, there is no need to refrain from undertaking the more lenient position in front of him/her. Respect is that case may not be appropriate; in fact, it may even be proper to observe your own leniencies in front of this person in order to correct the mistaken impression that the more stringent behaviour is the one absolutely demanded by law.7 This is another example that Torah is not solely about the action but that we must also be cognizant of the thoughts that accompany an action. The halachic reasons and motivations for any behaviour are most significant. In this case, we are being told that the respect that is due in regard to another’s actions may even be dependent on these accompanying thoughts.
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht
1 In this regard, proper intent is deemed to be the intent to perform this action because it is so commanded by God and that one is so acting in order to fulfill this obligation. See, for example, Rashi, Rosh Hashanah 28a, d.h. she’kaph’u’hu.
2 We speak of blowing the shofar, even though most people fulfill the command through listening to a blown shofar, as this is the base case in the gemara. Also, while the same basic principle also does apply to hearing the sounds of the shofar, there are further complications involved in fulfilling the mitzvah through listening which could possibly misdirect us in this basic discussion – so it is best to simply just speak of blowing. The fact is, though, that the case of fulfilling this mitzvah through listening actually presents other examples of the halachic principle that indicates that one’s thoughts play an important role in the definition of a mitzvah action. The presentation of these further examples, however, is not necessary for our discussion.
3 See, further, Mishneh Brura 15.
4 Devarim 13:1. See, further, Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 454 and Encyclopedia Talmudit 3:326-330. It may be of interest to note that the presentation in this latter source actually begins with a discussion of how this prohibition connects with the concept of mitzvot tzrichot kevana. Let us say that it is a violation of bal tosif to blow shofar on a day that is not Rosh Hashanah for one is thereby adding a new mitzvah. If, however, for the blowing of a shofar to be considered a mitzvah on Rosh Hashanah, there is a need for kevana, would it not now also be necessary to have such intent in order to violate bal tosif as such intent is necessary to define the action as a mitzvah? It is, again, not just about the action.
5 The question is actually a bit more complicated as there is also a positive commandment to follow the directions of the Rabbis and do whatever they may instruct. See Devarim 17:9-11. So we have one command which would seem to challenge an authority of Rabbinic legislation and one that would seem to fully support it. The result is a need for further clarification as to the exact parameters of this authority and power. We have simply touched briefly on this issue in this Insight.
6 The directive reflecting this idea is kadesh atzmecha b’mutar lach, sanctify yourself in what is permitted to you. See, further, Ramban, Vayikra 19:2. This concept is actually much more complicated than may be generally understood and does not mean that one should adopt any and all stringencies. It is, in fact, to be recognized as a factor in one’s personal growth plan, to be applied in consideration with other factors. The Sifri is, as such, informing us to be sensitive to the individualistic, Torah growth plans of others.
7 How this principle would apply in the actual reality of divergent halachic opinions is a matter for further investigation. The general parameters would seem to be, though, that if one presents his/her behaviour as the absolute requirement demanded of everyone, showing respect by adopting such behaviour in front of this person could be problematic. If, however, a person adopts a certain behaviour knowing full well that there are divergent opinions and that this reflects a personal choice, respect in acting similarly in front of this person may be appropriate.
© Nishma 2012
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