5769 - #31



There are times that a rabbi may have to confront an individual who, for serious health reasons, must eat on Yom Kippur, yet is adamantly refusing to partake of any nourishment on this day. It may be an elderly person who has fasted for many years on this day and finds even the very thought of eating on Yom Kippur abhorrent. To such an individual, the sentiment may be that his/her very identity, as a devoted Jew, is being challenged by this call to eat on this holy day. What can the rabbi say to make this person more amenable to the actual halachic requirement to eat on this day for the sake of his/her health? What can the rabbi offer to ease the pain of guilt that this person is feeling from even the consideration of eating on Yom Kippur?

            The approach that is often taken in such a situation – one that is really, quite straightforward, reflecting an essential teaching within Jewish thought – is to explain that one must recognize that the essence of a mitzvah is not the specific action that is undertaken but rather that it is the observance of the Will of God. This elderly or ill individual is called upon to recognize that the very value of fasting on Yom Kippur is not the fasting, per se, but rather that one is abiding by God’s mitzvot. As such, when one is called upon to eat on Yom Kippur, one must recognize that it is the very same presentation of the Will of God, as enunciated through the Halacha, which is now directing this person to eat. For this person, the rabbi explains, the mitzvah is now to eat and the proper fulfillment of Yom Kippur is in the partaking of nourishment. The same way the person was devoted to the observance of Yom Kippur in the past through fasting, the person now must show his/her devotion through eating. This explanation often accomplishes its objective.

            The events leading to the establishment of Pesach Sheni,1 however, would seem to challenge the premise upon which this explanation is built. In this case, individuals who were not able to bring the korban Pesach, the Paschal Sacrifice, complained to Moshe Rabbeinu because they were barred from bringing the korban because they were tamei, ritually impure. But why were they upset; they were following the halacha that someone tamei cannot bring a sacrifice?2 If we maintain that a specific action is not what is ultimately significant but, rather, it is that one is observing the Will of God that is important, these individuals were clearly doing this. One would thus think that rather than bemoaning the fact that they could not participate in the mitzvah of bringing a korban Pesach, they should have found solace and value in the fact that they were observing another mitzvah that a person who is tamei should not offer a sacrifice. The fact that these individuals were upset would seem to imply that there is specific value in the performance of an action associated with a mitzvah. And the fact that God acquiesced to their request and created Pesach Sheni would seem to show that He also agreed with this perception that even though they were acting in full accord with the Halacha, they nevertheless did lose out in not performing this specific act of bringing the korban Pesach.

            Of course, even within this general theory that promotes a focus on the essence of a mitzvah as the fulfillment on the Divine Will and not, necessarily, a specific action, we can still understand a distinction in desire between two possible alternatives. For example, in considering the different circumstances that generate the divergent halachic requirements, we could understand a wish for a situation that would yield the more normative behaviour. Given a choice of being well thereby fasting on Yom Kippur and being ill thereby having to eat on Yom Kippur, we could understand how the former would be preferred. Similarly, we could understand individuals praying not to be tamei at the time of the bringing of the korban Pesach in order to be able to fulfill the Divine Will in a certain way rather than another. But that was not the case with Pesach Sheni; these individuals had already fulfilled the Divine Will, just not in bringing the korban.

            We also could understand a critique of individuals who take action to place themselves in a situation where they cannot legally fulfill an initial command. For example, there are limitations on what a person can do in the three days before Shabbat lest this behaviour leads to a situation on Shabbat that would halachically demand a violation of Shabbat.3 Similarly, we could understand if these individuals requesting another chance to perform the korban Pesach were motivated by repentance if they incorrectly made themselves tamei. That was not the case, though. While T.B. Succah 25a,b may present a disagreement as to the exact mitzvah that they performed that made them tamei and thereby unable to bring the korban Pesach, everyone agrees that they were involved in doing a mitzvah. They, effectively, could not bring the korban Pesach because they were obeying the Word of God in regard to another matter. They were doing the Will of God, so why were they upset about not bringing the korban Pesach?

            The result is that there must be something about a ma’aseh hamitzvah, the action of a mitzvah, which makes this action, in itself, significant. The challenge is in how to reconcile this value with this other value that indicates that the significance of a mitzvah is in its simple expression as the Will of God. The articulation of this value actually would seem to imply that the exact nature and/or details of an act are not of essential importance. What is important is the desire to follow and the implementation of the Will of God. While of somewhat of a different nature, the famous words of T.B. Menachot 110a, whether one brings much as a sacrifice or a little the key is the direction of one’s heart to Heaven, would seem to be most apropos. And indeed, when we consider the relationship and response of the Divine, this would seem to be correct. The Divine response to the ill person who believes that he/she is following God’s Will through eating on Yom Kippur and the well person who believes that he/she is following this Will through fasting is, no doubt, the same. Yet, in this world, actions do matter. There are natural consequences, in our emotions and our psyche, to our actions. The one who participates in the remarkable, communal event of the korban Pesach clearly is affected by the experience. Within the context of this world and the affect of actions upon our present being, actions clearly do matter. This is something we can see and measure. As such, notwithstanding that they were involved in another mitzvah and, in terms of the Divine, they were on the same footing as the ones who brought the korban Pesach, these people were concerned. They missed this event and the potential positive effects of being involved in such a communal gathering. Could this be corrected?

            Rabbi Benjamin Hecht



1 Bamidbar 9:6-

2 This is a general rule, although there are exceptions such as when most of the nation is tamei and the Halacha then permits the korban can be brought in tumah.

3 See, further, Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim c. 248, although other considerations than the one presented here may also be involved in this law. See, further, the introduction to this chapter in the Mishneh Brura.

 (c) Nishma, 2009


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