The Divrei Torah in this section have been translated by Rav Reuven Ungar, Director of Alumni Affairs
To What Degree Is One Obligated to Perform The Mitzvoth?- Part I
By: Rav Noam Koenigsberg
What does Judaism demand of us? Are we required to obey the precepts of the Torah in all contingencies? Where does the Master of the World "have mercy" upon us, and permit us to refrain from performing His will?
The gemara (Masechet Sanhedrin 74a) derives from the verse "and you shall live by them" (vechay bahem), that an individual is not required to forfeit his biological life to abstain from a transgression or to perform a commandment. The three exceptions to this rule (idolatry, sexual misconduct and murder) are derived from specific verses and empirical logic. The goal of this essay is to explore the degree to which one is required to fulfill the Mitzvoth- especially in the realms of financial and physical health.
The gemara in Masechet Bava Kama (9b) states: "Rav Asi, quoted Rabi Zera who quoted Rav Huna as saying that in a mitzvah one must extend himself to a third. How is a third determined? If it means a third of one's estate, then after three mitzvoth an individual will be bankrupt. Rather, as Rav Zera explains, one must beautify mitzvoth until a third."
What is the basis of the gemara that one is not required to sacrifice his financial assets to perform the Mitzvoth? As the Ra'avad asks, "do Mitzvoth have price tags?!" Additionally, we must clarify if this halacha is of a Biblical or rabbinic origin.
The Tosafot and other early commentators (the Ra'avad quoted in the Rashba, and the Rosh) opine that this halacha is linked to the enactment that originated in Usha. As the gemara mentions in Masechet Ketubot (50b), Rabi Ila'iy proclaimed: "In Usha it was instituted that one who spends money (for purposes of Tzedakah), may not spend (mevazbez, literally, waste) more than a fifth in order that he himself should not come to require assistance from fellow human beings. A promise made by Yaakov to Hashem is marshaled as proof- "and (from) all that You give me I will tithe a tithe for You". Two tithes equal 20%- thus one may not give more than a fifth of his assets to Tzedakah.
Although this source deals explicitly with Tzedakah, the above-mentioned commentators understand that it applies to all Mitzvoth. It is difficult to maintain that the derasha concerning the terminology of the tithes (aser a'asreinu lach) reveals a Biblical halacha (de'orayta). Rather, this seems to imply a rabbinic law, promoted with the aid of a quotation from the Torah (asmakhta).
Rabi Akiva Eiger quotes the Talmud Yerushalmi (the first chapter of Masechet Peah) that this halacha was forgotten and reinstated (thus the terminology of "instituted"-hitkeynu- is to be understood as re-instituted- chazru vehitkeynu). The question is what is the essential status of the halacha- Biblical or rabbinic?
Rav Chanoch Henich Eigess (in his work entitled the Marcheset) advances an alternative source for this halacha. The Talmud Yerushalmi (quoted by the Rosh and the Ran) quotes the verse in Mishlei (3:8) "honor Hashem from your wealth" (kabed et Hashem mehonecha). One is obliged to perform Mitzvoth exclusively if one is financially equipped to do so.
It appears that this source does not indicate the presence of a Biblically mandated commandment. Biblical halachot cannot be derived from words of the Prophet (divrei Torah medivrei Kabala, lo yalfinan).
The gemara in Masechet Arachin (28) quotes the opinion of Rabi Elazar (predicated on Vayikra 27:28) that one may not dedicate (machrim) all of one's livestock, gentile servants or inherited fields towards consecrated purposes (hekdesh). Rabi Elazar ben Azarya derives from this halacha the following: if for elevated purposes one may not totally relinquish his financial assets, certainly a person should exercise caution with his money. The gemara links the view of Rabi Elazar ben Azarya with the institution of Usha; forbidding one to donate more than a fifth to Tzedakah (the Rambam in Hilchot Arachin veCharamim 8:13 rules in accordance with this gemara and concludes that one may not spend more than a fifth in the realm of Mitzvoth). This halacha stems from a kal vachomer- thus implying a de'orayta status.
Thus, we have encountered three possible sources for the institution of Usha. Two sources indicate that the halacha is on a rabbinic level; the third suggests that it is of a Biblical status.
Be'ezrat Hashem in the next installment we will investigate further parameters of this halacha.
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