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Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Do I really need G-d to tell me to wash my hands before eating?

Sukkah 9

Joe is a proud Jew.  He comes to shul every Shabbos and enjoys davening.  He does Friday night with his family and loves the festivals.   But there’s one thing about Judaism that has always bothered him.   “Rabbi, I’m a good person with a good heart,” he tells me, “I don’t need the Torah to tell me to give charity.  I would give generously anyway.  And do you think that it’s going to change anything for my stingy neighbor, Jack, the fact that the Torah obligates him to give?  Either he will or he won’t!  What’s the point of having charity as a mitzvah?  G-d should’ve stuck to the religious stuff like Shabbos and kosher!”

The Mishnah asks: Do you need to build a sukkah for the sake of the festival of Sukkot?  What if you had a year-round pergola covered by branches that was technically valid as a sukkah, could you fulfil the mitzvah in it?  Beis Hillel says: no problem.  But according to Beis Shammai, it wouldn’t work.  Why not?

The Gemara discusses Scriptural nuances that might preclude a preexisting sukkah.  Tosfos  adds that there is a practical concern.  The Jerusalem Talmud has a similar discussion about the sukkah and continues on to the topic of matzah that was not baked for the sake of the festival. 

Ever wondered about that matzah you find in the store that says “Not Kosher for Passover”?  What’s the deal with that?  How can it be matzah if it is not kosher for Passover?   Rebbe explains that since it was manufactured for year-round consumption, you can be pretty certain that the bakers didn’t really pay much attention to keeping it leaven-free.

There’s matzah and there’s matzah.  There are sukkahs and there are sukkahs.  Rebbe’s point is that if we’re doing something without any obligation, without any consequences, then we’re not concerned about being lax or cutting corners.  After all, there are no negative implications to leaving that matzah in the oven for an extra minute or two, or having the sukkah wall blow in the wind.  There’s no mitzvah to eat matzah or sit in the sukkah anyway in July!

The same thing goes even for mitzvot between man and our fellow man, like tzedakah.  If we weren’t obligated to tithe our charity dollars, we might give five or six or eight and a half percent of our earnings.  Who knows?  Who’s keeping count?  But if we’re obligated to give ten percent, then we must scrutinize our charitable ledger with a much keener eye.  Now it’s no longer ‘charity’, it’s a ‘tax’ that I’m obligated to give.  Just like we wouldn’t cheat on our taxes and we scrupulously calculate every penny, so must we take our tzedakah dollars seriously.

And likewise with many other mitzvot that we might do ‘anyway’.  We all wash our hands before eating.  But sometimes, kids just dip their fingers under the faucet for half a second.  Is that called washing?  Once we are obligated to do the ‘netilat yadayim’, we take much greater care to wash the entire hand and then do it again!  And so on and so forth. 


Many of the mitzvot we can figure out reasons for, many of them we can’t.  But even those that we can, we are so blessed that the Torah has commanded us to take extra care to make sure that we do them properly!