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Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Can you be bothered with mitzvos?

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 13


The grand opening of Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin in Poland was the event of the year in 1930.  Prominent rabbis and lay-leaders from across Europe attended the inauguration of Rabbi Meir Shapiro’s yeshiva.  In his keynote speech, Rabbi Yisroel Friedman, the Chortkover Rebbe, turned to Shmuel Eichenbaum, who had donated the land for the new building.
“Reb Shmuel,” he said, “I don’t envy you for the mitzvah opportunity you have demonstrated today.  It’s a public mitzvah and you have received much honour for your generosity.  Do you know what I envy?  I envy that special mitzvah you once performed privately that was the catalyst for today’s mitzvah!”

‘One who is fifty percent servant, fifty percent free-man works one day for his master and one day for himself,’ these are the words of Beis Hillel. 
Beis Shamai says, ‘You’ve resolved the matter for his master, but you haven’t resolved his own issues – he may not marry a maidservant, nor may he marry a free-woman.   Shall he be celibate? But was the world not created to be fruitful and multiply?  As the verse states, “He did not create it to be void, He fashioned it for inhabitation!”  Rather, we force the master to free him and we draw up a contract obligating the servant to repay the outstanding half.’
Beis Hillel subsequently retracted their teaching and ruled in accordance with Beis Shamai.

Tosfos asks: Why did the Talmud not evoke the mitzvah of “Be fruitful and multiply?”
Rabbi Yitzchak answers: The servant is actually exempt from that mitzvah, because of his extreme circumstances.  We cannot force the master to free him simply for the purpose of obligating him in the mitzvah.  For if mitzvah performance were a factor, every master would be required to free his servants in order to obligate them in all mitzvos.  Therefore, the Talmud employed the verse “He did not create it to be void,” since it is a great mitzvah.

The ancients (and sadly, many not-so-ancients) would buy and sell human servants and deny them their human dignity.  In contrast, the Torah teaches that when a Jew purchases a servant, he becomes a member of the family.  That means you have to feed him well, clothe him, house him.  What’s more, a gentile servant actually becomes a half-Jew – he’s required to observe most of the mitzvos.  Indeed, if and when he is finally set free, he becomes a complete Jew, bound by all the Torah’s precepts.

So here’s the problem of our Gemara: if someone is half-free, where does that leave him?  On the one hand, he’s now obligated in 613 commandments.  On the other hand, he is still not completely free and unable to marry a Jewess – or for that matter a gentile!  So we have no choice but offer him the basic human right and obligation to get married and populate the planet.

Tosfos’ question is why not offer the first mitzvah given to Adam and Eve as a proof text of why he should be set free.  Why find a verse in the Book of Isaiah?  And Rabbi Yitzchak answers that it’s not about helping him do mitzvos.  Because if that were the reason to free him, we would have to force every Jewish master to free his servants.  That way, they could perform so many more mitzvos!  Instead, it’s simply about ‘mitzvah rabbah’ – the great mitzvah of populating the planet.  The Bach calls it ‘tikun olam.’

What a powerful message Rabbi Yitzchak conveys!  Ideally, we should free all the servants and allow them to do more mitzvos.  The technical difficulty with that proposition is that nobody would ever purchase a servant, because you would have to free him immediately.  But all other factors being equal, we want to afford people the opportunity to do more mitzvos!

Why?  Because mitzvos are not something we do because we have no choice.  Mitzvos are opportunities that we run to.  They’re how we connect with Hashem!  He gives us abundant ways to have a relationship with Him and each mitzvah is another phone call to our Father in Heaven, another text we’ve sent Him, a strengthening of our bond with Him!

When you see mitzvos as a burden, you miss the point.  If we only knew the diamonds we were gathering when we do mitzvos, we would jump out of bed for minyan!  We would risk a speeding ticket to visit someone in hospital!  Our hands would shoot up when the shul needs a volunteer! 

That’s what the Chortkover meant in his address to Reb Shmuel – at some point in the past, he must have performed some mitzvah with alacrity and enthusiasm.  Now he was reaping the rewards of his efforts.  If you knew that helping an orphan bride get married would be the catalyst for your ability to donate the land for a new hospital, would you think twice?


You can’t imagine the diamonds and gems you are amassing with every mitzvah you do.  Mitzvos should never feel like a burden, they’re your opportunity to connect with the Source of life and earn infinite reward.  May you jump at every chance you have to collect those precious pieces of infinity!