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Parshat Behaalotcha – One who is occupied with a mitzvah

Sivan 5783 | May 2023


Parents often find themselves pulling their hair out as their children waste hours doing nothing productive. If they’re fortunate the child just stares into space, the less fortunate watch their children dive headfirst into frivolous pursuits of one kind or another. Some parents want their children to use their time fruitfully, doing something good. Some parents look for results, they set clear goals for their children to work towards, or at least they try to.

The same can be said about ourselves – some of us focus on our actions to ensure we spend our time usefully, doing good; some of us are goal-oriented, focused on the outcome more than the process.

What does the Torah want from us?

The halakhic principle

This question is at the heart of an important halakhic principle – “ha-osek b’mitzvah patur min ha-mitzvah,” one who is occupied with a mitzvah is exempt from [another] mitzvah. The mishna in Sukka states that “messengers sent to do a mitzvah are exempt from the [mitzvah of] sukka.” In Berakhot the mishna states that on his wedding night a chatan (bridegroom) is exempt from the mitzvah of kriyat Shema (reciting the Shema prayer) because he is preoccupied with the mitzvah of consummating his marriage.[1]

In both contexts the gemara brings the same prooftext from the Shema, to speak these things “in your sitting in your home and in your walking on the way.” This mitzvah – like all mitzvot – is performed when sitting or walking for yourself, i.e. when occupied with your personal, everyday life. But if you’re not sitting and walking for yourself but rather for a mitzvah – such as getting married – then you are exempt from other mitzvot – such as sitting in the sukka.[2]

The sages bring another proof from the mitzvah of Pesach Sheini in Parshat Beha’alotcha. When it was time for Pesach several individuals were distressed that they could not partake of the offering because they were tamei meit (ritually impure due to contact with a dead body), and one must be tahor (ritually pure) to fulfill this mitzvah. Chazal explain that when these people became tamei, either by burying the dead or carrying the sarcophagus with Joseph’s bones – they were aware it would preclude them from partaking in the Pesach offering. Essentially, they fulfilled one mitzvah – caring for the deceased – at the expense of another – offering and eating the Pesach.[3] And this is considered the correct thing to do.

Halakha l’ma’aseh, practical application

The Rishonim debated the parameters of this principle. Many explained that one is only exempt from other mitzvot if the mitzvah they are occupied with doesn’t allow them to do both, such as in the case of Pesach Sheni.[4] As evidence they cite the simple fact that we often fulfill multiple mitzvot at the same time – for example sitting in a house with a mezuzah or wearing tzitzit. But if a mitzvah is all encompassing or two mitzvot are mutually exclusive the Torah teaches us that one should not make calculations based on the perceived value of mitzvot and forego a relatively “minor” mitzvah – such as burying the dead – in favor of one more significant – such as the Pesach offering.[5] The concept of ha’osek b’mitzvah is that from the moment one begins to perform a mitzvah it takes precedence over any other conflicting mitzvot.

Other Rishonim explain that even if it’s possible to fulfill both mitzvot at the same time, if someone is busy with one mitzvah they don’t need to add more.[6] Certainly, one who is merely “fulfilling” a mitzvah, like mezuzah or tzitzit, and not “occupied” with the mitzvah is not exempt from performing more mitzvot; but if one is actively in the middle of one mitzvah they’re exempt from others, even if it’s possible to do both. While one may not be obligated, it’s still preferable to do more, as the Talmud has a saying for someone who suffices with the minimum: “If you can be good, don’t be called wicked.” In other words – you don’t have to, but if you do it is looked upon favorably.

Actions or results

These different explanations can be related to our original question – does God want us to spend our time performing good actions or accomplishing good things? If it’s the former then once we’re engaged in a mitzvah we’ve reached the goal. If it’s the latter then we’re obligated to do as many mitzvot at one time as possible; we’re only exempt from a mitzvah we’re currently unable to do.

The same question could be phrased differently. When we fulfill mitzvot we are serving God. Is the focus on our mindset, on an ethos of Divine service? Or are there other goals as well, unique to each mitzvah, making it worthwhile to “collect” as many as possible? Either way, as we saw, even though the ethos of Divine service may allow us to disregard another mitzvah to focus on the one at hand, a “higher” ethos suggests that we should try to do both when possible.[7]

[1] Mishna Sukka 2:4; Mishna Berakhot 2:5

[2] TB Berakhot 11a; Sukka 25b – 26a

[3] ibid, based on Bamidbar 9:1-9

[4] For example: Rashi Sukka 25a “Bi’lechtecha baderech” “d’tarid”; Tosafot Berachot 11a “Shluchei mitzvah”; Tosafot Bava Kama 56b “b’hahi hana’a”; Ritva Sukka 25a

[5] “Perceived” because there is no way to know the value of a mitzvah. In this case, as in many cases, the perceived value is based on the “punishment” for one who does not fulfill the obligation – the Torah states one who purposely doesn’t partake of the Pesach offering is liable for karet, being cut off, or death, whereas there is no recorded punishment for abstaining from the kind act of burying the dead.

[6] For example Ohr Zarua Part II, Hilkhot Sukka 299; Ran on Rif Sukka 11a

[7] Ohr Zarua was concerned that someone who is focused on gathering more and more mitzvot may be focused on the reward, and besides the fact that we don’t know the reward for mitzvah observance, we’re supposed to serve God without the intention of the reward. He adds that the exemption for one who is occupied with a mitzvah is God’s decree, which makes it seem that there’s no value to trying to do more than one mitzvah at a time.

Rabbanit Dr. Adina Sternberg

was in the first cohort of the Matan Kitvuni Fellowship program and her book is in the publication process. She has a B.A. in Bible from Hebrew University and a M.A. and Ph.D. in Talmud from Bar Ilan University. Adina studied in Midreshet Lindenbaum, Migdal Oz, Havruta and the Advanced Talmud Institute in Matan. She currently teaches Bible and Talmud at Matan, and at Efrata and Orot colleges. Adina lives in Adam (Geva Binyamin) with her family.