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Mitzvah Performance: At All Costs?


Crippled for Life or Bris Milah?

The Avnei Nezer (Yoreh De’ah 321) was consulted concerning a child who was born with a crooked leg. The expert physicians advised that the leg be straightened out immediately, while the bones are still soft and flexible, and that the procedure must be undertaken before the eighth day of his life. Yet, it was clear that should the procedure be performed, the infant would not be able to undergo Bris Milah on the eighth day.

Addressing the question of whether the procedure is permitted or not, the Avnei Nezer explained that it is permitted to perform it, because the obligation to perform Torah mitzvos does not go beyond a fifth of one’s wealth (Orach Chaim 656:1).

If there is no obligation to spend more than one fifth of one’s money on a mitzvah, it follows that there is no obligation for a person to render himself a cripple for the sake of performing a mitzvah, for physical wholeness is worth more than a fifth of one’s assets.

This halachic ruling leads us to investigate the general question of performing a mitzvah under danger of sickness and pain. Does the obligation to fulfill mitzvos apply even when the performance involves pain and discomfort? Does a person have to undergo physical damage or illness for the sake of performing a mitzvah? We know that a person does not have to give up his life for the sake of mitzvos (apart from three); must he give up his health?

These questions are addressed below.

Long Hangovers after Four Cups

The mitzvos of Pesach, that we recently fulfilled, offer us an opportunity to delve into the intricacies of these questions.

The Gemara (Nedarim 49b) mentions that Rabbi Yehudah used to suffer from grievous headaches after drinking the Four Cups of Pesach; his head would hurt from Pesach through Shavuos. Based on this anecdote, the Rashba (1:238) rules that even somebody who hates wine, or for whom wine is physically damaging, must drink the Four Cups. The Rashba also cites from the Yerushalmi (Pesachim 10:1) that Rabbi Yonah, much like Rabbi Yehudah, would suffer from headaches for the duration of the Omer period on account of the Four Cups.

The Rashba’s opinion forms the basis for the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 472:10): “One who desists from wine because it damages him or because he detests it, must nonetheless force himself to drink, in order to perform the mitzvah of the Four Cups.”

The Shulchan Aruch does not expound on the halachah, and doesn’t reveal what degree of physical damage a person must be ready to incur for the sake of the mitzvah. The Mishnah Berurah (35) does address this question, and writes that a person must drink though the wine distresses him and causes him pain, but the obligation does not include actually becoming ill. The Shaar Ha-Zion (52) adds: “For this is not the practice of free people.”

This comment indicates that for general mitzvos that are unrelated to the “way of freedom,” the obligation to perform the mitzvah applies even if as a result the person will fall ill. The Four Cups, it appears, is an exception to the general rule.

Getting Sick on Maror

Shut Besamim Rosh (no. 94) discusses the question of eating Maror under circumstances where doing so will cause the person to fall ill. According to the Besamim Rosh, there is no obligation to eat Maror under these circumstances, for the following two reasons:

1. The exemption mentioned by the Gemara concerning the mitzvah of Sukkah, from which “the sick and their care-givers” are exempt, applies not only to Sukkah but even to all mitzvos: If a person will become sick as a result of performing a mitzvah, he is not obligated to perform it. The Torah, he explains, is given to us for life, and not for becoming sick.

2. There is a person obligation to look after one’s health, and every action we take to guard our health is considered a mitzvah. Therefore, because “somebody who is busy with a mitzvah is exempt from a [different] mitzvah,” it follows that we are always exempt from those mitzvos that threaten to damage our health.

Shut Binyan Shlomo (47) defers both of the rationales offered by the Besamim Rosh, stating that the exemption mention in Sukkah is in fact specific to the mitzvah of Sukkah (as noted by Tosafos). He further explains that the exemption from mitzvos for somebody who is performing a mitzvah applies specifically to somebody who is actively involved in a mitzvah and therefore cannot perform the other mitzvah.

A sick person himself is surely not actively involved in a mitzvah, and (by contrast with his care-givers) he is certainly obligated in those mitzvos that he is able to perform.

Yet, the Binyan Shlomo proceeds to agree in practice with the Besamim Rosh, explaining that a person who is liable to become ill is exempt from eating Maror because sickness and pain is worth more to people than their money. The exemption from mitzvos for financial considerations can therefore be extended to exempt a person from mitzvos that are liable to cause illness and pain.

The Opinion of the Mishnah Berurah

The Mishnah Berurah (473:43) also rules that a sick person who is unable to eat Maror due to health considerations is exempt from eating Maror, and should eat only a little to “recall” the mitzvah (he should not recite a berachah over this eating).

Indeed, even where the Maror will not cause actual physical damage, but only cause a person to suffer, the Mishnah Berurah (Shaar Ha-Zion) implies that there is no full obligation to perform the mitzvah, and only that “it is proper for a person to strain himself with all his strength to perform the mitzvah of the Sages.”

This ruling appears to contradict the above ruling concerning the Four Cups, which implies that for all other mitzvos the obligation applies even when performing the mitzvah threatens to cause a person to be sick.

It is possible, however, that the mitzvah of the Four Cups is different from other mitzvos, because there is an obligation to perform the mitzvah even if this requires a person to collect alms from door to door. The special obligation connected with the Four Cups sets it aside from other mitzvos, for which a person without means is exempt, and for which risk of illness is likewise sufficient to exempt a person from the mitzvah.

By contrast with these opinions, the opinion of the Maharam Schick (no. 260) is that a person is only exempt from eating Maror if doing so will involve danger of death; mere danger of sickness is not sufficient to exempt a person from the mitzvah.

Torah and Rabbinic Mitzvos

With regard to Rabbinic mitzvos, we find in the Gemara (Kesubos 60a) that it is permitted for somebody who is in great pain to feed directly from a goat on Shabbos (the milk is assumed to be a kind of medicine for the ailment), in spite of the prohibition of “mefarek” that this involves. The Gemara explains that feeding directly from a goat is not the ordinary way of milking an animal, and therefore the prohibition is only rabbinic in nature – and the Sages didn’t enact the prohibition under circumstances of pain.

Since we find that the Sages did not enact rabbinic prohibitions under circumstances of suffering/illness, it appears to follow that a person is exempt from fulfilling rabbinic mitzvos in similar circumstances. Why then do we find a discussion, as presented above, of the issue of performing rabbinic mitzvos where the threat of illness is present?

The answer to this can be found in the Beis Yosef (Yoreh De’ah 123), who writes that regular rabbinic prohibitions are not waived in circumstances of pain and illness, such as the prohibition of setam yeinam (non-Jewish wine) which is forbidden even for the sick. It is therefore possible that we cannot learn the principle of exempting somebody in danger of illness or pain from the case above (of feeding from a goat), because the exemption for a specific case.

The Chavas Yair (no. 164) further asserts that the exemption cannot be applied on a widespread scale, and it applies only to instances of severe suffering, and not to regular cases of pain or sickness.

Based on this approach, it is clear that we require special reasons for exempting somebody from performing mitzvos under circumstances of potential suffering or illness, as noted above.[*]

Danger to a Limb and Illness in the Face of Torah Mitzvos

The Gemara (Yevamos 72a) writes that according to Rabbi Yehudah, a “mashuch” (somebody whose foreskin has been pulled over the Bris) is exempt from the mitzvah of Bris Milah, because of the concern that he will be injured and become a “krus shafcha” (one who is unable to give birth) – though this does not involve any danger of death.

This indicates that danger to a limb is sufficient to exempt a person from performance of a Torah mitzvah (unless we suggest that danger of becoming a krus shafcha is more severe than the danger of losing a regular limb).

This proof supports to some degree the position of the Binyan Shlomo (as mentioned above), who writes that a person is not obligated to place himself into danger of illness, even for a Torah mitzvah. This is also the opinion of the Birchei Yosef (640:5).

However, there is room to make a distinction between danger of regular illness and the danger of actually losing a limb. This difference is raised by the Shach (Yoreh De’ah 157:3), who raises a possibility that even for purposes of a negative Torah mitzvah, danger of losing a limb is sufficient to waive the prohibition – and leans in practice towards leniency. This leniency will not apply to danger of regular illness.

How Much is it Worth

The case of the Avnei Nezer, which we opened this article with, likewise addresses a case of permanent physical damage, which can be distinguished from regular illness which doesn’t involve permanent damage.

Therefore, although it appears clear that one does not have to endanger a limb in order to perform a mitzvah, the question of endangering one’s health for the sake of a mitzvah remains a matter of dispute among authorities.

As a type of compromise, the Eshel Avraham (Orach Chaim 656:1) suggests that a person must consider whether he would be prepared to part with a fifth of his wealth in order to avoid the illness of suffering that he wishes to avoid. If he is prepared to pay one fifth of his wealth to avoid this, he will be exempt from the mitzvah; but if he is not prepared to lay out this sum, he will be obligated in performing the mitzvah.

[*] Note that the Rema (Yoreh De’ah 155:3) cites an opinion according to which there is a broader exemption from rabbinic prohibitions under circumstances of illness and suffering. However, this exemption is not absolute, and refers to deriving benefit from prohibited foods rather than eating them; see Pischei Teshuvah (8).

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