The book of Vayikra begins with instructions for the sacrificing of the korban olah (Elevation Offering): “If one’s offering is an elevation offering from the cattle, he shall offer an unblemished male; he shall bring it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, voluntarily, before Hashem” (Vayikra 1:3).
On the words “he shall bring it,” Rashi comments that if one desists bringing an obligated offering, we coerce him to fulfill his pledge . Yet, as Chazal note (Rosh Hashanah 6a), the word “voluntarily” indicates that the person cannot be forced to bring an offering. The resolution of this contradiction is that the court may coerce him until he voluntarily expresses willingness to bring the offering.
Aside from coercing a person into bringing his offerings, we also find a general instruction to enforce the performance of mitzvos. Chazal express this principle on no uncertain terms: “One who states, ‘I will not build a Sukkah,’ or ‘I will not take a Lulav’—we smite him until his soul departs him.” In this article we will discuss this principle: when, how, and to what extent must we enforce the performance of mitzvos.
A Rebuke or a Collective Responsibility?
The obligation to enforce another Jew’s upkeep of mitzvos can be explained in two ways.
One rationale, which is learnt from Rashi’s interpretation on the Gemara in Erchin 16b , is that this principle is an off-shoot of the obligation to admonish a fellow Jew who fails to perform a mitzvah or commits a sin. The Gemara states that the prohibition of hating a fellow Jew in one’s heart does not apply to hitting, smiting him, and cursing him. Rashi explains that this refers to smiting a fellow Jew while performing the obligation to admonish him. We thus see that admonishing another (for his wrongdoings) can go even as far as smiting him.
According to the Rambam, however, this Gemara is understood differently. The Rambam understands the Gemara’s instruction as referring to hitting even without purpose. The prohibition of hating another is restricted to the feeling of hatred, and does not apply to physical actions, even those committed spitefully (De’os 6:5). However, it remains possible that Rambam agrees that the obligation of tochecha (admonition) includes coercing a person (even with physical force) to perform a mitzvah.
Another way to explain the principle of coercing the performance of mitzvos is arvus: the Jewish nation’s mutual responsibility. As Chikrei Lev (Orach Chaim 1:48) explains, coercing another into performing mitzvos is an expression of our mutual responsibility. If one fails to do so, he shares in the blame for the sin.
Positing and Negative Commandments
The principle of coercion in mitzvah observance is mentioned in the Gemara in connection with positive commandments (mitzvos asei). Chazal state that one who refuses to build a Sukkah or take the Four Species (both positive commandments), is coerced into doing so. Does this mean that the principle of coercion does not apply to negative commandments?
The answer to this question is disputed among authorities. According to the Haflaah (Kesubos 49b), this applies equally to both positive and negative commandments, the latter being of stricter nature. The Gemara’s seemed exclusion of negative commandments, is explained as referring to past transgressions. When one has already transgressed a mitzvah, there remains nothing to do. The same idea is expressed by Minchas Chinuch (8).
Chavas Yair (166), however, writes that the principle applies specifically to mitzvos asei. For negative mitzvos– mitzvos lo ta’asei, a person is not coerced, since we don’t know that he is going to transgress the mitzvah. Even if he begins to sin, he can always stop before the transgression is completed. Perhaps, he will desist after being warned. Once the transgression is completed, it is of course too late to intervene.
Charity, however, is one mitzvas asei that is transgressed by lack of action. It is possible, that Chavas Yair would concede that the principle of coercion applies in this case. (This is the subject matter in Kesubos to which the Haflaah is referring). For most negative mitzvos, it is not possible to coerce the fulfillment on technical grounds alone.
Indeed, we already find that Tosafos in Kesubos 49b and Bava Basra 8b state (according to one explanation) that one is coerced into giving charity because the mitzvah of charity involves a negative transgression. This principle is also found in the Rosh (Bava Kama 3:13) who discusses protecting a victim chased by an attacker. His ruling is cited in Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 421:13). Thus, we derive that in a halachic sense, there is an obligation to coerce one’s fellow, even with regard to negative transgressions.
Coercion: In Beis Din or Privately?
Who is responsible to enforce the upkeep of mitzvos? Does the principle of coercion apply specifically to beis din, or does it obligate even private individuals?
The Ketzos Hachoshen (3:1) writes that according to Torah law an individual has the authority to pass judgment; however, regarding coercion, only a beis din of three has the authority to enforce the law.
The Nesivos Hamishpat disagrees with this ruling. He brings proof from the Gemara in Bava Kama 28b, which discusses a master forcing his released slave to end a forbidden relationship. This clearly indicates that the principle applies even to individuals. The Ketzos Hachoshen refutes this proof by distinguishing between the obligation to save another from transgression, which applies even to private individuals, and the coercion for positive mitzvos, which applies to beis din alone.
The Ketzos Hachoshen further disproves the Nesivos Hamishpat’s argument. He writes that according to the position of Nesivos Hamishpat, a private individual would also be authorized to coerce a man into writing a get for his wife—a halachah that is surely incorrect. According to Nesivos Hamishpat, there is room to distinguish between forcing a divorce, which requires a person to say “I desire” (and implies the will to fulfill the directives of beis din), and coercion of ordinary mitzvos.
At the end of this article we will discuss whether or not this mitzvah has any practical implications.
“Until He Declares: ‘I Desire!'”
We began this article with Chazal’s requirement for sacrificial offerings, whereby one is coerced until he exclaims: “I desire!” The same expression is found in connection with writing a get: A man who refuses to divorce his wife is coerced by beis din until he expresses his wish to do so.
According to one authority (Turei Even, Rosh Hashanah 28), anyone who is coerced to fulfill a mitzvah is required to express his desire explicitly. However, other authorities, following the implication of Chazal and rishonim, write that for most mitzvohs there is no need for this expression to be made. How are sacrificial offerings and gittin different from other mitzvos?
It appears that indeed, there is an important distinction here. Tosafos (Rosh Hashanah 6a) explain that there is a need for a special Torah instruction to coerce a person concerning offerings. The reason for this is that here the verse explicitly uses the term “voluntarily.” Without a specially derived instruction, we would think that a person could not be coerced into bringing an offering.
The coercion must therefore be unique. This coercion is achieved by on the one hand applying force, and on the other hand procuring a declaration of personal desire. This is in accordance with the verse’s implications as stated in the Gemara.
Apparently, this seems to be a contradiction. How can a coerced declaration be considered voluntary? The answer to this lies in the Rambam’s famous words concerning a forced get. Authorities (see Zecher Yitzchak 1:23; Avi Ezri, Geirushin 2:20) explain that just as an offering must be brought voluntarily, so too, a get must be given voluntarily. Rambam explains how a coerced declaration can imply a voluntary action:
One who does not wish to divorce his wife and the law sanctions his coercion to divorce her, the Jewish beis din in every time and place beats him until he declares: “I desire.” He then writes the get, and the get is valid. If he is coerced, why is this get valid? The answer to this is that a coerced get is only disqualified when a person is coerced into doing something that the Torah does not obligate him to do… However, somebody whose evil inclination causes him to transgress a mitzvah or to perform an aveirah, and is beaten until he does that which he is obligated in doing… this is not coercion; rather, he has coerced himself with his evil thought. One who does not wish to divorce his wife is obviously prisoner of his evil inclination. A person who possesses a Jewish soul wants to be part of Israel, to perform the mitzvos and distance himself from sin. After he has been smitten, his evil inclination is weakened and he declares: “I desire!” Therefore, the divorce is considered a willful divorce.
Beating the unwilling man helps reveal a deeper level of his awareness, on which every Jew wishes to fulfill the directives of the Torah and Sages. This explains why the get is valid, and the coerced offering is considered voluntary.
The Value of Coerced Mitzvos
As noted above, for mitzvos other than gittin and offerings there is no need to extract a declaration of desire from the coerced person. In the absence of this declaration, we must reflect on the value of the mitzvah that is finally performed. In spite of the Rambam’s theory of a Jew’s “inner desire” to perform the Divine will, the question is whether or not a coerced, ostensibly unwilling mitzvah, has the status of a mitzvah.
The Gemara states that a person who is forced to eat matzah fulfills a mitzvah. This ruling is stated in the Rambam (Chametz and Matzah 6:3) and in the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 475:4). This appears to confirm that a coerced mitzvah is, indeed, a mitzvah. However, authorities point out the difficulty of this principle. Surely mitzvos require positive intent. Therefore, the Mishnah Berurah (475:34) explains: “Mitzvos require intent… the more so here, where he does not wish to eat, and surely has no intent of fulfilling the mitzvah. Nonetheless, commentaries explain that in matters of eating, since there is physical benefit, it is considered as though he had intention.”
Additionally, the Mishnah Berurah mentions other authorities that dispute the ruling of the Shluchan Aruch. They maintain that according to the halachic principle that mitzvos require intent, somebody who is forced to eat matzah does not fulfill a mitzvah. If so, what is the purpose of coercion to fulfill mitzvos?
A possible answer to this question arises from the chiddush of Maharam Chaviv (Yom Teruah, Rosh Hashanah 28a), who writes that if Jews (as opposed to non-Jews), coerce somebody into eating matzah, there is no doubt that the coerced individual fulfills the mitzvah. The reason for this is that the intent of the coercing Jews is considered to be the intent of the Jewish person being coerced.
Yet, even if we do not accept this chiddush, a theoretical structure to explain the concept of mitzvah coercion is provided by Chazon Ish (printed at the end of Orach Chaim). He writes that even a mitzvah that is devoid of personal free will is significant on account of the “collective free will” of Israel. The action is being done out of “Jewish free will”—if not of the person performing the mitzvah, at least of those coercing him into performing it.
From Theory to Practice: Coercion of Mitzvos
There is room to question the practicability of coercion in mitzvos. Surely, giving sweeping permission to individuals to coerce others in performing mitzvos is an invitation to social disorder, in which anybody can wear the mantle of religious policeman. Would this not lead to much unjustified violence? Even men of truth and justice make mistakes. How can law enforcement, in terms of mitzvos, be placed in the hands of the individual?
According to Ketzos Hachoshen, as cited above, this question does not arise, for the individual does not have the right to forcibly coerce others in mitzvos, and may only take action to prevent transgressions. According to Nesivos Hamishpat, however, which would appear to be the simple reading of most authorities, the question arises in full force.
This question is raised by the Yam Shel Shlomo (Bava Kama 3:9), who writes that only a person who is “important and extraordinary” has the right to enforce the performance of mitzvos. Ordinary people were not given the right of coercion, for this would cause a state of anarchy whereby each person takes the law into his own hands. The right of coercion is thus given only to a dayan or central and important figure, worthy of taking such action.
Chazon Ish (ibid.) similarly writes, interpreting the verse (Devarim 5:26). “Would that their hearts should always fear Me,” that Hashem’s intention is that the righteous of the generation should strive to draw the Jewish nation closer to His Divine service.
However, although the ordinary Jew does not have the right to force the fulfillment of mitzvos upon others, Chazon Ish explains that he certainly has the right to pray for the spiritual growth and repentance of others. The Divine assistance that is given for repentance does not clash with the principle of free will, for it is achieved through prayer, and is therefore not detached from human free will.
We thus end with our own prayer—that our hearts, and the hearts of all Israel should be drawn closer to Torah and avodah, fulfilling Hashem’s words wholeheartedly, leaving no need for coercion in mitzvah performance.