The opening of Parashas Vayishlach speaks about the envoys Yaakov Avinu sent to his brother Eisav.
Opinions differ as to whether these were human or angelic envoys, and the errand was quite unlike anything we are likely to encounter. Nonetheless, we take the opportunity to discuss some principles of agency, and in particular the question of the worthiness of performing a mitzvah by means of an agent.
Halachah allows the option of appointing a shaliach (agent) to act on a person’s behalf. This is valid for business transactions (such as selling a property), for performing mitzvos, and for other matters such as separating Terumah. Theoretically, one could even get married by means of an agent. In the month of Kislev, agency can be relevant for the mitzvah of lighting Chanukah candles, when a person cannot light candles on his own.
In the present article we will address the worthiness of performing a mitzvah by means of an agent. A famous Talmudic principle, which appears in two distinct contexts (Kiddushin 41a; Shabbos 119a), teaches, “It is better that a person fulfill [the mitzvah] on his own, than via an agent.” The Talmudic expression for this is mitzvah bo yoser mi-beshlucho (hereinafter: mitzvah bo).
Does the principle apply to all mitzvos? It there an obligation to fulfill a mitzvah personally where possible, or is this only good advice? What is the rationale behind the principle, and what should one do where the principle clashes with another Hiddur of the mitzvah?
These questions, among others, are discussed below.
Which Mitzvos Does the Rule Apply To?
Some authorities clearly imply that the principle of preferring one’s own fulfillment to that of an agent applies to all mitzvos. This is explicit in the Magen Avraham (Orach Chaim 251:2), which is cited by the Mishnah Berurah who states simply, “…so is the case with all mitzvos” (250:3). The opinion has precedents in the Or Zarua (mentioned by the Shiltei Giborim, Kiddushin 41) and Sefer Ha-Makneh (Kiddushin 41).
However, when we search the writings of Chazal, we find that the principle of preferring one’s own fulfillment is only mentioned explicitly concerning two mitzvos. These are marrying (Kiddushin 41a), and preparations in honor of Shabbos (Shabbos 119a).
This narrow selection is echoed by the Rambam (Shabbos 30:6) and the Shulchan Aruch (Even Ha-Ezer 35:1), who also note the preference only with regard to honoring Shabbos and to marriage.
This leads the Yad Ha-Melech (Shabbos 30:6) to suggest that the concept of mitzvah bo applies to these mitzvos alone, and does not apply to other mitzvos (see also Maharach Or Zarua, no. 128, who also limits the application of the principle). He explains that with regard to these two mitzvos, if a person performs them via an agent, he loses all connection to the mitzvah. He supplies explanations for this, though they seem somewhat strained.
Two Understandings of Mizvah Bo
The halachah follows the majority position whereby the idea of mitzvah bo applies to all mitzvos, as ruled by the Magen Avraham and Mishnah Berurah. Yet, the two positions outlined above suggest two different understandings of the basic principle inherent in the halachic concept.
One understanding is that performing a mitzvah on one’s own, rather than by means of an agent, reflects and expresses a general positive approach to the performance of mitzvos. In other words, by insisting on performing the mitzvah himself, a person demonstrates his love and dedication to the mitzvah. Based on this approach, we would assume that the principle applies to all mitzvos.
Alternatively, one can understand that personal involvement in a mitzvah is not merely a general demonstration of one’s enthusiasm and commitment, but rather an actual component of the mitzvah being performed. This means that, at least for some mitzvos, the mitzvah itself is enhanced by the personal involvement of the obligated party. Based on this rationale, we can understand that the idea may not apply to all mitzvos.
Rabbi Asher Weiss (Minchas Asher, Bereishis 23:10, and at length in Minchas Asher, Kiddushin, no. 44) writes that there is a distinction in mitzvah bo between mitzvos that are result-oriented, meaning that their purpose and underlying rationale is the result of the actions and not the performance itself, and mitzvos whose focus is on the act of performance.
A clear example of the first category is the mitzvah of building a maakeh (protective fence) around a roof: The point is to ensure that nobody should fall off the roof, and not the construction of the fence. Most mitzvos fit into the second category, meaning that there is an element of serving Hashem in the performance of the mitzvah act, and the purpose is not some result of the actions.
This position also leans towards the second understanding of mitzvah bo, which allows us to easily distinguish between one type of mitzvah and another. According to the first understanding, whereby the concept of mitzvah bo means simply to reflect a person’s joy and enthusiasm in performing a mitzvah, the distinction will be strained.
Does the Principle Constitute an Obligation?
Rashi (Kiddushin) comments on the principle of mitzvah bo, “When he occupies himself with the mitzvah, his reward is increased.” The Ben Ish Chai (Shut Rav Pe’alim, Yoreh De’ah 2:35) understands this to mean that there is no obligation to perform the mitzvah by one’s self and not by means of an agent. Rather, the principle is meant as a recommendation: It is worthy to perform a mitzvah on one’s own, rather than via an agent, for this increases one’s reward.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Tevuos Shor (28:14) writes that performing a mitzvah via an agent expresses disdain for the mitzvah, and it is therefore prohibited to do so.
He thus explains the ruling of the Or Zarua (Vol. 2, no. 107) that a person who knows how to perform a bris milah must not honor somebody else with the circumcision of his son, but must rather perform the mitzvah himself. The Tevuos Shor explains that this is because of the prohibition against sending an agent to perform a mitzvah when one can do so himself (others explain that agency does not apply to milah; see Darchei Moshe, Yoreh De’ah 264:1).
In fact, the Gemara (Kiddushin 41) seems to clearly imply that there is no prohibition in appointing an agent. The Gemara makes a distinction between marrying without first seeing the bride, and doing so via an agent (after seeing her): The former transgresses a prohibition (it is forbidden to wed a woman without first seeing her), whereas the latter does not.
This Gemara raises a clear difficulty for the Tevuos Shor. Aware of the problem, he explains that the distinction represents different levels of prohibition, yet it remains forbidden to use an agent for a mitzvah where this is not required.
Perhaps the simple understanding of the principle is somewhere in between the two above opinions. As the Shulchan Aruch writes (Even Ha-Ezer 36:1), “It is a mitzvah for her to enact the Kiddushin herself where this is possible, but there is no prohibition.” Though it is not forbidden to perform a mitzvah through an agent, there is a mitzvah – a positive virtue – to do so on one’s own. This, however, will be true even according to Rashi. One does not receive extra reward for nothing.
It is noteworthy that concerning preparations for Shabbos, the Rambam says that a person is obligated (chayav) to perform the mitzvah on his own. The Mishnah Berurah (Biur Halacha) comments on the discrepancy between the Rambam’s ruling concerning Shabbos (chayav) and Kiddushin (mitzvah).
Mitzvah Bo Versus Other Hiddurim
What is the halachah when the principle of mitzvah bo conflicts with a hiddur mitzvah (an enhanced performance of the mitzvah)? The Chayei Adam (68:7) raises this question concerning writing a Sefer Torah. What if a person is able write a Sefer Torah on his own, but he can also commission a Sofer whose script is more beautiful? Which is preferable? The Chayei Adam does not resolve the question, and says it requires further scrutiny.
The same question concerning general mitzvah performance, is raised by the Peri Megadim (625:1): Is it better to perform the mitzvah on one’s own where the quality of the mitzvah will be lower, or is it preferable in this case to use an agent?
One solution to this dilemma is based on the abovementioned Tevuos Shor. By his rationale for the principle of mitzvah bo, namely, that performance via an agent implies disrespect for the mitzvah, he writes explicitly that if a person wishes to appoint an agent to enhance the mitzvah – such as honoring a Talmid Chacham with performing the mitzvah – it is permitted (and proper) to do so.
This clearly implies that it is preferable to commission a Sofer to write a Sefer Torah, for this will enhance the mitzvah. See also Shut Dovev Meisharim, (Vol. 1, no. 47), who reaches the same conclusion.
Rabbi Asher Weiss (Minchas Asher, Bereishis, no. 23) writes that although in general it is likely that the virtue of performing the mitzvah on one’s own is greater (he explains that when a person performs the mitzvah with an agent, the entire avodas Hashem latent in the mitzvah is lost), in writing a Sefer Torah one should commission the superior Sofer. The reason for this is that writing a Sefer Torah is a result-oriented mitzvah, so that (as explained above) the principle of mitzvah bo will not apply. This does not square with the Magen Avraham and Mishnah Berurah, according to whom the principle applies universally.
Chanukah Dilemmas of Mitzvah Bo
Sefer Toras Ha-Yoledes (Rabbi Yitzchak Zilberstein, Chap. 54, no. 4) discusses a case in which a mother recovering in hospital after giving birth cannot light the Chanukah candles in the preferable place (at the door or by the window), but can do so indoors. Is it preferable to send an agent to light in the ideal way (by the door or at the window), or should she light indoors on a table, and fulfill the mitzvah in the less ideal way?
His ruling is that both options are possible, though in a footnote he writes that based on the above ruling of the Dovev Meisharim (concerning commissioning a superior Sofer to write a Sefer Torah), it seems better to send an agent to light in the ideal place.
In fact, Rabbi Asher Weiss (Kiddushin, no. 44) notes that according to Tosafos, the very enactment of Chanukah indicates that the enhancement of the mitzvah takes precedence. According to Tosafos, the highest level of Hiddur (mehadrin min ha-mehadrin) involves one person kindling the lights (the number of lights corresponds to family members) on behalf of all family members. Surely, it should be better for each person to light his own candles, thereby performing the mitzvah on his own? This seems to indicate that enhancement of the mitzvah takes precedence over self-performance.
Yet, it can also be argued that Chanukah is different, because the mitzvah is not incumbent on each and every individual, but rather on the house (ner ish u-beiso). Because the mitzvah is not personal, but rather that each house should have its own Chanukah lights, perhaps the concept of mitzvah bo will not apply and it will always be preferable to light in the most ideal way, even by means of an agent.