The book of Vayikra begins with instructions for 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 does not bring an obligated offering, we force him to fulfill his obligation. At the same time, Chazal note (Rosh Hashanah 6a) that the word “voluntarily” indicates that a person may not be coerced into bringing an offering. The resolution of this contradiction is that the court coerces him until he says that he desires to bring the offering.

Aside from coercing a person to bring his offerings, we also find a general instruction to enforce the performance of mitzvos. Chazal express this principle in no uncertain terms: “One who states: I will not build a Sukkah, I will not take a Lulav—we smite him until his soul (almost) departs.”

In this article we will discuss this principle of coercion for mitzvos. What is the rationale behind coercing to perform mitzvos? Is there a distinction between coercion of positive and negative commandments? Who is responsible for coercing others? And is there any value in a coerced act? These questions, among others, are discussed below.

Rebuke or Collective Responsibility

The obligation to force another Jew to keep mitzvos can be explained in two ways.

One rationale, which emerges from Rashi’s interpretation of the Gemara (Erchin 16b), is that this is derived from the obligation to admonish a Jew who fails to perform an obligatory 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 him, smiting him or cursing him. Rashi (as explained also by the Maharsha) explains that this refers to smiting a fellow Jew in admonition for not performing his religious obligations: while one must not hate one’s fellow Jew, it is permitted to smite him in rebuke for sinfulness.

We learn from here that admonishing another person for his wrongdoings can go even as far as hitting him.

According to the Rambam, however, this Gemara is understood differently. The Rambam understands the instruction concerning hitting another Jew as referring to hitting him even without purpose. The prohibition of hating another person is restricted to the feeling of hatred in a person’s heart and does not apply to physical actions—even those committed spitefully (De’os 6:5; of course, hitting the other person, whether out of spite or not, involves a prohibition, but not the one against hatred).

Yet, it remains possible that the Rambam agrees that the obligation of tochecha (admonition) includes coercing a person (even with physical force) to perform a mitzva—only that according to the Rambam this does not emerge from this teaching of the Gemara.

Another way to explain the principle of coercing performance of mitzvos is arvus: each Jew’s responsibility for all Jews. As Chikrei Lev (Orach Chaim 1:48) explains, coercing another to perform his mitzvos is an expression of our responsibility for each other. If one fails to do so, he shares the blame for the sin. This does not, however, necessarily imply that one may coerce by means of physical force.

Positive 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 somebody who refuses to build a Sukkah or to take the Four Species (both positive commandments) is coerced into doing so. Does this principle of coercion also apply to negative commandments?

The Haflaah (Kesubos 49b) writes that the duty to coerce applies to both positive and negative commandments, the latter really being stricter. According to this approach, the Gemara’s apparent exclusion of negative commandments refers to past transgressions: after a person has transgressed a negative commandment, there is nothing to coerce. The same idea is expressed by the Minchas Chinuch (Mitzva 8): There is no difference between positive and negative commandments; the only distinction is between past and future.

Similarly, Shut Chavas Yair (166) explains that the principle of coercion cannot apply to negative mitzvos, since we cannot know with certainly that a person will transgress the prohibition. Even if he begins to sin, he can always stop before the transgression is completed, and perhaps he will desist after being warned. Once the transgression is completed, it is of course too late to intervene.

An exception to this would be negative commandments that include a positive element, such as the mitzvah of charity, which is fulfilled by a positive action yet also involves a prohibition (transgressed through lack of action). In this case, the principle of coercion applies. (This is the subject matter in Kesubos to which Haflaah refers.)

Indeed, we find that Tosafos in Kesubos (see also Bava Basra 8b) state (according to one explanation) that we coerce people to give charity specifically because the mitzvah of charity involves a negative transgression. This principle is also found in 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  halachically there is an obligation to coerce concerning negative transgressions.

Coercion: By Beis Din or Privately?

Who is responsible to see that people keep mitzvos? Does the principle of coercion apply only to beis din, or does it also obligate private individuals?

Based on the rationales behind the concept of coercion, which as mentioned above refer to mutual responsibility (arvus) and/or the obligation to give rebuke (tochecha), it seems that the concept will apply to all. Yet the Ketzos Hachoshen (3:1) writes that although an individual has the authority (according to Torah law) to pass judgment, with regard to coercion only a beis din of three has the authority to enforce the law.

Nesivos Hamishpat disputes this ruling, showing that the Gemara (Bava Kama 28b), which discusses a master coercing his released slave to end a forbidden relationship, clearly indicates that the principle applies even to individuals.

Ketzos Hachoshen responds to this proof by distinguishing between the obligation to save another from a transgression, which applies to private individuals, and coercion for positive mitzvos, which applies to beis din alone.

Ketzos Hachoshen also attacks the position adopted by Nesivos Hamishpat, arguing that according to his view a private individual may coerce a man into writing a get for his wife—a halacha that is against the Gemara and surely incorrect. In reply, according to the Nesivos Hamishpat, there is perhaps room to distinguish between coercion of a divorce, which requires a person to declare “I desire” and implies the will to fulfill the directives of beis din (see below), and coercion of ordinary mitzvos.

At the end of this article we will discuss the practical implications of this mitzvah.

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), one who is coerced to fulfill a regular mitzvah is also required to explicitly express his desire to do so. However, other authorities, following the implication of Chazal and rishonim, write that for most mitzvos there is no need for this expression. How are sacrificial offerings and gittin different from other mitzvos?

Tosafos (Rosh Hashanah 6a) explain that despite the general instruction to coerce fellow Jews in mitzvah performance, there is a need for a special Torah instruction to do so concerning sacrificial offerings. The reason for this is that the Torah states explicitly that a person must bring the offering “voluntarily.” Without a special instruction, we might therefore think that this means that a person should not be coerced into bringing an offering.

This coercion, therefore, is special. As the Gemara writes, on the one hand, the Torah implies that a person can be coerced; yet on the other, the Torah teaches that the offering must be brought voluntarily. The solution to this seeming contradiction is that the person is coerced into declaring his positive desire to bring the offering: He is coerced, yet he also brings the offering voluntarily. Other mitzvahs do not have to be performed voluntarily. Therefore, we don’t require a statement, “I desire”.

The question now, however, is how a coerced declaration can be considered voluntary. Surely the very declaration itself is coerced, and not voluntary?

The answer to this is given by Rambam, in his famous explanation of 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 a get must be given voluntarily. Rambam explains how a coerced declaration also means a voluntary action:

“One who does not wish to divorce his wife, and the law sanctions coercing him to divorce her, a 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 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 to do… this is not coercion. Rather, he had coerced himself with his evil thought. Therefore [even] one who does not wish to divorce his wife, since he wishes to be a part of Israel, [therefore really he] wishes to perform all the mitzvos and distance himself from sin—only that his evil inclination has forced him. After he has been smitten, weakening his inclination until he declares: I desire—his divorce is willful.”

According to one understanding (as the Chazaon Ish [Even Ha’Ezer 99:1] explains), beating the unwilling man has the effect of revealing a deeper level of his will, in which every Jew wishes to fulfill all the directives of the Torah and Sages. This explains why the get is valid, and also why a coerced offering is willful.

An alternative understanding (see Shut Maharitatz no. 83) is that because the person wishes to be a part of the nation of Israel, and because upkeep of religious obligation is integral to belonging to the Jewish People, we know that he really wishes to give the get and may therefore be coerced.

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. However, in the absence of this declaration, what is the value of the mitzvah that is finally performed? Is a coerced action, devoid of positive intent to fulfill the mitzvah, considered a mitzvah act?

The Gemara states that a person who is forced to eat matza fulfills a mitzvah. This ruling is stated in the Rambam (Chametz and Matzah 6:3) and by the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 475:4). This appears to confirm that a coerced mitzvah is, indeed, a fulfilled  mitzvah. However, authorities point out the difficulty of this principle: surely, mitzvos require positive intent? Without positive intent, one does not fulfill the mitzvah at all!

Dwelling on this question, 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 eating, since he has physical benefit it is considered as though he had intention.”

In addition, the Mishnah Berurah mentions that some dispute the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch. According to these authorities, the halachic principle that mitzvos require intent implies that somebody who is forced to eat matza does not fulfill the mitzvah. [The Talmudic ruling, in this light, follows the opinion that the performance of mitzvos does not require positive intent.] If so, what is the purpose of coercion to fulfill mitzvos?

A possible answer to this question arises from the words of Maharam Chaviv (Yom Teruah, Rosh Hashanah 28a), who writes that if Jews (as opposed to non-Jews), coerce somebody into eating matza, the coerced individual surely fulfills the mitzvah. The reason for this is that the intent of the coercing Jews is considered as the intent of the Jewish person being coerced.

A similar 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 the free will of the person performing the mitzvah, at least of those coercing him into performing it.

However, other authorities disagree with this analysis (see for instance Shut Cheklas Yaakov, Orach Chaim 33). Shut Yad Rama (no. 3) writes that the reason we coerce others to perform a mitzvah is in the hope that when he is forced to fulfill his duty, he will have a change of heart and want to do so.

Another justification for coercion, even if a mitzvah without intent is not a full mitzvah, is the public good. For the sake of the public good, it is important that the Jewish community in its entirety upholds Torah law and keeps all the mitzvos. The purpose of the coercion is not just for the coerced individual, but for the entire community. The personal intention of the coerced individual is therefore not critical to the coerced act.

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 to perform mitzvos is an invitation to social chaos, in which anybody can assume the mantle of religious policeman. Would this not lead to unjustified violence? Even men of truth and justice make mistakes. How can law enforcement, in terms of mitzvos, be placed in the hands of every individual?

According to Ketzos Hachoshen, as cited above, this question does not arise, for the individual does not have the right to coerce others in mitzvos; he can only take action to prevent transgressions. According to Nesivos Hamishpat, however, which seems to be the simple reading of most authorities, the question arises in full force.

This question is raised by the Yam Shel Shlomoh (Bava Kama 3:9), who writes that only a person who is “important and extraordinary” has a right to force the performance of mitzvos. Ordinary people do not have the power of coercion, since this would cause a state of chaos and anarchy, if each person takes the law into his own hands. The power of coercion is given only to a dayan or to a central and important figure, worthy of taking such action.

The Chazon Ish (ibid.), interpreting the verse (Devarim 5:26). “Would that their hearts should always fear Me,” writes that Hashem’s intention is that the righteous of each generation should strive to draw the Jewish nation closer to His Divine service.

However, although the ordinary Jew does not have the power to force others to fulfill mitzvos, the 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 of another human being, and is therefore not detached from collective 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 will wholeheartedly, and leaving no need for coercion in mitzvah performance.


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