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Mitzvos – Deliberate or Habitual


Is making mitzvos our habit something to strive for? What is “mitzvas anashim melumada” – performing mitzvos by rote? Is it – good or bad? Why do we pray every morning to be “accustomed to performing Your mitzvos”? How are good habits formed? Where does free will play out? Is a convicted felon held guilty in the heavenly tribunal for refraining from murder? What is an unintentional mitzva, and what value does it have? Is there reward for unintentionally performing a mitzva? What thoughts can upgrade a mitzva? Of this and more in the coming article.

Intention in Building the Mishkan

In this week’s parsha our nation is commanded to build the Mishkan, and the holy objects it contained. When explaining the reasons for the mitzva of building the Mishkan, Sefer Hachinuch writes (mitzva 95) that G-d has no practical gain from our mitzva performance. Rather, the mitzvos are a gift from Him to us, allowing us to improve ourselves.

Mitzvah performance can take place on two levels:

  • Mitzvos done in order to fulfil G-d’s Will to become better people, and through which to merit eternal reward.
  • Mitzvos done with awareness of G-d’s benevolence, performed as a result of love for Him. All physical functions are directed to complete G-d’s Will, with no thoughts of gain or reward.

Among the spiritual people in the second category are the holy Patriarchs, who performed the mitzvos out of love for Hashem, and nothing else. How do we, so spiritually far from our holy forefathers, take our mitzva observance to the next level?

Sefer Hachinuch explains that the Mishkan or Mikdash is a physical place in which the mind becomes so purified, to the extent that the body itself will only act to fulfill G-d’s Will. This is the power of the Mishkan or Mikdash – and what we have lost with its destruction.

Standing next to a wall and confessing a misdeed can help us correct our actions and set us on the right track, but only to a limited extent. In our physical world, the greater and more drastic the action, that much greater is its effect on us. When the sinner has to go and buy a fat animal, travel to Jerusalem, meet a kohen and tell him what his sin was, perform the entire confession process and watch his animal being slaughtered – the effect will be that much more powerful. He’ll really internalize how terrible his sin is.

Last week we discussed the difference between intention and physical action. This week we will focus on habitual or deliberate mitzvah observance, and the role of good habits in Judaism.

Habits – Good or Bad

Is habitual mitzva performance good or bad?

On the one hand, Yeshayahu Hanavi (29:13-14) sharply criticizes those who perform the mitzvos just by rote: “And the Lord said: ‘Because this people has come near; with their mouth and with their lips they honor Me, but their heart is far away from Me, and their fear of Me is just done by rote. Therefore, I will continue to perform obscurity to this people, obscurity upon obscurity, and the wisdom of his wise men shall be lost, and the understanding of his geniuses shall be hidden’.” The term the prophet uses, “a command which is done by rote” has become the accepted term to refer to habitual mitzva performance.

On the other hand, every morning we pray: “…And make us habitual in your mitzvos”. In this prayer we ask G-d to make Torah and mitzvos our habits. Do we want the mitzvos to be a lifestyle—or not?

A similar question arises from careful examination of the pasuk in Tehilim: “I considered my ways, and I returned my feet to Your testimonies” (Tehilim 119:59). The Midrash (Vayikra Raba 35:1) explains: “Kind David said: ‘Master of the World. Every day I would calculate and say I need to go to this place, and this dwelling, but my feet would bring me to the batei knesset and batei midrash.’

While he desperately wanted to learn Torah, King David realized that as a king he had other obligations which were his current mitzva. When he realized that G-d’s Will was for him to go to a certain place and not to learn Torah, he would set out to go there, but his legs led him to the beit knesset, as of habit, and he’d have to turn away to go back. Here, the question is twofold: Are Chazal trying to teach us that Dovid Hamelech acted without thinking, “a command of people, which has been taught”? And what virtue is in acting this way after determining that Hashem wanted him elsewhere?

What is Habit

What is habit? Habit, or in Hebrew הרגל contains the word רגל – foot. The foot functions automatically, with no independent or deliberate intention or thought. Upon losing foot function due to injury, one must relearn walking until it again becomes an instinctive action – nobody can walk if he to consciously needs to decide to lift his leg, bend the knee, and place his foot on the floor ahead.

King David’s legs reflexively took him to learn Torah. In this Midrash, Chazal teach us that we should integrate Torah values and manners to the extent that they become a reflexive response – not something we need to deliberately think about. Only when he had to go elsewhere did he need to first deliberate.

The Torah requires us to celebrate three major holidays, which are called רגלים in the Torah, again alluding to legs. The holidays are the time in which the Jewish nation convenes around the Mikdash and refreshes its reflexes, so their body naturally works in tandem with Torah.

So should the mitzvos be a reflexive reaction, or a deliberate, intended activity?

Internalizing Torah – Three Stages

Some might think that keeping all the mitzvos properly is impossible. To address this feeling, Moshe Rabbenu says (Devarim 30:11-14): “For this commandment which I command you this day, is not concealed from you, nor is it far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us, so that we can fulfill it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us, so that we can fulfill it?’ Rather, [this] thing is very close to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can fulfill it.” Keeping Hashem’s Torah is not at all difficult – provided it is in your lips and heart. In order to live a full Torah life we must speak about Torah, act upon our words, and think about the mitzvos in our hearts. Once all three components are involved in Torah, keeping all the mitzvos is not difficult.

The Gemara (Eiruvin 54b) cites several other sources for the requirement to combine our internal feelings with our external actions in keeping the mitzvos. Torah has purpose and direction, both means and goal must be spoken about, occupy our thoughts , and fill our days with active engagement.

In the beginning it is a habit, as we try to imbibe in our children at a very young age. Later, we learn about the mitzvos, internalizing their essence, and growing in our spiritual stature. The Iben Ezra counters the “empty brained individuals” who wonder what Moshe Rabbenu did on Mount Sinai for 40 days – why it took him so long to learn all the mitzvos. The truth, he explains is that learning the inner meanings and essence of even one mitzva can take more than several lifetimes. Even one single mitzva is deeper than the sea, and wider than the land! However, getting used to keeping the Torah and mitzvos comes through our speech and thought.


How do we combine actively engaging in a mitzva with internalizing its message and purpose? The Ramchal (Meslias Yesharim chapter 7) paves the way with his iconic words: “Through external action the heart is aroused”. It is through the external actions that mitzvos require — the physical activity of the mitzva — that we internalize its message and integrate it into our psyche.

While in the beginning, keeping the mitzvos takes on a technical form, through talking about it and thinking about it, we slowly begin to internalize it, until mitzvos become part of our personality.

Naturally, if the yetzer hara would leave us alone, mitzvah observance would run its course and we’d eventually find ourselves fully dedicated to keeping the mitzvos with all our heart and soul. However, the yetzer hara has a lot at stake here, and does everything to prevent this process from taking place. It does everything it can to stop us at the practical stage, locking our minds from contemplating the mitzvos’ meaning and essence. This is where our freedom of choice comes in – we must make a deliberate conscious decision to seek inspiration in the mitzvos, and remind ourselves the purpose and inner meaning of each mitzva, and how it connects us to Hashem. Then, slowly, with time, it becomes more ingrained in us, and we gain deeper understanding, appreciation, and connection through each mitzva. Since every mitzva is boundless, there is unlimited wellsprings of inspiration to be accessed though each and every mitzva.

Point of Free Choice

Rav Dessler (Michtav M’Eliyahu) explains the concept of free choice. Every person has free choice, but in a different place. And every time free will is exercised, the point of choice changes, for better or for worse. A serial murderer might have choice to murder his victim or “only” steal his valuables. This sort of choice, vulgar and cruel as it may be, still holds potential, if well executed, to lead a murderer to better choices in the future, and eventually – to a complete turnaround.

On the other hand, great people also have choice, but theirs is on an entirely different plane. They might be forced to choose between stronger or softer criticism, resting to have more energy — or pushing on and overcoming exhaustion. All choices change us, and any positive choice will make us better people. We must invest our efforts in finding out where we hold, to retain that which we have already gained, and go on to conquer more ground. This is how to make today’s struggles into tomorrow’s habits.


One must invest both physical and emotional resources to make proper choices and to take one step forward after another. Spiritual progress begins with actions – they are the easiest and most technical, but the most basic. Once those have become habits, we can go on and bring our thoughts and emotions to the table. Every choice makes a difference – each changes our spiritual standing vs. the previous choice. What was difficult yesterday will hopefully not be difficult tomorrow, when yesterday’s wars become today’s conquered ground.

Essential Mitzva Intentions

What must be our intentions in mitzva observance? Which intention, when lacking, renders a mitzva invalid?

The Mishna Brura (60:7) divides intentions one can have in doing a mitzva into two categories.

  • When performing a mitzva one should remove all other thoughts from his mind and think about the essence of his action. For example, when reciting the Shema, one should think about the words and their meaning.
  • Awareness that the action being performed is a command of Hashem.

While lacking the first intention does not render a mitzva invalid, it is not the choicest mitzva. The more one deliberately focuses on the inner meaning of the mitzva that much more powerful his mitzva becomes.

As for the second category, there is a dispute among the poskim (Shulchan Aruch OC 60:4). The final halachic ruling agrees that without it, a mitzva can, indeed, become invalid. Therefore, one who performed a mitzva without knowing it, or just to practice without understanding that this is the actual mitzva, must repeat the mitzvah, albeit without reciting the blessing.

B’dieved, one who ate matza on the Seder night, lifted up the four species in shul on Succos, or ate bread in the succah on Succos evening has performed the mitzva, but l’chatchila one should intend to perform a mitzvah with his action.

Dubious Intentions

When in doubt if even the minimum intention required for the mitzva was present, the Mishna Brura rules (60: 8) that if it is a Torah-mandated mitzva, one should repeat it again without the blessing, but a rabbinically-prescribed one need not be repeated.



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