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Letter to a Friend: On Intent in the Performance of Commandments

July 6, 2015

Dear ****,

I really enjoyed your shiur last week on the topic of Mitzwoth Tz’richoth Kawwana and K’fia B’mitzwoth, “Performance of the Commandments Requires Intent and Compulsion in Performance.” You are correct that the Shulhan Aruch rules that, generally speaking, one must have intent to either perform a commandment or to fulfill his obligation when he actually performs that commandment, e.g., one must have either an intent to perform the commandment of wearing tzitzith or intent to fulfill one’s obligation to wear tzitzith if one wishes to actually achieve the performance of that commandment, and if one does not have intent, then even if he were to wear a valid tallith, he has not fulfilled that commandment. I noticed that you did not define what kawwana was, and for good reason. You mentioned in passing that it means “intent to fulfill one’s obligation” but that definition would not suffice for obligatory commandments, like tzitzith, which is why I suggested saying “intent to perform the commandment.” You also noted that this principle does not fit with the Talmudic rule that a properly ordained court can compel, with force if necessary, individuals to perform commandments. You then pointed out that with regards to certain performances which require the Ratzon, “will” of the performer, it makes sense that compulsion would not invalidate the performance. One who has to bring a sin offering or who must divorce his wife has to bring that offering or deliver the divorce papers of his own will, and this can be achieved when, after suffering the consequences of his intransigence, he declares “I want to do it.” However, with regards to intent, it is harder to understand how compulsion creates that. Your starting question was that if the court compels one to perform the commandment, who supplies the intent? Even if he does as ordered, he likely does not have the right intent!

The pilpulim you offered then lost me. I wished to tell you at that point that the fact that you find a contradiction of that sort within the framework of the Shulhan Aruch should not surprise you. Unlike Rishonim like Maimonides, Nahmanides, and the Rif, the Beth Yosef did not seek to find internal consistency within his own rulings. Rather, he often decided a law by surveying the opinions of his predecessors and following the majority. This would inevitably lead to a lack of internal consistency, and often contradictory rulings. Instead, you first need to address this “contradiction” within one of the early authorities’ systems. Also, you missed the easiest suggestion: intent is not what you think it is.

What is a Mitzwa? A commandment. What is a m’tzuwweh? One who is commanded. When a soldier receives an order, he says “yes, sir” and does it. When a servant receives instructions, he does as his master desires. That is how we relate to God’s commandments. We perform them because He ordered us to do so. He also ordered us to obey His courts and scholars. When someone is compelled by the court to perform a commandment, he is fulfilling that commandment with the very essence of intent. He is doing it because he has to, not because he wants to.

I believe you did not entertain this idea because you are too familiar with Lurianic, Kabbalistic concepts of fulfilling commandments, including mystical, higher-level intents when performing the commandments. In this philosophy, it does indeed seem difficult to ascribe such lofty intents to one who only acts out of compulsion.

It would also do us well to see how Maimonides put all of these concepts together. The Gemara entertains the idea that perhaps, as a rule, intent is necessary in the performance of the commandments. It does so when confronted by individual commandments which seemingly have this requirement and wants to know if perhaps this rule should extend to all the other commandments. As Rabbi Qappah and others have pointed out, the conclusion of the discussion in tractate Rosh Hashana is that indeed there are specific commandments that require intent, but it does not mean that the rest require intent, and that is how he rules. The reading of Sh’ma and sounding the shofar require a specific intent for their own reason — Sh’ma because it is the ultimate declaration of faith and intellectual acceptance of God’s Kingdom and shofar because it must be a “zikkaron,” memorial, and therefore a specific mental concentration is necessary. However, the other commandments have no such requirements. This is also borne out by the Talmud’s language. The question, “does this imply that performance of the commandments requires intent?” is bitmiha, incredulous, and that is why the Gemara ultimately brings no proof to that general assertion but instead can only find very specific examples that can not be used as paradigms for all the others.

This also makes sense within Maimonides’s worldview. The commandments were not given to us because they have magical properties. They refine our intellects, and it is first important to train ourselves to act as God commanded, and only then to understand. Na’aseh w’nishma. Mitoch shelo lishmah ba lishmah. We do because we are supposed to, and practice of the commandments will lead to acquiring desirable habits, and in turn, character traits, which is the ultimate reason for the commandments. This is yet another example of how the straightforward views and methods of our teacher avoid the various difficulties engendered by other approaches.

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From → logic, original

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