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Shiur #07: Mitzva Bo – Personal Performance of Mitzvot

  • Rav Moshe Taragin


            Two different gemarot (Kiddushin 41a and Shabbat 1191) introduce the concept of an ideal method for mitzva performance known as "mitzva bo yoter mi-be-shelucho," (the command is incumbent upon him (the performer) more than on a messenger.)  Many mitzvot do not allow for delegation to a shalaich; they are personally binding upon each individual.  For example, tefillin must be donned by each man and matza must be personally ingested by each individual.  There are several exceptional situations in which a mitzva may be delegated to an agent.  These gemarot assert that even in these circumstances personal performance is still superior to delegation to a messenger.


            This issue raises an interesting structural question: is personal performance merely an opportunity to display appropriate attitude toward mitzvot in general? Personal involvement does not alter the texture or grade of the mitzva but broadcasts a message of general evaluation of mitzvot.  Dispatching an agent would signal disinterest or indifference, while individual attention demonstrates interest and enthusiasm.  The "moment" of performing a mitzva grants the opportunity to exhibit a general attitude toward mitzvot. 


            Alternatively, the manner of performance may impact the actual caliber of the mitzva.  We may envision a personally performed mitzva as intrinsically SUPERIOR to a delegated one.  By performing the mitzva personally, it is almost as if an entirely different grade of mitzva were attained. 


            An interesting test case or nafka mina may be a situation in which personal performance of a mitzva is COUPLED with delegation. Is the ideal of mitzva bo yoter mi-be-shelucho achieved if a person personally attends to only part of a mitzvah and delegates the rest? 


In Siman 434, the Magen Avraham struggles to reconcile the ideal of personal performance with several gemarot in Pesachim which imply the validity of delegating the mitzva of bedikat chametz.  Several Acharonim suggest that by performing PART of bedika, subsequent delegation is no longer disrespectful to the mitzva.  A similar debate surrounds the popular minhag of inviting others to write a letter in a Sefer Torah.  Wouldn’t it be superior to complete the entire mitzva in a personal fashion? If, however, partial performance is sufficient to satisfy the principle of mitzva bo yoter mi-be-shelucho, this custom can be reconciled. 


The issue of partial personal performance may be linked to the original structural question.  If personal involvement is necessary to display interest in the mitzvot, perhaps partial involvement would suffice.  By including a personal element, I demonstrate interest and commitment.  Alternatively, if the actual caliber of a mitzva is dependent, at least in part, upon who performs it, we may require full personal attendance to a mitzva in order to attain the higher grade. 


            An interesting debate surrounds the possibility of repeating a mitzva in order to realize the ideal of mitzva bo yoter mi-be-shelucho.  The gemara in Kiddushin (41a) applies the mitzva bo yoter mi-be-sheluco ideal to the process of marrying a woman.  According to many opinions, the act of marriage is a Biblical mitzva and personal performance is superior based on the "mitzva bo" ideal. 


            The Tashbatz cites a situation in which the original kiddushin was executed by an agent.  Can or should the husband REPEAT kiddushin at the moment of nisuin in order to achieve the ideal of "personal involvement"? The Tashbatz allows this while the Rivash harshly rejects this notion since the second kiddushin is halakhically worthless.  Once the woman becomes his wife through the shaliach-brokered kiddushin, a subsequent act of kiddushin is halakhically impotent.  The Rivash certainly presents a compelling case. 


            In defense of the Tashbatz, we may view mitzva bo as a general demonstration of interest in mitzvot.  The principle does not affect the actual grade of a mitzva and can be exhibited even when unanchored to an actual mitzva or action of any halakhic import.  By repeating this skeleton kiddushin, a person is demonstrating personal commitment to mitzvot in general.  Even though the process contains no halakhic substance, it may still be demonstrative. 


            A different issue pertains to the type of agent to whom a mitzva is delegated.  All agents are not created equal and, consequentially, not all delegations are equivalent.  For example, a slave or permanent hired worker may represent a person more powerfully than a typical shaliach.  He may be empowered to certain halakhic opportunities that are withheld from classic agents.  A well known Machaneh Efrayim actually allows someone to recite a berakha upon a mitzva performed by a hired worker.  Halakha considers the action as having been executed by the person himself through his hired worker.  Would the ideal of mitzva bo be realized by delegating to this type of "super- shaliach?" Or would the principle still mandate personal involvement? 


If the actual grade of the mitzva is enhanced by personal performance, we may always prefer such involvement, even over special delegation.  If, however, personal involvement is intended only to demonstrate overall evaluation of mitzvot and avoid conveying disinterest, a person may assert those values by fulfilling a mitzva through a personal or paid agent.  The very decision to designate a mitzva to a special agent may broadcast general interest in mitzvot. 


            Perhaps the most important consequence of this question would be the value of mitzva bo when it clashes with a different gradient of mitzvot.  For example, the Chayei Adam questions whether it is proper to delegate a mitzva to a shaliach if that party can execute the mitzva in a superior fashion.  This would directly impact the mitzvot of writing a Sefer Torah and mila (circumcision), since both presumably require expertise which commoners do not possess. 


Similar questions are raised regarding a potential clash between the issue of zerizin and the principle of mitzva bo yoter mi-be-shelucho.  If personal attendance will delay the performance, should it still be prioritized?  Clearly, if the principle of mitzva bo is merely an extrinsic message delivered through personal involvement, it would not apply at an actual cost to a mitzva's quality.  If adhering to the principle would delay the mitzva or yield an inferior performance it should not obtain.  On the other hand, if personal involvement affects the actual grade of the mitzvah, we may demand it even at the cost of delaying the mitzva or even allowing the mitzva to be slightly aesthetically inferior to a "professional performance."  Personal attendance enhances the mitzva and displaces alternate enhancing elements of a mitzva performance. 


            There is a final issue whose logic may pivot upon our issue.  There is great debate surrounding the scope of this halakha.  The gemara cites the principle regarding preparations for Shabbat (kavod Shabbat) and marriage.  Most opinions assume that the principle applies to all mitzvot, while some notable exceptions (Rav Chayim the son of the Ohr Zarua being the earliest recorded dissenting opinion) limit the principle to the two stated instances of Shabbat and marriage.  Ultimately, if the principle of mitzva bo is merely intended to display general interest in mitzvot, it is unlikely that it would be limited to particular mitzvot.  Presumably, however, if we view personal involvement as an intrinsic quality of a mitzvah, we may gauge different mitzvot and possibly locate unique qualities to certain mitzvot that demand an upgrade through personal involvement.  The positions that limit the concept would almost certainly be forced to view the ideal as a structural element of a mitzva and not an independent display of religious enthusiasm.