MINCHAT ASHER: KLALEI HAMITZVOT by Rabbi Asher Weiss
Machon Minchat Asher, Ellul 5778
The study of the Talmud is a magnetizing process that draws a learner into debates of the past while urging them to consider how the laws and values emerging from those debates can be applied in the present and the future. This is why the authentic study of the Talmud situates the learner as both a learner and a contributor to any given Talmudic debate.
But the Talmud is unique for another reason, because any given debate does not begin with the principles being addressed. Instead, these principles are often only revealed after considerable analysis, and even when this occurs they are rarely accompanied by further details about how they operate and where they should be applied.
To take one example, Mishna Sukkah (3:1) informs us that a stolen lulav is unfit for use, although it does not provide a rationale for this law. Initially, the Gemara (Sukkah 29b) presumes that the reason for this rule is because there is a requirement – as derived from Vayikra 23:40 – to own the four species to fulfil the mitzvah of ‘taking them’ on Sukkot. However, as we deduce from the above-mentioned biblical verse, this requirement only applies to the first day of Sukkot. Consequently, the Gemara questions why the Mishna appears to rule that a stolen lulav is unfit for use for the entire Sukkot festival since the initial interpretation of the Gemara would allow its use from the second day of Sukkot onwards. It is in response to this question that Rav Yochanan then posits the halachic principle – itself based on Malachi 1:13 – of Mitzvah HaBa’ah B’Aveira (literally, ‘a mitzvah that comes from having done a transgression’) which he understands to be the rationale why a stolen lulav is unfit for use.
The Gemara itself remains inconclusive on this point, and this leads Tosfot (Sukkah 30a DH Mitoch) – in an effort to harmonize both opinions – to suggest that the principle of Mitzvah HaBa’ah B’Aveira only renders an item unfit for use with reference to a Torah commandment (D’Oraita), whereas such an item could be used to fulfil a rabbinic commandment (D’Rabbanan). Similarly, the seemingly contradictory positions of Rambam (Lulav 8:9 and Chametz U’Matzah 6:7) may be understood in the spirit of Tosfot’s explanation.
Others, however, interpret the debate differently, with the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 649:1) ruling that an item that has been stolen only remains unfit for use by the individual who stole the item, whereas the Magen Avraham (ibid. note 3) disagrees and concludes that the item is now unfit for use by others as well.
In terms of this latter debate, those somewhat familiar with Talmudic analysis may naturally conclude that the halachic factors informing each position can be explained by invoking the concepts of cheftza (item) and gavra (person), where the Shulchan Aruch identifies the person (ie. the thief) as the reason why an item cannot be used, while the Magen Avraham understands that the stolen item itself has now become rendered unfit. Naturally, this would suggest that there is a perpetual debate within the Talmud and later halachic works concerning the application of this Talmudic principle.
However Rav Asher Weiss, whose book Minchat Asher: Klalei HaMitzvot – based on his shabbat afternoon lectures from 5777 – was recently published, does not believe that this is the case both here (in terms of Mitzvah HaBa’ah B’Aveira), or with respect to numerous other Talmudic principles that he treats, and in each of the 28 chapters of Minchat Asher-Klalei HaMitzvot he attempts to identify the inner workings of a particular Talmudic principle, and how it operates in practice. Yet rather than following the contemporary rabbinic approach of harmonizing sources and thereby generating a workable operating principle for each Talmudic principle, Rabbi Weiss boldly identifies and establishes the inner workings of each Talmudic principle while highlighting those authorities who he believes have, and have not, fully grasped the mechanics of each principle.
Returning to the discussion of Mitzvah HaBa’ah B’Aveira, Rabbi Weiss cites Meiri’s comments on Tosfot with reference to the halachic status of a stolen sukkah, and on the basis of this and other observations he explains that the principle of Mitzvah HaBa’ah B’Aveira only applies to a cheftza d’mitzvah – a mitzvah item such as a lulav – which he contrasts with an item used for a mitzvah such as a shofar or a sukkah. Having then reached this moment of clarity in his presentation, Rabbi Weiss then explains where this rule does and does not apply in halacha such as whether a person fulfils a mitzvah with an item which they were unaware was stolen.
In a different chapter, Rabbi Weiss offers the same level of penetrating analysis, but this time with respect to the Talmudic principle of Ein Osin Mitzvot Chavilot Chavilot (do not perform mitzvot as if they are bundled together) which informs us that multiple mitzvot should not be performed at once because, as Rashi explains (Sotah 8a DH Chavilot), such behavior suggests that mitzvot are a burden that you wish to quickly remove. However, how far does this principle go? In his analysis which is based on a comparison of a sugya in Sotah 8a and the observations of the Magen Avraham (Orach Chaim 147:11), Rabbi Weiss explains that the principle of Ein Osin Mitzvot Chavilot Chavilot only applies when you deliberately perform two mitzvot together which naturally do not occur at the same time, whereas it is perfectly permissible for a parent to perform a brit milah on their twin boys at the same event as they both naturally require the mitzvah to be performed at the same time.
Similarly, in a further chapter Rabbi Weiss addresses the Talmudic principle of Zerizim Makdimim LeMitzvot where he explains – among other things – how the principle only applies with reference to the performance of a mitzvah act (eg. tefillah, milah, tekiat shofar), and not the performance of an act that will lead to a mitzvah outcome (eg. kiddushin).
I previously mentioned that Minchat Asher: Klalei HaMitzvot is based on Rabbi Asher Weiss’ shabbat afternoon lectures from 5777, and as it so happens I was present at one of these lectures when he analysed the Talmudic principle of Mitzvot Tzerichot Kavanah (mitzvot need to be performed with intention). Some while later I reflected on this experience where I wrote:
“if you have ever read books like G.H. Hardy’s ‘A Mathematician’s Apology’, you will know that the greatest mathematical proofs and truths are those which are both simple and elegant (eg. Euclid, Pythagoras, Einstein). Similarly, in terms of musicians, the greatest are those who bring freshness and clarity to the music that they play (eg. Glenn Gould, Itzhak Perlman). Over the years I have studied numerous Torah books and learnt from many Torah teachers. Of these, some have delighted in presenting complex insights, while others have sought to distill and simplify concepts and laws. Few, however, have been able to cut through the many strands of Torah thought and law and present a topic with elegance and clarity. However, last Shabbat I had the privilege of attending a shiur by Rav Asher Weiss which addressed the (seemingly) complex halakhic topic of Mitzvot Tzerichot Kavanah. Significantly, it was not Rav Weiss’ oratory that uplifted me, or necessarily his dazzling memory where he quoted tens of Talmudic and post-Talmudic sources by heart. Neither was it the packed shul with its spellbound audience. Instead, the only way I can put it is that what Rav Weiss did was present this sugya – which has been subject to treatment by thousands of scholars – with elegance and clarity such that all those attending fully comprehended a concept which they had likely overcomplicated and misunderstood for many years.”
Having studied Minchat Asher: Klalei HaMitzvot, revisited his thoughts on Mitzvot Tzerichot Kavanah, and thoroughly enjoyed his insights on the many other Talmudic principles which he addresses, I am brought back to two of the words that I included in my remarks above – those being ‘elegance’ and ‘clarity’ which are found both in this work, as well as his other exquisite Torah writings.
There are many Torah books that are being published today, with some being worthier than others. But few match the brilliance, boldness, creativity, elegance and clarity of Rabbi Weiss’ Minchat Asher: Klalei HaMitzvot.