Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Are Mitzvot Always Beneficial? Can A Mitzvah Harm Someone?

Are Mitzvot always beneficial? Are they always healthy? Let me take the question a step further; is it possible that a Mitzvah may harm us physically or psychologically?

Rambam tells us in MN 3:34 –

It is also important to note that the Law does not pay attention to the isolated. It is not based on conditions which rarely occur. Whatever the Law teaches, whether it is of an intellectual, a moral, or a practical character, is founded on that which is the rule and not on that which is the exception: it ignores the injury that might be caused to a single person through a certain maxim or a certain divine precept.

He makes even more explicit as he goes on in the chapter

We must consequently not be surprised when we find that the object of the Law does not fully appear in every individual; there must naturally be people who are not perfected by the instruction of the Law, just as there are beings which do not receive from the specific forms in Nature all that they require.”

Clearly, a Mitzvah may not work for everybody. Some people will even be harmed and find a Mitzvah counterproductive or harmful. I know that this sounds very disturbing to many people especially those brought up in the Frum community, but the facts are otherwise. Indeed, one may NOT say that a Mitzvah protects and therefore I will keep it even when it puts my life at risk. Unless we are dealing with one of three critical Mitzvot, Avodah Zara (Idolatry), murder or certain sexual transgressions, or in matters that involve Chilul Hashem, life takes precedence. One who chooses to give the Mitzvah precedence in such cases is wrong.

 ג   ואסור להתמהמה בחילול שבת, לחולה שיש בו סכנה, שנאמר "אשר יעשה אותם האדם וחי בהם" (ויקרא יח,ה), ולא שימות בהם.  הא למדת, שאין משפטי התורה נקמה בעולם, אלא רחמים וחסד ושלום בעולם.  ואלו המינים שאומרים שזה חילול ואסור, עליהן הכתוב אומר "וגם אני נתתי להם, חוקים לא טובים; ומשפטים--לא יחיו, בהם"
MT Hil Shabbat 2:3

If Mitzvot were always protective, why demand they be ignored when life is at risk? Would they not protect? Rambam in fact condemns those who believe Mitzvot take precedence over life and refers to them as Minim.

The ultimate goal of Mitzvot is to make us into better people. They are meant to control unbridled desires and to set social rules so that we live in an orderly and just society. The ultimate goal, however, is to allow us to have quality time to get to know the world we live in and try to decipher the purpose of our existence, the will of God who put us here. Our physical and psychic well-being is necessary if we are to accomplish that but is not a goal in itself. Some positive or negative commandments may be counterproductive to certain individuals. Unless it is life threatening, that individual is required to abide by the law no matter how painful or uncomfortable it is. That subservience to the law in itself is spiritually beneficial and strengthens character although it may hurt in other areas. That is the deep meaning of the Mishna (Avot 4:2) ששכר מצוה מצוה – the reward of a Mitzvah is the deed itself.


  1. What about kohanim requiring specialists because of the cold stone floor and the meat-heavy diets? (Yerushalmi Shekalim -- 21b in the Vilna Bavli edition) There we see observance of particular mitzvos that caused distress to the majority in the usual case.

    A more obvious example, but it came to me second -- milchemes mitzvah. Was is known to be damaging to more than "certain individuals".


  2. Gentiles have the privilege to have a relationship with God as individual persons by living a moral life. Jews don't.
    The Law is not a just set of instructions for individual persons, but it's a means for fashioning the Jewish people as God's instrument in history. Therefore, like any legal system it appeals to an average person. Those who do get injured should be aware that the existence of the nation/society as a whole is more important.