Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 19 June 2010 / 6 Tammuz 5770

All or Nothing

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Reuben
Dear Rabbi,

Based on my limited knowledge of Torah, it appears that an improperly done mitzvah receives no merit. For example: From what I understand, there are no degrees of kosher and treif food; either the food is kosher or it isn’t. If the food is kosher and you’ve said a proper blessing, you’ve done a mitzvah; if it’s treif, you’ve sinned.

My questions are thus: If I don’t eat pork or shellfish and refrain from eating dairy with meat, have I accomplished anything at all if none of the bread, apples, steak, broccoli, chicken, and cereal was kosher as per Torah guidelines? If I diligently light Shabbat candles and attend Friday night services, but then continue to watch television, turn on/off lights, and drive my car, have I accomplished anything at all?

If the answer to the above two examples is, “no, you have not fulfilled any mitzvot,” then is there any difference between doing the above and not even making the effort (since the effort did not result in a mitzvah)? Was the attempt at fulfilling a mitzvah “worth it”?

Thank you very much for your response!

Dear Reuben,

On the whole, it seems that your assumption is basically correct: there are no partial mitzvot – either you fulfill a mitzvah or you do not. But the conclusion you arrive at, namely that partially keeping kosher or Shabbat, for example, has no value is incorrect.

The reason I say this is because, if I understand your logic based on the examples you bring, you’re considering all kosher observance as one mitzvah or all Shabbat observance as one mitzvah. Therefore, according to your logic, if you don’t keep everything, you keep nothing.

This is incorrect.

Each instance of either refraining from transgressing or, alternatively, proactively fulfilling a mitzvah, is its own “mitzvah”.

So in the first case, a person has certainly accomplished a great deal by intentionally refraining from eating certain forbidden foods even if he ate other forbidden food.

Similarly, in the second case, he has also accomplished a great deal by proactively fulfilling certain mitzvot of Shabbat even if he transgresses others.

This reasoning is applicable in another common, but more subtle case — for example smoking on Shabbat. A person might think that since he can’t refrain from smoking entirely, there’s no point in even trying to keep Shabbat at all. This is wrong. He should keep as much of Shabbat as possible, even if he doesn’t reduce his amount of smoking. Furthermore, to the extent that he’s able to refrain from smoking in the name of Shabbat observance, he has actually observed Shabbat. If he cuts down from 10 to 5 cigarettes, rather than saying he transgresses with the 5 he smokes and so he might as well smoke the other 5, the truth is actually that he has observed Shabbat with the 5 he hasn’t smoked, so he might as well not smoke the other 5. In the merit of honoring the Shabbat by refraining from smoking 5, perhaps the next Shabbat he’ll have the fortitude to refrain from 6...until eventually, his partial Shabbat observance will become complete.

So the bottom line is that not each general category, but rather each individual mitzvah, is what’s reckoned. One is rewarded for the specific mitzvot he keeps while he’s simultaneously but separately held accountable for those he doesn’t.

May our portion be among those whose service of G-d is whole.

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