The Case of the Homemade Matza
David loves Pesach. The Sederis the highlight of his year, and in particular he loves matza. He spent some time in yeshiva and remembers learning all about the deeper meaning of this mitzvah and it has always inspired him. He decides one year that he is going to make his own matzafrom scratch. He buys a little piece of land, grows his own wheat, grinds it by himself into flour and bakes it into his very own, perfectly rounded, delicious matzot.
David invites his friend Aaron to join him for his Seder, at which his proudly produces his homemade matza and explains to Aaron how he painstakingly made them. Aaron is very impressed with David’s dedication. “What did you do with the ma’aser?” Aaron asks him. David looks puzzled: “The what-now?” “You know,” Aaron continued, “you’re supposed to give 10% of the grain to charity. Otherwise we can’t eat it!”
David is crestfallen. All his hard work has been for nothing. And then, somewhere in the back of his mind, he remembers something he learned in yeshiva. A glimmer of hope, something … something … “Positive, negative … cancels out … matza … I think we can eat it!” he blurts out. What is he talking about?
There are two types of mitzvot in the Torah: positive ones (“do this, do that”) and negative ones (“don’t do this, don’t do that”). In some circumstances there can be a clash between a positive and a negative mitzvah. The Gemara tells us:
“Whenever you encounter a positive mitzvahand a negative mitzvah, if both can be fulfilled, that is ideal. But if not, the positive mitzvahsupersedes the negative one.” (Menachot 40a)
Elsewhere the Gemara gives the source for this concept. It’s based on two verses in the Torah:
“Do not wear sha’atnez — wool and linen — together. Make fringes for yourself on the four corners of your clothing…” (Numbers 22:11-12)
From the juxtaposition of the two notions: 1) not wearing sha’atnez and 2) wearing tzitzis — the gemara in Yevamot 4a expounds that it is permissible to wear wool and linen together in order to fulfill the mitzvahof tzitzit. This serves as the paradigm for the rule that a positive mitzvah trumps a negative one. (It is important to stress that this is only where there is a clash between the two. But in a case where there is no pressing need to cancel out the negative mitzvah because there is some other way to perform the positive mitzvah, this rule obviously does not apply.)
In any event, this was David’s idea. Of course, there is a prohibition to eat anything from which 10% hasn’t been given to charity. But there is a positive mitzvahto eat matza on Pesach! This seems to be a classic case of a positive/negative clash. Surely the rule should kick in and the positive mitzvahshould cancel out the negative one! It’s a Pesach miracle! Matza for everyone!
But, as with seemingly everything in Judaism, it’s not quite that simple.
Sadly, David is mistaken. There is a subtle but important distinction between the matza case and our general positive vs. negative mitzvah idea. In the matza case we want to use an object which itself is forbidden to perform a mitzvah. Contrast this with our paradigm case of tzitzit, where we wanted to use wool to make fringes on a linen item of clothing (or vice-versa) where there is nothing forbidden about the wool itself, the object. It is only that the actionof tying the wool onto the linen creates a forbidden garment. So when the action is also a positive mitzvah, the positive mitzvah overrides the negative mitzvah. But in the matza case, David and Aaron would be trying to perform a mitzvah with a forbidden object. It would be comparable to trying to do a mitzvahby eating stolen matza, or to putting on stolen tefillin. This is referred to as a “mitzvah by means of a transgression”and is forbidden. Rambam says about such an action that “G-d hates it.” (Issurei Mizbe’ach 5:9)
So poor David and Aaron will have to make do without their homemade matza this Pesach. But let’s return to the idea of a positive commandment overriding a prohibition. We have seen that the source of this idea is a verse in the Torah. But perhaps we can attempt an approach towards understanding the philosophy underlying this concept.
Nachmanides explains that fulfilling a positive precept of the Torah is greater than refraining from doing something which is forbidden, because fulfilling G-d’s command to do something expresses a love for G-d and a desire to connect to Him spiritually by perform the mitzvah he gave. (In fact the word mitzvahitself comes from a root meaning “connect” — “commandment” is a very rough translation!) Not doing something forbidden stems from a type of trepidation — a fear and awe of G-d — a desire not to incur His wrath. Love is a more powerful than fear, and therefore, when there is no way to fulfill both, and one has to be sacrificed, a positive commandment will trump a prohibition. True as this idea undoubtedly is, we should strive to refrain from doing things which G-d has forbidden not just out of fear and awe, but out of love. In fact, our fear of G-d should be the fear of disappointing him, of harming our relationship with him. We should aim to build our connection with good acts, with positive mitzvot (from the root meaning “connect”) and to refrain from doing anything to sabotage that connection.