Jewish Ethicist is a weekly column produced by the JCT Center for
Business Ethics in cooperation with Aish.com. In each edition,
Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir answers questions related to everyday
business and work dilemmas.
STEALING SOMEBODY ELSE'S MITZVAH
Can it ever be bad to do good?
Q. I recently did a kindness
for someone. But someone else wanted to do the same kindness, and felt
hurt that he was now unable to help. Am I required to forgo an
opportunity to do help when I know that someone else would like to do it
A. I think we're in good
shape when we are competing over mitzvot (good deeds), and not the petty
and unimportant things that people are usually fighting over.
But precisely because Jewish tradition recognizes the transcendent value
of good deeds, it also recognizes that we have to be equitable in
allocating them. According to Jewish law, it is forbidden to
"steal" someone else's mitzvah. The Rabbinical court can even
impose a fine on someone when they deprive the "owner" of an
opportunity to fulfill a commandment!
So we see that the ability to do a mitzvah is very valuable, so valuable
that if someone is deprived of this ability he deserves recompense. But
actually the mitzvah is even more valuable than this. Here is the
explanation of Rabbi Yechiel Weinberg, a leading Rabbi of the last
generation. "The fine of ten gold pieces is not a recompense for
the stolen mitzvah. For who can even begin to assess the reward for a
mitzvah? Rather, the fine is for the sorrow which he caused his fellow,
for every person is upset at having lost the opportunity to perform a
We learn from Rabbi Weinberg that the ability to do a mitzvah is
invaluable. And we also see that every person, not only an especially
pious one, has a powerful desire to do right and help others.
This doesn't necessarily mean that you did something wrong. The mitzvah
is not "stolen" unless there is some objective indication that
the person actually "owns" it. For instance, the father is
responsible for circumcising the son. So if someone else takes the baby
and performs the circumcision, then the father has been deprived. A
shochet (ritual slaughterer) is responsible for covering the blood of
the animal, so if someone else fulfills this mitzvah, then the shochet
has been deprived.
In your case, it may be appropriate for you to forego a kindness if you
know that it is primarily someone else's responsibility. If you are
first in line but you know that someone else would really like to do the
mitzva, then you are in an admirable position. You can choose between
two mitzvot: helping the person in need by doing the mitzvah or helping
the second person by allowing him to perform it in your place!
SOURCES: Babylonian Talmud, Bava Kamma 91b; Shulchan Aruch Choshen
Mishpat 382; Responsa Seridei Esh III:96
Send your queries to firstname.lastname@example.org
Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir
is Research Director of the Center for Business Ethics, Jerusalem
College of Technology. Rabbi Dr. Meir received his PhD in Economics from
MIT, and previously studied at Harvard. He subsequently studied at
various Israeli yeshivot, and received his ordination from the Israeli
Chief Rabbinate. Prior to moving to Israel, he worked at the Council of
Economic Advisers in the Reagan administration. Rabbi Dr. Meir is also a
Senior Lecturer in Economics at the Jerusalem College of Technology and
has published several articles on the subjects of modern business and
economics and Jewish law. He is also the author of Meaning
in Mitzvot, an OU.ORG feature.
The Jewish Ethicist
presents some general principles of Jewish law and ethics. For specific
questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.
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