The Value of Mitzvot

November 15, 2020

6 min read


Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9 )

Esav’s sale of the rights of the first-born (bechorah) to Yaakov1 is one of the most significant and difficult episodes of the Torah portion2: Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz3 asks the following question: He notes that the bechorah was something of inestimable spiritual value, as it represented the future service (Avodah) that the first-born was intended to perform in the Temple4. However, Esav was willing to sell the bechorah for a pot of lentils.

Rabbi Shmuelevitz notes the law of onaah – that if a person buys an item for significantly more5 than its true value, or sells an item for significantly less than its true value, then the sale is invalid, and an invalid sale (mekach ta’ut). Accordingly, asks Rabbi Shmuelevitz, why was the sale of the bechorah not considered to be an invalid sale given that Esav accorded it the value of a bowl of lentils, which was exceedingly less than its true value?

Rabbi Shmuelevitz answers this by dealing with another question: The Talmud6 states a principle: ‘Schar behai alma leicah’ - this is literally translated as, ‘there is no reward for mitzvot in this world’. The commentaries explain that a mitzvah is a spiritual action, and it can only be effectively rewarded with spiritual reward, which, ultimately is in the Next World (Olam Habah). Accordingly, when one does a mitzvah, the real reward for that mitzvah cannot be in this World (Olam Hazeh)7. However, the Torah states that: “He pays the ones that He hates, in front of him, to destroy him.8” This is interpreted to mean that evil people receive reward for the mitzvot that they do in this world, so that they will not receive any reward in the Next World. The obvious question is, how can they receive reward in this world for mitzvot, based on the principle of ‘there is no reward for mitzvot in this world’?

Rabbi Shmuelevitz answers that evidently, ‘there is no reward for mitzvot in this world’ only applies when a person appreciates the spiritual value of a mitzvah. However, if he only relates to the this-worldly benefits of mitzvot, such as receiving honor or money, then the reward he will get will be based on how much he values it. So, for example, if a person will observe Shabbat unless it will result in a loss of $100, then when he does keep Shabbat, he is not rewarded more than the equivalent of $100. Consequently, evil people9, who we assume only do Mitzvot for this-worldly gain, can only receive reward in this world for their mitzvot.

With this principle, Rabbi Shmuelevitz explains that the reason there was no onaah when Esav sold the bechora for a bowl of lentils, was because in the spiritual realm, the value of something is defined by the value the person gives it. So, even though the bechorah had great spiritual value, that was not important to Esav, and in his eyes it was worth a bowl of lentils. Consequently, for him, that was the true value of the bechorah.

One of the leading Rabbis about two hundred years ago, The ‘Haflaah’, also teaches this principle on many occasions10: In one place, he uses it to offer a very novel explanation of a Gemara11. The Gemara recounts that a person slaughtered an animal and was about to perform the Mitzva of covering the blood (kisui hadam). However, somebody else did the Mitzva before him, thus taking away his opportunity to do the Mitzva that he had a right to do. Rabban Gamliel ruled that the person who stole the Mitzva, had to pay 10 gold coins as a kind of ‘compensation’ for the Mitzva that he stole. The question arises as to how did Rabban Gamliel arrive at this seemingly arbitrary figure? The Haflaah suggests that Rabban Gamliel asked the person who lost the Mitzva if it was worth 10 gold coins and he answered affirmatively. Rabban Gamliel deduced from this that the Mitzva was worth 10 gold coins in that man’s eyes, therefore he ruled that the person who stole the Mitzva had to pay that amount. Had the man said that it was worth a greater amount to him, then the ‘Mitzva thief’ would have had to pay more.

The Chofetz Chaim is also recorded as discussing this idea, and applying it to our everyday lives12. Rabbi Shmuel Walkin quotes the Chofetz Chaim as saying that if, for example, a person refuses to interrupt his learning in order to be involved in business that will earn him a large amount of money, then he demonstrates that his Torah learning is more precious to him than money. Subsequently, he will receive a reward in Olam Habah that is congruent with his value. Unfortunately, he adds that the same applies in the opposite manner. If a person stops learning in order to earn a small amount of money, then his reward will be consistent with that amount, as that is how much he values his learning.

The Haflaah applies this in a positive manner as well: He writes that if a person does a Mitzva for pure reasons, because of his love of God, then he shows that he ascribes infinite value to the Mitzva. As a result, the reward he will receive is unlimited. Needless to say, this is a very high level, but by focusing on the value of Mitzvot, a person can gradually internalize that the value of Mitzvot is incomparable to that of money, and the more he does this, the closer to God he will become, because, as the Haflaah writes, the ultimate reward is closeness to God.

  1. Bereishit, 25:29-34.
  2. Bereishit, 25:29-34.
  3. Sichot Mussar, Maamer 94, p.402.
  4. See Rashi, Bereishit, 25:32, Dh: Vehineh. The first-borns were intended to perform the Avodah until they forfeited that right to the Kohanim after the Sin of the Golden Calf.
  5. More than an additional one sixth is considered in the realm of significantly more than its true value.
  6. Kiddushin, 39b.
  7. There are examples where the Torah or the Gemara explicitly state that there are benefits for Mitzvot in this world, but these are for side reasons, such as to enable a person to do more Mitzvot.
  8. Devarim, 7:10.
  9. It is important to note that this is only referring to people who have brazenly rejected the Torah. However, people who did not grow up knowing about the Torah are in a separate category.
  10. He says this idea in numerous places, including, Introduction to Chiddushim al Shas, HaMakneh, 40a, Panim Yafos, Pesicha 7 and others.
  11. Chullin, 87a.
  12. Meir Einei Yisrael.
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