Many commentators have told us to perform the commandments for their own sake, out of love, not for the purpose of receiving rewards. The Rambam summarized this exhortation as follows :

"When I do these commandments ... what is the reward that I will receive for it?" ... The Sages have warned about this: ... A person should not make [reward] the objective of his service to God... And this is what ... Antigonos, the man of Sokho, said: "Do not be as servants who are serving the master in order to receive a reward, rather be as servants who are serving the master not in order to receive a reward." [Avot 1:3] And indeed ... one should believe in the truth for the sake of the truth; and this is the matter they call, 'one who serves from love.' And they said, ""Who greatly desires His commandments" [Psalms 112:1] Rabbi Eliezer said, 'His commandments; and not the reward of His commandments."" [Avodah Zarah 19a] ... And even greater than this is what they said in the Sifrei: "[Do not] say, 'Behold, I am learning Torah so that I will be rich; so that I will be called rabbi; so that I will receive reward in the world to come'; for this reason it is written, 'To love the Lord your God'. All that you do, do it only out of love." [Sifrei Devarim 41:23] ... And this is the level of Avraham ... [Sotah 31a] - He served from love. [Rambam on Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1; see also Nedarim 62a; Avodah Zarah 19a]

But God plainly stated again and again in the Torah that the Covenant is a quid pro quo: If we Jews do our part, God will do his. This is the very meaning of the word "covenant". It is most clearly stated in Parshat Ki Tavo:

If you ... fulfill the commandments ... God will place you supreme above all the nations of the earth... Blessed will be the fruit of your womb, your soil, your livestock, your basket and your kneading bowl. God will cause your enemies ... to be beaten... He will establish you as His holy people ... He will open up for you His good treasury, the heaven, to give your land its rain in its season, and to bless everything that you do... You will lend ... but you will not [need to] borrow. [Deut. 28:1-13]

I understand that it's better, nobler, holier, more wholesome, etc., not to expect rewards for the things we do, not to look forward to them, not to work specifically for them. But is there really a need to make those who do things for rewards feel bad, small, mercenary, guilty, ashamed, less-worthy, etc.?

Isn't the "Covenant" (contract, deal, two-sided agreement) the very basis of Judaism?

  • Wrong no (Pesachim 50). It's Just not the level of lishma. And we should learn lishma (sof kiddushin beis hillel). Mishna says not to serve for reward. Also reward for what ? Mitzvohs in this world? Pashtus schar mitzvah leka (kiddushin). The next world? Just by you believing in Judaism that HaShem will reward you is in itself a reward kyaduaw Sep 6, 2020 at 14:48
  • Related, (maybe duplicate?): judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/92618/…
    – Alex
    Sep 6, 2020 at 17:21
  • Where are you seeing that "those who do things for rewards [should be made to] feel bad, small, mercenary, guilty, ashamed, less-worthy, etc."? The sources you're bringing are only saying that an ideal mentality is to serve G-d selflessly, but why does that mean it is automatically degrading to these who serve with ulterior motive? Sep 6, 2020 at 23:49

5 Answers 5


There is a mishnah (Pirqei Avos 1:3) on the topic:

אַנְטִיגְנוֹס אִישׁ סוֹכוֹ קִבֵּל מִשִּׁמְעוֹן הַצַּדִּיק. הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אַל תִּהְיוּ כַעֲבָדִים הַמְשַׁמְּשִׁין אֶת הָרַב עַל מְנָת לְקַבֵּל פְּרָס, אֶלָּא הֱווּ כַעֲבָדִים הַמְשַׁמְּשִׁין אֶת הָרַב שֶׁלֹּא עַל מְנָת לְקַבֵּל פְּרָס, וִיהִי מוֹרָא שָׁמַיִם עֲלֵיכֶם:

Antigonus a man of Socho received [the oral tradition] from Shimon the Righteous. He used to say: do not be like servants who serve the master in the expectation of receiving a reward, but be like servants who serve the master without the expectation of receiving a reward, and let the fear of Heaven be upon you.

But the gemara goes even farther. Bava Basra 10b:

תניא: אמר להן רבן יוחנן בן זכאי לתלמידיו, "בני, מהו שאמר הכתוב ...?" נענה רבי אליעזר, "'וחסד לאומים חטאת' (משלי יד:לד) -- כל צדקה וחסד שאומות עובדי כוכבים עושין חטא הוא להן. שאינם עושין אלא להתגדל בו. כמו שנאמר (עזרא ו:י) 'די להוון מהקרבין ניחוחין לאלהה שמיא ומצליין לחיי מלכא ובנוהי.'"

It is taught in a beraisa: Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai said to his students, "My sons, what is the meaning of that which the verse (Proverb 14:34)...?" Rabbi Eliezer answered, “'But the kindness of the peoples is sin,' meaning that all the acts of charity and kindness that the idolatrous nations perform is counted as a sin for them, since they perform them only to elevate themselves. As it says, 'That they may sacrifice offerings of pleasing aroma to the God of heaven, and pray for the life of the king and of his sons.'” (Ezra 6:10)

Rabbi Eliezer says that this is a defining feature of idolatry. A pagan offers sacrifices to appease the gods and get what they want out of them. This is why an idolater's kindness is a sin -- because it's not genuine; it's about making sure Olympus / Asgard / whereever give them more.

About the flipside, punishment, the Ramchal (Mesillas Yesharim ch. 24) makes a distinction between yir'as ha'onesh -- fear of punishment, and yir'as hacheit -- fear of the sin itself. Fear of punishment, he says, is for amei ha'aretz, the more ignorant person, who needs a prod to do the right thing. But the true yir'ah is awe of the Grandeur of G-d, an aspect of which is fear of the sin itself. Being afraid one might do the wrong thing simply because it's the wrong thing.

Like in a good marriage. A husband isn't afraid of doing something that would upset his wife because she will take revenge or not do him a favor. Rather, in a healthy relationship, he doesn't want to do something that would upset her because it would upset her. Not fear of her punishing him, but fear of the offense itself.

And similarly reward. We shouldn't be doing mitzvos because Hashem will reward us. Instead simply because it is what Hashem wants of us.

There is also a causal connection between mitzvah and positive outcomes. After all, the One Who designed the universe would know what actions would cause it to run smoothly. Following a doctor's orders similarly come with the "reward" of good health.

I believe that's what the Torah is speaking of when it talks about reward and punishment. Not so much a motivator -- although the Ramchal says that some people do require such sticks and carrots. But when viewed this way, the positive outcome is a cause of the mitzvah, a reason why G-d would command such a thing.

  • I think the Torah promises reward in this life if we keep the commandments because most people need the sticks and carrots. Rambam seems to say that the concept of getting a reward for a mitzvah is childish and writes that this was only a motivator.
    – Turk Hill
    Sep 7, 2020 at 1:12
  • The Rambam only said the Sages "warned" us about performing mitzvot for rewards. Now your quotes make it sound that it's positively a "sin" to do so. All this is orthogonal to the meaning of the word "covenant", basis of Judaism. Sep 7, 2020 at 1:29
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    Micha you’re being distracted by the concept of “Lishma”. Focus on Maurice’s question. He’s asking is it wrong to expect reward? This is only a question about is there a concept of reward and punishment, not about contrasting reward and punishment with Lishmah. The simple answer is no, it’s not wrong to expect reward for mitzvah performance. Sep 7, 2020 at 2:10
  • Maurice’s secondary question at the end is touching on the subject of motivation, which is about Lishmah as a side issue. But even there, he is only asking if you should make someone feel bad if their motivation isn’t perfect. And generally the answer to that is no, you shouldn’t lay a guilt trip on someone who has improper motivation. Try to teach them about proper motivation. Sep 7, 2020 at 2:17
  • I think it is not wrong to expect a reward but it is not the correct motivation to preform a miztvot at all.
    – Turk Hill
    Sep 7, 2020 at 3:31

Rambam in Hilchot Teshuvah 9:1 explains that the ‘rewards’ listed in the convenant are not at all ends in and of themselves.

Rather, if we behave correctly, G-d grants us a tranquil, comfortable existence in This World, making it easier for us to gain life in the Next World, by allowing us time and opportunity to focus on living a life of service to Him.

  • I know that's what the Rambam thinks. I quoted him. This does not answer my question. The best should never be made the enemy of the good. Sep 6, 2020 at 15:49
  • I don’t see you quoting this Rambam in your question. Rambam’s understanding of the covenant is vastly different from the understanding upon which your question is predicated. With Rambam’s understanding, your question falls away.
    – Joel K
    Sep 6, 2020 at 15:52
  • "the ‘rewards’ listed in the convenant are not at all ends in and of themselves." That's clearly what he implied in what I did quote. Sep 6, 2020 at 15:55
  • I thought your question was how to reconcile Rambam’s view of reward with the verses of the covenant. Now you’re telling me that you’re aware of Rambam’s reconciliation, you just don’t like it? Is that a fair summary of your question?
    – Joel K
    Sep 6, 2020 at 16:05
  • You might say so. I just don't see the need to inveigh against those who do things for rewards. Sep 6, 2020 at 17:09

Of course one should not demean those whose observance is motivated by ulterior motives, especially because most people are a mix of better and not so good intentions on any given day. Saying that one behavior or attitude is greater than another is not meant to put down those who have yet to reach the greater level.

This is discussed at length in the perakim of Nefesh HaChayim. (In between shaar 3 and 4) Rav Moshe Feinstein z"l writes many times in Darash Moshe that even one who is motivated by ulterior motives still has a major element of lishmah, and the ulterior motives are just necessary to help him combat his yetzer hara.

  • Yes, it says in many places: Do it not for its own sake (if that's how you feel), and in time you will come to do it for its own sake. That sure is a gentler way to put it. Sep 6, 2020 at 18:44

The best answer to my question I have seen so far is in the Talmud:

Rav Yehudah said that Rav said: “A person should always occupy himself with Torah and good deeds, even if it is not for their own sake, because doing so will lead him eventually to performing them for their own sake.” [Pesachim 50b]

Thus, performing commandments in the expectation of the promised rewards is a good start, not to be minimized. Later, we will naturally come to performing them for their own sake.


What is reward and punishment and how does it work?

The biblical portion of Eikev starts with Deuteronomy 7:12 and details what righteous Jews can expect if they act according to the commands. For example, Deuteronomy 7 promises grain, fruit, wine, oil, cattle, flocks, goats, and not infertility, illnesses or enemies. Deuteronomy 11 promises additional rain and grass for the animals to eat. It seems that Jews act righteously only to gain something back in return, namely rewards. But isn't reward and punishment a childish idea? Perhaps scripture speaks of reward and punishment as a way to stimulate proper behavior.

Mishnah Avot 1:3 certainly thinks so when it states:

“Be not like the servant who serves a master on the condition of receiving a gift; but be like the servant who serves a master not on the condition of receiving an award.”

The Mishnah Avot d’Rabbi Natan disagreed, arguing, “Is it conceivable that a laborer works all day and does not take his pay home in the evening?”

What did Maimonides think

Maimonides stood in stark constant and was opposed to the childish notion of reward and punishment. In his introduction to the tenth chapter of the talmudic tractate of Sanhedrin, Chelek, he wrote, “There are many different opinions, but these are based on differences in understanding.” He felt that when the soul departed the body, it would not enjoy eternal bliss at Garden of Eden nor would the wicked burn in the fiery flames of Gehinnom. He felt that people would not be rewarded in the time of the Messiah or “the world to come,” nor is reward doled out in the resurrection of the dead, he believed this to be spiritual. He rejected these ideas as childish, comparing them to a child who needs to be bribed by candies or an adult by money or reputation as a rabbi. As it would be ridiculous to imagine that G-d punishes fish, so to, G-d does not reward nor punishes people.

“All this,” says Maimonides, “is shameful. It is only necessary because of the immature nature of people who need bribes. They make the ultimate goal of study something other than the study itself.”

He then quotes Antigonos (who also felt that no one should expect payment), and Midrash Sifre commentary on Deuteronomy 11:13:

“Should a person say: I will study Torah so that I will become wealthy... so that I will be called ‘rabbi,’... so that I will receive payment in the world to come. Behold, it is written: ‘to love your God.’ Everything that you do, do only out of love.”

True, the Decalogue promises a reward of a long life for the observance, but it is for the masses who need to be told how to act morality. Rather than accept the usual approach, the Rambam felt that the "Garden of Eden" story was a parable which taught a person how to act properly. In his Commentary on the Mishnah, Shemoneh Perakim, he agreed with the Greek pagan Aristotle, that one should act accordingly and restrain themselves from excess in order to follow the middle path or, as commonly called by Maimonides, the Golden Mean. This path avoids extremes and promotes proper habits. Rambam sees the Tree of "good and evil" in the parable not as a distinction from right and wrong but from truth and falsehood. Meaning, that people should evaluate every situation, determine the best course of action, and act intelligently, not morally because morality is only a set of rules for the general public who needs to be told how to act in any given situation, but is by no means conventional. Simply stated, a good person prefers good acts because it is the right thing to do and avoids evil because it is wrong.


Maimonides felt that people should develop their intellect to learn what is truthful. Of course, Maimonides was careful to permit the masses to believe in the immature notions if it helped them psychologically. But the ultimate reward is for those who seek the truth and study its content. Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz adored Maimonides so much so, that he repeated his teachings in almost all of his books. Indeed, the first paragraph of the shema, Deuteronomy 5:4–9, reflects this rational approach, while the second paragraph, Deuteronomy 11:13–21, promises rewards for the masses, who otherwise, would be promoted to abandon the mitzvah, G-d, and His Torah altogether.

  • 1
    You have a whole bunch of claims here about Maimonides's views. You may want to provide some quotations to support them, as some of them are debatable if not outright contradicted by Maimonides himself.
    – Alex
    Sep 6, 2020 at 17:38
  • 2
    "The Mishnah Avot d’Rabbi Natan disagreed, arguing, “Is it conceivable that a laborer works all day and does not take his pay home in the evening?”" I don't see this disagreeing with Avos
    – robev
    Sep 6, 2020 at 18:36
  • @robev There is a disagreement.
    – Turk Hill
    Sep 6, 2020 at 22:15
  • @Alex There are sources to back up in the answer. Almost every scholar agrees with me.
    – Turk Hill
    Sep 6, 2020 at 22:16
  • 1
    Your word vs. mine. I'll pick mine :-)
    – robev
    Sep 6, 2020 at 23:18

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