There is a story I once heard about the Ben Ish Chai examining the only known etrog available in Iraq. Despite the great need for it, he declared the etrog passul for use and no one could fulfill the mitzva on Sukkot.

There are many physical mitzvot. Some of them form the main mitzvot of holidays, such as:

  1. Arba Minim
  2. Matzah
  3. Menorah
  4. Sukkah
  5. Shofar

What does someone do if, for reasons beyond one's control, it is impossible to attain them? Is there any kind of substitutional prayer or other that acknowledges this lack? There must have been communities throughout history, and including today, that dealt with these issues.

I'm familiar with substitutions for less-essential issues (i.e., the Ben Ish Chai Nitzavim 3 recommending washing the hands 40 times if there is no mikva or shower before a chag).

A friend of mine recently told me how, because of the remoteness of his location, he could not attain an etrog. So, without saying a bracha, he used a lemon and shook the "lulav." He knew he wasn't fulfilling a mitzva, but he felt he should at least do something to remind him of that mitzva.

Does anyone know of any customs that address lacking such physical mitzvot?

  • 2
    Not having a Mikvah is very different from not having a Sofer.
    – Double AA
    Sep 20, 2012 at 8:19
  • @DoubleAA: Of course, and I'm not equating the two; I'm familiar with a Polish community without a minyan that gets together to read from a Humash every Shabbat. Their closest mikveh is at least an hour's worth drive, and I don't what they would do without that. But my question is more about supplications that, while not fulfilling the mitzva, at least do something about the void.
    – Aryeh
    Sep 20, 2012 at 13:27
  • Wait, are you asking about general supplications when some mitzva is unavailable, or about specific procedures for when there is no lulav or etrog?
    – Double AA
    Sep 20, 2012 at 13:41
  • @DoubleAA: Either/or; If there is no lulav/etrog is there anything that can be done (supplications and/or procedures) that would be better than nothing?
    – Aryeh
    Sep 20, 2012 at 14:16
  • What's the difference between lulav without a lulav and the tamid offering without a Temple? Sep 20, 2012 at 20:48

3 Answers 3


I don't know of any prayers for such cases (other than ones regarding the lack of Temple services), there are many cases where one might be inclined to use something else instead (like using a lemon instead of an Esrog). In certain cases, it seems like it is better to 'fake it', so to speak, so as to do something even if it isn't the mitzvah, while in other cases this might be prohibited.

Let me elaborate. The Gemara specifically addresses the case of someone who lacks an Esrog:

לא מצא אתרוג לא יביא לא רמון ולא פריש ולא דבר אחר, פשיטא, מהו דתימא לייתי כי היכי שלא תשכח תורת אתרוג, קמ״ל זימנין דנפיק חורבא מיניה דאתי למיסרך.

If someone couldn't find an Esrog, he should not take a pomegranite or quince or anything else in it's stead. [Is this not] obvious?! One might have thought [that such a thing should be done] in order so as not to forget the law of the Esrog, so [the Tosefta] comes to teach us that sometimes destruction could come through such an act, as someone might come to be drawn after it (Sukkah 31b)

While the Gemara gives no prayer or the like for such a situation, it appears that it's better to do nothing than to hold a lemon instead of an Esrog, because one might mistakenly come to think that taking a lemon is a fulfillment of something. The Rambam (Sukkah 7:5) extends this to the other 3 species as well.

There are important exceptions to this rule of "not faking it". After all, there were several enactments made in order so as not to forget certain laws that depended on the Temple, which includes not only prohibitions (such as the fact that new grain is prohibited for entire 'yom hanef') but also positive institutions, such as waving the four species every day of Sukkos, and in a different way, the entire institiution of eiruvei chatzeros (see Eiruvin 46b, 80b) and taking Challah from dough in areas that would otherwise not require it (see Bechoros 27a). In these examples, where there's no possibility of 'destruction' (since the worst that would happen is that people do extra things that they aren't supposed to do, not that the fake rituals would replace required commands) such actions were encouraged.

However, the differences between permitted 'mitzvah remembrances' and prohibited ones may not be so clear cut. The Gemara also brings (approvingly) the case in Menachos 32b of the 'Munbaz household', who placed their Mezuzos on sticks in a manner which was not a fulfillment of the mitzvah when it was a time of danger.

There is one further case where the Sages explicitly stated doing something for the mitzvah at a time when it can't be fulfilled in actu: regarding Channukah candles. In a case of 'a time of danger', when one cannot place the candles where they would be seen, the Gemara Shabbos 21b says to place them on the table. (However, this may either be, as Tosfos explain, because there's also a fulfillment of pirsumei nisa in the house, or because Chanukah candles don't actually have to be visible to others). A friend of mine used this as fodder for a nice piece of Channukah drush

This plays regarding another question as well. According to some opinions, (Shyarei Knesses Hagedolah O.C. 143:1, brought by the Magen Avraham there) if a congregations does not have a Sefer Torah than they should read the appropriate reading from a printed book specifically "so as not to forget about the law of Torah reading". Even though others prohibit this practice, it appears that they do so only out of respect for the congregation, and not because they are worried that someone might come to think that reading from a Chumash or invalid Torah scroll is enough (See Aruch Hashulchan 143:7). Perhaps the difference between this case and that of the Esrog is that here, (1) the Torah portion is actually being read (i.e. people are still learning Torah) so at least something is being accomplished (2) since Torah reading is something done in public, we aren't worried that people will come to mistakenly think that it doesn't need to be done with a Torah scroll. The way in which this dispute is recorded in the Shibbolei Haleket (Tefillah 31), however, it appears that Rashi was opposed to this practice precisely due to the misdirection produced by such a practice, though it could be that he was only so opposed because Berachos were made on these readings of invalid sifrei Torah

  • 1
    note that if you lacked an esrog (or any of the species), you would still take the ones that you do have, without a blessing, as a remembrance (S.A. O.C. 646:11). Dec 30, 2014 at 18:39

There is a responsum in Shu"t Besamim Rosh (siman 244) that touches upon this.

The question was about whether a sea creature that had been found might possibly be the chilazon for techeiles.

At the end of the question an additional point was raised – if we do really lack the chilazon and we truly have no way to make valid techeiles, why don't we use kala ilan (imitation techeiles) as a remembrance for the mitzvah.

The response was that we do not use kala ilan as a remembrance because people might come to think that kala ilan is actually techeiles. The response cited the Talmud in Sukkah 31b about not taking a different fruit as a remembrance for an esrog, and the response explained that we only do a remembrance with the same species.

  • On a side note it seems that the "Rosh" would be ok with a min that fits all the criteria for the chilazon ,and he doesn't mention the aggadic ideas of nignaz,I found that intresting
    – sam
    May 20, 2019 at 0:04

This is an excellent question. I don't have a great answer and I hope it will get more posts.

I am acquainted with some ideas on this topic; some, but not all, through chassidus Chabad. Here are a few of them:

1. Get the mitzvah item at any cost.

This is what the Jews of old did. I include with them the Jews of the last century. The stories of their courage and mesiras nefesh in obtaining and preserving the needed articles, especially during the Holocaust, are extremely moving. Of course, this was always true, not only in Europe but for thousands of years before. This is no longer remarkable to the Jewish ear because we have heard it so much because it was done so much.

2. "If you can't, you can't"

There is such an idea as not being able to perform a mitzvah, and it very likely stops short of that, where other mitzvot such as pikuach nefesh or the Decree of Usha or similar checks from the Torah come in to play before you actually go to the end of human effort and find that you "can't." One is allowed to stop pursuing a mitzvah in these cases, and sometimes it is required.

Seen another way: We try as hard as we can, and count on H' for the rest. That is the proper way of doing everything. In the latest parshah (Pikudei) we saw H' command Moshe to lift the beams of the mishkan, which were physically impossible to lift; Moshe lifted them as high as he could, and H' lifted them the rest of the way. In other words we have faith that Siyata Dishmaya will narrow the gap between our abilities and what He has asked of us, and that G-d's mercy will close it. ("If you can't, you can.")

3. Teshuvah

Second chances, and opportunities for repair and teshuvah, exist in Judaism. In some cases they are enshrined in the tradition (tashlumin, Pesach Sheni, vidui and tachanun, korbanos, Yom Kippur, etc., etc.), and, where they are not, we take the standard steps of teshuvah (apologies, repairing damage, contrition, commitment to do better) and then look forward with clear eyes.

There are specific tikkunim such as personal fasts and tehillim that supposedly repair the spiritual damage of a mistake. The Lubavitcher Rebbe seemed to think, more practically, that atonement lay in making the next time better. He would suggest to chasidim who asked him for a tikkun that they spend time learning Torah about the area they had transgressed.

4. Doing another form of the mitzvah

There is some idea in our tradition of doing physical versions of mitzvot similar to those you cannot--as in using zeroa to stand in for the Peasch, and a personal fast to stand in for a korban. At least as interestingly, there are examples brought in our tradition of mitzvot that may be performed in spiritual form--either by learning, by davening, or by having a machshava--as an adjunct to the physical mitzvah or even as its replacement. The example repeated most throughout Jewish tradition is bringing korbanos, which the Talmud says in several places may be replaced by studying their halachos [Taanis 27b, Menachos 110a, Yoma 86b, and Vayikra Rabbah 7:3, which says: "Since you involve yourself in studying them, I consider it as though you had actually brought them."] According to various sources, the mitzvah of building the Temple is achieved by learning the halachos of building the Temple and/or by making a place for Hashem in our homes, hearts, and synagogues.

The maamar Isa B'Midrash Tehillim of the Fifth Rebbe of Chabad explores how a spiritually- or intellectually-attained mitzvah may accomplish the same spiritual tasks as a physical mitzvah. This idea of the "long-short way" in Chasidic practice, where a mitzvah is ideally accomplished through feeling, understanding, and self-transformation above and beneath the doing, is rehearsed in Tanya and throughout Chasidus Chabad. The existence of purely-spiritual forms of the mitsvot (all of them!) at the place of their initiation, namely the Supernal Realms, is the source of this idea. (I think I also learned that in the cases where the avos couldn't do a particular mitzvah because it or its conditions didn't yet exist, they did the spiritual form of the mitzvah, too.) It therefore seems that performing the spiritual equivalent of a mitzvah--namely, learning about it--is a legitimate option when one has no way to do the deed itself.

5. Paying someone else to do the mitzvah

I heard this was also recommended by the Lubavitcher Rebbe in a case when a chosid had missed an opportunity for a mitzvah. He suggested the chosid give some money afterwards to an organization working to further this mitzvah. This seems like a very practical offset to me.

Also, many mitzvot--like matones l'evyonim, writing a Torah scroll, kibbud av va'eim, and perhaps even certain prayers--may be performed through a shaluach or a motzi. Let us hope that the shaluach or the motzi has the ritual object that you lack.

6. Doing a different mitzvah

“A mitzvah does not atone for a sin” (Sforno, Exod. 32:33)--and yet a mitzvah is the right thing to be doing at all times. Perhaps, instead of the impossible mitzvah, one could fulfill another one, like one that one had neglected. There is maybe even a tiny bit of backup for this advice in the Torah: https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/900269/jewish/Positive-Commandment-87.htm

All mitzvot nourish the entire soul, and there are mitzvot that are obligated for all times. If you can't do the mitzvah you are supposed to be doing, at least you will be doing another mitzvah.

7. The effort to do the mitzvah is the mitzvah

To recapitulate number 2, what you're supposed to do is try. The time you spend trying is avodas hakodesh and whatever happens in the end is, strictly speaking, not your problem.


Everything I have just said and infinitely more is summarized most gracefully in this six-sentence letter of the Lubavitcher Rebbe to one of his chasidim.

And yet one more thing...

I find myself smiling at the apt and lovely fact that G-d anticipated your exact question to the letter and supplied a plain answer in His torah. (Isn't that always the case on Mi.Yodeya, as everywhere?!)

That answer, of course, is the story of the Chanukah miracle, in which people desperately wanted to do a mitzvah, but found themselves lacking the goods for it. What happened was that G-d provided the goods, much as He provided the lamb, and provides everything. The Torah was given to people; people live on Earth; Earth is defined by limitations. We, unlike angels, sometimes don't have the goods. And yet G-d makes a way for us to serve Him, as if to prove that He He wants us to serve Him indeed. We continue to celebrate that gift for the rest of our generations, as if to prove, as if it were necessary, that we really want to serve Him, too.

  • "Get the mitzvah item at any cost" is explicitly against the Gemara -- you don't spend more than a quarter of your wealth.
    – Shalom
    May 23, 2018 at 9:09
  • @Shalom I address this.
    – SAH
    May 23, 2018 at 13:46
  • @Shalom, side point, it's a fifth, as can be seen in the sources quoted by SAH directly in the linked answer. So SAH, can you explain what you mean in this answer by "Get the mitzvah item at any cost", when clearly the Halachah for positive Mitzvos is not so? May 23, 2018 at 17:58
  • 2
    @Salmononius2 it's quoted as "a fifth" ... but because this is a religion for thinking people, the Talmud talks about whether that fifth is "inclusive" or "exclusive" [milegav and milebar]. If you have $100 and you spend $25, then $25 / ($100 + $25) = 1/5.
    – Shalom
    May 23, 2018 at 22:10

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