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To what lengths must one go to fulfill a positive commandment, or avoid transgressing a negative one?

Obviously, with few exceptions, one must not go so far as to die in order to fulfill a commandment. However, short of that, how far must one go? Must (may) one make oneself sick in order to do a mitzvah? Must one spend so much money in doing a mitzvah that one is reduced to begging thereafter? Must one suffer even the most extreme emotional toll in order to perform a mitzvah?

Does any of this depend on the nature of the mitzvah, or vary for specific (individual) mitzvot?

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    I always wondered if this is only by a mitzvah d'oraisa or even by a mitzvah d'rabbanan. – Yehoshua Apr 19 '15 at 9:20
  • @Yehoshua mitzvot d'oraysa and d'rabanan have very different sets of laws in this regard. – LN6595 Nov 26 '15 at 3:05
  • It's interesting to consider De'ot 4:19 and Ishut 15:1 as an example of this. – Double AA May 2 '17 at 21:55
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SAH gave an excellent exposition of the laws of mitzvot from the Torah. Rabbinic mitzvot are subject to a more lenient set of laws. While each Rabbinic mitzvah has its own laws - please consult your own LOR, do research, or ask separately - the following things are often considered regarding Rabbinic obligations:

  1. Hefsed Gadol - a large loss of money
  2. Tza'ar Gadol/Choleh she'ayn bo sakanah - illness (non life-threatening)
  3. Kavod Habriyos - embarrassment
  4. Mitzvah (sometimes one may transgress a Rabbinic prohibition to enable him or the public to perform a mitzvah)

These factors are almost never a consideration in a Mitzvah d'oraysa, a Biblical Mitzvah. They are taken into account for Rabbinic mitzvot, though different Rabbinic mitzvot have their own stringencies and leinencies.

Even when one is not required to fulfill a mitzvah, it is often a meritorious act to do so anyways.

  • You say "the following are often considered regarding Rabbinic obligations: Hefsed Gadol." I realize your answer does not imply this, but simply because it's intriguing to ask: Do you think anyone would advocate transgressing an arguably Rabbinical mitzvah (such as a Biblical melacha performed with a shinui) on Shabbos in order to prevent monetary loss? (IF THIS APPLIES TO YOU, CYLOR!!!!!!) – SAH Apr 27 '16 at 14:05
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    Melacha with a shinui is a stricter category of Rabbinic Law. Amira lakum, for example, is the type of situation where hefsed gadol would be considered. At the other extreme, melacha sheayna tzricha lgufah has almost no leinencies. Not all Rabbinic obligations were created equal. – LN6595 Aug 12 '18 at 2:18
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"Rama, Orach Chaim 656:1, rules that one must spend up to one-fifth of his assets on order to fulfill a positive [Biblical] mitzvah and his entire fortune in order not to violate a negative [Biblical] commandment." (source) As for negative commandments that are violated by passivity--such as the commandment that you may not allow someone else to die--there is dispute about whether they are considered "positive" or "negative" commandments for the purposes of this question. R. Yair Bachrach, in Chavot Yair no. 139, considers this example a positive commandment, which one must spend up to one-fifth of his assets to fulfill, whereas Rivash (no. 387) considers it a negative commandment for which one must spend one's entire fortune.

As for illness: a choleh or sick person is considered exempt from some mitzvot, notably fasting, but Rabbinical opinions seem to vary substantially as to the full extent of a sick person's exemptions from mitzvot. Some opinions are discussed here. Very generally, it seems that a sick person is often exempt from Rabbinical commandments within certain parameters; as for Torah commandments, he may be exempt from certain positive commandments, but rarely negative ones. (CYLOR if it applies to you, of course...)

The question of whether one should make himself ill--including, perhaps, emotional illness--in order to fulfill a commandment is another question of debate, but at least one authority suggests that "Since one is not required to spend more than a fifth of his assets for a mitzvas aseh then certainly one is not required to make himself sick." Whether it would be permissible to do so (i.e., to make oneself sick in order to perform a mitzvah) is still unclear to me.

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    "Since one is not required to spend... one is not required to make himself sick." This is also the ruling of R' Moshe Feinstein (Igros Moshe OC vol. 1, 172). As far as whether it is permitted, see Y'rushalmi P'sachim (10:1) where R' Yona and R' Yuda drank the four cups of wine at the seder even though they suffered headaches for months afterwards as a result: רבי יונה כדעתיה דרבי יונה שתי ארבעתי כסוי דלילי פסחא וחזיק רישיה עד עצרתה רבי יודה בי רבי אלעי שתי ארבעתי כסוי דלילי פיסחא וחזיק רישיה עד חגא. (Though perhaps one can argue about whether headaches are considered an illness). – Fred Mar 19 '13 at 16:53
  • Would someone be so kind as to translate the Hebrew quote for me? – SAH Oct 4 '13 at 21:26
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    "Rabbi Yonah follows his own opinion [that one may drink mevushal (cooked) wine for the four cups], for Rabbi Yonah drank the four cups on the night of Passover and suffered headaches until Shavuos. Rabbi Yudah [did likewise] and suffered headaches until Sukkos." I just looked up the Korban HaEida commentary on this, which explains that Rabbi Yonah, after experiencing persistent headaches, subsequently permitted drinking mevushal wine (which is generally considered inferior to non-mevushal wine) for the four cups, since it is less likely to harm one's health. – Fred Oct 7 '13 at 2:12
  • @Fred How does KH interpret R Yudah's story? He also permitted such wine after extensive headaches? – Double AA Apr 24 '14 at 13:57
  • @DoubleAA Most likely, the KH would say that R' Yehuda bar Il'ai reacted to his unpleasant experience in a similar manner. As the Yerushalmi mentions, R' Yudah permitted diluted wine, while R' Yonah permitted m'vushal. A discussion on the halachic differences between mazug and m'vushal is interesting in and of itself, but perhaps one approach to the difference between the earlier ruling of R' Yudah permitting mazug and the later ruling of R' Yonah permitting m'vushal is that m'vushal may have simply been an uncommon form of wine back in R' Yudah's time (see Rosh Avoda Zara 2:13). – Fred Apr 24 '14 at 23:39
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The question of whether one must perform a positive commandment even if it will make him sick was addressed by R. Moshe Feinstein in a responsum:

Igrot Moshe O.C. 1:172

באם מחוייב להכנס בחולי בשביל קיום מצות עשה דשופר וכדומה

נשאלתי באחד שהיה חולה במחלת שטות והוא בבית החולים ונרפא אבל הרופאים אומרים שצ"ל שם עוד איזה שבועות תחת השגחתם כדי שלא יתקלקל ח"ו אם צריכים להוציאו משם כדי שיקיים מצות שופר שבבית החולים אי אפשר והשבתי שלע"ד אין צריכים להוציאו כי על עשה גם אונס ממון יותר מחומש נחשב אונס לפוטרו ואולי גם בפחות מחומש עיין בסי' תרנ"ו במג"א סק"ז ובספרי דברות משה על ב"ק סי' פ"ט הערה כ"ח וא"כ כ"ש זה שעדיף להאדם אף מחומש ממון ויותר שהיה מוציא להתרפא אף כל ממונו שנחשב אנוס ממצות עשה דשופר ופטור

משה פיינשטיין

Whether one is obligated to cause himself to get sick in order to fulfill the positive commandment of shofar or the like.

I was asked about someone who was sick with the disease of insanity, and he is in the hospital (psych ward?) and he has recovered, but the doctors say that he needs to remain there for another few weeks under their care in order to prevent him from getting ruined, God forbid. Do they need to take him out of there in order to fulfill the commandment of shofar, which is impossible [to fulfill] in the hospital.

I answered that in my humble opinion they do not need to take him out, because for a positive commandment even a monetary ones of more than a fifth is considered an ones to exempt him, and perhaps even less than a fifth – see the Magen Avraham 656:7 and my book Dibrot Moshe on Bava Kamma §89 Note 28. If so, certainly here where the person would rather give up a fifth of his money and more – he would even give up all his money to get cured – it is considered an ones from the positive commandment of shofar, and he is exempt.

Moshe Feinstein.

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    Very valuable answer, especially insofar as you cited a top authority. Thanks. – SAH Jul 29 '18 at 16:31
  • Sorry I had to unaccept you; I hadn't realized that I had actually accepted another answer first. Again, yours is a fantastic answer. Thank you. – SAH Aug 7 '18 at 7:33

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