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Many times, as a merit for a recovery for someone sick or someone in need, I have been asked to have that person in mind when I learn. In some places, they will put up a sign asking to have a certain person in mind, particularly if that person has made a donation to the organization where the learning is taking place.

If the request would be "please learn with more intensity than usual as a merit for this person" then I would understand how this could be a merit for them, as they are now the impetus and catalyst for my qualitative improvement in my learning. But just "having them in mind" doesn't seem to do very much.

Does merely being cognizant of another person when you do a Mitzvah somehow transfer credit to that person?

Note: This question could be asked about any Mitzvah, but I chose learning because it is a common example that I see.

  • I know of no benefit from such concentration. If anything it is detrimental to your focus on the learning. – Double AA Sep 5 '14 at 3:00
  • @DoubleAA That's my feeling as well, but פוק חזי מאי עמא דבר. – Y     e     z Sep 5 '14 at 3:01
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    מוטב שיהיו לומדין ואל יהיו בטלים – Double AA Sep 5 '14 at 3:03
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    I've always understood it as learning for that person's merit (i.e. instead of for one's own merit) – Daniel Sep 5 '14 at 21:36
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    Good question!A fundamental belief of Jewish Faith is that we get rewarded for our good deeds and punished for our bad ones. "Passing around merit" would undermine this concept. As it says in Yigdal:גּוֹמֵל לְאִישׁ חֶסֶד כְּמִפְעָלוֹ, נוֹתֵן לְרָשָׁע רַע כְּרִשְׁעָתוֹ. – Danny Schoemann Sep 7 '14 at 8:46
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The Ramma in hilchos Tzedaka, Yoreh Deah siman 249 16 says 'the minhag to give tzedaka in honor of the dead during Yizkor is a minhag vasikin and it helps the nishama'. The Taz brings a Beis Yosef in hilchos Yom Hakipurim who quotes a Rokeach who explains that Hashem searches a person's heart and if it would be that the dead person would be alive he would give tzedaka himself, if he had money etc. But if one gives in honor of a rasha, it does not work.

This opinion seems to say it is not a transference of schar, but a way to get Hashem to judge the dead man as if he did it too.

Another perspective. In Emes Liyaakov on Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah siman 246 footnote 128 he writes that it seems to him when someone learns in honor of a dead person the actual schar of learning goes to the dead person while the one who actually did the learning gets schar of gemilas chessed. But he adds this only works if every time he says the yehi ratzon etc or says that the learning should be for the dead person, as opposed to a son learning for a father where the schar goes to the father by default without speaking it out.

This opinion clearly holds a transference of schar takes place.

  • Interesting, this provides an earlier source (the Emes Liyaakov) than what Natan Slifkin found. – Yishai Sep 9 '14 at 22:28
  • @Yishai not sure what you mean. Please elaborate? – user6591 Sep 9 '14 at 22:46
  • I remember a story, yes a story, about the Gra who couldn't find an esrog. One rich man had one and told the Gra he can have it but only if the schar goes to him, the rich man. The Gra accepted happily and said he was waiting his whole life to do a mitzvah for its own sake with no thoughts of reward. I don't understand this story on many levels. One point is if you can actually trade away or give away schar, shouldn't he have been able to do any mitzvah with a tnai not to get schar? – user6591 Sep 9 '14 at 22:49
  • One more point, similar to my last comment. The mishna in avos says to do mitzvos shelo al menas likabel pras, and while this is different than al menas shelo likabel pras, still we see we are all, on some level, supposed to be removed from the schar involved, and yet we certainly get schar. So how could actually thinking about transferring schar help? – user6591 Sep 9 '14 at 22:55
  • In Issac Moses's answer he references an essay by Slifkin that puts the earliest mention about 75 years later. – Yishai Sep 9 '14 at 23:24
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R' Natan Slifkin examined the issue of transferring mitzva credit to other people, in the course of a broader discussion of benefiting people who have passed away, in a memorial lecture for his mother-in-law, entitled "What Can One Do For Someone Who Has Passed Away?" It is available for download in essay form here.

R' Slifkin points out (p. 3) that the idea of transfer of mitzva credit is dependent on the mystical concept of the product of mitzvot being supernatural spiritual emanations. This mystical concept is rejected by rationalist schools of thought in favor of a more practical concept of what mitzvot accomplish: "According to Rambam, mitzvos affect society, our intellects and our personalities; other authorities express the function of mitzvos as creating a relationship with God. Either way, mitzvos do not produce spiritual energy, such that one could transfer this to others."

He cites (pp. 4 - 5) a collection of instances of Geonim, Rishonim, and Acharonim rejecting the idea of transferring mitzva credit and provides quotations of two Geonim, as cited by later authorities:

  • Rav Sherira Gaon, cited by the Rashba in his Responsa, Vol. 7 #539 (this and the next translation presumably by R' Slifkin, source links added for Mi Yodeya):

    A person cannot merit someone else with reward; his elevation and greatness and pleasure from the radiance of the Divine Presence is only in accordance with his deeds. Even if all the righteous people in the world were to seek mercy for him, and all the righteous acts were to be done in his merit, it would be of no help to him…

However, most of the responsa is spent describing how another can help with their Mitzvos primarily by alleviating punishments through giving charity in the merit of the person or through a Tzadik praying for them. It then goes on to justify practices such as remembering the dead (Yizkor) based on this idea.

  • Rav Hai Gaon, cited by Maharam Alashkar in his Responsa #101, which concerns the possibility of people selling their merits to each other:

    These concepts are nonsense and one should not rely upon them. How can one entertain the notion that the reward of good deeds performed by one person should go to another person? Surely the verse states, “The righteousness of a righteous person is on him,” (Ezek. 18:20) and likewise it states, “And the wickedness of a wicked person is upon him.” Just as nobody can be punished on account of somebody else’s sin, so too nobody can merit the reward of someone else. How could one think that the reward for mitzvos is something that a person can carry around with him, such that he can transfer it to another person?

In this, like the Rashba, he rejects transferring reward. He does not address punishments, however he says that it does help to support and pay for someone to learn Torah, as the act of paying or even better supporting through removing distractions is the cause of the reward.

  • I'm not sure this answers the question. – Double AA Sep 10 '14 at 3:31
  • I don't know how someone can claim that the Rambam felt mitzvos were purely practical, in light of Hilchos Teshuva 9. It may be a side-benefit, but mitzvos clearly have metaphysical ramifications. – Y     e     z Jan 7 '15 at 21:02
  • @yEz where do you see any metaphysical ramifications in that Rambam? all he says is that mitzvos deepen our understanding of God. See also judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/61018/…. (This precisely was my intent with that question, although it seems to have mostly remain un-understood. – mevaqesh Jul 22 '15 at 0:44
  • @mevaqesh did you start at the beginning of that chapter? It is all about the material, this-worldly rewards that will result from keeping mitzvos, with no rational direct cause-effect relationship other than that G-d said so. – Y     e     z Aug 5 '15 at 17:42
  • @yEz I certainly started at the beginning of the chapter. To reiterate I see him saying that mitzvos lead to intellectual perfection which opens to the doors to the world to come. For failing to perform them, God punishes. There is no evidence from that Rambam, however, that a mitzvah is a sort of segulah; i.e. a discrete spiritual unit whose value is more than the sum of its parts. In other words, the value of a good deed is not the "shem mitzah" but rather inherent value of act on oneself and others. I.e. it helps on achieve shelmus. Through the shlemus, one can enter the world to come. – mevaqesh Aug 5 '15 at 19:12
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From this article:

Some say that since the patient has inspired me (consciously or not) to perform a mitzvah, a commandment, and has caused the one who prays or studies Torah to draw closer to G-d, then the patient has direct merit as a result of the prayer. Another way of understanding this is the one who prays is binding himself to the patient, showing concern and sharing the patient's pain. The Divine calculation now must take into account not just the patient and his pain, but also all those who are praying for him.

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