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How do we know from the Torah that it would not be sufficient just to have some people doing davening, others doing negel vasser, others doing tzitzit, others doing hachnosas kallah, others doing Torah learning? I don't know much about Hebrew grammar, but when it says, say, "They shall make themselves tzitzit (fringes) on the corners of their clothing throughout their generations, and give the tzitzit of each corner a thread of blue," why couldn't it mean just ten or twenty men per generation doing this?

I understand why prohibitions are universal, but why positive mitzvoth, too, for sure?

(I'm specifically looking for the concrete textual/traditional basis for our knowledge of this. I already understand that most positive mitzvot do in fact apply to every Jewish man.)

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    Nice job questioning the basis for a basic assumption. I hope this question gets great answers. I suspect that there's something in R' Hirsch, but I'm not sure yet where to look for it. – Isaac Moses Sep 2 '15 at 14:31
  • With your specific example, the mitzvah is wearing the tzitzit, not making the fringe, and there is a reason given "so that you will remember the commandments". You know the "L'maan tizkeru..". We do that by seeing our tzitzit (not seeing someone else wearing them). – CashCow Sep 2 '15 at 14:31
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    תורה אחת יהיה לאזרח – Double AA Sep 2 '15 at 14:33
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    A lot of these are addressed in second-person plural, so that's probably a factor. – Monica Cellio Sep 2 '15 at 15:53
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    @Ze'evFelsen that is circular reasoning. It is only a 'mitzvah sh'b'gufo' given that each person is obligated. If mitzvos were communal, they would not be a 'mitzvos sh'b'gufo'. – mevaqesh Sep 2 '15 at 16:25
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See the Tosfos Rid in Maseches Kiddushin 42b:

התוס' רי"ד: "יש מקשים, אם כן לכל דבר מצוה יועיל השליח, ויאמר אדם לחברו: שב בסוכה עבורי, הנח תפילין עבורי! ולאו מילתא היא, שהמצוה שחייבו המקום לעשות בגופו האיך ייפטר הוא על ידי שלוחו והוא לא יעשה כלום, בודאי בקידושין ובגירושין מהני כי הוא המגרש ולא השליח, שכותב בגט אנא פלוני פטרית פלונית, וכן נמי האישה למי היא מקודשת כי אם לו והיא אשתו, וכן בפסח הוא אוכלו ועל שמו יישחט ויזרק הדם, אבל בסוכה הכי נמי יכול לומר לשלוחו עשה לי סוכה והוא יושב בה, אבל אם ישב בה חבירו לא קיים הוא כלום, וכן לולב וכן ציצית וכל המצוות" (קידושין מב ע"ב)

He asks: Why can't we appoint an emissary to perform mitzvos on our behalf?

He answers that although some mitzvos can be preformed through a shaliach and would be counted as if he did it himself, nonetheless there are some mitzvos that are dependent on the person's body himself IE. Teffilin, Sukka.

The clear presumption of this Tosofos Rid is that there is an obligation on everyone to do the mitzvos themselves, just that one can appoint an emissary in his stead.

The Chelkas Yoav in discussing the interpretation of this Tosfos Rid says:

החלקת יואב חו"מ, סימן ד. עסק בדין שליחות במילה, ומתרץ דברי הש"ך על פי יסוד חדש בדין שליחות במצוות: "על כן הנראה לפי עניות דעתי עיקר הטעם מאי דאין מועיל שליחות במצווה, על פי מה שכתב הר"ן סוף ראש השנה לד, בשם ירושלמי, דיש מצוות דלא אמרינן בהו שומע כעונה, כתפילה. והיא מטעם סברא שיהא כל אחד מבקש רחמים על עצמו, והכי נמי במצוות דהתורה הטילה על האדם ולעול על צוואריהם נתנו לא שייך כלל שיעשה שליח והוא יעשה מה שלבו חפץ

The Torah obligated on the individual to perform the mitzvos, thus it is not possible to appoint a shaliach to perform his mitzvah while he goes off and does what he wants.

Again we see the presumption that the individual is obligated, not just a select few.

  • Hello Efshar Letaretz! Welcome to Mi Yodeya. Thanks so much for this interesting and useful answer. It would be interesting to find out why these Rishonim and Acharonim take for granted that it is not allowed. Nonetheless, this is interesting information. Thanks! – Daniel Sep 4 '15 at 13:21
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The punishment for an individual not performing the mitzvahs of milah and korbon Pesach which are מצוות עשה are kares כרת as found at the end of פרשת לך לך and in פרשת בא.

If the mitzvah was not incumbent on the individual it would not be appropriate to have any punishment.

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Consider the story where a group of people who were tamei come to Moshe complaining that they're going to miss bringing the Pesach offering (Bamidbar 9). Moshe doesn't tell them, "Don't worry, most of the people are bringing it, and you can be doing other mitzvos"; he asks Hashem and gets an answer that they will indeed have the chance to bring that offering one month later (Pesach Sheni).

There's an example, then, where a positive mitzvah is obligatory on each individual.

  • They don't complain that they're going to miss bringing the Pesach offering. They complain that their going to miss out on bringing it with everyone. Sounds like they want to be part of the communal thing (למה נגרע לבלתי הקריב...בתוך בני ישראל). I wouldn't say it's so clear there is an individual obligation at play here. – Double AA Sep 4 '15 at 4:40
  • @DoubleAA, if that's all it was, then Pesach Sheni doesn't do anything for them; they're still not bringing the korban בתוך בני ישראל! – Shamiach Sep 4 '15 at 4:46
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    Sure it is. By having a defined make up date you get a crowd. – Double AA Sep 4 '15 at 4:53
  • This is good evidence, but how are we to extrapolate from this to all mitzvot? – SAH Sep 17 '15 at 19:11
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A possible answer is that back when we had prophecy, the prophet would tell each person which mitzvah asei was incumbent upon them to fulfill personally due to their spiritual source and bodily nature. After the loss of prophecy and ruach hakodesh, we have no way of knowing which mitzvah is in tune with our being and which is in tune with someone else's, so all of us strive to fulfill them all.

This is what is written in Even Shleimah. This is a compilation of various thoughts of the Vilna Gaon, by one of his students. There in chapter 5 we find these words:

ודרכי העבודה והמוסר של כל אחד לא נגלה אלא למשה מפי השם יתברך, מפני שזה תלוי בלב, וה׳ יראה ללבב, וכן בכללם על פי ה׳ יסעו וגו׳ (דברים א, יג). וכשהיו נביאים בישראל היה הנביא אומר לכל אחד הדרך אשר ילך בה לפי שרש נשמתו ולפי טבע גופו. וכשבטלו הנבואה, היו מודיעים ברוח הקודש. אך כעת אין לנו רק לקיים התורה והמצות בתחלית השלמות, ובזה יתקנו גם המחשבות, משלי טז ד

The reason I wrote this as only a possible answer is because a footnote in the printing I have says it's obvious the Gaon is not referring to mitzvos asei that are l incumbent on a person to perform, but rather he is referring only to mitzvos that are left to the individual to choose to perform, such as acting in a holy way (שאין בהם חיוב בהחלט כענין קדש עצמך במותר לך)*.

The reason I have presented this answer based on the simplistic reading is because while the footnote leaves us with a less shocking initial read where we no longer assume people in the days of yore did not in fact fulfill every single mitzvah, the flipside to that reading is that those optional mitzvos are no longer optional. I personally find that possibility to be even more shocking.

*A footnote in the next paragraph goes on to explain the next entry along these lines as well. The Even Shleima reads: המרבים לעשות מצות ואינם שתולים על פלגי מי התורה והיראה עליהם נאמר ׳למה לי רב זבחיכם׳.

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The answer I came up with and have been relying on in my mind is that the Torah uses the familiar second-person singular form of address for most Commandments. One uses this form when speaking to an individual, not to a group. Thus we can(?) extrapolate that, absent further explicit or implicit restrictions of scope, the mitzvah applies (at least) to each and every Jewish man.

It seems from a quick search that some academics agree with my reading. But I was more pleased to learn that Rashi himself, l'havdil, wrote that the singular form of the imperative (i.e., in the Shema) imposes upon individuals, whereas the plural charges the community.

I may have seen a Tanya where the opposite was implied.


An impudent question:

Many Commandments are in fact given in the second-person plural; that is, apparently addressed to a group. Could it possibly be that these Commandments are intended not for each individual Jew, but only for a particular subset? (Or is there another explanation?)

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