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Avot 2:1

והוי זהיר במצווה קלה כבחמורה שאין אתה יודע מתן שכרן של מצוות והוי מחשב הפסד מצווה כנגד שכרה ושכר עבירה כנגד הפסדה

Be as careful with a minor mitzvah as with a major one, for you do not know the rewards of the mitzvot. Consider the cost of a mitzvah against its rewards, and the rewards of a transgression against its cost.

(Translation via Chabad.org)

What does the Mishnah mean by a "major" and "minor" mitzvah? One would probably personally evaluate this by the reward one receives for that mitzvah. However, the Mishnah says not to do this. So, how does one make this categorization, otherwise?

Or is the Mishnah suggesting that since no reward is mentioned we shouldn't make any categorization and all mitzvot are equal? I'm having trouble understanding the beginning of the sentence when it says that we should be careful about performing an "easy" one vs a "hard" one.

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If I understand the Akedat Yitshak (Parashat Metsora Sha'ar 67) correctly, he understands the Mishna to be saying that one shouldn't shun the minor mitzvot, since even the minor mitzvot carry inestimable reward:

אמר הוי זהיר במצוה קלה כבמצוה חמורה שאין אתה יודע מתן שכרן של מצות לעתיד לבא כו'. והכונה שיהיה שכר המצות בעיניו גדול הערך לאין תכלית עד כי בהזדמן לפניו המצוה היותר קלה שאיפשר, לא ידחה אותה לקטנותה אבל יזרז לעשותה כאלו באת לידו המצוה היותר חמורה שבתורה והטעם לפי שאין אתה יודע מתן שכרן של מצות וכו' ירצה שאין המחשבה מקפת בשום צד גודל שכרן של מצות עד שבקטנה שבכלן יש ויש שכר הרבה לפעולתך

He said that one should be careful with a minor mitsvah as with a major one, for you do not know the reward granted for mitsvot in the future etc. The intent is that the reward for the mitsvah should be perceived as great beyond measure, to the point that if the opportunity to perform even the most minor mitsvah presents itself, a person shouldn't shun it for its insignificance, but should zealous;y pursue it as though he had the opportunity to perform the most weighty mitsvah in the Torah. And the reason is that 'you do not know the reward granted for the mitsvot.' That is to say, that the mind simply cannot comprehend the magnitude of reward for mitsvot, such that for even the very smallest, there is great reward for your act.

Rambam, however, explains (in his commentary there) that the Mishna refers not to objectively small or large mitsvot, but to perceived small and large mitsvot:

שראוי להזהר במצוה שייחשב בה שהיא קלה, כגון שמחת הרגל ולמידת לשון קודש, ובמצוה שהתבארה חומרתה, כמו מילה וציצית ושחיטת פסח. ושם סיבת זה, שאין אתה יודע מתן שכרן, ובאור זה הענין ... מצוות עשה - לא נתבאר שכר כל אחת מהן מהו אצל ה', עד שנדע מה מהן יותר חשוב ומה מהן למטה מזה, אלא ציוה לעשות מעשה פלוני ופלוני, ולא ייודע שכר איזה משניהם יותר גדול אצל ה', ולפיכך ראוי להשתדל בכולן

That it is fitting to be careful with a mitsvah which he perceives as minor, such as celebrating on the festivals and teaching Hebrew, besides for a mitsvah whose importance is clear such as circumcision and tsitsit, and the korban Pesah. And he gave the following reason: that you do not know the reward granted for the mitsvot. And the explanation for this is...[that] positive commandment--the reward for each one has not been specified by God, to the point where we would know what is more important and what is considered less important to God. Therefore, it is appropriate to exert oneself for all of them.

It should be noted that even Rambam places different value on different positive mitsvot. (As he hinted to with the tsitsit example). For example, he writes (Hilkhot Mat'not Aniyim 10:1) that we must be more careful with charity than with any other mitsvah:

חייבין אנו להיזהר במצות צדקה, יתר מכל מצוות עשה

We must be more careful with the mitsvah of charity than with any other positive commandment.

In that case he demonstrates this with different verses about its importance.

In summary, according to the Akedah, one can know (he doesnt say how) that some mitsvot are more important than others, but should nevertheless madly pursue the lesser ones, for even their value is mind boggling. Rambam on the other hand concedes that you can know that importance of some mitsvot, such as tsitsit and charity, (based on scriptural evidence n the case of the latter and perhaps the former), but nevertheless focuses on the fact that in general with positive mitsvot we don't know which are which, and therefore should treat them equally.

  • Rambam's answer seems easier for me to understand. If you have time, could you add any explanation to the idea that there definitely are some mitzvoth for which the Torah specifies exactly what the reward is, namely long life such as Honoring parents and sending away the mother bird. I gather that Ramba"m or someone else has commented on this aspect. I think this would strengthen the answer. – DanF May 30 '17 at 15:09
  • @DanF Well he does write that we know of 8 categories in descending order or severity: sekilla, sereifa, hereg, heneq, karet, mitta bidei shamayim, malkut, lav sh'ein bo malkut. Positive mitsvot however arent clearly ranked. Nevertheless, he writes: ובמצוה שהתבארה חומרתה, כמו מילה וציצית ושחיטת פסח, that one should be as careful with mitsvot whose importance the Torah clarified, such as milah, tsitsit, and slaughtering the Pesah. So he is referencing the unique status of those mitsvot. Milah and Pesah makes sense, since they have karet. – mevaqesh May 30 '17 at 17:54
  • [cont.] Tsitsit is also unique. Regarding the few other mitsvot whose reward is specified, it seems likely that he would say that they can be presumed to carry more reward, just as tsitsit doesnt have more reward specified by the Torah, but he nevertheless indicates that we know it is a great mitsva, and indicated in the answer, regarding tsedakkah. Nevertheless, the general rule (exceptions notwithstanding) is that we don't know the realtive merits of positive mitsvot. – mevaqesh May 30 '17 at 17:54
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One possible definition might be the one given in the Rambam, Hilkhot Tshuvah, chapter 1, halakhah 7:

ומה הן הקלות, ומה הן החמורות: החמורות הן העבירות שחייבין עליהן מיתת בית דין או כרת; ושבועת שוא ושקר--אף על פי שאין בה כרת, הרי היא מן החמורות. ושאר מצוות לא תעשה, ומצוות עשה שאין בהן כרת--הן הקלות

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    But note that Rambam himself doesnt explain the Mishna like that: אחר כך אמר שראוי להזהר במצוה שייחשב בה שהיא קלה, כגון שמחת הרגל ולמידת לשון קודש, ובמצוה שהתבארה חומרתה, כמו מילה וציצית ושחיטת פסח. – mevaqesh Mar 15 '17 at 18:22

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