Monday, April 3, 2017

Can You Do Mitzvos To Benefit Others?

Can you do mitzvos in such a way that the merit for them will benefit other people? Can you designate them to receive the reward for your mitzvah in their mitzvah bank account, such that they receive more Divine favor?

A friend of mine recently forwarded to me a request on behalf of someone who is tragically unwell. The community was requested to pray for his recovery, which is certainly a time-honored Jewish response. But there was also a request to do mitzvos on his behalf, as a merit for God to heal him. My friend wanted to know if there was any classical Jewish basis for this.

In my essay "What Can One Do For Someone Who Has Passed Away?" I noted that classically, one's mitzvos are only a credit to those people who had a formative influence on you. One's mitzvos cannot help the souls of other people. Rashba cites a responsum from Rav Sherira Gaon on this:
"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." (Rashba, Responsa, Vol. 7 #539)
Maharam Alashkar cites Rav Hai Gaon who firmly rejects the notion that one can transfer the reward of a mitzvah to another person and explains why this is impossible:
"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?" (Maharam Alashkar, Responsa #101) 
The same view is found explicitly and implicitly in other sources, as I noted in my essay. There is simply no mechanism to transfer the reward for one's own mitzvos to other people. It seems that only very recent mystical-based sources claim otherwise.

Now, I don't see any reason why there should be any difference if the person that one is trying to help is deceased or alive. Nor do I know of any source in classical rabbinic literature that one can do a mitzvah as a merit to help someone that is sick. Prayer, yes. And Tehillim are also a form of prayer (though it may depend upon which Tehillim are being recited). But I know of no classical source that one can honor one's parents or learn Torah or send away a mother bird as a merit for somebody else.

(The most common example of people attempting to do this may be the custom of women to separate challah on behalf of a sick person. Here too, though, it appears that the classical basis of this is not that the mitzvah of separating challah is crediting the sick person, but rather that the person separating the challah thereby has a special time of power/inspiration, which makes their prayer more powerful.)

If I'm wrong in any of the above, I'll be glad to see sources showing otherwise. But so far, I have found that while people are shocked when one challenges the notion that you can learn Torah on behalf of someone who is sick, nobody has yet actually come up with any classical sources demonstrating otherwise. Furthermore, if this indeed was a part of classical Judaism, we would certainly expect it to have prominent mention in the writings of Chazal and the Rishonim. We appear to have another situation of something widespread that is believed to be an integral and classical part of Judaism, and yet is actually a modern innovation that has no basis in classical Judaism whatsoever.

51 comments:

  1. Can't we say it's from a svorah? If the whole reason why someone does a particular mitzvah is a specific person, this person has become the catalyst for a mitzvah. That surely will create some zechus? Still sounds like hocus pocus to me, I must admit, especially this new challah segulah.

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    1. The whole concept of a zechus sounds like hocus pocus to me.
      Is there any real basis to this in a rabbinic source that suggests there is anything og value to a zechus other than just as a gesture of humanity to make suffering more bearable?

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  2. As it happens to be the Rambam holds even saying Tehillim on behalf of a Choleh falls under Menachesh

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    1. I think that he's talking about using the pesukim as a healing incantation over the sick person, not reading Tehillim as a prayer or even a z'chus for the other because reading/studying Tehillim is a mitzvah. I agree that he might not think that z'chus can be transferred, but it would probably not be divination to make the mistake to think that it can.

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    2. Sources please?

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    3. MT Avodas Kochavim 11:12

      A person who whispers an incantation over a wound and then recites a verse from the Torah, who recites a verse over a child so that he will not become scared, or who places a Torah scroll or tefillin over a baby so that it will sleep, is considered to be a soothsayer or one who cast spells. Furthermore, such people are included among those who deny the Torah, because they relate to the words of Torah as if they are cures for the body, when, in fact, they are cures for the soul, as [Proverbs 3:22] states: "And they shall be life for your soul."

      It is, however, permitted for a healthy person to read verses [from the Bible] or chapters from Psalms so that the merit of reading them will protect him and save him from difficulties and injury.


      הלוחש על המכה וקורא פסוק מן התורה וכן הקורא על התינוק שלא יבעת והמניח ספר תורה או תפילין על הקטן בשביל שיישן לא די להם שהם בכלל מנחשים וחוברים אלא שהן בכלל הכופרים בתורה שהן עושין דברי תורה רפואת גוף ואינן אלא רפואת נפשות שנאמר ויהיו חיים לנפשך אבל הבריא שקרא פסוקין ומזמור מתהילים כדי שתגן עליו זכות קריאתן וינצל מצרות ומנזקים הרי זה מותר:

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    4. Thank you!

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    5. I'd like to note that Rambam only mentions here that it is permitted for a healthy person to say verses for himself. The person reciting the verses gets merit for reading them.

      While I must admit it isn't spelled out explicity, he only mentions saying a verse over someone else in a negative light.

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  3. What about saying kaddish for anybody other than a parent?

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  4. I know of no sources, but I think the best explanation is that the challah separation you mention is a specific instance of a general rule. One does a mitzvah with the intention of helping someone, and that intention is itself a prayer, and the power of the prayer is amplified by the mitzvot.

    Alternative (but limited to helping those people with whom one has some personal connection) Everyone we meet has some influence, has taught us something, and that link is enough to count as a "formative influence".

    Finally love of one's fellow human beings instantiated in the act of doing a mitzvah on their behalf is itself a mitzvah and creates the necessary link with the other person.
    But that is all from my draying kopf, unsourced.

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    1. I, too, am inclined towards this justification. The performances of the mizwah creates a greater emotional bond between the actor and the "beneficiary" thereby amplifies the actor's kawanah when praying on behalf of the beneficiary - i.e. it all falls under R' Slifkin's explanation of Hafrashat Hallah.

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  5. Deceptive. The teshuvos you quoted relate to selling ones reward. That is considered preposterous.
    One could make an argument that learning at the request of others for the benefit of a sick person can help them. I am learning because of them...why shouldn't that be to their merit?

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  6. According to Rambam the reward for a mitzvah is intellectual development, which is achieved through performance of the mitzvah. So as far as that is concerned, there can be no way to transfer the reward, any more than I can learn Chinese on your behalf.

    However, we can pray for others, and God listens to the prayers of the righteous. Is it so far fetched to believe that performance of a mitzvah in another's name can serve as a sort of prayer that could help that person?

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  7. Chazal say "Whoever prays for his fellow before praying for himself, his prayer is answered first."

    That's regarding prayer. What about good deeds? When you do good deeds for the sake of your fellow, you are also in effect praying for him, and you are also increasing your *own* merits, so your prayer has more weight.

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  8. Possible related idea/source: Zohar Bereishis 91b

    Adam gave 30 years of his life to David.

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    1. It was 70 years.

      But the whole story never made any sense to me, even during my hasidic youth. Wouldn't that be tantamount to suicide? And does God have a limited budget for years of life, and can't grant extra years of life to one person without taking it away from somebody else?

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  9. Joe in AustraliaApril 4, 2017 at 9:53 AM

    People "say kaddish for" deceased relatives all the time, and although it's certainly *a* prayer, it's not a prayer asking for G-d's favor towards the deceased. I think that makes it an example of a mitzva that is acknowledged to be performed on behalf of someone else.

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  10. There's an old hasidishe joke. The rebbe was ill, and the gabbai was going around the beis hamedrash asking people to donate time from their own lives: 'Fam Rebben's Wegen' (for the rebbe's sake). One man donated a whole day, while someone else donated half a day. One brave hosid, to everyone's astonishment donated 7 years. 7 whole years? The gabbai asked the donor, 'Are you sure you want to donate seven years of your life to the rebbe?'
    'My Life? No, not from my life. I'm donating 7 years from my wife's!'

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  11. והתניא האומר סלע זו לצדקה בשביל שיחיו בני ובשביל שאזכה בה לחיי העולם הבא הרי זה צדיק גמור

    ראש השנה ד.

    So tzedaka is allowed, maybe encouraged, even not for a parent, just someone one cares about.

    ברא מזכי אבא אבא לא מזכי ברא דכתיב (דברים לב, לט) ואין מידי מציל.

    סנהדרין קד.

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  12. That is specifically talking about the parent-child relationship, which is different, for reasons that I discuss in my essay.

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    1. I reread your essay to refresh my memory, and I still don't see the connection. A child can bring merit to the parent, but the parent can't bring merit to the child! (This is why I brought the quote from Sanhedrin above.)

      You note the special role of tzedaka, but in that section of the essay you don't discuss the parent-child relationship at all.

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  13. I think that there is a story about the GRA shaking a Luluv on behalf of someone else. The story is that there were no Etrogim available at all in Vilna that year, but in a nearby town a Jew had a single Etrog which he was not prepared to part with. The GRA offered to buy it from him in exchange for the "Mitzva Points" going to the Etrog Owner's bank account instead of the GRA's.

    The conclusion of the story was that the GRA shook the Etrog with more joy as for the first time he was able to perform a mitzvah for its own sake and not receive any reward for it (as any spiritual reward would have gone to the other person).

    No idea if the story is true (I doubt it), or how old the story is, but it does show that Jewish consciousness does have the concept of doing Mitzvot on behalf of someone else.

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    1. Even if this story is true, the GRA was a kabbalist, and his actions should be understood from that perspective.

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    2. Every GRA story has a chassidic equivalent. In this case, I heard it attributed to the berdichever.

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  14. if A enables B to do mitzvah X, does some credit (either as part of mitzvah X or under the general category of mesayeah [assisting]) redound to A or is A's "scoresheet" in shamayim unaffected?
    KT

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  15. Rav Natan,
    How do you understand Succah 45b
    אמר חזקיה א"ר ירמיה משום רשב"י יכול אני לפטור את כל העולם כולו מן הדין מיום שנבראתי עד עתה וכו'
    ורש"י שם- לפטור: בזכותי אני סובל כל עונותיהם ופוטרן מן הדין.

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    1. I dunno for sure, but based on the obvious comparison to Christianity, I would think this is more of a polemical statement than an operative or halachic one, no?

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  16. What about giving Tzedoka on whose merit a persons son shall live?
    האומר סלע זו לצדקה בשביל שיחיה בני

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    1. That is specifically talking about the parent-child relationship, which is different, for reasons that I discuss in my essay.

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  17. When Queen Esther requested everyone fast three days, was not it for her benefit?

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    1. And the benefit of everyone else as well. Besides which, fasting in accompaniment to prayer in bad times.

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    2. One can interpret that differently. She was going before Achasverosh on behalf of all the Jewish people. If they did Teshuva through their fasting, and were more meritorious in their own right, deserving to be saved, then her mission would be successful.

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    3. At that moment she was facing capital punishment and said "Go and gather all the Jews who are in Shushan and fast for my sake".

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    4. She was also facing possible failure in her mission to prevent a Genocide. It is not possible to separate the two. She does tell them to fast for her, but that includes her being successful, not just retaining her head.

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  18. I often think about this issue (and tefillah) as follows: When one is connected to another person, one feels happy when he's doing well and sad when he's doing not well. So, in effect, if Hashem helps this person, He is also rewarding you, and if He harms him, He is also harming you.

    Another explanation perhaps: When one does a mitzvah, one is providing a reich nichoach to Hashem. It is almost kefira to speak like this, but one is making Hashem overall more "happy." When a person is more happy, he tends to look at people with a more generous eye. Again, I know it's almost kefirah to speak of Hashem like this, but it seems that the Chumash does.

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  19. There are quite a few traditional sources that say you CAN do good deeds on other people's behalf, some of which are mentioned in the comments. But why would you think it should be otherwise? What rational basis is there to distinguish praying on one's behalf from performing good deeds for him?

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    1. This is Balabatish answer, but I would say that when you pray for something, you are asking for a particular result. It doesn't have to be one that benefits you directly. You could pray for world peace (and we do or at least in part). The Mitzvah performance is something that either is the right thing to do, a benefit to the world, or a perfection of yourself. It's not a coin with which to trade.

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  20. Interestingly, it's possible that this trend might have become popular because of a lack of simple emunah among rationalists and mystics alike. Too many people don't really believe in the great power of prayer! Unfortunately, many people see prayer solely as a perfunctorily-performed, ritualistic thing one one does in Hebrew. Perhaps people are simply uncomfortable praying in their own words, and don't understand the enormous power of such prayers. Yet of course in Tanakh (and the Gemara) there are countless examples of praying in one's own words, and many rishonim (such as Rabbeinu Yonah) and acharonim (such as the Chofetz Chaim and numerous chassidic Rebbes, most famously Rebbe Nachman of Breslov) discussed the importance of private prayers in one's own words.

    Or perhaps it is the opposite: people believe so much in the power of prayer that they believe that if they pray to Hashem that the merit of their mitzvah be transferred to someone else, then Hashem can answer the request.

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  21. This might have been alluded to before: if you are motivated to do a mitzvah due to a. a sick person's illness, or b. inspiration from a deceased person's life, doesn't the sick person or deceased person get credit for motivating you to do a mitzvah?

    I can't remember off the top of my head where this is, but aren't there Gemoros that say that even reshaim got credit for motivating Jews to do teshuvah (e.g. Haman)?

    So it's not a transfer of the mitzvah; but maybe they get some credit for enabling/ causing the mitzvah to happen?

    Avi

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  22. The Ramo (249) states that tzedaka that is dedicated for the deceased at the time of hazkarat neshamot ... benefits their souls.

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  23. The Ramo (249) states that the custom of giving charity for the deceased during hazkarat neshamot benefits their souls.

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  24. This idea that one can do mitzvah or even pray to help the soul of someone deceased is an extremely harmful belief. Pirke Avot tell us "Shuv Yom Echad Lifnei Mitatcha" (repent one day before your death) which is understood to mean repent everyday since you never know when you will die. But if someone can do mitzvot and help me after death, why do I need do them myself?

    MO

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  25. This post, based on the comments, requires a follow up.

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  26. I think there is a oversimplification of the matter here,
    Chazal tell us that someones who provides funds for someone to learn gets part of his reward (yisochor zevulun and matil kis letalmid chochom etc.) the reason for that is that he helped and accommodated his learning, similarly if someone learns or does a good deed which he wouldn't of done otherwise, some of the reward can be attributed to the sick which helped to accommodate it indirectly.
    The sources r natan mentions is where someone just wants to transfer the sechus whitout any accommodation. That would explain the Remo mentioned above about giving Tzedoko for the deceased etc.

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  27. Let's get this straight. People are claiming: If I pray/do a Mitzva because of somebody who I've never heard of, then that person gets credit because I did something I wouldn't otherwise have done.

    Now I'm doing good deeds because Some Wicked Person is making our lives a misery. Does that Wicked Person get credit for making me do those deeds I wouldn't otherwise have done?

    Why not?

    Imagine: Hamman getting an Aliya Neshomo (whatever that means) for every person who keeps each Purim Mitzva. Wow!

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  28. BTW: How do the let's do Mitzvoth for other people crowd explain the 11th Ani Ma'amin:

    אֲנִי מַאֲמִין בֶּאֱמוּנָה שְׁלֵמָה, שֶׁהַבּוֹרֵא יִתְבָּרַךְ שְׁמוֹ גּוֹמֵל טוֹב לְשׁוֹמְרֵי מִצְוֹתָיו וּמַעֲנִישׁ לְעוֹבְרֵי מִצְוֹתָיו

    "I fully believe that Hashem rewards those who keep the Mitzvoth and punish those who disobey."

    Or the more poetic Yigdal version:

    גּוֹמֵל לְאִישׁ חֶסֶד כְּמִפְעָלוֹ, נוֹתֵן לְרָשָׁע רַע כְּרִשְׁעָתוֹ

    "He rewards the just as per their deeds, and punishes the wicked as per their wickedness."


    Shouldn't that be: reward for their deeds and whatever was done in their name?

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    1. Good question ,the rishonim explain that this only applies if they would of done the good deed themselves (deceased and ill people don't have the ability to give to charity) see sefer Rokeach siman 217 and Beth Joseph 621 and Magen Avraham 621 see also there in name of Mordechi and Sifri. This would answer both your questions above.

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    2. Talmid, not all of us have those sefarim to hand. Please can you provide the actual quotations?

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    3. They say that the Halocho of giving Tzedoko for deceased only helps them if they were Tzadikim when they were alive and they would of given charity now if they could, but of course one cannot give Tzedoko for the zechus of Reshoim, that answers Danny Shoemann first question with regards to wicked people, it also answers question number 2 with regards to Anie Maamin as they would of done the good deed if they could.

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