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When Classical Judaism Bothers Rabbis
You can't do mitzvos and transfer their credit to other people, whether they are alive or dead. I've written about this before, both in blog posts and in my detailed monograph "What Can One Do For Someone Who Has Passed Away?" You can't pay someone to honor their parents and transfer the reward to you. You can't separate challah and transfer the reward to someone who is sick (though it may help you be especially inspired in your prayers for them). And you can't learn Torah and transfer the reward to someone who has passed away (except when it's your parents and perhaps other people of significant influence upon you, where everything that you do is automatically a credit to them.)
My favorite story regarding this is one that I heard from a friend who was in a shiur with Rav Tzvi Kushlefsky shlita. One student asked if the shiur could be given l'iluy nishmas his grandmother. Rav Tzvi was apologetic, but explained that this was impossible: "How does my giving a shiur create a credit for your grandmother? It might be a credit for my grandmother, but how can it be a credit for yours?"
There are several grounds on which it can be stated that you can't transfer the credit for mitzvos to other people:
1) Reason. The reward for mitzvos - at least, according to the dominant classical tradition - is the relationship that is created with the Divine. It's not some spiritual gold that can be transferred to a different bank account.
2) Explicit Sources. The sources in the Geonim, Rishonim and early Acharonim to discuss this - and there are several - all state that such a thing is impossible, precisely for the reason given above. To give but one example, 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 mitzvot is something that a person can carry around with him, such that he can transfer it to another person? (Maharam Alashkar, Responsa #101). The only sources that allow for such a thing - such as those cited in an unfortunately uncritical article on OU Torah - are within the last 150 years, and they are baseless innovations.
3) Implicit Tradition. If transferring the reward for mitzvos were to be possible, there are many stories and directives in the Torah and Gemara which would read very differently. When people needed a certain thing from God - either for themselves, or for others - they prayed for it. They didn't do mitzvos or learn Torah and have the reward credited to someone else. Likewise, Chazal taught us how to try to get what we want from God, and even how to help the souls of the dead, and nowhere do they mention the notion of outsourcing mitzvos to others; in fact, in one case of someone trying to help the deceased, they explicitly state that it can't be done.
(And to preempt the inevitable question - no, Yissacher and Zevulun do not demonstrate otherwise. Aside from the fact that the tribe of Yissacher were also working - Zevulun were merely marketing their produce - the idea is that Zevulun received the reward for helping people learn, not for actually learning.)
Recently I came across some discussion of this topic from Rav Asher Weiss, shlita. Rav Weiss is a wonderful person, a leader with integrity, and an important talmid chacham. But in the past I have pointed out that, for all his breadth, he is nevertheless a product of the charedi/ non-rationalist worldview. In the previous instance, it was when he declared that Torah protects from missiles (though only after he ascertained that he was in a fortified room). The topic of transferring mitzvah rewards to other people is another example.
In his discussion of this topic, both in a shiur transcribed online and in Responsa Minchas Asher II:58, he acknowledges the problem with the notion that you can do mitzvos and credit the reward to other people. Rav Weiss notes that Maharam Alashkar and others state clearly that the reward for mitzvos cannot be transferred to other people, and that they give powerful reasons why. However, he takes the approach that it simply cannot be so. Why? Because everyone does it!
That is actually his position, and he says it explicitly in his responsum. If everyone does it, it can't be that it doesn't make sense! He tries to come up with a way of making it work even according to Maharam Alashkar et al., but is forced to admit that there is no convincing way to do so. And he tries to find earlier sources who defend it, but they are extremely limited (as they are referring specifically to charity) and tentative. Accordingly, Rav Weiss concludes that it simply does work, albeit inexplicably, and that it is one of the secrets of Divine providence.
It's simply astonishing. It means that Rav Weiss is saying that all the Geonim and Rishonim and Acharonim who said that it doesn't work, are wrong. But he would rather do this than say that the conventional practice today is baseless. There are many cases where we defend historical tradition, even on weak grounds, shelo lehotzi la'az al ha-rishonim (so as not to cast aspersions on the earlier generations), but this is the opposite; discarding the historical tradition, shelo lehotzi la'az on what people do today.
This is how classical Judaism gets reformed. And it's not a good reform. Because when you allow for mitzvos to be outsourced, you teach people that they can buy Heaven instead of earning it, and you commercialize the mitzvos instead of having them as means for personal growth. The classical view, still maintained by people such as Rav Tzvi Kushlefsky, needs to be taught and strengthened, not discarded.
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