March 10, 2023

"I do mitzvahs without feeling," "I didn't have a choice" — does that count as a mitzvah? Does an unintentional transgression count? On Judaism's double standard on the importance of intent

A. Shabbat and building the Mishkan

In this week’s Torah reading, G-d instructs us to observe the Shabbat and build the Mishkan (Source 1). From  the proximity of these commandments, the Sages derived that the acts prohibited on Shabbat are those which were done in the construction of the Mishkan. Additionally, when describing the labor done in the Mishkan, the Torah calls it “calculated  labor.” From here the sages understand that in order for an act to be prohibited it must be done with full intent.

Most rabbinic authorities maintain that one is not liable for any Torah prohibition without purposeful intent. On the other hand, a mitzvah does not need intent. Even one doing a mitzvah “unintentionally” has fulfilled the mitzvah. (Sources 2-3)

Why, asks the Rebbe, is there a difference between transgressions, which require intent to be liable, and mitzvot, which do not require intent to fulfill?

B. Counterintuitive

Wouldn’t the separation from holiness be easier than connecting to it?

In reality, a mitzvah is considered a mitzvah even if performed without intent, and even if it was compelled. For example, Rabbi Yochanan compelled his nephew to give charity, and it was considered a mitzvah (Source 4). Moreover, even doing a mitzvah unknowingly is a mitzvah. If you lose a coin and a poor person finds it, this is considered a fulfillment of the mitzvah of charity (Source 5). 

On the other hand, when it comes to a transgression—although the default position of the world is detachment from G-dliness—when committed unintentionally one is not punished and has not sinned.

The Alter Rebbe explains in Tanya that the punishment for a transgression is relative to the spiritual harm caused (Source 6). Accordingly, the lack of a punishment indicates that no harm was done.

C. A statement which affects the entire day

The Rebbe explains that our morning declaration of “Modeh Ani” (“I acknowledge”) is a declaration of our connection to G-d that sets the tone for the duration of the entire day. Therefore, when we act by rote during the rest of the day, we retain this general intent which we declared in the morning. A similar concept exists  in the laws of marriage: giving a ring after speaking about marriage effects a legal marriage (Source 7).

With a transgression, on the other hand, so long as you didn’t explicitly intend on violating it, it is not a transgression, because it was done unintentionally. The morning declaration of “Modeh Ani” is also a statement which negates the intent to transgress. Even regarding mitzvot, a statement to the opposite effect invalidates the act (Source 8).

Even if you don’t say “Modeh Ani,” the inner desire to do the right thing is still there, and even if you do a mitzvah without feeling and intent, it still comes from that desire that every Jew has to do the right thing, and it is considered a mitzvah.



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