The Science of Mitzvah

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

If one's father tells him to give him water to drink, and that son also has in his hand [1] another mitzvah to perform, if the other mitzvah can be performed by others, it should be done by them, and the son should involve himself in honoring his father. For we do not push aside one mitzvah because of another one. And if there are no others to perform that other mitzvah, the son should perform that mitzvah, and put aside honoring his father, because he and his father are obligated in mitzvah. And the study of Torah is greater than honoring one's parents. (Maimonides: Hilchos Mamrim 6:13)

On the surface, this seems plain to understand. But a few questions enlighten us to a deeper formulation of Torah’s commands and man’s obligations.

Let’s assume the other mitzvah is helping his friend David move some furniture. The son’s obligation to honor his father over helping David indicates that honoring fathers is of greater value. Perhaps this is because that mitzvah devolves exclusively upon the son. That is, when you are the only one who can perform a mitzvah, that takes precedence over a mitzvah equally performed by all. This ensures more mitzvahs are fulfilled; thereby the greater good for all is realized. Alternatively, honoring one’s father is of greater importance, as this leads to accepting the True Authority. This explains the inclusion of honoring parents in the first set of the 10 Commandments, laws pertaining to God. 

Now, although a third person—Jacob—is present to help David move his furniture, how is the son honoring his father not an act of “pushing aside” helping David? Apparently the son need not “personally” help David. The obligation is “Do not allow a mitzvah to be pushed aside,” and as Jacob helps David, that mitzvah is not pushed aside. There was no greater obligation upon the son to help David, than upon anyone else. The mitzvah of helping David is not that, “This person must help David,”  but rather, “David must be helped.” Thus, the son has Jacob help David, and the son proceeds to honor his father. 

But what if the son alone is present? In this case, as the son is the only one who can help David, that mitzvah cannot be avoided. This is the expression of “For we do not push aside one mitzvah because of another one.” For if the son honors his father, David is not helped and that mitzvah is pushed aside. But why doesn’t Maimonides give that reason, instead of “because he and his father are obligated in mitzvah”?  Should not the principle “We do not push aside” suffice for the son helping David, and not his father?

I appears, as we said, that certain mitzvahs do not devolve upon one person over an other. Mitzvah does not demand that John perform X, but rather, that X be performed, and those aware must respond. Therefore, the father too is obligated to ensure that David is helped! This now creates an interesting phenomenon, where the honor due to the father is compromised. How so? The father’s obligation to help David renders him as one who must be “active,” and cannot be “passive” to receive his son’s honor. At this moment that David needs help, the father’s obligation suspends the son’s ability to honor him. For this reason Maimonides gives the reasoning “He and his father are obligated in mitzvah” and not “We do not push aside one mitzvah,”  since the mitzvah to honor the father is inactive until David is helped. 

Why does Maimonides conclude with, “And the study of Torah is greater than honoring one's parents”? This appears to contradict “We do not push aside a mitzvah.” 

Torah study overriding honoring parents is validated by Jacob not violating Honoring Parents for the 14 years he studied under Shame and Ever [2]. Jacob acted correctly and the mishnah [3] and talmud [4] validate this too. But this is only when one is already engaged in Torah study. But if one is engaged in honoring one’s father, the son does not cease that honor to study Torah. “We do not push aside a mitzvah” applies only once engaged in a mitzvah [5]. This can be explained as a practical principle, that to fulfill a mitzvah, one must be alleviated of all other responsibility. Otherwise, a series of mitzvahs can successively devolve upon a person, where each succeeding mitzvah causes one to cease the previous mitzvah, thereby never completing any mitzvah. 

That sins vary in their punishments, and that mitzvahs too have degrees of vitality clearly teaches that Torah commands are not of equal importance . How then does Pirkei Avos say to “Run to perform a smaller command just like a greater command”? The talmud [6] says not to select one command over another: when alone and confronted with a command, fulfill it even if a greater command then confronts you. Here is when we apply “Run to perform a smaller command just like a greater command.” But if not alone, and one can give a lesser command to another, he should opt to fulfill the greater command. 

[1] “In his hand” does not mean this mitzvah is obligatory upon the son alone, but that “the son has the capacity to fulfill.”

[2] Megilla 16b

[3] “These are the matters that have no measure1: Peah, first fruits, appearance at Temple, works of kindness, and Torah study. These are the matters whose product a person eats in this world and whose capital remains for him in the future world: Honoring father and mother, works of kindness, making peace between people; the study of Torah corresponds to them all” (Peah 1:1). 

[4] Moade Kattan 9b

[5] Megilla, Rabbeinu Nissim 13b

[6] Moade Katan 9a-9b