Rabbi Eli Backman

For Mitzpeh


Editor’s note: This story is the first of a series titled “Backman’s Corner,” in which Rabbi Backman, the rabbi of Chabad at this university, shares his thoughts on Torah and Judaism.

Sources for this article are available on request. To reach out to Rabbi Backman, you can email chabad@umd.edu or send a message on Facebook

The Torah instructs us about the Mitzvot and how to perform them. (Ludwig Dietenhofer/Yad Vashem archives)

What if you had a choice of what Mitzvah (good deed) to do? But for real, you could choose just one to do and that’s it.

How do you decide which one, and what does that tell you about why you do Mitzvot?

Imagine this scenario:

Reuven, a devout Jew, was imprisoned and was not able to leave to pray with a minyan (quorum) of ten or fulfill any other mitzvot. He beseeched the governor, yet was only granted permission to leave on one day a year – a day of Reuven’s choosing. Which day of all the days of the year should Reuven choose to go to the Beit Haknesset (synagogue) and fulfill a Mitzvah?

Think about it for a minute.

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, might be a good response. Maybe Reuven could have a Passover seder. Dance on Simchat Torah. Hear Megillat Esther on Purim.

Now what criteria would you use to make this decision?

With this criteria in mind, you can tell Reuven what day to choose. What Mitzvah is the one he should do.

But – just wait one minute – should you ever be choosing at all?

You see, if religion is G-d’s expression, you should base your answer on G-d’s criteria for Mitzvot, not on criteria based on your feelings or level of inspiration.


The Talmud tells us that we cannot pass up on any Mitzvah. We have to do the ones that come our way.

Practical applications of this include how to place Mitzvah-related items in a way such that the next Mitzvah we have the opportunity to do is the one we want to do. Examples could be moving around items on the Passover Seder Plate, or holding the two Challahs on Shabbat.

Now, using that idea, the correct response for Reuven should be that he has to leave prison the first day possible and do whatever Mitzvah happens on that day. He cannot ‘pass over Mitzvot’ and wait for another one. We do not pay attention to whether the first Mitzvah he encounters is a “light” or a “weighty” (significant) one, for we do not truly know the reward or value of any given Mitzvah.

Indeed, 500 years ago a leading rabbi was asked this exact question of what Mitzvah Reuven should do, and he used this Talmud to form his response. He rejected other rabbinical answers which tried to figure out which day might have more ‘weight’ like Yom Kippur, and instead said that Reuven should leave immediately and do the Mitzvot of that day.

In true Rabbinic fashion, in the years since, other rabbis have sought to validate his opinion, and still others have asked questions or refuted it.

It is here that a profound point begins to emerge. If we were to give preference to one Mitzvah over another for any given reason, we would be implying that we are the final arbiters of the purpose of G-d’s commandments. To rank one law above another might not seem a crime, but whenever we call one thing more important than the next, we also diminish the one not prioritized. We should treat all Mitzvot equally, because to do otherwise is to say that a particular law is not important.

If I like the ethical parts of the Torah, but do not feel constrained by the rituals, then of course I will say the former is what G-d really cares about. Do I find rituals of symbolism and pageantry beautiful, but laws restricting me in my business practices too confining? Then I might think that G-d wanted me to focus more on praying to Him, but not as much on not preying upon my fellow man. Selectivity is the transgression that allows us to pick and choose from the law and hence to redefine it… That is the point the Talmud was making when it responded that the Jew should not “select” a specific day of religious observance. Choose the first day possible, so that you don’t in fact choose, but rather G-d chooses for you. Choose the first day possible, because if you are granted the freedom to practice your religion on any day, you should not dare push it off to another day and thereby imply that you are looking for something better.

Mitzvot are the points of connection between us and G-d. The values ascribed to them come from G-d, not from us. So we should not put ourselves in the position of choosing what to do; rather, we should do what we are supposed to do, and G-d will make sure the necessary things are taken care of.

Of course, we should and must study, understand, develop feelings and excitement for what we do. This allows all of us to be engaged in the Mitzvah of the moment.

In summary: an age-old question might shed light on what a Mitzvah is and how we should approach them. More importantly, it teaches us the value of each and every act we do. So, what are you waiting for? Do a Mitzvah, any Mitzvah, today!


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