The Mitzvah Snatcher

CHAPTER 1

A QUICK DAVENING

Yankel is in the year of mourning for his father and meticulously fulfills his filial responsibility to “daven in front of the amud.” Finding himself one day at a Mincha minyan in an unfamiliar neighborhood, he races to the amud before anyone else gets a chance. After davening, a nicely dressed gentleman hands Yankel a business card and asks if he can speak to him for a second.

“Are you new in the neighborhood? I don’t believe we have ever met before. My name is Irving Friedman.”

“Mine is Yankel Schwartz. No, I don’t live here. I was just passing through and needed a Mincha minyan.”

“Oh, I would like to make your acquaintance. Could I trouble you for your phone number?”

Not suspecting anything, Yankel provides Irving Friedman with his home, business, and cell phone numbers. Friedman then asks him for his home address, which arouses Yankel’s suspicion. “Why do you want to know?”

“Well, I guess I should be straightforward with you,” Irving continues. “I want you to be aware that you owe me a huge amount of money. You see, I have the chazakah of davening at the amud during this minyan. By grabbing the mitzvah, you stole from me nineteen brachos of the repetition of Shmoneh Esrei and two Kaddeishim, for each of which you owe me ten gold coins. I have made the exact calculation on the back of my business card. If you doubt that you owe me this money, I suggest you discuss the matter with your own rav. Since you look like an ehrliche yid, I assume that you will attempt to pay me before Yom Kippur. However, if that is too difficult, I am willing to discuss a payment plan. You have my phone number on the card.” With this, Irving Friedman (not his real name) got into his car and drove off.

A bit bewildered at this surprising turn of events, Yankel looked at the business card in his hand. The front of the card had Friedman’s name, business address, and the title and logo of his business. On the back, Yankel found the following hand-written calculation:

Invoice:

19 brachos @ 10 gold dinar coins each =                  190 gold dinar coins.

2 kaddeishim @ 10 gold dinar coins each=                 20 gold dinar coins.

Total                                                                            210 gold dinar coins.

Based on my research, these coins are worth between $24 and $200 each, in contemporary dollars (see Shiurei Torah, pg. 302.) This makes a total outstanding debt of between $5,040 and $42,000.

I am willing to accept the lower sum, and I am willing to discuss a payment schedule.

Yours sincerely, I. Friedman

CHAPTER 2

Yankel was shocked. He presumed that Irving Friedman was pulling his leg. Yet, Friedman’s demeanor about the entire matter had been so business-like that it did not seem Friedman was playing a prank on him. “Five grand for one Mincha. He must be kidding!!” was all Yankel could think.

Yankel now realized that his running to the amud was very presumptuous. Usually, one goes to the amud when asked by a gabbai, unless one has a regular chazakah to daven at the amud during that particular minyan. Yankel realized that his enthusiasm to get the amud had clouded his reasonable judgment.

Back in his own shul and on familiar turf, Yankel davened maariv at the amud uneventfully and then noticed his good buddy, Shmuel. Besides being a good friend, Shmuel was more learned than Yankel and would be able to help him sort out what had happened. Yankel told Shmuel about the day’s events and showed him the business card.

“I know that the Gemara talks about charging someone ten gold coins for snatching a mitzvah, but I never heard of someone trying to collect it,” was Shmuel’s surprised reaction.

“Where do you think Friedman got this dollar figure?”

“He has a note on the card quoting ‘Shiurei Torah, pg. 302.’ This is a sefer on the subject of halachic measurements. I don’t have the sefer, but let’s see if the shul has a copy.”

Sure enough, the shul library had a copy of Shiurei Torah by Rav Avrohom Chayim Na’eh, one of the gedolei poskim in Eretz Yisroel about sixty years ago. Shmuel located the chapter where the sefer discusses the halachic sources for determining the value of “ten gold coins,” and indeed, Friedman’s calculations were based on the conclusions of Shiurei Torah.

“What should I do? $5,040 is a lot of money. Do I really owe him this much money because I davened Mincha without checking if someone else had a right to the amud?” Yankel asked his friend.

“Maybe discuss the issue with the Rav.”

CHAPTER 3

Still very disturbed about the matter, Yankel called Rav Cohen to schedule an appointment. By now, he regretted his rash Mincha davening, and realized that it is far more important not to infringe on someone else’s mitzvah than to daven at the amud.

At the appointed time, Yankel arrived at Rav Cohen’s office and explained the whole story, showing him the calculation on the back of the business card.

Rav Cohen noticed a halachic flaw in Mr. Friedman’s argument, but felt that Yankel would benefit more if he found out this information a bit later. The sage knew that this was not the first time that Yankel’s impetuous nature had gotten him into trouble. This situation might help him realize not to be so rash.

Rav Cohen introduced Yankel to the halachic issues involved. “As we know from the Chumash, someone who shechts a bird has a mitzvah of “kisui hadam,” to cover the blood with dirt. The Gemara (Bava Kamma 91b) tells us a story of a shocheit who shechted a bird and then, before he had a chance to fulfill the mitzvah of covering the blood, someone else covered it, thus snatching the mitzvah. The shocheit brought the offending party to a din Torah where the great Tanna Rabban Gamliel presided. Rabban Gamliel ruled that the ‘mitzvah snatcher’ must pay ten gold coins for taking someone else’s mitzvah.”

“But in that case he is being fined for taking away his mitzvah, not for the bracha,” Yankel countered.

“Actually, the Gemara (Chullin 87a) asks exactly this question. The Gemara cites a case where someone grabbed someone else’s right to lead the bensching. In the time of the Gemara, when a group of people bensched together, one person recited the entire bensching aloud, and the others listened attentively and answered amen when he finished each bracha. By hearing the brachos of the person reciting the bensching, they fulfilled their obligation to bensch.

“In this instance, someone else began bensching other than the person who had the right to bensch. The Gemara discusses whether the person who bensched must compensate for one mitzvah, which is ten gold coins, or for four brachos, which is forty coins.”

Yankel, now keenly aware of the difference between ten coins and forty, lets out a sigh.

“How does the Gemara rule?” asked Yankel, hoping that the Gemara would rule in his favor and save him a lot of money. After all, if the Gemara rules that the entire bensching is only one mitzvah, his nineteen snatched brachos, which are only one mitzvah, are worth only ten gold coins. However, if the Gemara rules that he must compensate per bracha, he must pay 190 gold coins. By some quick arithmetic, Yankel figured that this saves him at least $4,500! He had never before realized before how much a Gemara discussion might be worth.

Rav Cohen realized what was going through Yankel’s head. “Well, there are other issues that impact on your case, but …. the Gemara rules that he must pay forty gold coins.”

The ramifications of this ruling were not lost on Yankel. “But what is he paying for? He didn’t take anything.”

“That is a really good question,” responded the Rav patiently. “Rashi (Chullin 87a) explains that the mitzvah snatcher is paying for the reward that he deprived the other person of when the mitzvah was taken away.”

“I didn’t know you could put a price tag on a mitzvah’s reward,” Yankel blurted out. “The reward for a mitzvah is priceless!”

The Rav could not miss this opportunity. “If that is so, then you are really getting a very good bargain.”

“Why?”

“What is worth more, the mitzvos one observes, or the money being paid as compensation?”

“Put that way, I must admit that it is a bargain. But it is still a very expensive bargain!”

Yankel continued. “Are there any other instances of collecting money for someone taking away a mitzvah?”

“The Gemara discusses a din Torah raised by a person whose tree was overhanging a public area and could cause potential damage. Before he could trim the tree, someone else chopped down the problematic branches. The owner placed a claim in beis din against the chopper for snatching his mitzvah. The beis din sided with the owner that his mitzvah was indeed snatched.”

“Shmuel told me that he never heard of anyone collect money for snatched mitzvos. Is there any discussion after the time of the Gemara about collecting for snatched mitzvos?”

Tosafos discusses a case when someone was ‘called up’ for an aliyah, and another person went up for the aliyah instead, thus snatching two brachos away from the person who had a right to them.”

“What chutzpah!” blurted out Yankel. Then, realizing the hypocrisy in his reaction, he added. “I shouldn’t be the one to talk. If I had a little less chutzpah, I wouldn’t have gotten into such hot water.”

“Whatever happened to this aliyah snatcher?” queried Yankel.

“How much do you think he should have paid?” replied the Rav, cunningly waiting for the best time to reveal the rest of the story.

“Well, based on the bensching case where he paid forty coins for four brachos, I would imagine the aliyah snatcher should pay twenty coins for two brachos, one before and one after the aliyah.”

“You are catching on really well,” complimented the Rav.

“Well, if I do end up financially poorer for this experience, at least I should end up a bit wealthier in Torah learning,” concluded Yankel. “But what do the poskim rule?”

Rav Cohen decided it was now time to let Yankel in on the secret. “There is a dispute in this question between Rabbeinu Tam and his nephew, Rabbeinu Yitzchok. Rabbeinu Yitzchok rules exactly like you contended – the aliyah snatcher must pay twenty gold coins. However, Rabbeinu Tam ruled that he is not required to pay at all (Tosafos, Bava Kamma 91b s.v. vichiyavo).”

Yankel was on the edge of his chair. Maybe Rabbeinu Tam would be his savior!

“How did Rabbeinu Tam get him off the hook?” was all Yankel wanted to know.

Rav Cohen leaned toward Yankel, asking him, “Which act earns more reward, reciting a bracha or answering amen?”

“I would assume reciting the bracha,” responded Yankel, “But because of the way you asked the question, I must be wrong.”

“Indeed, the Gemara (Berachos 53b) declares that it is greater to recite amen than to recite the bracha. Rabbeinu Tam understands this to mean that the person who answers amen receives more reward than the person who recites the bracha! He therefore concludes that the person who snatched the aliyah need not pay, since the person who should have received the aliyah would receive even more reward for reciting amen to the bracha. Remember, the compensation is for losing reward, and the aliyah snatcher did not take away any reward.”

“One second,” blurted out Yankel, “The guy who covered the blood also didn’t stop the shocheit from reciting amen. Why did he have to pay?”

“That is a really good question that the later poskim ask. There are two very different approaches to explain why Rabbeinu Tam agrees that the blood coverer must pay the shocheit. Some contend that he recited the bracha in a way that the shocheit did not hear the bracha and that is why he must pay. According to this approach, had the shocheit heard the bracha, he would not collect compensation for losing his mitzvah.

Others contend that the shocheit has two different claims, one for the mitzvah and the other for the bracha. Answering amen provides an even greater reward than reciting the bracha, so the shocheit does not collect for missing the bracha. However, the shocheit still lost the reward for performing the mitzvah, and for this loss he deserves compensation (Sma 382:7; Shach and other commentaries ad loc.).”

“Is this why Shmuel said he never heard of someone trying to collect ten gold coins for a snatched mitzvah?”

“No. Actually, the reason for this is a bit complicated,” began the Rav. “Technically, only a beis din whose members received the original semicha that Moshe Rabbeinu conferred to Yehoshua can enforce a financial claim. Since we no longer have this semicha, this would mean that no one could ever collect damages or a bad debt. To avoid this problem, Chazal instituted that one can collect damages or debts through any beis din. However, Chazal instituted this method of collecting only when a person suffered out-of-pocket losses, as he does in the case of a bad debt or an injury. When someone took another person’s mitzvah, however, although this is a real loss, there was no out-of-pocket loss. The result is that a mitzvah snatcher owes money and should pay it, but there is no way to force him to pay the debt (Tosafos, Bava Kamma 91b s.v. vechiyavo). However, since there is definitely a moral obligation to pay, the aggrieved party is permitted to seize property as payment.”

Yankel nodded, showing that he understood. “In conclusion, according to many opinions, I owe Mr. Friedman a considerable amount of money. Does it make any difference that I was unaware that he had the right to the amud and didn’t know that I could become obligated to pay a huge sum of money?”

“It should not make any difference, since you owe him for taking away his reward, which is something that you did whether you realized it or not.”

“Do I also owe him for the two kaddeishim? These are not brachos,” inquired Yankel.

“It would seem that Mr. Friedman considers them to be mitzvos, and from his perspective he is probably right. It is true that whether one snatched someone else’s bracha or his mitzvah, one is required to pay compensation for his lost reward. However, it is not clear from the poskim whether one must pay for depriving someone of a mitzvah that is not min haTorah (Yam Shel Shelomoh, Bava Kamma 8:60).”

“What about the fact that he said amen to my brachos. Does that get me off the hook? Do we paskin like Rabbeinu Tam?” The hope in Yankel’s voice was very obvious.

“Actually, there is a big dispute among poskim. Many rule like Rabbeinu Tam, but this is certainly not a universally held position (see Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 382 and commentaries).”

“What does the Rav paskin in this situation?”

I would suggest that one follow the decision of the Taz (end of Choshen Mishpat 382), who says that you should contact Mr. Friedman and apologize, and offer some compensation (Aruch Hashulchan 382:7).”

Yankel phoned Irving Friedman. After a few pleasantries, he apologized for having taken the “amud” from him that fateful afternoon, and discussed the conversation he had with Rav Cohen. He offered him some financial compensation, but far less than $5000, which Friedman accepted, and that was the last time Yankel “chapped” an amud without asking beforehand.