Our sedra is special in that it kicks off Moshe Rabeinu’s main repetition of the mitzvos . Not all the miztvos are repeated, however; the ones appertaining to the kohannim/sacrifices are not repeated, for we have a principal that ‘kohannim are meticulous in their specific commandments’ (kohannim zerizim heim) and so repetition would be unnecessary for them.

One of the many mitzvos mentioned in our sedra is tzedaka. This comprises of a positive mitzvah to ‘surely open your hand’ to the poor person (15;8), and also a negative prohibition ‘do not harden your heart [from helping] and withhold your hand [from giving tzedaka to] from your destitute brother (15;7).’ As an aside, I heard an interesting insight into the above pasuk to ‘open your hand’ in giving tzedakah. When your hand is closed and fingers pointed towards you, all the fingers look the same size. But when you open your hand, you can see that the fingers are different sizes. So too in tzedakah are we supposed to give the poor person what they need, and realise that different people have different needs.

The fact that there is one positive and one negative commandment in tzedaka is significant; halacha differentiates between negative and positive commandments. For example, the Rema paskens that to facilitate fulfilling a positive mitzvah, one is only required to spend a fifth of their money. With regards to a negative commandment, however, one must give up all their money rather than transgress a negative commandment. Armed with this information, we can ask the following pressing question: If there is a negative prohibition not to withhold giving money to the poor, and one must give up all their money not to transgress a negative prohibition, why does one not have to give up all their money to the poor to avoid transgressing this negative mitzvah of ‘do not withhold your hand?’ In short, why does one not need to give all their money to tzedaka to avoid transgressing here? We are going to mention two answers, but there may very well be many more out there… The first answer comes via the Rambam. The Rambam points out that the negative prohibition is directly related to the positive commandment to give tzedaka. Thus, the negative prohibition is essentially ‘do not withhold giving of tzedakka when you have an obligation to give tzedaka.’ And since the positive mitzvah is generally to give a maximum of a fifth, so too does the negative mitzvah extend no further than giving a fifth.

The second answer comes to the same destination as the first answer, but via another route, through which we shall get to some interesting things about the nature of positive and negative mitzvos in general. The second answer is to say that this negative commandment is like a positive commandment for these purposes. This requires a more full explanation…

The Minchas Chinuch (5;23) writes that the halacha to even spend all one’s money to avoid transgressing a negative mitzvah only refers to an active transgression, for example actively stealing. It does not apply to negative miztvos which one transgresses passively, for example the prohibition of delaying the sacrifice that one promised to bring (bal te’acher); the act of delaying (not bringing) is a passive one. The Choftez Chaim (mishna brura 656;9) says the same principal in explaining why a negative prohibition seems much more stringent than a positive one to the extent that it obligates one to spend all their money to avoid transgressing a negative commandment. He explains that the difference is one of being active or passive. Transgressing a negative commandment, by nature, means doing an active thing contrary to what HaShem wants of you. Failing to observe a positive commandment, however, does not involve an active going against HaShem’s word. Not having a lulav and esrog to shake on sukkos is a passive act; one failed to get hold of them. Therefore, to answer our question, we can point out that this negative prohibition of withholding tzedaka is also transgressed passively – by not giving – and so does not obligate giving all of one’s money to avoid transgressing. This idea of positive mitzvos being actively fulfilled and passively transgressed, with the reverse true for negative mitzvos (they are passively fulfilled and actively transgressed) is sourced in the Ramban. The Ramban draws a major distinction between positive and negative mitzvos. Positive mitzvos come from the trait of ahavah , and HaShem’s rachamim (the way of dealing with the world via His attribute of mercy), whilst negative mitzvos are outgrowths of the trait of yirah, and HaShem’s din (the way of dealing with the world via His attribute of strict justice). Consequently, a positive mitzvah entails an active showing of love of HaShem via doing one of His commandments, whilst a negative commandment is fulfilled by doing nothing (by not stealing); acting passively, for this is the trait of yirah – not overstepping one’s mark and doing something which harms them physically or spiritually. With his above principle, the Ramban adds that this is also why transgressing a negative prohibition is worse than transgressing a positive mitzvah; for it involves an active ‘rebellion’ against HaShem’s words. The Ramban goes on to explain that the logic behind the principle that ‘aseh docheh lo ta’asei’ – a positive mitzvah overrides a negative one. For example, one may wear tzitzis which have a mixture of wool and linen (normally the probation of kila’im), because the aseh of tzitzis ‘pushes away’ the negative lo ta’asei of kila’im and overrides it. The reason, says the Ramban, is because an asei is sourced in the trait of ahavah, whilst the lo ta’asei is sourced in the trait of yirah. And ahavah is a greater level than yirah – so the aseh takes supersedes the lo ta’asei.

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