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What’s the Point of a One-Time Mitzvah?

What’s the Point of a One-Time Mitzvah?

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Photo: Lubavitch Archives
Photo: Lubavitch Archives

So I walk into a random office and ask a guy to put on tefillin. Perhaps just to get rid of me, he agrees. I strap him up, help him read Shema, shake his hand and leave. In and out in 3 minutes.

I’m at a circumcision. During the inevitable ten-minute delay waiting for the baby to be sent down to the ceremony, I persuade the nervous father to put on tefillin. I explain to him the connection between circumcision and tefillin, which are both referred to in the Torah as a sign of our connection to G‑d, and he confides to me that this is the first time he’s worn tefillin since his bar mitzvah.

Afterwards, while the guests are eating, I circulate through the crowd offering the family and friends their own chance to do the mitzvah. Many are happy for the opportunity, while some need a bit more persuasion. I’ve found that the best way to overcome their initial hesitation is to enlist partners and children to the cause. Almost every young lady wants her guy to do something Jewish, and which parent could resist a sweet little 3-year-old lisping, “Daddy, please show me how you put on those funny black boxes, and let me answer Amen to your blessing”?

But what have we gained from guilt-tripping a guy into tefillin? It’s just a one off, with no guarantee of any followup. Is he any more religious, committed or switched on than before I started nudging him?

At least when you walk into someone’s office, or chat to them at a function, there is a chance of building a longer relationship for the future; indeed, many of my now closest friends started off as chance acquaintances. But what about when you stop someone on a street corner or in a shopping mall, and tie him up? That’s really hit and miss. While I appreciate that the soul of a Jew is shining through for those few moments, I sometimes wonder why we bother putting him through his paces in the first place.

This question was once posed to the Lubavitcher Rebbe by a not-yet-religious individual. The Rebbe had compared adding extra mitzvahs into one’s daily routine to wearing a tie, which adds beauty and splendor to one’s whole ensemble. In response, the man asked what seems to be an ingenious question. He pointed out that the Rebbe’s analogy would hold true only for someone already wearing clothing; however, were a naked person to don a tie, rather than looking better, he’d look completely ridiculous.

The obvious import of the query is to question the value of any one mitzvah when performed by an otherwise unobservant person. When someone does nothing else Jewish and has no intention to change, what is the point of adorning oneself with a frilly appendage? It seems not only hypocritical, but foolish too.

The Rebbe agreed that a naked man wearing a tie might indeed look silly, but contended the very act of putting a tie would probably wake him up to the fact that he’s naked in the first place. Sometimes the incongruity of being simultaneously underdressed but over-accessorized can lead you to rush off to cover yourself up.

Aside for the intrinsic standalone value that each mitzvah has, mitzvah observance can also be contagious. Agreeing to opt in, even just once, can have far-reaching effects. There have been untold thousands of Jews who have made permanent changes in their lives for the better, just because they agreed to try it once.

Rabbi Elisha Greenbaum is spiritual leader of Moorabbin Hebrew Congregation and co-director of L’Chaim Chabad in Moorabbin, Victoria, Australia.
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Rabbi Shmary Brownstein Chabad.org August 1, 2013

To Arya It is unfortunate that not all Jews have the same reverence for mitzvahs, as it is likewise unfortunate that you feel put upon by Chabadniks who try to get you to put on Tefillin. I cannot speak to the individual approach of each person who offers Tefillin to others. However, I would like to respond to one point, about the value of the mitzvah. The main value of a mitzvah is that it is something G-d wants. No matter how the person doing the mitzvah feels, G-d is happy when one does it. That's why it's important to do mitzvahs even when we don't get them. I will admit that I don't entirely get Tefillin myself, but I feel a special connection to G-d when I wear them. I hope a teacher who relates to you comes along and helps you appreciate this mitzvah as well. Reply

Rabbi Yosef Levertov Austin, Texas July 25, 2013

the naked man wearing a tie I was at the Farbrengen where the Rebbe spoke about the value of performing 1 Mitzvah while the person who is performing it is "naked" because he has no other Mitzvos.

To this the Rebbe himself brought out the analogy of a man running down the street naked wearing a tie, if you didn't know the person you would think he must be crazy, however if you know the circumstance that the person just rushed out of a home that is burning, you would say wow! He was able to grab his tie and he saved himself and his tie from the blaze! Reply

Arya beverly hills July 24, 2013

A proposal I don't agree at all with the premise of this article. All though to you the act of putting on the tefillin might be sacred and holy, it doesn't have this same meaning for everybody else who identifies as Jewish. I personally don't see putting on tefillin as anything special, and I don't believe it's necessary in order to show my faith to God. So when one of your (yes your) rabbis come and constantly hound me to put on tefillin, even using some of the guilt trips you discuss in your article (for example talking to my father about how big of an opportunity I'm missing out on), I don't feel any more holy for putting it on, I feel annoyed and disgruntled. It's gotten to the point where some of my friends and family like to tell your rabbis that we're not even Jewish, not to deny our faith but to get you off our backs. Some of you rabbis have been respectful when I say no, but please keep in mind when doing this service that not everyone treats this mitzvah the same as you do. Reply

Brian Rapaport Donovan Ometepe Island, Nicaragua July 12, 2013

Thank you all for your contributions to my late blooming desire to become a more observant Jew. Alas, I find myself living in a backward country with very little Jewish tradition at all, no synagogue, no Torah and a Jewish population of only sixteen people (out of 5.5 million). Sadly, the 'revolutionaries' dispossessed and drove into exile the then small but vibrant Jewish population and made the practice of Judaism a crime ... 1979. Not much has changed since then but at least it is no longer a crime to practice our beautiful traditions here in this country I both love and hate ... Nicaragua. Reply

RMM Boca Raton, FL July 11, 2013

Too late for me Raised by Reform parents for whom a Sunday School education was quite enough for them, my wife and I decided early on in our relationship that we and our children would be modern "observant" Jews. Over the years we become more - and more "observant". The more we do. the more we want to learn and observe properly. Reply

Avraham USA July 11, 2013

Intrinsic Aside from the effect on the individual the mitzvah accomplishes an intrinsic effect ( as was noted in the article but not emphasized). Whether or not there was any understanding and regardless of the intentionality with which the person carries out the mitzvah- there is a result whose effect in the Universe may not be immediately apparent. That result is one that Hashem desires when he commands us to perform a mitzvah.. Reply

EM NY July 11, 2013

It takes many droplets to make a drop and infinite drops to make an ocean. If the Almighty did not consider the task futile, by what authority might we? Reply

Anonymous New York July 11, 2013

This is really, really beautiful! Thank you for sharing! Reply

Anonymous July 9, 2013

Tefillin is good... ... you can take tefillin off. Reply

zeev Berlin, Germany July 8, 2013

Thanks for the article, i was always thinking about this, but this means that the mitzvah has to be explained to the guy who wears it, same like with the tie, nobody is going to wear it unless you explain to him that he looks prettier with it. Reply

Sarah Rivka :) Cincinnati, OH July 8, 2013

This cracked me up.... ...Too funny for this time of year :) Reply

Anonymous Northbrook July 8, 2013

tefilin Elisha, I believe that the Talmud has a very bad word/name( perhaps a betrayer) for a person that never put on Tefilin, In your daily quest you definitely periodically find those men. and save them from being called that word. I think it is also a Bar Mitzvah for them to put Tefilin for the first time. Also every Mitzvah counts. Reply

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