What motivates us?

Posted by Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky


Why should we observe Shabbat? Or daven? Or put on tefillin, or eat only kosher, or follow the laws of niddah?   It’s gradually been occurring to me over the last year or two,  that within the Modern Orthodox world in which I live and teach, the answers to these questions have been shifting. In theory, the answer to any of these questions should start with the words, “because this is what God has commanded us to do”.  Sure, additional explanations might then be offered as to why God commanded us to do this, and further discussion might then be had about the benefits that result from the observance of this mitzvah, but it’s the fact that it was commanded by God that would seem to be the sole required element of the answer.


I derive this conclusion from the discussion in Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 60) which presents the debate as to whether or not the performance of mitzvoth requires kavannah, and proceeds to conclude that they do. What sort of kavannah is it that is crucial to the validity of mitzva performance? The Mishna Brura explains that while it is of course preferable to have kavannah concerning the nature and purpose of the particular mitzvah at hand, this is not the sort of kavannah that the Shulchan Aruch is discussing. The mandated minimal kavannah rather, is the kavannah “to fulfill through this act that which God has commanded” (Mishna Brura #7).


Increasingly though, I am finding myself discussing mitzvot,  and the reasons we should do them,  in terms of ideas that the Shulchan Aruch might classify  as “secondary”. We talk about observing Shabbat in terms of the benefit that it brings to us and to our families within these frenetic, technology-driven, over-programmed lives that we lead.  Yes we know of course, that God commanded us to do this. And yes, we are thankful to God for having given us the Shabbat. But the primary motivation does not seem to be framed in terms of command. The same is true for discussions about kashrut (“holy discipline within the world of material over-indulgence”), or about the recitation of brachot (“continuous God-consciousness in a secular world”). And I don’t think that my experience in teaching and thinking in this way is unique.


Why this shift in how we talk about the reasons we do mitzvot?  Is it all a part of the modern (post-modern? Who can keep up?) search for meaning? Does the idea of having been commanded by God subconsciously run too contrary to our autonomy-loving grain to be sufficiently motivating?  As scientists and rationalists, are we compensating for our leaps of faith in God and Torah through a ruthless devotion to establishing rational explanations for all of the mitzvot we do?


And in the final analysis is being motivated to observe the laws of niddah, for example, by the benefits it will bring in the area of non-sexual marital communication, in violation of the Shulchan Aruch’s directive? Are we doing something wrong in approaching mitzvot in this way? Or as long as we are acknowledging that God has in fact commanded us to do these things, can we still say that we are intending  “to fulfill through this act that which God has commanded” even when this is not the motivation per se?

I’d love to hear what you think!

14 Responses to What motivates us?

  1. Dovidl says:

    This is not a recent phenomena had been practiced for a long time from the Moreh Nevuchim to the Zohar and more recently Derech Mitzvosecha, by the tzemach tzedek and likkutey halachos by Reb Noson Breslover.

  2. Larry Engelhart says:

    Those who have studied Talmud have witnessed widely divergent opinions and interpretations of what the mitzvot are, what they represent, and how they are to be fulfilled.

    In fact, many of them are mutually exclusive.

    Many who have internalized the scientific method in their studies or professional careers may be bothered by this inconsistencies, and hence want to seek both order and purpose in the mitzvot they observe.

    Often it is difficult to distill what God wants us to do because of all the filtering done by the Rabbis & sages of old.

    The old story about Moses not recognizing Judaism as practiced resonates with many thinking people.

    The kavannah to do GOD’s will may in fact require some of that thinking and challenging, at the expense of “conventional” halachic behavior.

    • Yosef Kanefsky says:

      Larry has , I think, opened a new question. When we supply reasons for the performance of particular mitzvot, are we then religiously committing ourselves to further actions that are nowhere explicitly to be found in the Torah or halacha? For example, if (as Rambam does) we think about keeping meat and milk separate as God commanding us to to respect the stature of animal life, does this then generate a religious obligation on our part to (for example) make every effort to remove spiders or mousquitoes from our homes alive, rather than reflexively just trying to kill them? And would someone who believes that there is a different reason altogether for meat / milk NOT have the same religious obligation relative to spiders?

      The Chovat Halevavot has a notion that that there are many many more than 613 mitzvot, for each mitzva, when properly understood, implies the existence of many other mitzvot. But all of these “other” mitzvot would all seem to flow not from the original miztva per se, but form our interpretatuion of that mitzva, thus forming a very subjective groups.
      I’m not saying that any of this is bad or impossible. Just thinking….

  3. Lilee says:

    The only problem with assigning reasons are when the reasons fall away.

    Also, you’ve chosen to offer as examples what I call the “ritual” mitzvot as distinct from what we might call the rational, ethical mitzvot, i.e. charity, chesed, respect.

    When we rely too much on our own human brains for rational explanation it can get us in trouble down the road.

    Yet, that’s what being human, rational thinkers is all about.

    What’s wrong with a little human rational thought experimentation anyway?

  4. Hyim Shafner says:

    Very good questions Rav Yosef. I personally think we must use taamey hamitzvot because they are real. the goal of Torah is to perfect us and to connect us to God and others (Rambam, Sefer HaChinuch). I think feeling commanded can perhaps add to this, not only fly in its face.

  5. David Waghalter says:

    I agree with Lilee that problems arise when reasons fall away (or when alternatives present themselves). That’s why I tend to think of mitzvot the way that R’ Kanefsky describes at the beginning of his post: that we do them because we’re commanded (as interpreted by the rabbis, of course). After that, I ask what I can learn from the mitzvot. This is the second and equally important part of the “na’aseh v’nishmah” equation. Doing is important, but it is so greatly enhanced – and hopefully re-enforced – by understanding or at least striving to do so.

    I wonder if many people who talk about doing mitzvot for this or that reason really do mean that they do the mitzvot b/c they’re commanded, and the “reason” is really the post facto explanation. I hope so – but in a pedagogical sense this is dangerous because newcomers and our children will hear it in its literal sense.

  6. Larry Engelhart says:

    Yosef Kanefsky describes a very organic and expansive form of religion … one in which a “religious” action causes one to contemplate many other connected or tangential issues.

    He then extends the idea to ask, therefore, if different people attribute different reasons to a mitzva, then their tangents will take them in entirely different directions.

    Unsaid, but perhaps implied, is a potential anarchy where “equally religious” people may have widely divergent “halachic imperatives”

    So, would this be good or bad for the Jews?

    I don’t know.

    In some ways it would be very stimulating because each day could be the precursor of a more sophisticated next day.

    On the other hand, there is comfort in uniformity and predictability. It certainly makes “community” easier.

    However, restricting religious thought and tangents in the name of uniformity, predictability, and community would be creating Judaism on our image instead of in the image of God’s will.

  7. Hyim Shafner says:

    David seems to be saying that beginning with commandedness and then letting reasons for mitzvot lay over it, is the way to go. I assume because one avoids the danger of not doing if the reason (or what one perceives as the reason)does not apply any more. I would suggest rather that we go in the opposite direction. Begin with the reasons for mitzvot and lay commandedness upon that. In this way we avoid a different danger, mitzvot as robotic actions and ends in themselves, which I do not believe they are. In Orthodoxy today it seems that is the greater danger.

    • David Waghalter says:

      Are you suggesting that one wait until one understands the mitzvah before accepting/performing it? In any case, I don’t think “reason” is necessarily the right word – I prefer to thinking about how a mitzvah (which I’m commanded to do, regardless) resonates. What it can teach.

    • Beau says:

      In the Torah portion this week, we see that seoomne has to confess his sin when bringing a sin offering . However, the word in the original Hebrew is Hisvada which is in the reflexive. The reason is that a person does not need to confess to G0d, because He already knows what we are doing. A person should not have to tell another person what sin he has committed. Indeed, there is a principle that a person is forbidden to tell people what he has done wrong unless it is to ask forgiveness from a person that he has wronged. That is why sin offerings are brought in the same place and in the same manner as voluntary offerings. Only the kohen who brings the offering needs to know who has brought it and what kind of offering it is. While a person may need to consult with a kohen as to whether his sin requires an offering, that is the only person who needs to know. A person needs to admit to himself what he is doing and how it is wrong. Only then would he be able to receive atonement .

  8. Larry Engelhart says:

    Just a random thought about how much our intellect has to be engaged when performing mitzvot or other rituals…

    A few times I have been at Aufrufs where the bride was present. The crowd (men & women) enthusiastically threw candy at the groom, but none at the bride. Think about that … What’s the dynamic?

    Admittedly, throwing candy is a very low priority tradition in the panoply of Jewish behavior. And, not very sophisticated, at that.

    Yet it is illustrative of how we can “miss the point” when we concentrate on the “how” and not on the “why”

    And, thinking through the “why” forces us to consider determinations which may be divergent from the “why’s” other people in other times, places, and circumstances have decided apply to them.

  9. Nick Merkin says:

    This is a great discussion. I would like to suggest one other possibility for why Modern Orthodox Jews today apparently need to search out motivations for performing mitzvot other than the simple notion of “because God says so.”

    Most of us wake up every day to the reality that there is much tragedy and suffering in the world. You don’t need to invest much more than 30 seconds of scanning the front page of any major morning paper to prove this point.

    For many, the idea that a God exists who is both sensitive to this reality and concerned with whether the amount of wine in our kiddush cups is 2.9 or 4.42 ounces is difficult to accept. To be candid, and at the risk of seeming overly-provocative, it seems a little narcissistic to believe in such a God.

    Obviously, this is not a new argument. It might have been this argument that gave rise to the fundamental ideas of Christianity. But for Modern Othodox Jews today, the desire to find compelling reasons to take bein adam le’makom ritual seriously is simply a way to approach this cognitive dissonance in a way that doesn’t embarrass us.

    I think it’s too early to tell whether this is good or bad for the Jews. However, if teaching mitzvot performance in this way is maintaining people’s interest, it’s probably the way to go.

  10. Benjamin Fleischer says:

    Regarding your specific example of Shabbat, the Torah itself gives many reasons:

    Exodus 23:12

    יב ששת ימים תעשה מעשיך, וביום השביעי תשבת–למען ינוח, שורך וחמרך, וינפש בן-אמתך, והגר.

    Six days you shall do your deeds, and on teh seventh you shall cease– in order that he may rest, your ox, your donkey, and that he may rest, the son of your maidservent and the sojourner

    Or Exodus 20:7 that we should cease from labor like God did in creation.
    Or Deut 5:11

    לא תעשה כל-מלאכה אתה ובנך-ובתך ועבדך-ואמתך ושורך וחמרך וכל-בהמתך, וגרך אשר בשעריך–למען ינוח עבדך ואמתך, כמוך. יד וזכרת, כי עבד היית בארץ מצרים, ויצאך ה’ אלקיך משם, ביד חזקה ובזרע נטויה; על-כן, צוך ה’ אלקיך, לעשות, את-יום השבת.

    You shall do no vocational labor your or your son, or your daughter, or your man-servant, or your maidservant, or your ox, or your donkey, like you. And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and haShem your God took you out from there, with a string hand and with an outstretched arm; therefore haShem your God commanded you to do the day of Shabbat

    So, ultimately we may keep mitzvot because God says so (or for me, because that’s what Jews do). That doesn’t mean, however, that the mitzvot don’t have some purpose or benefit.

    Mitzvot haTeluyot baDavar einam mekayamot; batel haDavar, batel kiyum haMitzva.

    Perhaps the discussion is better understood in the light of the two main ways people observe mitzvot (and think about tradition in general).
    1) As an authoritarian system. Someone (god, rebbe, etc) tells you what to do, and you obey. Yirah.
    2) As a system that gives you meaning and identity and community and generally makes you feel more whole. Ahava.
    Generally, this sense of commandedness increases as you “go to the right”, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that people who hear and obey (naase veNishma) are better Jews. Judaism is about more than ritual mitzvot. “lo takir panim bamishpat; lo tefane el penei dal; ish et imo v’aviv tirau; lo tone et ha ger; etc”

  11. Benjamin Fleischer says:

    To clarify point 2) that I made above
    point 1) is a one way interaction. You are told what to do.
    point 2) is a discussion. You have the mesora and you interact with it. Sometimes people call this picking and choosing, but

    You are only obligated to go to the court of your generation (and not previous generations) for decisions and they may decide according to what he deems right (Deut. 17:9, MT Mamr. 2:1, see Rav”ad there).

    A halakhic decisor must judge according to what is right in his eyes if the reason for a previous decision is perplexing (BT BB 130b, 131a).

    And where there is not support, sound reasoning may even overrule an ancient ruling (BT Brekh. 23b).

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