Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Coercion: Enforcing Performance of Mitzvot

The book of Vayikra begins with instructions for the korban olah (Elevation Offering): “If one’s offering is an elevation offering from the cattle, he shall offer an unblemished male; he shall bring it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, voluntarily, before Hashem” (Vayikra 1:3).

On the words “he shall bring it,” Rashi comments that if one does not bring an obligated offering, we force him to fulfill his obligation. At the same time, Chazal note (Rosh Hashanah 6a) that the word “voluntarily” indicates that a person may not be coerced into bringing an offering. The resolution of this contradiction is that the court coerces him until he says that he desires to bring the offering.

Aside from coercing a person to bring his offerings, we also find a general instruction to enforce the performance of mitzvos. Chazal express this principle in no uncertain terms: “One who states: I will not build a Sukkah, I will not take a Lulav—we smite him until his soul (almost) departs.”

In this article we will discuss this principle of coercion for mitzvos. What is the rationale behind coercing to perform mitzvos? Is there a distinction between coercion of positive and negative commandments? Who is responsible for coercing others? And is there any value in a coerced act? These questions, among others, are discussed below.

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