Sotah 21a: Selling the Reward for a Mitzvah

Sotah 21a: What is the meaning of the verse (Shir Hashirim 8:7), “If a man gives all the wealth of his house for love, they would despise him”? Ulla said: Not like Shimon, brother of Azariah (Shimon was supported by his brother Azariah so that he could learn Torah) and not like Rabbi Yochanan and house of the Nasi, but rather like Hillel and Shevna. As Rav Dimi related: Hillel and Shevna were brothers. Hillel learned Torah while Shevna went into business. Afterwards Shevna said, “Come, let us divide our earnings.” A Heavenly voice came out and said, “If a man gives all the wealth of his house for love, they would despise him.”

Rema in Shulchan Aruch 246:1: One may make an agreement with his friend that he will learn Torah and his friend will support him, and receive a portion of his reward. But if he already learned Torah, he cannot sell his reward for money.

מאי (שיר השירים ח) בוז יבוזו לו? אמר עולא: לא כשמעון אחי עזריה, ולא כר׳ יוחנן דבי נשיאה, אלא כהלל ושבנאֹ דכי אתא רב דימי אמר: הלל ושבנא אחי הוו, הלל עסק בתורה, שבנא עבד עיסקא, לסוף א״ל: תא נערוב וליפלוג, יצתה בת קול ואמרה: (שיר השירים ח) אם יתן איש את כל הון ביתו וגו׳.

שו”ע יו”ד רמ”ו ס”א: ומי שא״א לו ללמוד מפני שאינו יודע כלל ללמוד או מפני הטרדות שיש לו יספיק לאחרים הלומדים: הגה ותחשב לו כאילו לומד בעצמו (טור) ויכול אדם להתנות עם חבירו שהוא יעסוק בתורה והוא ימציא לו פרנסה ויחלוק עמו בשכר אבל אם כבר עסק בתורה אינו יכול למכור לו חלקו בשביל ממון שיתן לו (תולדות אדם וחוה נתיב ב׳ מש״ס דסוטה).

Rabbi Shmuel Berenbaum, the Mirrer Rosh Yeshiva, told the following story to give his talmidim a sense of how European Jews once lived. The story took place in his home town of Kaneshen, Poland when he was 4 years old (1924). It became the talk of the town, and so he remembered it well despite his young age at the time.

In Kaneshen there lived a peddler who would travel around the nearby villages to sell his wares. He was driving his wagon back toward the town when he met a poor Jew by the roadside, looking for a ride to Kaneshen. The peddler invited him to ride in his wagon. As they rode into town, they passed several unemployed men standing by the entrance to the town, hoping to get hired for day jobs. One of them, who we’ll call R’ Reuven, called out to the peddler, “I didn’t know you were such a rodef mitzvos that you give people rides!” The peddler, not wishing to boast about his chesed, said, “I didn’t do it for the mitzvah, I just had extra room in my wagon, so why shouldn’t I give him a ride?” R’ Reuven, thinking that the peddler did not value his mitzvah so much, said, “Can I buy from you the zechus of your mitzvah of chesed for 5 zlotys?” The peddler didn’t think R’ Reuven was serious, and he nodded in agreement.

The conversation turned to other matters for about 10 minutes, and then R’ Reuven took out 5 zlotys and offered them to the peddler. Realizing for the first time that Reuven was serious, the peddler said, “No, I will not sell you my mitzvah! When I nodded my head I was joking, but I never agreed to the sale.” Reuven argued, “That’s devarim shebalev – thoughts don’t count when they contradict one’s actions. From my point of view, you agreed to the sale and you can’t go back on it now.” “I never sell my mitzvos!” said the peddler in a louder voice. The argument became heated and a group of bystanders gathered around them, some taking the peddler’s side and others backing R’ Reuven. Neither was willing to back down. Finally, they agreed to present the question to the rav of the town and follow his psak.

The rav listened to both sides, studied the subject and gave his decision: the mitzvah belonged to R’ Reuven, since the peddler did initially agree to sell it to him. However, since the peddler argued that he did not really want to sell it, he had the right to buy it back for 50 zlotys. (Reb Shmuel added that he did not understand the logic behind this decision.) Once the rav paskened, no one in town dared question him. And indeed, the peddler bought his mitzvah back for 50 zlotys, an amount far above his means.

[The obvious question is that based on the Gemara in Sotah and the Rema, the Rav should have ruled that the entire sale was invalid and no one has to pay anyone anything. One cannot sell a mitzvah after it was done already!

R’ Yosef Simcha Klein, grandson-in-law of Reb Shmuel, proposed the following explanation: Rabbi Akiva Eiger on Shulchan Aruch cites two responsa that deal with this subject, Rav Hai Gaon and the Eish Das. Rav Hai Gaon speaks of a person who fasted every Monday and Thursday for a year, and then gave the reward as a gift to someone, or sold it. He says the sale is ineffective, and then adds, “This fool who sold his fasts is like one whose meal was eaten by a dog (he gets no reward, like someone who simply had nothing to eat – Rashi Taanis 11b). What reward could he receive from Hashem, when he has already taken money? He did not fast for Hashem’s sake; he just afflicted himself to get the money. He is more likely to get punished than rewarded, for he made the name of Heaven worthless, like a shovel with which to earn his bread.”

The Eish Das deals with someone who bought his friend’s share of the Livyasan for 100 gold coins. Like Rav Hai Gaon, he says the seller will be punished for making light of the World to Come, and then adds, “Still it would seem that the buyer gets reward for his desire and love of Olam Haba, since he spent a lot of money on it.”

Accordingly, the Rav of Kaneshen may have decided that by agreeing to sell his mitzvah, the peddler sinned and now needed to do teshuva by showing Hashem how beloved the mitzvah was to him. R’ Reuven, who gained reward for trying to buy the mitzvah, would not lose by selling it back, since it was not his choice; he was ordered to do so by the Rav.]

Source: Kisrah Shel Torah, p. 91

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