The Beauty of Two Worlds: The Metsuveh and the Eino Metsuveh

Scenario one: You arrive home, put your bags down, and walk into the kitchen. Out of the corner of your eye, you notice that the sink is full of dishes, but you move on to the refrigerator and take out something to eat. You settle down at the table for your meal. A few minutes later, your mother walks in and asks you to wash the dishes. After completing your meal, you promptly do so. Your mother thanks you.

Scenario two: You arrive home, put your bags down, and walk into the kitchen. Out of the corner of your eye, you notice that the sink is full of dishes. You pause on your way to the refrigerator, turn around, and wash the dishes. You then grab some food and settle down for your meal. A few minutes later, your mother walks in and sees that you washed the dishes. She thanks you.

These two scenarios are almost identical, the only difference being when the dishes were washed — before being asked or afterwards. And yet, ask any mother and she would most likely say that she would be more impressed with the second scenario. Why? Seemingly because there is something greater and more meaningful about doing something that you know is right without being asked.

And it is not just mothers who might make this claim. The Amora R. Yosef would agree as well. When the blind R. Yosef heard that R. Yehudah had ruled that blind people are exempt from mitsvot, he was initially thrilled because he reasoned that his fulfillment of mitsvot would be considered greater than that of someone who was commanded to do mitsvot.[i] But R. Yosef’s bubble of joy was burst when he heard the statement of R. Hanina: “Gadol metsuveh ve-oseh yoter mi-mi she-eino metsuveh ve-oseh – One who performs a precept having been commanded to do so is greater than one who performs a precept without having been commanded to do so.”[ii] Surprisingly, our assumption was entirely wrong. Apparently, in God’s eyes, the first scenario would be preferable.

What is the source for this counter-intuitive concept and what is its underlying reasoning? The statement first appears in Kiddushin 31a, in the Gemara’s discussion concerning kibbud av va-em (honoring one’s mother and father). R. Eli’ezer was asked how far one must go in honoring one’s parents. To answer, R. Eli’ezer tells a story of a Gentile, Dama ben Netinah, who refuses to sell a stone for the efod (vest of the High Priest) to the Hakhamim, despite the enormous reward offered to him, because his father was sleeping on the stone at the time. A year later, Hashem gives him his reward in the form of a parah adumah (red heifer) which Dama can then sell to the Hakhamim, making up for any loss that he incurred by restraining himself from disturbing his father’s slumber. Based on this story, R. Hanina states that if one who is not commanded in kibbud av va-em receives such a tremendous reward, a Jewish person, who is commanded in the mitsvah, will certainly receive an even greater reward.

Indeed, this statement of R. Hanina is accepted and concretized as halakhah. Rambam writes in Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1:13 that a woman who learns Torah receives sakhar, reward, just not as much as a man does, because she was not commanded to learn Torah. The principle that someone who was not commanded does not get the same amount of sakhar as someone who was commanded is cited in the Tur and Shulhan Arukh as well.[iii]

But what is the reason for this principle? Tosafot explain that someone who is commanded worries more about not transgressing a mitsvah, while someone who is not commanded does not feel the same pressure.[iv] Tosafot ha-Rosh and Ritva elaborate on this idea, explaining that a metsuveh (one who is commanded) is more distressed because, unlike an eino metsuveh (one who is not commanded), he must combat his yetser ha-ra (evil inclination).[v] Ritva also adds the well-known maxim from Pirkei Avot 5:26, “le-fum tsa’ara agra – the reward is in proportion to the exertion.”[vi] The metsuveh has to invest more into doing a mitsvah than an eino metsuveh, and he therefore deserves more reward than an eino metsuveh. [vii]

A second explanation is offered by Hiddushei ha-Ritva.  Ritva points out that God does not need the mitsvot. God only gave us mitsvot in order to provide us with a way to fulfill the will of our Creator. Thus, when a metsuveh does a mitsvah, he receives reward for fulfilling the word of God. Someone who does a mitsvah that he was not commanded to do, however, does not receive sakhar for fulfilling the decree of God. Nonetheless, Ritva adds that an eino metsuveh still receives some reward because, although he was not directly commanded by God, he acts out of “tov levav” (goodness of his heart) and “hassidut” (piety), and there is some retson Hashem because Hashem did command someone. Based on this reasoning, Ritva qualifies that there would be no sakhar for an eino metsuveh who does something that Hashem did not command anyone to do. Someone cannot make up some sort of ritual dedicated to God and receive reward for it.[viii]

R. Reuven Ziegler reveals the deeper philosophical aspect of gadol metsuveh ve-oseh, based on addresses by R. Aharon Lichtenstein.[ix] R. Ziegler explains that living the life of a Jew means living the life of one who is called upon and commanded. This has widespread implications. It means that, “A metsuveh leads a theocentric rather than an anthropocentric life. He is guided by God’s will, not by his own likes and preferences.”[x] A Jew ought not do what he wants when he wants. He ought not act out of his own personal desires. Rather, a Jew’s life must be focused around God and what God commands him to do. Thus, a Jew should not choose to fulfill some mitsvot and overlook others, because that would be characteristic of an anthropocentric life, a life centered on himself instead of God.

R. Ziegler discusses two areas in which this ideology is reflected. The first relates to Torah study.  The Gemara in Eruvin 64a compares someone who says “I like this section of Torah but not that one” or “I will learn this part of Gemara but not that part” to someone who consorts with prostitutes. Similarly, someone who only learns Torah occasionally or does not fix times for talmud Torah is labeled by the Gemara in Sanhedrin 99b as a “heartless adulterer.” These judgments seem harsh, but R. Ziegler explains that at the core of the sins described by the Gemara is the attitude of doing what one wants without feeling any responsibility. In other words, “A person has to approach Torah and avodat Hashem not as an adulterer—someone whose goal is to extract whatever pleasure he can, even spiritual pleasure. A person has to subject himself to Torah and not to subject Torah to himself. He must be willing to commit himself to it unconditionally and accept whatever God imposes upon him.”[xi] A Jew must serve God, not himself.

A second area in which the concept of living the life of one who is commanded is relevant is gerut (conversion). We do not accept a Gentile who wishes to embrace some mitsvot but not others. Rambam writes in Hilkhot Melakhim 10:9, “The general rule is that we do not permit them to innovate a religion and to perform mitzvot for themselves according to their own understanding. Rather, they should either convert and accept all the mitzvot, or they should remain within their own religion and not add or detract.”[xii] What is wrong, though, with a motivated Gentile deciding to do certain mitsvot and not others? R. Ziegler explains that this attitude contradicts the values inherent in “gadol metsuveh ve-oseh.” He poignantly elaborates:

…a person cannot come and sit in judgment upon Torah, and upon the Almighty, and enter the world of Torah and avodat Hashem as if he were shopping in a department store. One shops in a department store precisely in response to one’s own needs and desires. It is part of self-indulgence and self-fulfillment. But one cannot shop around in God’s world. Either one understands what it means to accept the discipline of avodat Hashem or one doesn’t. Either one is called and commanded—in which case you do not pick and choose among the commands, because if you pick and choose they are no longer commands—or one cannot become a Jew.[xiii]

Underlying the concept of “gadol metsuveh ve-oseh” is the fundamental understanding that Judaism is about fulfilling God’s commands and living a theocentric life instead of an anthropocentric one. There is no picking and choosing in Judaism.

Why, then, does an eino metsuveh still receive reward? R. Ziegler explains that mitsvot are intrinsically good. Someone who volunteers to do a mitsvah, therefore, is rewarded for doing something that is good. Nonetheless, one who is commanded receives greater reward, for in addition to doing something that is good, he has also done an action that he was commanded to do and that aspect is a central value of our religion.[xiv]

Now let us return to our original analogy of washing dishes for your mother. Why did that example lead us astray? Perhaps because it was a faulty analogy. We always feel a natural obligation to help our parents — or friends, roommates, or any other relation, for that matter. Therefore, whether you were asked or whether you took initiative in washing the dishes, you were analogous to a metsuveh because your action was based on more than a sudden, altruistic feeling to act, but on a sense of obligation to help your parents. Now, the difference between the two scenarios is simply whether you had to be reminded of your obligation or not. Unsurprisingly, your mother would be more impressed if she did not have to remind you repeatedly of what you should already know.

A case that would help us to better understand the concept of metsuveh ve-oseh would, perhaps, be one in which two people are performing the same job, but one is being paid while the other one is a volunteer. In this case, the paid worker is analogous to a metsuveh, but the volunteer is analogous to an eino metsuveh because he is working owing only to his own motivation.  Studies have shown that the volunteer, acting out of his own initiative and unburdened by any obligation, enjoys the work more than the paid worker.[xv] Based on these studies, it becomes clearer as to why it is more difficult to do something in which you are obligated, and it is therefore understandable why R. Hanina would say that the commanded receives more reward than the non-commanded.

However, there is something that is slightly troubling about this whole concept. First, while following God’s commands is an essential facet of Judaism, there is also something beautiful about a sudden inspiration to serve God or the sudden realization and recognition of something that God has done. Indeed, this type of motivation is a central aspect of tefillah, as demonstrated by Hannah’s paradigmatic tefillah that was heartfelt and spontaneous. Is R. Hanina denying the value in this?

This concept is somewhat troubling on a technical level as well, especially for Ritva who says that a metsuveh receives more reward because “le-fum tsa’ara agra.” While this logic may hold for many mitsvot, it is defeated when faced with the mitsvah of peru u-revu. Even though only the man is commanded to procreate,[xvi] it is the woman who certainly undergoes more pain than the man in childbirth. Does she really receive less reward than the man just because she is an einah metsuvah?

R. Dr. Menachem-Martin Gordon, a former Stern College Jewish Studies professor, recognizes these difficulties and through a close reading of Tosafot, presents a fascinating and novel interpretation of R. Hanina’s statement. [xvii] Tosafot describe someone who does not have the same pressure as the metsuveh to fulfill the mitsvah and “im yirtseh, yaniah - if he wants, he can forego it.” But, what if there would not be a question of the eino metsuveh not doing the mitsvah? Would R. Hanina judge differently? R. Dr. Gordon claims that he would. Based on Tosafot’s wording, the concept of “gadol metsuveh ve-oseh yoter mi-mi she-aino metsuveh ve-oseh” is limited to partially-motivated people, for whom the only thing pushing them to do mitsvot would be a divine command. A fully-motivated person, on the other hand, would not feel the same option as a partially enthused eino metsuveh to forfeit the mitsvah if he so desires. For two people who are partially-motivated, the one who is commanded in the mitsvah would surely receive more reward. The case would be different, though, for two fully-motivated people.  In such a situation, the fully-motivated eino metsuveh, performing an unsolicited act solely out of love, would actually be considered greater than a fully-motivated metsuveh who, despite any love that may also be a factor in his motivation, ultimately acts out of fear and his sense of obligation.[xviii]

To further explicate this idea, R. Dr. Gordon explains that there are two factors involved in the issue of personal autonomy and Divine commitment. The first is the content of the religious initiative – the substance of the act may have been devised entirely by the performer or it may have been drawn from some religious system. The second factor is the motivation behind the performance of the act – a person may act out of his own decision and initiative or a person may act out of submission to the Divine will. Thus, an eino metsuveh can either be categorized as a person who derives his action from a Divine system but is autonomously motivated, or as a person who intuits the substance of his own act and yet feels a Divine obligation to perform the act. For example, a woman who does a mitsvah that she is not commanded to do is expressing the first option. Although she is autonomously motivated, she derives the substance of her act from the religious system. In R. Dr. Gordon’s words, “Though ‘not commanded,’ she is very much indebted, cognitively and experientially, to the substance of her religious tradition from which she has derived the content of her initiative.”[xix] It would be difficult to say that she is less praiseworthy than a metsuveh.

This thesis is consistent, claims R. Dr. Gordon, with the words of Rambam who, as quoted earlier, holds that women receive less reward than men for talmud Torah. R. Gordon interprets this statement as referring to obedience to the command of Torah study. Thus, as only men are obligated in this mitsvah, they should certainly receive more reward than women for its performance. Women have no obligation of obedience to the mitsvah of talmud Torah and they therefore would not receive the same reward as men. However, when it comes to the quality of the talmud Torah, there is no inherent superiority of men’s learning over women’s learning. The worth of a metsuveh and an eino metsuveh’s talmud Torah is judged equally. In other words, while a man may get more sakhar for his obedience to the mitsvah of talmud Torah, both a man and woman are capable of receiving the same amount of sakhar for the quality of their talmud Torah. [xx]

The differing presentations of R. Hanina’s concept by R. Ziegler and by R. Dr. Gordon both bespeak valuable lessons within Judaism. On the one hand, our purpose as Jews is to fulfill God’s will. On the other hand, Judaism without spontaneity and initiative would be dry and stagnant. This dichotomy is perfectly illustrated by the concept of tefillah.  While the text of tefillah has been set for us, we are forbidden from making our prayers keva, fixed.[xxi] It is vital to remember that we must follow God’s will. Without that, our focus in serving God has been lost. And yet, connection to God without inspiration and spontaneity, acting by just going through the motions, is also pointless. Only by understanding the values underlying both the metsuveh and the eino metsuveh can we reach a more complete picture of what our motivations should be as ovedei Hashem.


Gabrielle Hiller is a junior at SCW majoring in Jewish Education, and is an associate editor for Kol Hamevaser.

[i] Kiddushin 31a. See also Bava Kamma 87a.

[ii] Ibid. Artscroll translation.

[iii] Tur and Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 246:6.

[iv] Tosafot to Kiddushin 31a, s.v. gadol.

[v] Tosafot ha-Rosh to Kiddushin 31a, s.v. gadol.

[vi] Artscroll translation.

[vii] Hiddushei ha-Ritva to Kiddushin 31a.

[viii] Hiddushei ha-Ritva to Kiddushin 31a.  See also Tosafot ha-Rosh to Kiddushin 31a, s.v. gadol.

[ix] R. Reuven Ziegler, “Mitzva: A Life of Command,” The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash, available at

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] R. Ziegler’s translation.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] See, for example, Edwin J. Boezeman and Naomi Ellemers, “Intrinsic need satisfaction and the job attitudes of volunteers versus employees working in a charitable volunteer organization,” Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology (2009), 897-914, and Mark van Vuuren, Menno D.T. de Jong, and Erwin R. Seydel, “Commitment with or without a stick of paid work: Comparison of paid and unpaid workers in a nonprofit organization,” European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology 17,3 (2008), 315-326.

[xvi] See Yevamot 6:6.

[xvii] R. Dr. Menachem-Martin Gordon, Modern Orthodox Judaism: Studies and Perspectives (Jerusalem and New York: Urim Publications, 2012), 86-93. Thank you to Rabbi Saul Berman for directing me toward this enlightening source.

[xviii] Ibid, p. 90-92.

[xix] Ibid, p. 86, footnote 34.

[xx] Ibid, p. 93.

[xxi] See Berakhot 4:4.