Tag Archives: negative mitzvot

Commentary for Vayakhel-Pekudei

16 Mar

This week’s parshah starts off rather strangely: “Moses assembled the entire assembly of the Children of Israel and said to them: ‘These are the things that The Lord has commanded to do them: On six days creative work may be done, but the seventh day shall be for you a holy Sabbath of complete rest for The Lord; whoever does creative work on it shall be put to death. You shall not kindle fire in any of your dwellings on the Sabbath day’ (Ex. 35:1-3).” Why start off telling us that these are things that God has commanded us to do, and then only go on to list things that God is specifically commanding us not to do?


The Torah contains two types of mitzvot: positive mitzvot (thou shall) and negative mitzvot (thou shall not). The general principle used by the Rabbis (as derived in Yevamot 3b-6b) is that a positive mitzvah overrides a negative one. For example, a Priest is forbidden from becoming ritually impure by coming into contact with a corpse, but if the priest is the only person around, the mitzvah of burying a corpse overrides the prohibition against the priest coming into contact with it, and the priest is required to bury it. While this is the general principle, it is often not the case because of a very important qualifying principle: A positive commandment cannot override a negative commandment with an extremely harsh penalty, such as death, exile, or careit (being spiritually cut off from the Jewish People). This is why you can’t tie the tzitzit of your talit on Shabbat; because the mitzvah of wearing tzitzit does not override the negative commandment of not doing creative work on Shabbat, which, carries a penalty of death; or in a more absurd but more philosophically important case, why you can’t murder someone so that you can use his or her lulav on Sukkot.


While some exceptions to this qualifying rule are made (most notably that one can break Shabbat in the act of saving a life), they are very few and very far between. The reason for this is that Judaism correctly sees the argument that the ends justify the means as a very slippery moral slope. Moses begins our parshah by describing these negative mitzvot as if they were positive mitzvot to teach us that what we won’t do says just as much about us as what we will do.