Talmudic pages

Pesachim 50

Employed in the service of heaven.

As this new chapter begins, the mishnah opens with a question about working on Erev Passover. While you might think, from the mishnah, that we are headed for a deep dive into what constitutes work, Erev Passover, and local custom, the conversation is even more nuanced. From this mishnah, we’ll get to questions of fair compensation, laziness and industriousness, and even a topic near and dear to the heart of the modern non-profit staffer: the value of work beyond money.

As the rabbis ease into that conversation — working “for love of the game” — they circle back to a theme that we find throughout the Talmud: the tension, or perhaps the relationship, between intention and action. Does fulfilling a mitzvah still “count,” the rabbis ponder, if you have an ulterior motive — like financial gain?

One answer is that a person receives due credit for performing a mitzvah, whatever her motivation. This is cleverly proven by Rava who draws together two nearly identical verses from Psalms to do it:

It is written: For Your mercy is great up to the heavens. (Psalms 57:11)

And it is written: For Your mercy is great above the heavens. (Psalms 108:5)

Here (Psalms 108:5) it is referring to a case where one performs a mitzvah for its own sake.

And here, (Psalms 57:11) it is referring to a case where one performs a mitzvah not for its own sake. As Rav Yehuda said that Rav said: A person should always engage in Torah study and performance of mitzvot, even if he does so not for their own sake, as through the performance of mitzvot not for their own sake one gains understanding and comes to perform them for their own sake.

For Rava, even if your performance of the mitzvah is not purely for the sake of the commandment, it still “counts.” But more than that, Rav (via Rava) suggests, the more you fulfill mitzvot for the self-interested “wrong” reasons, the more you will learn about them, and the more inspired you will become to follow the commandments for their own sake. A classic win/win.

But what about the other end of the spectrum? What happens when fulfilling a mitzvah is part of your job description — and therefore you always have a monetary motive for fulfilling it? The Gemara brings the example of scribes (sofrim): men (and today also women) who have the skill and authority to write Torah scrollsmezuzot and the parchments inside tefillin. Does the fact that they make their living by performing God’s holy work corrupt the beauty of that work? The answer is that it doesn’t, as long as they don’t make too much money. Here’s the Gemara again:

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: The members of the Great Assembly observed 24 fasts, for scribes who write Torah scrolls, tefillin, and mezuzot, so that they will not become wealthy from their craft, for were they to become wealthy, they would no longer write these sacred items. 

Similarly, the sages taught: Scribes who write scrolls, tefillin, and mezuzot; and their merchants and their merchants’ merchants and all those engaged in the work of Heaven as a profession which includes those who sell the sky-blue dye for ritual fringes, never see a sign of blessing from their labor. But if they engage in these activities for their own sake, they do see blessing from their labor.

Overworked, underpaid and committed to their mission — it seems that the scribes are the nonprofit staff of Talmudic times. Engaging in the work of Heaven, the rabbis seem to understand, is a reward unto itself, but money, as it does so often, threatens to complicate and corrupt the work. Further, unlike regular folk, who earn their reward regardless of how or why they fulfill the mitzvah, those whose employment is fulfilling mitzvot only receive a reward for the “pure” fulfillment of the commandment — unsullied by ulterior motives or financial compensation. 

I recently saw a comic strip about nonprofit compensation: “Benjamins? We are paid in children’s laughter.” Or, it would seem, in the service of Heaven itself.

Read all of Pesachim 50 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 10th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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