– Author: Rav Bentzion Shor

As we begin studying the halachot of tzitzit, we come across an interesting phenomenon that is relevant specifically to tzitzit. Seemingly, the word “mitzva” comes from the Hebrew word tziva, which means to command. Therefore, a mitzva would be defined as “a commandment commanded by God to be performed as a religious duty.” Indeed, many of the positive mitzvot are commands that we must fulfill. Tefillin, Shabbat, shaking a lulav during Sukkot, and eating matza on the Seder night are only a few examples. If someone fails to observe one of these mitzvot, he has neglected a positive mitzva, and in certain cases he may be compelled to fulfill it by a Beit Din.[1]

However, when examining the mitzva of tzitzit, we see that the halachic ruling is somewhat different. Both the Rambam[2] and the Shulchan Aruch[3] rule that even though it is praiseworthy, a person is not obligated to put on a four-cornered garment with tzitzit.[4] What does this mean? How can we have a commandment (mitzva) that we are not obligated to perform?

In fact, the mitzva of tzitzit is not the only such mitzva. There are other mitzvot as well that seem to be in the same category, such as learning Torah, eating matza throughout the entire Pesach, and shiluach haken. In modern day halachic terminology, these mitzvot are called “mitzvot kiyumiyot.” This article will explore three different approaches to define these mitzvot and the practical halachic ramifications that arise from the different definitions.

Obligatory Mitzvot and Optional Mitzvot

Although as we mentioned, at first glance one might question whether Judaism contains “optional” mitzvot, it is in fact quite clear from the Rambam’s writings that there are indeed two types of mitzvot – obligatory mitzvot and optional mitzvot.

The Rambam writes[5] that there are mitzvot that “are termed obligatory because there is an unconditional obligation to fulfill them,” such as tefillin, sukka, lulav, and shofar. Concerning these mitzvot, “a person must strive and pursue their fulfillment.” On the other hand, there are mitzvot “which are not obligatory and are in a sense optional, such as affixing a mezuza to the doors of a house or building a parapet on the roof. There is no obligation to dwell in a house that requires a mezuza to be affixed to it. One may, if one chooses, live all of one’s life in a tent or on a ship. Similarly, there is no obligation to build a house in order to erect a parapet around the roof.”

The same thing is true not only regarding Torah mitzvot, but also for rabbinic mitzvot. The Rambam writes[6] that some rabbinic mitzvot are obligatory – such as lighting the Shabbat candles, while others are not obligatory – such as making an eruv in a courtyard and washing hands before eating (provided one does not wish to move items from his house to his courtyard, or to eat bread).

We can see from here that the main and most obvious distinction between the two sets of mitzvot is that we are obligated to pursue the fulfillment of the obligatory mitzvot, but not of the optional mitzvot. Yet, there are other potential ramifications as well, depending upon the exact definition of mitzvot kiyumiyot.

Optional/Voluntary Mitzvot

The first school of thought in defining these mitzvot is presented by the Minchat Chinuch.[7] He writes that in contrast to the obligatory mitzvot, where one either fulfills the mitzva or neglects it, the mitzvot kiyumiyot are more optional or voluntary. Therefore, one can fulfill the mitzva by wearing a four-cornered garment with tzitzit or eating and sleeping in the sukka during the entire holiday of Sukkot, one can violate the mitzva by wearing a four-cornered garment without tzitzit or eating outside the sukka, or there is a third option where one does not fulfill the mitzva but also does not violate it when not wearing a four-cornered garment or not eating food requiring a sukka.

In other words, Hashem’s desires that the obligatory mitzvot be fulfilled, and therefore we must pursue them, while the mitzvot kiyumiyot are optional or voluntary – Hashem does not demand that we fulfill them; rather, He gives us the choice: If you desire, you can fulfill them and receive reward, while if you are not interested, you do not have to fulfill them (though you cannot violate them).

With this explanation, the Minchat Chinuch reaches a very interesting distinction between the obligatory mitzvot and the mitzvot kiyumiyot.

There is a concept within halacha known as mitzva haba ba’aveira, fulfilling a mitzva by sinning. For instance, if someone steals a lulav and fulfills the mitzva with it, then one has violated a transgression instead of fulfilling a mitzva.

However, the Minchat Chinuch suggests that there is a difference whether we are talking about an obligatory mitzva or not. Since the obligatory mitzvot must be fulfilled, they are binary in a certain sense: Either you fulfill the mitzva or you violate it. Therefore, if the mitzva was achieved by sinning, then since you do not “get credit” for fulfilling the mitzva, it is as if the mitzva was never done and the person has thus violated the mitzva.

On the other hand, mitzvot kiyumiyot, such as tzitzit or eating in the sukka after the first night of Sukkot, are not binary; there is a third option of just abstaining from the mitzva. So what happens when one achieves the mitzva through sinning – such as using stolen tzitzit or a stolen sukka? Is it considered actively violating the mitzva or just abstaining from it? The Minchat Chinuch posits that since at the end of the day the person is wearing a four-cornered garment with tzitzit/eating in a valid sukka, he cannot be treated as someone who violated the mitzva, and is therefore akin to one who abstained from it. In order to violate the mitzva of tzitzit, a person must wear a four-cornered garment without tzitzit. Since this person is in fact wearing a garment with tzitzit, we cannot possibly say that he has violated the mitzva;[8] rather, he just did not fulfill the mitzva since it is stolen. He is thus equivalent to a person who is not wearing a four-cornered garment at all.

Not all agree with this explanation of the Minchat Chinuch. Some[9] claim that a mitzva achieved by sinning renders the object unfit with which to perform the mitzva. Due to this, it is considered as if the person wore invalid tzitzit or ate in a disqualified sukka, and has therefore in fact violated the mitzva.

A Positive Negative Mitzva

A second[10] definition given for the mitzvot kiyumiyot is that they are negative mitzvot in the disguise of positive ones.

We are all familiar with the negative mitzvot. Hashem does not want a certain action to be done and He therefore commands us never to do so. “You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal,”[11] and so on. The same is true for the mitzvot kiyumiyot. Hashem does not want us to wear a four-cornered garment without tzitzit; therefore, He commanded us to put tzitzit on every four-cornered garment that we wear. We have the option not to wear these garments at all and Hashem has no problem with this, but if we decide to wear a four-cornered garment, we should not do so against Hashem’s will, and we need to put tzitzit on it.

There are a few practical halachic ramifications that arise from this definition.

Rav Yosef Engel[12] writes that according to this approach, since tzitzit is in fact a quasi-negative mitzva, women are not allowed to recite a beracha on it. Even though some rule[13] that women may recite a beracha on positive mitzvot that are time bound – which women are exempt from fulfilling – this is not the case when it comes to mitzvot kiyumiyot. The reason for the difference is that a woman who performs a standard positive mitzva is doing the positive deed. However, regarding tzitzit, the purpose of the mitzva is to prevent the negative situation of wearing a four-cornered garment without tzitzit. Since women are exempt and may wear a four-cornered garment even without tzitzit, there is not sufficient virtue to attaching the tzitzit that would warrant a beracha.[14]

Another ramification based on the second definition is suggested[15] by the Avnei Nezer.[16] He states that usually mitzvot must be performed by someone who is obligated to fulfill them. If they were performed by someone who is exempt, those who are obligated do not fulfill the mitzva through them. For instance, if someone that is exempt blows the shofar on Rosh Hashana, those who are obligated do not fulfill the mitzva by listening to it.[17]

In contrast, when referring to the quasi-negative mitzvot, even an exempt individual can fulfill it. Since the mitzva is only done in order to prevent the unwanted situation and not as a means to itself, even someone who is exempt suffices. Therefore, a sukka that was built[18] by a woman is kosher,[19] as the purpose of making the sukka is only to prevent one from eating outside the sukka. Likewise, shechita performed by a child is valid (provided an adult saw that he did it properly)[20] since we are only trying to prevent the unwanted situation[21] of eating a non-slaughtered[22] animal.[23]

An Obligatory Mitzva Under Conditions

The final approach[24] to defining mitzvot kiyumiyot minimizes the difference between them and obligatory mitzvot. The proponents of this approach hold that the word “mitzva” does refer to a Godly commandment, and therefore “cannot be dependent upon the will of the person to fulfill it or not.”[25] The only difference between obligatory mitzvot and mitzvot kiyumiyot is that while obligatory mitzvot are mandated in all situations, the mitzvot kiyumiyot are obligated only when certain man-dependent[26] conditions are fulfilled.[27]

For instance, a person does not need to wear tzitzit when he is not wearing a four-cornered garment. Once the condition of wearing such a garment is met, then the person is obligated to put tzitzit on the garment. The same is true for eating in the sukka after the first night of Sukkot. The condition that generates the mitzva is the person’s will to eat or to sleep. Once this condition is fulfilled, then there is an obligation to do so in the sukka.

According to this definition, some of the halachic ramifications mentioned above do not exist. Since the mitzvot kiyumiyot are in fact obligatory mitzvot, once their conditions are met, any attempt to differentiate between the two is futile. Therefore, a mitzva achieved by sinning would be a violation of a prohibition even for the mitzvot kiyumiyot, while a beracha may be recited even by women, who are exempt.[28] What we are left with as the difference between the two categories is only the fact that one must pursue the obligatory mitzvot and not the mitzvot kiyumiyot, as the Rambam writes.[29] However, this is only because the mitzvot kiyumiyot are not obligated until the conditions are met. Once the conditions are fulfilled, there is no difference, and one must pursue the mitzvot kiyumiyot as well.

There are other ramifications that emerge from this definition. For example, one has to define which mitzvot are regular obligatory ones, and which are in fact mitzvot kiyumiyot. There are those[30] who hold that settling and living in Eretz Yisrael qualifies as one of the mitzvot kiyumiyot – one fulfills a mitzva by living there, but one is not obligated to do so. But some of those[31] who oppose this understanding about living in Eretz Yisrael claim (in accordance with this third approach to mitzvot kiyumiyot) that mitzvot kiyumiyot always have a condition that makes them “non-obligated” so long as the condition is not fulfilled. For example, tzitzit is dependent upon wearing a four-corner garment. As long as the person is not wearing the garment, there is no obligation to put on tzitzit, but once he wears the garment the mitzva becomes an obligation. Since the mitzva of living in Eretz Yisrael has no “attached” conditions, it must be classified a regular obligatory mitzva and not one of the mitzvot kiyumiyot.

A second ramification that arises from the third school of thought relates to the mitzvot kiyumiyot themselves. As we mentioned two paragraphs ago, according to the first definition a mitzva achieved by sinning is not a violation in the case of mitzvot kiyumiyot. According to the third definition, though, it is indeed a violation since once the condition is fulfilled, the mitzva becomes an obligation. Some authorities[32] take this logic one step further. If mitzvot kiyumiyot become obligatory mitzvot once the conditions are met, then the same way that a lack of intent to fulfill an obligatory mitzva becomes a violation, the same would be true for the mitzvot kiyumiyot. Therefore, someone who wears a tallit without intent to fulfill the mitzva (such as wearing the tallit only while being called up to the Torah) is in fact violating the mitzva of tzitzit. Even though there are tzitzit on the tallit, since the lack of intent prevents the mitzva from being fulfilled, it is as if he is wearing a four-corner garment without tzitzit.

However, this ramification is an extreme one,[33] and some poskim[34] disagree with it. Indeed, the opposing position can be supported by noting that in the case of a mitzva achieved by sinning, there is a violation of the mitzva, because the sin causes the object to be disqualified for mitzva use. However, when the mitzva is not fulfilled due to a lack of intent, the object itself is perfectly valid. So even though the mitzva was not fulfilled, no violation exists since the obligation does not apply.

To make this point clearer, let us bring an example. There is a positive mitzva to put a railing on the roof: “When you build a new house, you shall make a guard rail for your roof, so that you shall not cause blood [to be spilled] in your house, that the one who falls should fall from it [the roof]”.[35] What happens if one moves into a house that already has a railing? Although he cannot put up the railing himself (without dismantling the old one), he obviously does not violate the mitzva. The obligation only arises when there is a roof without a railing, so the violation of the mitzva would only occur when one allows a roof without a railing to remain in that state.

The same is true when wearing tzitzit without intent to perform the mitzva. Even though there is no fulfillment of the mitzva due to the lack of intent, there is still no violation either because no obligation is being neglected. The obligation arises only when wearing a four-corner garment with no tzitzit at all, but when there are tzitzit, even if the mitzva is not being fulfilled, it is like wearing a three-corner garment or no garment at all. Since there is no obligation at the moment, there can be no violation.[36]


We have seen three different schools of thought regarding the definition of the mitzvot kiyumiyot and the practical halachic ramifications that arise from each opinion.

May these ramifications remain theoretical ones alone, and may we merit to observe all mitzvot, both the obligatory ones and mitzvot kiyumiyot, with happiness and gladness of heart, with abundance of everything.[37]

[1] See Ketubot 86a-b and Chullin 132b. According to many opinions, a Beit Din has the ability to force people to act (see Rambam, Sefer HaMitzvot, Asei 176; Sefer HaChinuch 491; Ketzot HaChoshen, C.M. 3:1), while others (Netivot HaMishpat, C.M. 3:1) hold that it is the obligation of every single Jew (see also the answer of the Ketzot in the Meshovev Netivot 3:1).

[2] Tzitzit 3:11.

[3] O.C. 24:1.

[4] However, it is interesting to note that according to some opinions, tzitzit is a regular obligatory mitzva, and one is obligated to make sure that he wears tzitzit. This is the opinion of the Rif according to the understanding of Rav Yosef Kapach (Commentary on the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, Tzitzit 3:22), and some understand the opinion of Tosafot (Pesachim 113b, s.v. “ואין לו בנים”) in his second answer this way.

[5] Berachot 11:2.

[6] Berachot 11:3; Shabbat 5:1.

[7] 325:9[10].

[8] However, since the halacha that stolen tzitzit or a stolen sukka are not valid is derived from pesukim, the person is considered to have violated the mitzva just as if he wore a four-cornered garment without tzitzit or ate food that requires a sukka inside the house.

[9] Sha’arei Yosher 3:19.

[10] The Atvan Deoraita (mentioned below), the Sha’arei Yosher (ibid.), and the Minchat Shlomo (mentioned below) understand that this is actually the approach of the Minchat Chinuch.

[11] Shemot 20:13.

[12] Atvan Deoraita 11.

[13] Rema, O.C. 589:6.

[14] See the end of the shiur, where the Rema (O.C. 17:2) was cited as permitting women to recite a beracha on tzitzit, at least in principle. However, Rav Engel explains that the same reason given by the Rema there for women not wearing tzitzit at all on a practical level (due to the lack of an obligation even for a man) can be utilized to argue that it is also halachically forbidden to recite a beracha.

[15]The Avnei Nezer only suggests this explanation initially, but he concludes that even a quasi-negative mitzva must be done by an obligated individual.

[16] Responsa Avnei Nezer, O.C. 481.

[17] See Shulchan Aruch, O.C. 589.

[18] There is a famous discussion whether building a sukka is a mitzva unto itself or only a hechsher mitzva (a preparation for the mitzva); see Chevel Nachalato 8:15. From here it would seem that building a sukka is somewhere in between – it is on a higher level than a hechsher mitzva (as we are discussing who is permitted to build it), but on a lower level than a regular positive mitzva. The Avnei Nezer himself points to a different responsa of his where he leans towards saying that the construction of a sukka does constitute a mitzva.

[19] Shulchan Aruch, O.C. 635:1.

[20] Shulchan Aruch, Y.D. 1:5.

[21] Even though the Avnei Nezer defines shechita as a quasi-negative mitzva, its status in truth it is not that simple. Both the Ramban (Hasagot HaRamban L’sefer HaMitzvot, Shoresh 1) and the Ra’avad (Hasagot HaRa’avad on Minyan HaMitzvot of the Rambam, Asei 146) do hold that shechita is a quasi-negative mitzva. However, the simple understanding of the Rambam (Sefer HaMitzvot, Asei 146; Hilchot Shechita 1:1) is that it is in fact a regular positive mitzva, and some Acharonim (see Radbaz on Hilchot Shechita, ibid., and the Kesef Mishneh in both places) explain that this is a regular positive mitzva once someone wants to eat meat. This sounds a lot like the third definition for mitzvot kiyumiyot (a positive mitzva after the conditions are met), and in fact it is possible that (at least regarding shechita) the definition is a machloket Rishonim (see further in footnote 24).

[22] Tosafot, Beitza 25a, s.v. “בחזקת איסור”; Shavuot 24a, s.v. “האוכל נבילה”; Chullin 37a, s.v. “השתא מחיים”, and elsewhere; Rashba, Chullin 9a, s.v. “בהמה בחייה”; Rosh, Chullin 1:14; Me’iri, Beitza 25a, s.v. “בהמה בחייה”. However, not all agree with this definition, see, e.g., Tosafot, Shavuot 24a.

[23] It is interesting to note that even though Rav Yosef Engel and the Avnei Nezer both agree regarding the definition of the mitzvot kiyumiyot (as being a positive negative mitzva), they do not agree regarding which mitzvot fall within this category. While Rav Engel holds that tzitzit is a quasi-negative mitzva and sitting in the sukka after the first night of Sukkot is not (he holds that sukka is an obligatory mitzva to make it our primary dwelling, and in the Gilyonei HaShas, Sukka 27, he suggests that this is a machloket Rishonim between the Ba’al HaMa’or and the Tashbetz), the Avnei Nezer holds the exact opposite. In his opinion, sukka is a quasi-negative mitzva and tzitzit is not (it would seem that he holds that tzitzit is an optional mitzva, like the Minchat Chinuch, which may indicate that perhaps more than one definition for mitzvot kiyumiyot exists and that different mitzvot may be classified with different definitions).

[24] Sha’arei Yosher 3:19; Minchat Shlomo 1:1; Minchat Avraham 1:44. This definition may be supported by the opinions of some Rishonim. For example, Rav Yosef Kapach explains (Commentary on the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, Tzitzit 3:22) that the Rambam’s opinion is that tzitzit is an obligatory mitzva once the person wears a four-cornered garment. Another example is the Rashba (Responsa 3:287), who rejects the opinion that sitting in a sukka after the first night of Sukkot is a classic obligatory mitzva (as is the opinion of the Atvan Deoraita; see footnote 20); rather, it becomes an obligatory mitzva once the person wants to eat or sleep. See footnote 23 for additional support for this opinion according to the Rambam, and the suggestion that the definition might be in fact a machloket Rishonim.

[25] Minchat Avraham, ibid.

[26] This is in contrast to non-man-dependent conditions, such as the condition of the correct time (for Shabbat and chagim) or the correct situation, which can be found in most mitzvot, even though we define them as obligatory mitzvot. In order for a mitzva to be categorized as a mitzva kiyumit, it must contain a condition that is subject to the will of the person whether to fulfill it or not.

[27] Rav Yirmiyahu Koolyk pointed out to me that some hold of a complete optional mitzva with no strings or conditions whatsoever. See the commentary of the Netziv to Bamidbar (5:10, 15:25, 18:19) who brings a few examples of mitzvot that a person may do if he wishes, but never has an obligation to fulfill (see also the discussion below concerning whether living in Eretz Yisrael constitutes an optional mitzva without any conditions). However, not all agree with this approach of the Netziv; see for instance, footnote 60 on the Netziv’s commentary to Bamidbar 5:10.

[28] Concerning the second ramification of the second approach that a quasi-negative mitzva may be performed by one who is exempt, the basis for this ramification (defining mitzvot kiyumiyot as negative mitzvot) does not exist according to the third approach, but the rulings of the Shulchan Aruch remain and must be explained. We will have to propose a different reasoning for these rulings, such as that building a sukka is only a hechsher mitzva (see footnote 18) and is therefore permitted to be done by someone who is exempt. Another explanation may be the conclusion of the Avnei Nezer (cited in footnote 15) that even one who is exempt may create the object of the mitzva.

[29] See footnote 6 and 7.

[30] See Responsa Avnei Nezer, Y.D. 454 and Responsa Igrot Moshe E.H. 1:102.

[31] Minchat Avraham 1:44.

[32] Bi’ur Halacha to O.C. 60:4, s.v. “וי”א שצריכות כוונה”. Even though the Bi’ur Halacha does not mention explicitly that he follows the third definition, there is no other way to understand his comments. According to the first definition, even a mitzva by sinning does not cause a violation of the mitzvot kiyumiyot, and all the more so a lack of intent to fulfill the mitzva. The second definition also does not fit with the words of the Bi’ur Halacha, because if tzitzit were a quasi-negative mitzva, as long as there are in fact tzitzit, it should not be considered a violation, even with a lack of intent.

[33] Even the Bi’ur Halacha agrees that the custom is not to be concerned about this issue, but he explains that perhaps this is because wearing a tallit when receiving an aliya to the Torah may be considered like wearing a garment that does not require tzitzit.

[34] Minchat Shlomo 1:1

[35] Devarim 22:8; translation taken from www.chabad.org.

[36] This is what the Minchat Shlomo writes about tzitzit, but regarding the mitzva of sukka he remains in doubt. He differentiates between mitzvot where the essential aspect is the fulfillment of the mitzva, such as tefillin, and mitzvot whose essential aspect is the outcome, such as covering of the shechita blood, where even if the blood became covered by itself or by someone that is not obligated, there is no need to uncover the blood and recover it again. The Minchat Shlomo understands that tzitzit is classified within the latter of these two categories, that the outcome (having tzitzit on the four-cornered garment) is the important aspect, and therefore, wearing a garment with tzitzit without proper intent for the mitzva does not generate an obligation. However, eating in a sukka after the first night of Sukkot may be in the former category; therefore, the moment that a person wants to eat or sleep, his will generates an obligation to do so in the sukka. Even if he is already inside a sukka but does not have intent to fulfill the mitzva, then he is neglecting the obligation and violating the mitzva.

[37] Based upon Devarim 28:47.

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