Rabbi Bernard Fox



“If you will follow My decrees and observe My commandments and perform them, then I will provide your rains in their time, and the land will give its produce and the tree of the field will give its fruit.”  (VaYikra  26:3-4)


“Rabbi, my son doesn’t want to go to synagogue.”  “Rabbi, my daughter has no enthusiasm for observing Shabbat.”  “Rabbi, my son never opens a sefer outside of school!”  As an educator, I often hear concerns similar to these.  The parents of these young men and women are searching for some way to reach and motivate their children.  Often, it is assumed that in developing a strategy to motivate a student, we have broad freedom.  In other words, we are not restricted by halacha in our choice of motivators.  However, a careful study of some relevant comments from the Talmud and the commentaries indicates that this may not be the case.[1]


The passage above introduces a description of the rewards we will receive for devotion to the Torah and the punishments we will experience if we forsake the Torah.  The clear message of the Torah is that we are encouraged to observe the Torah in order to secure these rewards and avoid the punishments.  So, it seems that it is not inappropriate for a person to observe the Torah for personal – somewhat selfish – reasons.  But does that mean that any motivator can be employed in order to encourage a student or ourselves to observe mitzvot? 


Before we enter into this analysis we must resolve a fundamental issue.  What is the appropriate or ideal motivation for the observance of a mitzvah?  There is a general consensus among the Sages that the highest motivation is love of Hashem.  Maimonides discusses this issue at some length in his commentary on the Mishna.  He explains that the Torah is truth.  Study of the Torah should be motivated by a desire to seek the truth.  This same affinity for the truth will motivate a person to perform the mitzvot.  Love of Hashem is a consequence of this same devotion to truth and knowledge – in fact, they are inseparable.  Therefore, ideally a person observes the Torah because his devotion to truth and his love of Hashem demands this devotion.[2]   With this introduction, let us return to out issue.


In Tractate Pesachim Rav Yehuda quotes Rav as teaching that a person should study Torah and perform mitzvot even out of secondary motivations.  This is because the study and performance of mitzvot motivated by a secondary motivation, will eventually lead to observance of the Torah for the appropriate reason.[3]  Rav recognizes that only those of us who are on a very profound spiritual level can be expected to observe the Torah for the appropriate reason.  Most of us will not find love of Hashem to be an effective motivator.  Rav encourages us to find other more mundane secondary motivators.  Hopefully, the observance of the Torah – even as a result of these secondary motivators – will lead to observance motivated by love of Hashem.


There are two basic difficulties with Rav’s comments.  First, Rav is attempting to teach us something significant.  It is unreasonable to assume that he is merely affirming the obvious.  What is Rav’s message?  Stated differently, what would a person have concluded without Rav’s message?  It seems that Rav is telling us that a person must observe the Torah even though the person is not motivated by the appropriate devotion to Hashem.  This seems completely obvious!  Would we have imagined that a person who is not moved by love of Hashem is exempt from performing the commandments?  It is true according to some authorities, that in order to perform a commandment, one must be aware of the fact that the performance is a commandment.  However, no authority maintains that a mitzvah can only be fulfilled by a person who has the highest motivation!   In short, what is Rav telling us that is not obvious?


Second, although Rav’s position is reasonable to the point of being obvious, there are a number of statements in the Talmud that explicitly contradict Rav.  For example, in Tractate Berachot, the Rava comments regarding a person who performs mitzvot in response to a secondary motivation that it would be better that for this person not to have been created.[4]  In Tractate Taanit, Rava comments that for a person who performs the Torah for secondary motives, rather than benefiting the person, the Torah serves as a fatal poison![5]  How can we explain Rava’s comments?  Can his comments be reconciled with the common-sense views of Rav?


Maimonides provides this simplest solution to these problems.  Essentially, Maimonides asserts that Rava’s view is completely correct.  The only proper motivation for the performance of mitzvot is love of Hashem.  There are numerous comments by the Sages that confirm Rava’s doctrine.  We are chastised against using mitzvot for secondary purposes.  We are warned against serving Hashem for the purpose of securing His rewards.  We are told that we may not use our Torah scholarship as a means for securing the respect and adoration of others.  However, these admonishments create a dilemma.  Only a person who has achieved a profound level of spiritual perfection will be motivated by love of Hashem.  Nonetheless, we are all commanded to observe the mitzvot of the Torah.  How do we motivate ourselves and others who have not yet achieved the level of spiritual development in which love of Hashem and of truth becomes an effective motivator?  How do we motivate the more common person or the novice?  Maimonides suggests that this is Rav’s issue.   Rav explains that we are permitted to utilize secondary motivations in order to encourage ourselves and others to observe the Torah.  However, these secondary motivations are only permitted as an expedient.  We are not permitted to regard these secondary motives as an end in themselves.  We must recognize that ultimately we must seek to serve Hashem out of love and for no other reason.[6]


Through this insight, Maimonides resolves both of the problems we have outlined.  There is no contradiction between Rav and Rava.  Each refers to a different stage in spiritual development.  Rava tells us that ultimately a person must serve Hashem out of love.  Rav tells us that as an expedient, we are permitted and even required to use secondary motives until this ultimate level of motivation is achieved. Rav’s lesson is also not as obvious as we first assumed.  Rav is making two points that are significant.  First, that as a matter of policy and practice, the teacher and spiritual leader can explicitly suggest and employ secondary motivators.  Second, these motivators can not become and end in themselves.  They are only permitted as an expedient.


Not all of the commentaries completely agree with Maimonides.  Maimonides’ assertion that secondary motivators should only be used as an expedient seems to be widely acknowledged.  However, his contention that we have wide ranging freedom in selecting these motivators is challenged.


Tosefot and Rashi suggest that there is a significant limitation on the selection of motivators.  Rashi suggests that it is not permitted to study Torah in order to better argue with and oppose others.  According to Rashi, this is Rava’s lesson.  Rava does not disagree with Rav.  He approves of utilizing secondary motivators.  However, he alerts us that not every motivator is permitted.[7]  Tosefot expand on Rashi’s thesis.  They explain that secondary motivators are permitted and encouraged.  However, there is general principle that must be used in selecting secondary motivators.  Motivators that appeal to some personal goal or objective are appropriate as an expedient.  But motivators that appeal to an evil or corrupt element within the personality are prohibited.  It is not completely clear where Tosefot draw the line between appropriate and inappropriate secondary motivators.  But some indication is provided by the example that they provide.  They explain that it is not permitted to study Torah for the purpose of opposing and effectively arguing and debating with other scholars – in order to promote one’s own erudition or critique someone else’s.[8]  It seems that according to Tosefot and Rashi the line is drawn in regards to motivators that are antithetical to the mitzvah.  Study of the Torah is a search for truth.  If a person is primarily interested in wining an argument, truth becomes an insignificant consideration and the very essence of Torah study is compromised.  Therefore, this motivation is not acceptable.


Rabbaynu Yom Tov Ishbili – Ritva – accepts the basic approach of Rashi and Tosefot.  However, he argues that Rava’s qualification is far more restrictive.  Ritva maintains that our parasha is teaching us a fundamental lesson.  It is outlining the appropriate secondary motivation.  We are encouraged to observe the mitzvot out of fear – in order to avoid the terrible punishments outlined in this week’s parasha or to secure the rewards promised by the Torah.  However, one may not observe the Torah as a means of self-promotion.[9]  Ritva’s intention is not completely clear.  But it seems that he is not merely asserting that self-promotion is an inappropriate motivator.  He is restricting the selection of secondary motivators to fear of divine punishment and desire for divine reward.  If this is the case, Ritva is alluding to a fundamental issue.  According to Ritva, although secondary motivators are permitted, these motivators must always direct the person towards a relationship with Hashem.  In other words, a person who observes the Torah out of a desire for self-promotion is not entering into a relationship with Hashem.  In contrast, a person who observes the Torah out of fear a divine retribution or in order to secure His good favor is essentially entering into a relationship with Hashem.  This relationship is fundamental to the performance of mitzvot.  Therefore, although we are encouraged to seek expedients to motivate observance, these expedients must be consistent with the fundamental nature of observance – relating to Hashem.


One of the most elaborate and detailed treatments of our issue is provided by Rabbaynu Menachem Me’eri.  Me’eri suggests that there are various levels of secondary motivators.  The best secondary motivator is fear of divine retribution and desire for divine reward.  He argues that this secondary motivator is most likely – virtually certain – to lead to observance based on love of Hashem.  However, other personal secondary motivators are also encouraged.  But they are not preferable.  He asserts that other motivators are viable routes to service motivated by love of Hashem.  However, the effectiveness of such expedients is not as certain.  In other words, secondary motivators must be assessed based on their likely effectiveness in leading to service motivated by love of Hashem.  From this perspective, observance motivated by fear of divine retribution or desire for reward is preferable to observance motivated by some other personal goal.  But Me’eri draws the line at self-promotion.  This motivation is inappropriate.[10] 


Me’eri’s comments are noteworthy for two reasons.  First, although he does not come to precisely the same conclusions as Maimonides, he affirms one of his basic premises and states it quite clearly.  All secondary motivations are only of value insofar as they serve as an expedient.  But the secondary motivator cannot become and end in itself.  Second, although Me’eri does not agree with Ritva, he does accept Ritva’s basic premise. Fear of divine punishment and desire for reward are unique motivators.  They are predicated upon and support a relationship with Hashem. 

So what is the bottom line?  According to Rav it is appropriate to use secondary motivators in order to encourage observance.  However, these motivators can only serve as an expedient.  The ultimate objective is for a person to observe the Torah out of love of Hashem.  Therefore, we must provide our children with meaningful Torah scholarship.  It is impossible to progress and develop towards love of Hashem without Torah study and scholarship.  At the same time we must provide other motivators that are consistent with the age and maturity level of our children.  Me’eri suggests a basis for selecting secondary motivators.  The more likely the secondary motivator will lead to love of Hashem, the better the motivator.  Are any motivator’s off limits?  It seems that Tosefot and Rashi would not allow a secondary motivator that is antithetical to the mitzvah being performed.  Ritva and Me’eri clearly view self-promotion as an inappropriate motivator but this is not agreed to by all authorities.  Maimonides does not make this distinction and explicitly mentions self-promotion as an effective secondary motivator. 


[1] This issue was brought to my attention by Rabbi Moshe Bleich.  For a study of the practical implications of the material discussed in this week’s Thoughts, see his article, “Prizes for Academic Achievement,” Ten Da’at, Winter 2000, pp27-35.

[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Commentary on the Mishne, Mesechet Sanhedrin 10:1.

[3] Mesechet Pesachim 50b.

[4] Mesechet Berachot 17a.

[5] Mesechet Taanit 7a.

[6] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Commentary on the Mishne, Mesechet Sanhedrin 10:1.

[7] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on the Talmud, Mesechet Berachot 17b.

[8] Tosefot, Mesechet Pesachim 50b.

[9] Rabbaynu Yom Tov ben Avraham Isbili (Ritva), Commentary on the Talmud, Mesechet Yoma 72b.

[10] Rabbaynu Menachem Me’eri, Bait HaBechirah, Mesechet Pesachim 50b.