Reward & Punishment II


Moshe Ben-Chaim




Last week we ran an article denouncing the practices of two orthodox organizations promising fertility, wealth health and success in exchange for charity. Two letters were received sharing similar questions:



David: I was pleased to read in the most recent JewishTimes your discouragement of donations to charities that promise results, in return for specific donations for amulets or the like.  However, in your article you make the following statement: “We cannot avert G-d’s punishments with unrelated activities, or even with mitzvahs.” 

Yet in the High Holiday liturgy, we proclaim, after saying the Unesanah Tokeph prayer, “repentance, prayer, and charity will avert the evil decree.” Further, when we make a misheberach for a sick person, we pledge charity and say that on this merit (b’scar zeh) G-d should provide healing. Is there a contradiction between our practice and your statement?

David E. Maslow


Fred: Dear Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim, I read with interest, and enjoy your publication most every week. I also very much agree, much to the consternation of my wife, many relatives, and most shul colleagues, with your opinion on not only the uselessness of Segulas, but also on their prohibited status. (This is a huge understatement of what my opinion of segulas is and what other’s opinion of me is for thinking that way is, but that is not the thrust of this letter).  

That notwithstanding I am unsure how to react to your most recent article where you write, “We cannot aver God’s punishments with unrelated activities, or even with mitzvahs”. This seems to contradict the very famous and popular posuk we say on Rosh Hashona immediately prior to Unesana tokef, namely “U’teshuva, U’teffila, U’tzdeka maavirin es roah hagezeirah” (please tolerate the transliteration). 

Granted teshuva is in line with your article, but tzedaka seems to fly in the face of it. Gving Tzedaka, even if you say ineffective in the absence of teshuva, clearly helps to avert bad decrees (how a decree from God can be bad is in itself another whole discussion) more than Teshuva alone. It is also not clear that each of the itemized activities is ineffectual in isolation. This implies to me that doing a mitzvah can indeed avert God’s punishments.  It would also seem to lend at least some credence to the practice of “visitors give charity and utter heartfelt prayers on the spot” (in that case the resting place of R’Shimon, but in reality it would apply equally as much to any place) as a method of averting divine punishment.  I look forward to your reply.


Sincerely, Fred Walfish



Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: David, Fred, thank you for sharing your thoughts.

David, misheberach’s and charity for others was explained by Rabbi Reuven Mann as follows: from the prayers made by the righteous individuals in our Torah for their wives or others, we learn that God will consider how one’s punishment might negatively impact another’s life. And if Shimone is righteous, God may very well save Reuven – not for his own merit – but because it impacts Shimone. In this manner, Shimone’s prayer may affect Reuven’s fate. Giving charity works in a similar way.

The answer to your main question is within the very quote you cite: “teshuva (repentance) tefila (prayer) and tzedaka (charity) avert the evil decree”…emphasis on “repentance”. For without repentance, a man remains a sinner, not regretful of his sins. Therefore, God will justly hold accountable this man for his sins, granting no atonement. Now although repentance is in fact a separate mitzvah, nonetheless, repentance is not to be viewed as ‘extraneous’ to a sin, as you may have implied. For if repentance is extraneous to sin, then your questions stand, supported by the Torah and Sforno: “God does not take a bribe”. (Deut. 10:17) Rabbi Reuven Mann cited Sforno’s comments as follows, “God will never at all remove a punishment for a sin on account of a merit for a mitzvah which the sinner performed, as the Rabbis said, ‘A mitzvah does not extinguish a sin’.” As we have said, repentance is not an extraneous mitzvah. So it is effective to atone for sins.

How then, must we view repentance? And as you asked Fred, why are each of these three apparently ineffective when performed in isolation of the two others. Good question.

Repentance must be viewed as the very termination of that sin. Repentance is not extraneous to a sin, but “part” of that self-same matter…in the form of its termination.

Tefila (prayer) as well is an act where man “judges” himself, as the root word of Tefila is “pelale”, to judge, as a Rabbi once taught. In prayer as well, man is not performing an act extraneous to his sins, but he is taking stock of himself, and approaching God with requests that might assist him in a Torah lifestyle, all the while beseeching God.

And what is Tzedaka? Tzedaka is a display of justice. Man recognizes the institution of justice, and supports it by being charitable to others. As man attests to God’s justice – charity in specific – man partakes of the system of God’s charity; and God’s charity to this man is in the form of His atonement.

In his Laws of Repentance 2:4, Maimonides states, “It is of the ways of repentance, that the penitent shouts out regularly before God with cries and supplications, performing tzedaka in line with his capabilities, distancing himself far from the matter of his sin, and changing his name, thereby saying, ‘I am another man, and not the man who did those acts, and he changes all his actions to good and to an upright path…” Maimonides too groups together repentance, prayer and charity. Why?

The answer is because repentance straddles three issues. Firstly, man must feel remorse and abandon his sin. But what was the damage of sin? It is that man has broken his relationship with his Creator. Maimonides’ introductory “kesser” (crown) to the laws of Repentance say this: “Teshuva - One positive command; that being that the sinner returns from his sin before God, and confesses.” Maimonides expresses part of repentance as man repenting “before God”. Now although repentance includes confession (“viduy”) to satisfy the requirement to “repent before God”, perhaps the “continued” relationship of being “before God” exists only when one is engaged in prayer…a dialogue with God. This explains the words, “the penitent shouts out regularly before God”. Having broken a relationship of obeying God through sin, an essential feature of repentance is to reestablish an “ongoing” relationship with Him. But there is one further step: charity.

As a Rabbi once explained Maimonides’ last chapter in his “Guide”, charity is the barometer of the perfected person. Although Torah study is the greatest good, the prophet teaches that study without acts of kindness is incomplete. As long as one does not engage in charity and justice, his learning has not become part of his value system. To complete one’s return to God, he must perform acts of charity.

With repentance, prayer and charity, man is not forgiven for engaging in extraneous activities: he is forgiven since he is correcting his very wrong and reestablishing his connection with God in a three-step process that encompasses all of human perfection: theoretical and practical.