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The Jewish Ethicist: Stealing Somebody Else's Mitzvah

The Jewish Ethicist: Stealing Somebody Else's Mitzvah

Can it ever be bad to do good?


Q. I recently did a kindness for someone. But someone else wanted to do the same kindness, and felt hurt that he was now unable to help. Am I required to forgo an opportunity to do help when I know that someone else would like to do it instead? GG

A. I think we're in good shape when we are competing over mitzvot (good deeds), and not the petty and unimportant things that people are usually fighting over.

But precisely because Jewish tradition recognizes the transcendent value of good deeds, it also recognizes that we have to be equitable in allocating them. According to Jewish law, it is forbidden to "steal" someone else's mitzvah. The Rabbinical court can even impose a fine on someone when they deprive the "owner" of an opportunity to fulfill a commandment!

So we see that the ability to do a mitzvah is very valuable, so valuable that if someone is deprived of this ability he deserves recompense. But actually the mitzvah is even more valuable than this. Here is the explanation of Rabbi Yechiel Weinberg, a leading Rabbi of the last generation. "The fine of ten gold pieces is not a recompense for the stolen mitzvah. For who can even begin to assess the reward for a mitzvah? Rather, the fine is for the sorrow which he caused his fellow, for every person is upset at having lost the opportunity to perform a good deed."

We learn from Rabbi Weinberg that the ability to do a mitzvah is invaluable. And we also see that every person, not only an especially pious one, has a powerful desire to do right and help others.

This doesn't necessarily mean that you did something wrong. The mitzvah is not "stolen" unless there is some objective indication that the person actually "owns" it. For instance, the father is responsible for circumcising the son. So if someone else takes the baby and performs the circumcision, then the father has been deprived. A shochet (ritual slaughterer) is responsible for covering the blood of the animal, so if someone else fulfills this mitzvah, then the shochet has been deprived.

In your case, it may be appropriate for you to forego a kindness if you know that it is primarily someone else's responsibility. If you are first in line but you know that someone else would really like to do the mitzva, then you are in an admirable position. You can choose between two mitzvot: helping the person in need by doing the mitzvah or helping the second person by allowing him to perform it in your place!

SOURCES: Babylonian Talmud, Bava Kamma 91b; Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 382; Responsa Seridei Esh III:96.

Send your queries about ethics in the workplace to

The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

The Jewish Ethicist is a joint project of and the Center for Business Ethics, Jerusalem College of Technology. To find out more about business ethics and Jewish values for the workplace, visit the JCT Center for Business Ethics website at

JCT Center For Business Ethics

Copyright © JCT Center for Business Ethics.

December 22, 2001

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Visitor Comments: 4

(4) Richard Vail, December 28, 2001 12:00 AM

Why I converted

This is one of the many reasons that I chose to become a Jew! It's a good deed to allow someone else to perform a mitzvah.

(3) Alexander Hart, December 25, 2001 12:00 AM

donación de órganos

Me da mucho gusto que exista la página de Aish en español.Quisiera que me manden mas acerca de el tema de donación de organos así como también temas de actualidad y de interes. Soy profesor en una escuela judía en México y esto porría expander mis horizontes. De antemano, gracias.

(2) Anonymous, December 24, 2001 12:00 AM

Very Interesting

This is an exceptionally great article. It brings together all the items that I sometimes feel I must be careful of.

(1) Juan Martin, December 23, 2001 12:00 AM


Very cool. The first helium atom and the hydrogen atoms stood before Hashem in the day of creation. The Helium was slightly heavier and told G-d, I want to be First. Hashem displeases with the Helium, retorted "I have made Hydrogen first. Let him do his job" From now on you will follow his lead. The Helium atom, at first sad, suddenly was filled with joy. "I will be everywhere my brother is", he sprang. "So it is" laughed Hashem. The Atoms danced together in great joy, and went on their way to form the formless.
Motto "Do not fish for another...teach her to fish".

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