Same Action, Different Outcome

Keilim (8:2) | Allon Ledder | 12 years ago

The Mishnah (8:2) discusses whether tumah passes from a utensil to an earthenware oven or vice versa, if the utensil is lowered into the oven with the opening of the utensil protruding from the top of the oven. Two scenarios are presented:

In both cases, the Mishnah rules that tumah does not pass from the sheretz to the food. If the sheretz and the food were both contained within the same earthenware utensil then the sheretz would make the food tamei. However in our case, the food and the sheretz do not directly share the same utensil. One of the items is toch (inside) the oven and the other item is toch tocho (inside a utensil which is inside the oven). As long as the opening of the smaller utensil remains above the opening of the oven it cannot be said that the sheretz and the food are both directly contained within the same utensil.

The Halacha changes when the smaller utensil contains a puncture that makes it halachically invalid. In that case, the smaller utensil can no longer shield the food from the sheretz. As soon as the utensil is lowered into the oven, the sheretz and the food are both halachically contained within the oven and therefore the food becomes tamei.

The Mishnah deals with the question: how large does the puncture need to be to render the smaller utensil invalid? This depends on what the utensil was made for. If it was made to contain food then the hole must be large enough for an olive to fall out (see Mishnah 3:1). If the utensil was made to contain liquids then the hole must be large enough for liquid to seep in when the utensil is immersed empty into liquid. If the utensil was made for both food and liquid then we act l’chumra and use the smaller shiur as if the utensil was made for liquids only.

We see that the exact same action can have a totally different outcome depending on one’s intention. If one lowers the same utensil with the same puncture into the oven, the status of the food as tamei or tahor will depend on the person’s intention in relation to what the utensil was made for. If the utensil has a small puncture that allows liquid to seep in:

Similarly, as we will shortly explain, two people can carry out the identical action but the intention lying behind that action can determine whether the action is a mitzvah or an aveirah.

The Shulchan Aruch (60:4) rules that mitzvot require intent. However, in the vast majority of cases the threshold level of intent is very low and intent can often be inferred. If the circumstances in which a mitzvah is performed indicate that one performed the mitzvah in order to fulfil their obligation then the obligation will be fulfilled.

Once the base level of intention is satisfied, it is the action that is most important. Two people can give tzedaka, one with the purest of intentions and the other grudgingly. Of course it is better to do a mitzvah with pure intentions; however both people would fulfil the mitzvah of tzedaka.

In some cases however, one’s intention is critical. Two people can perform the same action but the intent behind that action will determine whether the action is praiseworthy or not.

Rav Zev Leff gives the example of correcting a baal koreh who makes a mistake while reading from the Torah. One person might dislike the baal koreh or harbour resentment or jealousy towards him. This person would be looking for mistakes so that they can correct the baal koreh and embarrass them publicly. Obviously this would not be praiseworthy. Another person might have the purest intentions – they are only concerned with the Torah reading being perfect so that the kehilla can satisfy its obligation to perform the mitzvah of kriyat ha’Torah in the most perfect way. Such a person would be pained to correct the baal koreh but they would have no choice. Such a person is performing a praiseworthy act.

Just as a person’s intention as to what a utensil is to be used for can determine whether food is tahor or tamei, similarly, a person’s intention can determine whether an act is praiseworthy or not.

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