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f you are performing a mitzvah, and then another mitzvah presents itself and you cannot do both, which one takes precedence? Do you abandon the current mitzvah and do the newer one, or do you perform the newer one and abandon the first one? The Talmud’s example is this: If you are involved in a funeral during, say, Chol Hamoed Succos, must you still eat in a succah at mealtime, or are you absolved from the mitzvah of succah?

The Sages in Succah 25a introduce the concept of osek b’mitzvah patur min hamitzvah, a person doing one mitzvah is exempt from doing the second, colliding mitzvah. Thus, a person participating in the mitzvah of burial is not required to eat in a succah.

This concept of osek b’mitzvah occurs to me every weekday morning, because during davening in shul I am invariably interrupted by jangling coins that materialize between my eyes and the siddur. These are the hands of the poor who come to shul every day to collect a few coins — which occurs about ten times during every Shacharis. The poor solicitors visit every possible minyan in the neighborhood, move up and down the aisles, and from the coins they collect — a half shekel is the normal donation in Israel, 50 cents to a dollar or two in America — they eke out a livelihood. (The energetic and efficient among them, who might have many hundreds of daily donors in an area as dense with minyanim as is Jerusalem, could theoretically do more than merely “eke out a livelihood.”)

I am happy to give but am conflicted, because giving while engaged in davening actually destroys what little concentration I am able to muster. Even if I leave the money on my lectern for them to take on their own, that still creates a distraction.

I want to give, yet I want to daven. I want to daven, yet I want to give. These cannot both be done effectively at the same time. Does this fall under the halachic rubric of osek b’mitzvah, and am I in my rights not to give anything to these mendicants since I am involved in the mitzvah of davening, and therefore am not in violation of the command in Devarim 15:8 to “Open thy hand to the needy”? Or should I nevertheless give, even though my act of giving creates an interruption and discontinuity to my davening from which I do not easily recover — particularly since this scene occurs so frequently. On some mornings, one can spend more time giving out coins than davening.

Among today’s major decisors, by the way, there is no unanimity on this question. Some hold that one need not give during davening, while others hold that davening should be interrupted in order to give.

There is an even deeper problem here, and that is that the basic dynamic of tzedakah is missing. Because the collectors are so numerous, the giving becomes rote, without feeling or connection between donor and recipient. The ideal way to give to the poor is to give with a smile, to offer a word of encouragement, as Rambam writes in his Laws of Giving to the Poor 10:4. But what happens every morning is simply a sterile business transaction. Not a word is exchanged. The interaction is robotic, perfunctory. The ktchong! of coins appears before the eyes, the coin is placed in the hand — which even gives change as needed — neither party acknowledges the other, and then the hand-owner scurries off to the next davener. Speed and efficiency are essential: no time for niceties.

Often I wonder, is this really tzedakah? Of course, the end result is that the poor fellow can now buy bread. But the feeling of compassion and human interaction — which the act of tzedakah is supposed to foster — is totally absent.

And if it is not really the ideal tzedakah, then perhaps we have come full circle, and this entire exercise is moot. Perhaps this is not at all a case of osek b’mitzvah. Specifically, because of the interruptions, I am not fully engaged in the mitzvah of tefillah; and because of the robotic nature of the giving, I am not fully engaged in the mitzvah of tzedakah. The tzedakah nibbles away at the tefillah, eroding it, and the tefillah nibbles away at the tzedakah, diminishing it.

In which case, we must leave the halachic subtleties for another day, prepare sufficient coins for tomorrow morning, and pray that somehow, despite all stumbling blocks, our time during Shacharis will constitute some form of connection with our Creator. (Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 734)