Shabbos 115-116 Saving Holy scrolls, amulets, and the Torah of a heretic

On Daf 115b, we are told that even though it is permitted to save holy scrolls from a fire on Shabbos (understood by the Gemara as moving them to somewhere which only involves a rabbinic transgression), blessings and amulets, even if they contain scriptural verses with Hashem’s name, are not included in this leniency, and must be left to burn.
One possible reason for this is that they simply do not have the necessary level of holiness warranted to transgress shabbos for, albeit on a rabbinical level.
This could be backed up by the parallel sugya (Shabbos 61a) which proves that even they are not holy enough to warrant shabbos transgression, they certainly do require burial if damaged, and leaves open the possibility that one might even be forbidden to take them into the toilet.
Another possible, though, is that there is actually something wrong with these things and/or the person who wrote them, and although the earlier sugya would require a rather creative reading in order to justify such an interpretation, there is certainly much evidence pointing in this direction as well.
Rashi, as an example of a verse written in such amulets, gives the example of כל המחלה אשר שמתי במצריים לא אשים עליך (all the illnesses that I placed on Egypt, I shall not place on you- Shmos 15/26 ), an apparent סגולה (charm) against illness.
Yet we cannot ignore the fact that this is the very example used by the Mishna (Sanhedrin 90a) which, if chanted to cure a wound, renders the chanter part of the unenviable group of people who have no share in the world to come!
Although the Gemara there, and elsewhere (see earlier post on the subject) limits the scope of these harsh words to one who spits in the process, it is clear from the parallel sugya (Shvuos 15b) that using words of Torah to cure people is still completely forbidden, even if it doesn’t always warrant such a harsh punishment.
Furthermore, the Rambam (Avodah Zara 11/12) appears to ignore the opinion in the Gemara that limits its scope to one who spits, and rules that chanting pessukim for healing purposes is not only completely forbidden under the prohibition of superstitious practices, but also a form of כפירה (denial of the Torah…) in that he turns words of the Torah, which are supposed to be medicine for the soul, into medicine for the body… (See Kesef Mishna who deals with this at length.)
Perhaps it is this kind of amulet or “blessing scroll) which is being referred to here, and that should be allowed to be burned, given that the writer showed almost heretical beliefs, as did the wearer?
In truth, on daf 116a, we are told similar things about a Sefer Torah written by a מין (heretic)
In a truly shocking statement, the Gemara tells us that a Sefer Torah written by a heretic is not be saved on Shabbos, and should be allowed to burn, together with its pessukim and divine names.
In fact, Rabbi Tarfon goes a step further and declares that should such a Torah come into his hands, he would physically burn it himself!
In discussing how it is possible to allow the name of Hashem to be destroyed, against the biblical prohibition of לא תעשון כן לשם אלוקיכם (do not do so [what you do to idolatry] to Hashem your G-d [Devarim 32/33 ], the Gemara replies that we learn this using a קל וחומר (fortiori) from the case of the סוטה (woman suspected of being unfaithful.
Just like the parchment with Hashem’s name on it is erased in order to make peace between man and wife (i.e. prove her innocence), so it can surely be erased due to the impact that the writers heresy has on the relationship between the Jewish people and our father in Heaven (by showing that we are faithful to him and reject a Torah written by one who is not,)
There is SO much to analysis here, so many nuances in the text, but one issue that needs to be stressed immediately is the need to define what a “heretic” is- it is clear from this sugya (and Rashi’s explanation of it) that this does not refer to anyone who practices idolatry, but only to someone who has experienced the truth of belief in Hashem and his Torah and intentionally rejected it- a very rare, if not non-existent phenomena in our times.
Yet even still, It is hard to imagine that a scroll that is physically identical to the Torah we all live by, and contains the same names of Hashem, can be allowed to burn, or even intentionally burnt, simply because of the heretical beliefs of the person who wrote them.
It seems, at least from here, that the notion of “accept the truth wherever it comes from,” which seems to be the simple meaning of the Mishnaic dictum איזהו חכם הלומד מכל אדם (Who is wise, one who learns from every man,” ]Avos 4/1] is rejected by Chazal, at least in this case.
Whatever happened to the idea that דברי תורה אינם מקבלים טומאה (words of Torah do not become impure?), the basis for the accepted view of Rabbi Yehuda ben Beseira that a baal keri does not have to go to mikva before learning Torah or davening (Brachos 22a and Chullin 136b), but also used by the Rambam to permit even a Nidah to touch a Torah? (Tefillin ,Mezuzah,veSefer Torah 10/8)
This rules implies that a Torah cannot be impurified by virtue of an impure person touching it, so why should a person of impure views (heresy) invalidate a Torah simply by being the one to write it?
In addition, how do we explain the words and actions of Rabbi Meir, who continued to learn from his Rebbe, Elisha ben Abuya, now known as אחר ( someone else) , after he became a heretic, On the basis that he removes the dirty peel and eats the clean fruit on the inside. (Chagiga 15b)
How do we explain the way the Rambam so often quoted Aristotle in matters that he agreed with him on, using similar arguments, if the words of a heretic are to be burnt?
The late Chief Rabbi Dr Hertz of the British empire, in his famous Chumash which was arguably the most used English translation in the pre-Artscroll days, makes use of this dictum and even quotes friendly Christian bible scholars in his commentary when he feels what they say is appropriate, something he admittedly received much criticism for, particularly with the rise of the Artscroll generation, but also by senior Talmidei Chachamim.
In fact I recall this very debate as a teen growing up in Johannesburg, where the Hertz Chumash was the gold standard for English translations in the traditional Orthodox Shul’s of Johannesburg, and was used all the time by my father שליט”א at home and many other leading Rabbis in the community.
My high School Rebbe, Rav Eliezer Chrysler, שליט”א, is one of those Talmidei Chachamim who truly made a long-lasting impression on me in many great ways, even if we have not always agreed on ideological matters.
He is a man who displays one of the greatest examples of Ahavas Torah (love of Torah) I have ever seen, to the point that he used to give his daily Yomi class to a tiny group of dedicated people at a time when daf Yomi was not exactly well known in South Africa ( I was not one of those committed people, unfortunately.)
There were times when no-one showed up for the shiur, but he nevertheless continued as usual, literally giving the shiur into the tape recorder!
Rabbi Chrysler comes from the English Chareidi Gateshead school, as unsurprisingly, used to often discourage us from using the Hertz Chumash, due to his quoting the explanations of “heretics,” a view that I myself took on for at least a large part of my youth, and still certainly take into account, but which is arguable, given the very limited definition of a “heretic” referred to earlier on. (it could be that it was bothered more by the idea that the commentaries were of non-Jewish origin than necessarily written by heretics, based on the dictumחכמה בגויים תאמין תורה גויים אל תאמין [Eicha Rabbah 2/13])
Yet in another twist and turn in this fascinating discussion, when it comes to learning Torah from someone who is not a good role-model, Chazal take an even stronger stand and rule that “If your Rabbi appears to you to be similar to an angel, then learn from him, otherwise do not learn from him.” (Chagiga 15b)- This is indeed the difficulty the Gemara there raises with Rabbi Meir’s actions!

It is unlikely that this requirement for a Torah teacher to be a perfect role model in all ways can be taken literally, at least on a pragmatic level, and in case, people are not supposed to be angels as evidence by the famous rule of לא ניתנה תורה למלאכי השרת (the Torah was not given to angels.)
In fact, in a seemingly contradictory statement, Chazal tell us that if you have seen a Talmid Chacham who has sinned at night ]Brachos 19a] (probably a reference to sins in the sexual realm, such as forbidden sexual acts, or wasting of seed ) , do not think badly about during the day, as he has probably done Teshuva.
This shows clearly that we do not expect Talmidei Chachamim to be sin free like angels, but rather to not only accept their teshuva, but to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they have done Teshuva, rather than make them prove their angelic qualities. (It seems obvious that this does not apply to one who is a danger to others, or one who refuses to acknowledge his errors and has clearly NOT done teshuva.)
Yet at a bare minimum, the statement quoted earlier can be seen to giving a very message as to how students can and should demand the highest standards of example-setting from their teachers.
Perhaps, the answer lies in the type of flawed individual we are dealing with.
To sin is human, and even great people sin. They are to be held to account and liable to repent, but not rejected once they have done so.
However, when a person shows intrinsic negative character traits, it is a completely different matter.
One’s teacher might indeed be forgiven for sins, particular those that do not harm other people, but he certainly must be expected to show almost angelic character traits- after all, דרך ארץ קדמה לתורה (polite behavior comes before Torah.)
The classic heretic of our Gemara is completely rejected not because of his sins, or even his worship of idols, but because he shown the worst possible character traits possible- a lack of הכרת הטוב and rejection of what he knows to be true.
His sin is so severe because, to paraphrase the pessukim quoted by the Gemara, he has seen the truth of Hashem and his Torah, but deliberately thrown it behind the door, out of the way.
Such a person cannot be a Rebbe, nor can his Torah be saved, and his Torah is in fact so tainted that Rabbi Tarfon would have physically burnt it himself.
As the Neviim ,various statements of Chazal, and of course the Rambam among others have stressed so many times (think for example of the Midrash which describe the blood pouring out of the curtain when the enemy entered the Temple), holy items and practices are not magical charms- they only holy because they serve as a way of improving our relationship with Hashem- when they fail to do this, they are as good as burnt already.
In contrast, it can be argued that someone who has sinned by using words of Torah to heal, but who has good intent and certainly has not rejected Hashem and his Torah, should not be in the category of a heretic to the point that we would physically burn his amulets, and Rabbi Tarfon certainly did not make any suggestion that amulets should be burnt- their products do not have the necessary level of holiness to override the shabbos, but they if damaged, they certainly should still be treated with respect and buried.
One must of course, still take into account Rambam’s harsh words which indeed do seem to equate using Torah to heal with heresy- perhaps he would hold that abusing the truth of Torah which a person has experience for physical gain (particularly when money is made from them ) is also a sign of bad character traits which deserve the most severe of sanction.
Yet the truth is that as pointed out in earlier posts, the Rambam himself follows the Gemara in allowing amulets from proven experts to be worn on shabbos for at least for protection, probably for psychological reasons, and it is doubtful that he would condemn one who writes them to help someone, even on a psychological level, as a heretic.
As such, I tend towards preferring our earlier suggestion, that the reasons for allowing amulets to burn are completely different from the reasons for allowing the Torah of a bona fide heretic to burn, or even physically burning it.

I also suggest that we should differentiate between a person who sins like all people do, even perhaps with a degree of heresy, but afterwards repents or at least comes from a sincere place, and someone whose flawed character traits lead him to deny the Torah he believes in, for the sake of his own convenience.
Let us recall that according to Chazal, the Jewish people never worshipped idolatry because they believed in it, but rather in order to permit forbidden sexual relationships to themselves )Sanhedrin 63b)- although this is sometimes quoted as a relative positive, according to what we have said, it might actually be a negative- they experienced the truth of Torah , had absolutely no intellectually honest way of rejecting it, and knew that idolatry was meaningless, yet threw their beliefs behind the door in order to be able to live a lifestyle antithetical to Torah values.
Perhaps, this is why Rabbi Meir was able to still see the good in his Rebbe and learn the good things from him- Elisha ben Abuya was probably not the classic heretic of flawed character described here who knew the truth but conveniently and/or intentionally buried it.
He was more likely a very sensitive and great individual who lost his faith due to very traumatic experiences he encountered. His peels had become dirty, but he was clean and sweet on the inside!
This can be backed up by the case which is blamed for his heresy- the boy who climbed up to the roof on his father’s intructions to perform the Mitzva of שלוח הקן (sending away the mother-bird), which together with honoring parents is a specific mitzva for which long life is promised, and fell off the tree and died.
This might be somewhat comparable to the holocaust survivor who was simply unable to come to terms with the horrors he saw and how they could reflect the promises made by the Torah, particularly given the facts that the pious and religious Jews of Eastern Europe were amongst those most affected.
This heresy is incorrect and not to be encouraged, but it is also not to be condemned in the same way- it is a heresy that stems from a beautiful and sensitive character, and such people are still redeemable, still role models in other areas and worthy of learning from, and ultimately to be drawn close, not pushed away.

These posts are intended to raise issues and stimulate further research and discussion on contemporary topics related to the daf. They are not intended as psak halacha.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s