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Category Archives: superstitions and the supernatural
Shabbos 156 Astrology, Mazal, and acceptable risk-taking
In an earlier post (Shabbos 129,) I promised to find an opportunity to deal with a fascinating sugya on that daf that I was not able to cover at the time.
The grand finale of Shabbos is here, and with it, on the penultimate daf, the opportunity has come to revisit the question of mazal and astrology, as well as its relevance to risk-taking.
First, lets go back to 129b, where The Gemara rules that for astrological reasons, it is dangerous to let blood on a Tuesday, and one should thus avoid it.
This is because “Mars” is dominant during even hours of the day, and the combination of the dangers of זוגות (pairs- see Pesachim 109b) and Mars makes it a particularly dangerous time for doing so.
The Gemara points out that it is equally dangerous on a Friday, but notes that seeing as it has become the norm for people to do so, it is not forbidden, and we apply the verse שומר פתאים השם”“ -Hashem protects the foolish.” )Tehillim 116/7)
Rashi explains that people are under pressure to let blood before shabbos, seeing as the large fish eaten on shabbos helps to replenish one’s blood supply, and they thus accepted the risk, which made it permitted.
This “leniency” has been applied by various later authorities to permitted engaging in activities with some level of risk, if the population of a whole has voted with their feet that the need for the activity outweighs the risk, and rely on the fact that Hashem will or at least might protect them.
In truth, it is clear from the everyday life described in the Mishna and Gemara that people took calculated risks in their day to day life, particularly while pursuing their livelihoods, and going to study Torah or perform other mitzvos, and with the exception of situations of clear and definite danger, this was barely criticized.
We find that workers said Shema while working up in trees or building platforms )Brachos 16a), and do not see any suggestion that they should not take the risk of working in such risky positions in the first place.
Although travel in general, and going out to sea in particular, was fraught with dangers, to the point that one said a prayer for a safe journey and sometimes said a special blessing of thanks (הגומל) when returning, we do not see any prohibitions against doing so.
Yet using our case of the bloodletting as a precedent is extremely problematic, as it assumes that danger or assumed danger based on astrological factors is equivalent to physically observable danger.
While it is true that even “rationalists” such as Meiri (Shabbos 129b) seem to have believed that certain effects of the stars alignment were not supernatural at all but simply a part of nature, it would be almost impossible to entertain such a suggestion in light of today’s scientific knowledge.
Even if we assume that Chazal, or some Chazal truly believed in the power of the stars, and even if we ourselves followed that belief to the extent that Chazal seem to have permitted doing so, it is clear from the Gemara that the concern regarding blood-letting had to do with the general concern of things that go in זוגות (pairs,) and Chazal were very clear that in times where people were not concerned about them, their effect was also negligible (see Pesachim 110b.)
It therefore stands to reason that if דשו בו רבים (the people have ignored the concern,) the danger is simply not there anymore, and one can then rely on Hashem’s protection (why the term “fools” would then relevant, does admittedly required some explanation.)
However, with physically observable dangers, simply ignoring them does not make them go away at all- the risk remains the same.
As such, although for the others reasons mentioned above, it is clear that society-drawn lines in acceptable risk-taking certainly are a factor, it seems less clear that this particular case where the principle of דשו בו is mentioned could serve as any real proof for the existence of this line and where it be drawn
Despite the above, this sugya and its idea of כוין דדשו בו רבים, שומר פתיים ה seems to have become the gold standard for evaluating what risks are acceptable as part of daily life, and those of us who prefer to see the entire idea as metaphorical, in the line of Rambam’s usual methodology with such things, could perhaps simply relate to the entire precedent as metaphorical for publically accepted risk.
Our daf begins its long discussion on the subject of “mazal” with the views of two Amoraim, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi and Rabbi Chanina, who both hold that the time that a person is born plays a major impact on their personality and their future.
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi held that the day of the week on which a person was borne was the critical factor, whereas Rabbi Chanina held that it was the star/planet dominant at the time of birth that was significant.
One often-quoted example of the later, that has its origins here, is the idea that someone born under מאדים (Mars -the red planet) will be predisposed to spilling blood (note the reference to red or blood in its name.)
Rav Ashi comments that such a person could either be blood-letter, a thief (according to Rashi, a robber who kills people), a butcher, or a moheil.
Even if we follow a literal reading of this passage, It seems to follow from this comment that although Rabbi Chanina believes that a person’s personality is predetermined by his “mazal,” what he does with his personality traits is not preordained, and he may choose to use them for good or for bad. (I have taken the liberty of assuming that this is Rav Ashi’s intention, though it is also possible that Rav Ashi is not suggesting that a person has a choice in the matter, but simply that these are all possible things that a person’s fate might lead him to become if he was borne under this “mazal.”
The Gemara narrates how the leading Amora of his time, Rabbah, had objected to this claim of Rabbi Chanina, pointing out that he was borne under the mazal of “mars” and was certainly not a spiller of blood.
His student, Abaya, retorted that Rabbah himself had also punished and killed before.
The simple meaning of this is that it is a reference to Rabbah’s role as a judge, which we know from a recent daf (Shabbos 153) was known to have been particular uncompromising, to the point that the people of his home-town Pumbedita “hated” him.
Although there was no capital or corporal punishment in Rabbah’s time, and his main authority was in monetary matters and verbal rebuke (the later being stressed by Rashi over there,) it is possible that he made use of the permission given to the courts to hand out exceptional capital or corporal sentences when deemed necessary for the stability of society, a rule formulated (Sanhedrin 46a) as ב”ד מכין ועונשין שלא מן התורה .
Another possibility is that this refers to the case (Megila 7b) where Rabbah, while making a Purim feast together with Rabbi Zeira, attempted to follow the reported dictum לאבסומי בפוריא(to drink wine on Purim to the point of inability to distinguish between “cursed is Haman” and “blessed is Mordechai.”)
The Gemara related how he became inebriated, and in his stupor, slaughtered Rabbi Zeira, his co-host.
The Rabbis prayed for mercy and Rabbi Zeira survived (or came back to life, depending how the story is interpreted), but the lesson was learnt the next year by Rabbi Zeira, who declined Rabbah’s invitation to feast together once more.
If this is what Abaya was referring to, it could be that even if a person is able through his sheer greatness to completely control his predetermined personality to the point that it does not impact at all on his actions, it remains dormant and asserts itself at times when the person is under the influence.
It might be possible for those who reject there being any truth in astrology (the Rambam being the prime example) to interpret this entire sugya symbolically, and say that all reference to the stars or days of the week are simply metaphors for a person’s innate personality traits, which people cannot totally change, but can certainly direct towards good or bad.
However, the precise wording of the statements, and the continuation of the sugya, which brings various stories to illustrate the power of astrology and of tzedakah to change it, does seem to show that Chazal did indeed believe in it, even if they held it was forbidden to base one’s actions on it.
The Gemara brings the statement of Rabbi Chanina, that “mazal causes wisdom, mazal wealth, and יש מזל לישראל (there is Mazal for Israel.)
In contrast, Rabbi Yochanan rules in contrast that there is no “mazal” for Israel, a position that Rav Shmuel, and even Rabbi Akiva himself are then shown to have accepted.
The view of Rabbi Yochanan that “there is no mazal for Israel “could initially be understood in various ways:
i. The Jewish people simply do not believe in the power of astrology at all.
ii. The idea of Mazal does apply to people in general, but the Jewish people are completely unaffected by it.
iii. Although everyone can be affected by Mazal, the Jewish people are able to change their mazal through repentance and good deeds, such as giving צדקה (charity.)
The stories brought from Rav, Shmuel, and Rabbi Akiva respectively to illustrate and support the view of Rabbi Yochanan are both examples of cases where a Jewish person’s “astrology” predicted something, yet it did not come to pass.
Rav interprets the passuk ויוצא אותו החוצה (and he took him outside) to mean that Hashem took Avraham Avinu out of the limits of his astrological fate, which involved remaining childless, by realigning the stars so that they should let him have a child.
By deriving from this statement that Rav agrees with Rabbi Yochanan’s rule of אין מזל לישראל, the Gemara indicates that Rabbi Yochanan accepts the power of the stars, believes that even Jews are technically subject to it,
yet holds that when they deserve it, Hashem intervenes and changes their “mazal” in their favor.
The next story, involves the leading Amora Shmuel sitting next to a lake with Avleit, identified by Rashi as a non-Jewish wise-man and astrologer.
Some people headed into the lake, and Avleit predicted based on the stars, that a specific one of them would not return, but would be attacked by a snake and die.
Shmuel commented that if the man was Jewish, he would return safely.
The man indeed returned as Shmuel predicted, and they found a snake inside his bag, cut into two!
Shmuel asked him what he done to merit this miracle this, and replied by describing an act of chesed he had done.
Shmuel went out and used this case to apply the passuk וצדקה תציל ממות – “charity saves from death.” )Mishlei 10/2;11/4)
It seems clear from this story that Shmuel also believed that Jews were also subject to the power of the stars, but they could bypass this power through their good deeds!
A look at the final story, the famous case of Rabbi Akiva’s daughter on her wedding day, seems to reveal the same conclusion. As such, it seems clear why Rashi chose this rather limited way of explaining the idea of אין מזל לישראל.
Putting all the modern scientific evidence against the entire concept of the star’s power aside for a moment, the biggest issue with this belief comes from our own classical sources.
The Torah) Devarim 18/1) warns us against superstitious beliefs and practices, including מעונן , which is identified among others things (Sanhedrin 65b) as believing that certain times are good for certain things, something that sounds a lot like astrology.
Those who take a more literal view of our sugya need to address this prohibition, and show somehow that astrology is different, perhaps because it is a part of nature itself and not supernatural, an idea entertained at least for a short time by the Meiri (Shabbos 129b.)
Those who take this prohibition at face value and hold that it refers to astrology might differentiate between believing in the power of the stars, which is legitimate, and basing one’s actions on what they predict, which is not. They could hold that because a Jew is able to change his mazal through his actions, he needs to do exactly that rather than follow what his mazal says blindly.
This view is extremely problematic, seeing as a person has no way of knowing whether his deeds will be good enough to merit this intervention, and it is forbidden in any case to rely on miracles- after all, even Yaakov Avinu was afraid of Esav, according to Chazal (Brachos 4a) because he feared that his sins would stop him from meriting the divine protection promised to him.
How could one then rely on Hashem’s intervention and perform an action against his astrologer’s advice?
Alternatively, one could assume that the halachic sugyas that deal with the prohibition against astrology are the עיקר שמעתתא (main sugyos) and the largely aggadic sugyos that seem to assume the truth of astrology to be secondary, either viewing them as completely non authoritative or interpreting them symbolically in a way that they do not contradict the Torah’s disdain for such beliefs.
The former would be controversial, to say the least, and the later would require a great degree of creativity.
I should also be noted that the earlier sugya on daf 129b seems far from aggadic and seems to involve a halachik discussion as do some other sugyos on the subject.
Whereas Rashi on our daf and the Ramban (Devarim 18/9-12) clearly seem to accept the legitimacy of astrology in some way, taking the more narrow interpretation of Rabbi Yochanan’s dictum, a reading of the Rambam’s views on the subject (A.Z. 11/9 for example) will reveal that he takes the approach of completely negating any truth in astrology.
Identifying which approach he takes to dealing with all these sugyos that assume its truth, takes us out of the scope of this post!
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.
Shabbos 152-153 Are the dead aware of what we do?
At the bottom of daf 152, Rav Yehuda tells us that if a dead person has no comforters, we need to get together 10 people during the mourning period and sit at his grave.
Rashi explains that this is referring to someone who has no relatives mourning him, and thus no people coming to comfort them.
The implication of Rav Yehuda’s ruling is that the comforting mourners that we perform is not only done to make the mourners feel better, but also to “comfort” the dead person during his transition to the afterlife.
The Gemara brings a case where someone died in Rav Yehuda’s neighborhood.
They brought 10 people to his grave for 7 days- at the end of the 7 day mourning period, the dead person appeared to Rav Yehuda in a dream and told him that his mind could now be at rest, seeing as he had put his mind at rest.
Rabbi Abahu then makes the incredible statement that whatever is said in front of a dead person can be heard by him, until the grave is sealed.
Another view is brought that he can hear everything said in front of him until the flesh of the body has disintegrated inside the grave.
Towards the end of the daf, the Gemara relates how a heretic once confronted Rabbi Abahu and asked him about our belief that the souls of the righteous are buried under Hashem’s throne of glory.
If this is indeed true, said the heretic, how could the sorcerer have brought back the prophet Shmuel from the dead, as accounted in Shmuel I 28- how could his calls be heard from so far away?
Rabbi Abahu answered that this was done during the 12 months after death, when the body has not yet disintegrated, and the soul still moves up and down between the gravesite and the throne of glory.
The idea that the soul somehow remains tied to the body as long as it has not disintegrated and keeps getting pulled back to the grave sounds bizarre enough and rather chilling indeed, but Tosfos is not content even with this.
Based on other sugyos, Tosfos claims that even after 12 months, when the soul has found its rest, it can still come back to the gravesite and hear what is going one there when it so desires.
The Gemara then makes another statement which seems to imply that a person can tell by listening to his own eulogies whether he is going to the world to come or not.
This is dependant on how much people cry for him, once aroused to do so by the person delivering the eulogy.
Abaya then asks a rather shocking question of his Rebbe, Rabbah, the leading sage of the time.
He asked how Rabbah would be able to tell at his funeral if he was going to the world to come, seeing as everyone in his hometown of Pumbedita hated him!
The idea that the Torah leader of the generation could be hated by the people might sound crazy to the modern mind, but Tanach and the rest of Jewish history are unfortunately full of such cases where the people resent their leaders for rebuking them and speaking truth to power.
Rashi explains that the people of Pumbedita were particularly dishonest and got into a lot of trouble in court with Rabbah.
It is even more bizarre to imagine that the leading Torah center of Babylon was filled with dishonest people who hated their Torah leader, but once again, unfortunately this is not such a novel phenomenon in our history.
We often have the worse situation where Torah leaders are exploited by the corrupt masses and unable to stand up to their pressure, but here, we how the leading Amora of the period stood up to them, like the prophets Yeshayahu, Yirmiyahu, Amos, and other like them had done, and paid the price in terms of popularity.
Seemingly unphased by the question, Rabbah replied that Abaya himself and another sage called Rabbah bar Rav Chanan would deliver such effective eulogies that even those people would be stirred to tears, and that would be the sign he needs that he is going to the afterlife.
The idea that the dead are conscious of what is happening in this world, particularly at the site of the grave during the 12 months after death, is far from taken for granted in Torah sources.
The passuk (Koheles 9/5) says: והמתים אינם יודעין מאומה – “the dead do not know anything.”
In discussing the prohibition against saying words of Torah not related to the dead person at a grave, in order not to mock the dead, the Gemara (Brachos 18a ) questions this entire prohibition based on the above possuk- after all, if they do are not conscious of what is going on even at the grave-site, why should it matter to them if one learns Torah there?
After a long discussion, the Gemara fails to come to a conclusion in this matter, but does seem to hold that at least in matters that affect them, the dead are aware of what is happening, which would solve the issues raised in our sugya.
The Gemara (Taanis 16a) asks why we visit graves on fast days, and two answers are given.
The one answer given is that it is a way of declaring to Hashem that we are like the dead in front of him (totally lifeless and unable to help ourselves.)
The other answer given is that it in order that they will ask for mercy on our behalf.
Although even the first answer does not suggest that we direct our prayers at the dead themselves (something highly problematic), it does suggest that our presence at their graves somehow gets them to intercede on our behalf, something which seemingly would require them to be aware of what is happening at their gravesite, even after the initial 12 month period.
The author of the second answer, in contrast, might not be comfortable with the idea of the dead being aware of our visit, or alternatively, believe that even if they are aware, they are unable to pray on our behalf- “לא המתים יהללו קה”- the dead do not praise Hashem (Tefillin 115/17), nor do they perform other commandments such as praying.
For him, the visit might be less about invoking the assistance of the dead and more about humbling ourselves before Hashem.
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.