Pesachim 2 Bedikat Chametz and the biblical fence

The opening Mishna of Pesachim introduces the mitzva of בדיקת חמץ  (searching for Chametz) before Pesach.

The mishna tells us that אור לארבעה עשר בודקין את החמץ לאור הנר.

After much debate on this and the next daf, the Gemara concludes that אור לארבעה עשר refers to the evening of the 14’th of Nisan, and that the evening is referred to as אור  (literally light) in order to use לשון נקיה (clean language,) something I hope to discuss in tomorrow’s post.

As such, the Mishna is understood to mean that on the evening BEFORE Pesach starts, we need to search for any chametz with the light of a candle.

The reason for this search is subject to debate amongst the Rishonim.

Rashi explains that it is to avoid the prohibition of בל יראה ובל ימצא (owning chametz on pesach- see Shmos 12/19 and 13/7), and the Ran seems to understand that it is also connected to the positive mitzva of תשביתו (removing chametz from one’s possession- see Shmos 12/16.)

By searching for any remaining chametz in the house and burning it the next day, we make sure to avoid this prohibition (and fulfill the positive mitzva.)

It seems to follow that Rashi considers this to be a חיוב דאורייתא  (biblical requirement) due to the prohibition of owning chametz.

The Tosfos famously take issue with this based on a later sugya (Pesachim 6b) where Rav Yehuda rules in the name of Rav that one who has searched also needs to perform בטול חמץ  (nullify the chametz in his heart.)

Seeing as this is a requirement in any case, and מדאורייתא בבטול בעלמא סגי ליה (on a Torah level, annulment is enough to avoid the prohibition of owning chametz-Pesachim 4b), they dispute what they understand as Rashi’s claim that the search is necessary in order to avoid this prohibition. Indeed, the Gemara itself there states that בדיקת חמץ  is only a rabbinical requirement!

Instead, they explain that this a rabbinic requirement in case one sees chametz on Pesach that he has already annulled and comes to eat it- the prohibition of eating chametz carries the severe penalty of כרת and applies to all real chometz whether one owns it or not.

Whereas the Tosfos clearly saw Rashi as claiming that the search is NECESSARY in order to avoid the prohibition of owning chametz, it is possible to understand him simply as saying that the search is a legitimate and possibly preferable way of avoiding the prohibition- one can do so without it by nullification, but seeing as the search takes place first, in practise it has also removed any concern of this prohibition by the time the nullification comes along.

This is how Rishonim such as the Ran understand Rashi: The Torah requires the end result that we do not own chometz on Pesach, but Chazal determined how we get to that result, and due to the severity of the prohibition and the need to cover all bases, they required us to go through two processes- search and destroy, and nullification.

The Tosfos, on the other end, seem to hold that there was no need for Chazal to institute two methods to remove chometz from one’s possession, and that seeing as they made nullification mandatory, they must have required the “search and destroy” operation for other reasons. )It should be noted though that whereas the requirement to search is recorded in the Mishna, the requirement  to perform בטול is only recorded later in the early Amoraic period  by רב יהודה אמר רב, making this argument seem problematic unless the requirement for בטול  also goes back to the time of the Mishna and Rav was simply recording it, something that requires evidence.)

According to this view, one needs to understand why Chazal were so concerned about us coming to eat chametz that they required us to search for it and destroy it?

After all, there are many other things we are forbidden to eat or even benefit from, and Chazal made no such requirement.

The Tosfos suggest that this is because of the severe penalty prescribed for one who eats חמץ,  but are still faced with the fact that eating certain other foods such as חלב (forbidden fats) is also subject to the same כרת  punishment.

As such, they add another factor to explain this special stringency, namely the fact that chometz is something which people are not used to avoiding, given that it is permitted the rest of the year, and in addition to the severity of the penalty for doing so, this was enough reason for Chazal to set this prohibition apart from others and require search and destroy.

They also suggest that Chazal treated chometz more seriously than other prohibitions because the Torah itself did so- It is the only food subject to a ban of eating and benefitting from which is also subject to a prohibition against owning.

The simplest explanation of this idea is that  the fact that the Torah prohibited even owning chometz shows us that this prohibition is to be taken even more seriously than others- Chazal followed this queue and imposed the obligation to search and destroy in addition to nullifying it.

The Ran (דפי הריף א. ד”ה “ומה” ) is even more explicit and suggests that the reason the Torah itself forbade owning Chometz on Pesach was because people are not used to refraining from eating it the rest of the day, and combined with the severity of eating it on Pesach, the Torah took extra precautions to prevent this.

This idea is rather novel in that it would be a rare example of the Torah creating its own fence to protect another Torah commandment, something usually the mandate of Chazal.

  This is not completely without precedent- the אבות דרבי נתן  (chapter 2) understands that the Torah made a “fence” around the prohibition of forbidden sexual relations such as Niddah by prohibiting  קירבה(coming near) -sexually arousing acts such as hugging and kissing are thus forbidden on a Torah level as a restraint against sexual acts themselves.

Although the Ramban (השגת לספר המצוות לאו שנג), based on the view of רבי פדת (Shabbos 13a) understands this to be an אסמכתא  and the prohibition of “coming near” to be rabbinical in nature, the Rambam (ספר המצוות לאו שנג)  takes this literally and holds that it is a Torah prohibition punishable by lashes.

If we accept the Ran’s reasoning regarding בל יראה ובל ימצא and the Rambam’s regarding קרבה, the common denominator is clear- both eating chometz on Pesach and forbidden sexual relations are extremely serious prohibitions punishing by כרת, both are unusually hard to avoid (chometz because of habit and עריות  because of the power of the libido) and both have “satellite” biblical prohibitions to keep us far away from them!

If the Torah itself singled out these prohibitions by making its own biblical fences around them, and Chazal themselves followed with fences of their own, how careful should we all be to stay as far away as possible from them.

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.

Eruvin 96 Woman putting on Tefillin and בל תוסיף

There is a long discussion  in this perek regarding whether the night is a time for the mitzva of wearing Tefillin, which could be connected to the question of whether Shabbos is a time for this mitzva, and the broader question of whether Tefillin is considered a positive mitzva bound by time, which woman are exempt from.

Another issue addressed here is whether the prohibition of בל תוסיף  (adding to the Torah) is transgressed when one performs a mitzva in its incorrect time, or when someone who is exempt from the mitzva fulfills it.

In searching for a Tana who holds that there is indeed a mitzva to wear Tefillin on Shabbos, the Gemara points to a Beraisa which states that Michal bas Cushi (understood as a reference to Shaul’s daughter Michal-see Rashi) put on Tefillin and the Chachamim never protested . It also states that the wife of the prophet Yona did the mitzva of עליה לרגל  (going to Yerushalayim for the festivals and bringing a special sacrifice) and the Chachamim also never protested.

The Gemara at first assumes that the fact that the Chachamim never protested against Michal for wearing Tefillin must mean that it is not a מצות עשה שהזמן גרמא  (positive mitzva bound by time.)  Otherwise, she would have been exempt, the prohibition of בל תוסיף  would have applied, and the Chachamim would have protested.

At this stage, the Gemara assumes that if someone who is not commanded to fulfill a particular mitzva performs it voluntarily, he/she has actually transgressed the prohibition of adding to the Torah

This assumption needs to be addressed. After all, there is a famous rule of גדול המצווה ועושה ממי שאינו מצווה ועושה  (one who performs a mitzva that he is commanded to fulfill is greater than one who performs it voluntarily in the absence of an obligation.)

This rule is applied (Kiddushin 31a) by Rav Yosef to explain why he would make a party if he discovered that a blind man is  liable in all mitzvos, and to highlight the huge reward for honoring parents, in the famous case of the non-Jew , דמא בן נתינא, who merited to raise a פרה אדומה   (red heifer) for performing this mitzva even though he was not commanded to do so.

It seems clear from this that one certainly receives reward for performing a mitzva that one is not commanded to fulfill, albeit not as much as that received for fulfilling a mitzva that one is commanded to perform.

Perhaps one can argue that in the case of a non-Jew, performing a mitzva voluntarily is praise-worthy seeing as non-Jews are not commanded in בל תוסיף   (the prohibition of “adding to the commandments ” is not one of their 7  mitzvos!)

Similarly, in the case of Rav Yosef, he might have been previously unsure whether he was obligated to keep the mitzvos or not and kept them conditionally out of doubt, and such conditional observance would not be prohibited by בל תוסיף .

It would then be possible that if a woman is definitely not obligated to put on Tefillin, doing so would involve the prohibition of בל תוסיף.

In truth though, we immediately notice another issue with the Gemara’s assumption.

If Tefillin is NOT a positive mitzva bound by time, it should follow that ALL woman are obligated to put on Tefillin, and Michal bas Shaul should have been an unusual case, which it clearly appears to have been.

It is possible that the Gemara would have dealt with these issues, but had no need to, seeing as it immediately rejects this assumption for even more obvious reasons.

It points out that the very same Beraisa that records the actions of Michal also records how Yona’s wife performed the mitzva of עליה לרגל  without rabbinic sanction.

As it is impossible to argue that עליה לרגל  is not a  מצות עשה שהזמן גרמא, it is clear that the author of the very same Beraisa holds that that when a woman performs a mitzva that she is exempt from, there is NO issue of בל תוסיף .

The Gemara thus suggests that this Beraisa expressed the view of Rabbi Yosi regarding סמיכה  (the mitzva of placing one’s hands on an animal before slaughtering it for a  sacrifice .)

He is of the view that even though women are exempt from this Mitzva, they may do so voluntarily if they wish to , clearly holding that NO בל תוסיף  is involved.

The Gemara does note though that neither Rabbi Meir nor Rabbi Yehuda (in our Mishna) agree with Rabbi Yosi and that they do not allow a woman to perform סמיכה  or to blow shofar voluntarily.

At first glance, it seems that this is because they hold that performing a mitzva that one is not obligated in involves the prohibition of בל תוסיף.

Rabbi Shimon, in contrast, agrees with Rabbi Yossi, and if the above assumption is correct, it follows that woman performing mitzvos they are exempt from are subject to a tannaic dispute where Rabbi Yossi and Rabbi Shimon permit it and Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehuda do not.

Now that we have seen that performing mitzvot voluntarily is subject to tannaic debate, it is  possible that the Tannaim and Amoraim who apply the rule of גדול המצווה ועושה   to a blind person and a non-Jew hold like Rabbi Yossi and Rabbi Shimon regarding women, and that this view is accepted by the סתמא דסוגיא  (main sugya) elsewhere.

Seeing as we usually rule like Rabbi Yossi, this would not be surprising.

Yet the Tosfos introduce another complication to the discussion.

They quote another Midrash according to which the Chachamim did indeed object to the actions of Michal!

They also object to Rashi’s assumption that those Tannaim who forbid women from wearing Tefillin, blowing shofar, סמיכה and certain other mitzvos do so because of בל תוסיף, seeing as we have seen elsewhere that many mitzvos may be performed even by those not obligated in them.

In particular, he brings the case where Rabbi Yehuda never voiced any disapproval about Queen Helena sitting in the sukkah(Sukkah 2b)

Instead, he suggests that there are certain specific mitzvos which Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Meir do not allow women to perform, each for their own reasons.

One example he gives is Shofar, because blowing shofar is rabbinically forbidden on Shabbos and Yom-Tov in the absence of an obligation, which means that women who do so are actually transgressing a rabbinical prohibition related to the laws of Yom-Tov!

Regarding Tefillin, he suggests that Tefillin require a particularly clean body, and that these authorities were concerned that women are not particular enough about this, an explanation also brought by the Rashba.

Some Rishonim (See for example Ritva) even suggest that even those Chachamim who did not protest Michal’s actions were still not unhappy about them for this reason, though given that she was a princess, it seems somewhat hard to accept that she was not at least as careful about cleanliness than the average man at the time!

This entire suggestion, however , seems like a historical and societal issue, and there is little evidence of there being a long-term decree of chazal forbidding women to wear Tefillin for this reason- As such, in today’s Western society where women certainly seem  to be as careful as men about cleanliness, perhaps more so, and where almost everyone washes more often than the average man once did, applying this reasoning seems rather far-fetched, particularly given that other Rishonim such as Rashi and the Meiri do not share this concern, and most Rishonim certainly hold that the authoritative view of Rabbi Yossi has no such concern.

As such, it seems that there is nothing wrong with women wearing Tefillin voluntarily if they so choose, and they would probably be rewarded for doing so as an אינה מצווה ועושה .

Although the Rema himself writes that one should protest against women who put on Tefillin, presumably due to the concern of גוף נקי  as per the Ritva, this ruling seems to be against against the way most Rishonim learnt the sugya, and as pointed out above, it is hard to say that the concern of גוף נקי  is applicable today, particularly for woman who are not constantly busy with babies.

However, this might only be the case if they are aware that they are not obligated and choose to do so as a רשות  (voluntary act,) the term Rabbi Yossi himself used to describe it.

If however, they claim that they are equally obligated to do so like men are, and do it out of a sense of חיוב  (obligation,)  one could argue that this might indeed involve the prohibition of בל תוסיף (see Rambam Mamrim 2/9)  who makes a similar argument against pretending or assuming that rabbinic laws are biblical.)

In addition, it could also set a precedent for “twisting” eternal aspects of halacha to fit modern social norms and values, a pandora’s box which once opened, is almost impossible to close- whereas the concern for גוף נקי  might be less relevant in modern western society, this concern is even more relevant than ever.

This might explain why most Torah authorities are anything from hesitant to strongly opposed to allowing woman to put on Tefillin en masse, and like in all far-reaching changes to our behavioral status quo, encouraging this without support from at least some of them seems at best extremely unwise.

 In addition, although we have made a compelling case to allow at least individual women who wish to perform this special mitzva to do so, at least in modern western society, it requires broad shoulders  (which I do not have)  to rule against the Rema in practise, and there are also sources from those who follow the “kabbalistic approach” that are against this for kabbalistic reasons (see Yalkut Yosef: דינים לאשה ולבת פרק ד  for a list) – I have just come as usual to learn the sugya from the primary sources and point out some of the issues involved.

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

Eruvin 18-19 The Stalker ,making women feel safe , and wasted semen

Until recently, the atmosphere in the Western world has made it extremely difficult to teach certain areas of Torah which appear to be unnecessarily stringent in an open society where members of the opposite sex mingle and interact completely freely.

Although modern society is certainly not alone in terms of its hedonistic excesses, for much of history, in most moral societies, it was understood and accepted that human nature is such that certain strict lines need to be drawn to avoid total moral breakdown.

For decades, since the cultural revolutions of the 60’s, Western society has lived in a state of ethical dissonance- On the one hand, the feminist movement has fought for equality for woman and the lines between the genders have been slowly blurred, yet in practise, girls and woman have been treated as badly or worse than any time in history, with “liberal” Hollywood turning woman into nothing other than sex symbols, and the most “respectable” of institutions turning a blind eye to rape, child abuse, and just about every outrage imaginable.

Many a young actress or businesswoman has literally had to sleep her way up the ladders of fame, and the rich, powerful and famous have carried out the worst abuses with virtual impunity.

A pornography industry has flourished that treats people like absolute garbage, taking advantage of the desperation of so many young people to sell them as commodities to serve people’s over-indulged libidos.

It is now, in recent years, with the advent of the much to talk about “me too” movement, that Western society is starting to come to terms with at least some of its excesses, and realize something that the Torah has always taught: true liberty is not the ability to give in to whatever selfish urges come your way, but rather the ability to control those urges and use them in a way that doesn’t harm the weak and the vulnerable but rather brings good to the world.

Reading these two daf, it is absolutely impossible not to think of the horrific events of the past week here in our beloved Israel, where in a scene reminiscent of the biblical פלגש בגבעה (concubine of Giv’ah who was gang-raped and murdered) a gang of teenagers and young adults reportedly stood in line outside a hotel room in Eilat waiting their turn to rape a drunk 16 year old girl.

In contrast to the biblical story which ended in a tragic civil war between the tribe of Binyamin who refused to stand up to those responsible, and the other tribes who demanded justice, the condemnation across our society and demand for change has been unanimous- whether anything will actually be done in practise is something only time will tell.

Yet despite people’s shock, how many of us have internalized the fact that such occurrences are a likely direct result of decades of subtle and not so subtle sexualization of woman and children in the media and on the streets?

The fact that it took an event like this for the city of Tel Aviv to finally remove an outrageous mural painted on a beach change-room of some “macho guys” peaking into the girls change-room, speaks volumes of where society has been.

The bastion of so-called liberalism has been absolutely ok with such a disgraceful “piece of art” which is only one of many such pieces of junk being produced by our subculture.

On our daf, the view is expressed that the first man and woman were created as one entity, with a male face on one side, and a female face on the other.

The Gemara asks which side was on front, and answers that the male side was probably in front.

This is because we have learnt in a Beraisa that a man should never walk behind a woman, even his own wife, and if he meets a woman on a single-file bridge, he should ask her to move to the side so that he can pass her.

The same Beraisa concludes that anyone who follows a woman in a river has no share in the world to come.

The question one immediately needs to ask is what exactly is so terrible about walking behind a woman.

The modern person’s first reaction might be to get defensive and say that this is an example of old-fashioned chauvinism that has no place in modern society- after all, were we not always taught as kids that “ladies go first?”

Indeed, a first glimpse at Rashi on the first statement of the Beraisa, who says that it is גנאי לו, loosely translated as “degrading for him,” might strengthen this claim, if we take it to mean that it is beneath the honor of a man to be behind a woman

Another important think to note is the difference between the first parts and last parts of the Beraisa- the former instruction not to walk behind a woman applies even to one’s own wife, but does not get the forceful condemnation of the later.

The later statement discusses following a woman in a river, does not mention one’s own wife, but issues a far more severe condemnation.

A look at Rashi’s comments on this later statement shows that he understands this to be referring only to another man’s wife, a view that seems to be accepted by the consensus of the Rishonim. He explains that the concern here is that she removes her clothes while washing or bathing in the river.

However, even an adulterer has a share in the world to come, so why would someone who follows someone else’s naked wife into a river forfeit this share?

As one continues down the daf, one sees that the suggestion that our Gemara makes light of woman is completely incorrect.

The Gemara labels Manoach, father of Shimshon, as an עם הארץ ignorant person(, for following his wife, when he should have gone first, but then counters this claim by pointing out that the prophets Elkana (father of Shmuel) and Elisha also “went after their wives.”

The Gemara notably seems to take for granted that a prophet cannot possible be an עם הארץ (c.f. 12a B.B. וחכם עדיף מנביא ” אבל אכמ”ל”) and concludes that they did not literally walk behind their wives which would be wrong, but rather went after their wives’ words and advice.

Given that Chazal were at the least ok, and possibly full of praise, for one who follows the advice of his righteous wife, something we have already seen both in the Torah , where Hashem tells Avraham to do whatever his wife says )(Beraishis 21/14) , and in Midrash (think, for example און בן פלת who was saved by his wife’s advice not to follow Korach -Sanhedrin 109b,) it is impossible to make the superficial claim that they denigrated woman. (There are admittedly some other statements of Chazal that might seem at face-value to do so, but this is not one of them.)

It is far more likely that this has more to do with the well-known concept of כל כבודה דבת מלך פנימה – the honor of a princess is all inside )Tehillim 45/14.)

When it comes to giving advice, woman might be considered more intuitive than men, in many ways the “brains” behind everything.

One does not send one’s most precious resources at the front of the battle as a pawn, one looks after them carefully.

For a man to walk behind his wife, making her walk ahead into the unknown dangers ahead on the road, might be degrading, not because she should be treating him with more respect, but on the contrary, because he should treat her with more consideration, paving the way for her.

It is thus precise that when it comes to walking behind one’s wife, the Beraisa specifically mentions -“בדרך” “on the road.”

It is possible that such considerations would not apply to opening the car-door for one’s wife before entering oneself, where in general no such concern for her safety should apply.

When it comes to another woman, and even more so another man’s wife, the consideration is completely different.

Here the concern could be both that one might make her feel uncomfortable and arouse himself unnecessarily, and at worst, come to rape her, chas veshalom.

This form of premeditated stalking might be even worse than a consensual affair, and in the case of someone’s else’s wife, combined with the additional severe of adultery, results in one’s losing one’s portion in the world to come, assuming this statement is to be taken literally.

For decades, the price of feminism has been that women have to ignore their natural female sense of vulnerability and just accept the fact that the nature of men has not and will not change, and that the guy behind them might just be that stalker she has always had nightmares above.

Hopefully, the balance will be restored to the point where women are revered, cherished and respected , but allowed to feel safe, without men harassing them constantly, the way the Torah has taught us.


The Gemara brings the words of Rabbi Yirmiya ben Elazar who tells us that after the sin of אדם הראשון (the first man) , he was “excommunicated” by Hashem for 130 years, and during this time, he gave birth to “רוחין, שידין, וליליו ” , understood by Rashi as various types of מזיקין (harmful entities, whatever that means…)

The Gemara questions how this was possible, given that Rabbi Meir has already taught us that he was a חסיד גדול (a pious person) who when seeing that he had been sentenced to death, fasted and separated from his wife from 130 years.

If he had separated from his wife, how could he have given birth to these “harmful entities.”

It answers that the entities were created from the wasted semen that he spilled unintentionally during this time.

This seemingly bizarre statement raises many questions that I have no time to analyze today, but which we will hopefully address in future posts:

  1. What exactly were these מזיקין that he gave birth to?
  2. Was this a natural process of some kind or was it supernatural?

If it was natural, how can it be explained naturally? If it was supernatural, then why was the Gemara bothered by the fact that he had separated from his wife, given that the process was supernatural anyway?

  1. Is the assumption that given his pious nature, he could not have intentionally spilled seed during this time, so the only possible option is that the מזיקין came from unintentional spill (מקרה לילה)? If so, how do we understand that someone who was now even more flawed than before the sin was able to withstand this strong temptation in the absence of his wife for so long? Furthermore, assuming he had reached such a supreme level of control that he was able to avoid intentionally spilling his seed at all during this time, what more could be expected of him? Why should harmful entities be the result of what would have arguably been essentially the greatest long-lasting act of self- control in history?

It is known that Chazal (see Niddah 13b) had very strong things to say about “המוציא שפחת זרע לבטלה” – (spilling seed in vain ;obviously the definition of לבטלה needs careful study), comparing it (probably metaphorically) to idol-worship, murder, and adultery.

It does not say such things about unintentional spill, and though a man who experiences such an emission becomes impure ,and one is also not supposed to intentionally have impure thoughts that might cause this to happen, it seems obvious that something beyond someone’s control should not be condemned in any way.

It seems more likely that the “מזיקין” were not a punishment in any way for unintentional spillage, but rather a result of his original sin itself, and the unintentional spillage was merely the means that they came about through.

However harsh Chazal seem to be in their condemnation of intentional wasting of seed, the Shulchan Aruch (E.H. 23/1) claims that this is the most severe sin in the Torah

Though this claim is very difficult for multiple reasons, and many other authorities (see B.S and C.M there for example, quoting Sefer Chasidim) have either disputed this ruling or clarified that it is not to be understood literally, the Zohar (p arshasVayechi 219b) seems to have gone further and claim that this is the only sin for which one cannot repent and whose perpetrator cannot “see” the face of Hashem’s shechina( whatever that means.)

This shocking statement was used by non-other than one of the leading Torah scholars of his time, Rav Yaakov Emden (mitpachas Seforim 1/on Vayechi) as one of multiple “proofs” for his controversial claim that parts of the Zohar contradict the Talmud and cannot possibly be authored by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai!

His points out that Chazal taught us that nothing stands in the way of teshuva and always went out of their way to encourage teshuva. It is also not even listed in the more serious categories of sins which are subject to Kareit or death in court and require more than just repentance and Yom-Kippur to atone for.

Though I am certainly not qualified to get into this debate, which seems to hinge partly on how literally such statements in a very non-literal work are meant to be taken, and which is only the domain of experts in both the Talmud and the Zohar, there certainly seems to be one such proof from Daf 19 here in Eruvin that one can certainly do Teshuva for this sin.

The Gemara (I am admittedly merging a number of statements that the Gemara see as inter-dependant for the sake of brevity) relates how the sinners amongst the Jewish people all do Teshuva at some stage, and are “pulled out” of Gehinom by Avraham Avinu himself.

One exception given is a yisroel who has relations with an idol worshiper – Rashi’s clarifies that (probably to to impress her), he covers up his circumcision and Avraham can thus not recognize him.

Whatever the symbolism behind this exception is (which in no way means that a person cannot repent in his lifetime for such a deed,) it is clear that one who spills his seed is certainly not excluded even from this last-minute repentance and “rescue” operation, how much more so one who has made the effort to fully repent in his lifetime.

As mentioned above, only people well-versed in both the Talmud and Zohar might be qualified to comment on the claims of Rav Yaakov Emden, but assuming the Zohar was never intended to be taken literally in the first place, this would not an issue either way.

Shabbos 140 Domestic matters- from the dining-room to the bedroom


 
On this daf, we find some statements of Chazal which seem to throw a curveball at certain aspects of our modern frum society.
 
I wish to focus on two of these:
 
There is a tendency amongst young adults who become more “frum” (observant) than their parents or Rabbis to take on new stringencies at the expense of their relationships with their seniors.
 
For example, many yeshiva students or Kollel students return home and although their home has always been halachically kosher, refuse to eat their parents food seeing as it is not up to the “higher standards” of kashrut they have taken on.
 
Sometimes such students even refuse to eat at the homes of their community Rabbis or high-school mentors, or insist that they buy food with a specific hechsher (kosher certification) that they eat.
 
Some people even refuse to let their children visit their grandparents on their own or eat in their homes, even though they have always been strictly kosher and shabbos observant.
 
Whereas there is certainly space for taking on chumros (extra stringencies) under certain situations, so long as it does not make one appear arrogant, or undermine accepted authorities, it is clear from various statements of Chazal that this should never be at the expense of appearing to make light of one’s parents or Rabbis, and that it is better to compromise on these stringencies when necessary rather than offend them or imply that their standards are not high enough.
 
There is a dispute at the beginning of our daf regarding mixing mustard that has already been “kneaded” before shabbos with its own liquids.
 
There are 3 opinions:
1.      One may mix it further with water but only with one’s hands
2.      One may fix it further with water even with a kli (instrument)
3.      One may not mix it further at all
 
Although there might be no actual melacha of לש ( kneading,) seeing as it is already in kneaded form, it appears that there is a concern for עובדין דחול  , things that resemble weekday activities, a topic for another discussion.
 
The Gemara tells how Abaya’s mother made such a mixture for him on Shabbos and he refused to eat it.
 
It then tells how Zeira’s wife made such a mixture for his student, Rav Chiya bar Ashi, and he too refused to eat it.
 
Zeiri’s wife did not take this lying down, and reprimanded him strongly with the words: “I made it for your Rebbe (her husband) and he ate it, and you won’t eat it?”
 
We see a similar idea in a מרגלא בפומיה (favourite statement) of Rava (Brachos 17a):
 
מרגלא בפומיה דרבא: תכלית חכמה תשובה ומעשים טובים; שלא יהא אדם קורא ושונה ובועט באביו ובאמו וברבו ובמי שהוא גדול ממנו בחכמה ובמנין
 
“It was a pearl in the mouth of Rava: the goal of wisdom is repentance and good deeds- that a person should not learn verses and Mishna and kick aside his father, and his mother, and his teacher, and one who is greater than him in wisdom and numbers”
 
Rava makes it clear that the end result of growing in Torah learning needs to be practically recognized in one’s good deeds, not a new-found sense of arrogance where he views himself as superior to his parents, teachers, and superiors.
 
Such “frumer arrogance”  does no service to his learning, but makes Torah look like something elitist and offensive, and is to be rigorously avoided.
 
In another sugya (Yevamos 114a,) the Gemara discusses whether one is obligated to prevent a child from eating forbidden foods.
 
However one learns the conclusion, one case that is agreed upon is that if a חבר  (Torah scholar’s) son goes to visit his עם בארץ  (ignorant) grandparents, he need not be concerned about him being fed possibly  untithed produce by less observant grandparents.
 
The assumption was generally that most עמי הארץ  (ignorant people) separated their tithes, but a significant minority did not, and Chazal thus decreed that any produce brought from such people , known as דמאי  , needs to be tithed out of doubt before eating.
 
Yet in such a case of children visiting their grandparents, they were lenient and allowed them to eat in their homes without such a concern.
 
Although it seems from the context that we are dealing with minor children who are not yet obligated in mitzvos, the fact that even those who require one to stop children from transgressing waived the rabbinical concern of דמאי  while they visiting their less observant grand-parents is telling.
 
Let us recall that we are dealing here with grandparents who kept some level of kashrut, but were also suspected of using untithed produce!
 
If Chazal told Torah Scholars to allow their children to visit grandparents in the category of עמי הארץ  , despite real halachik, albeit rabbinical, concerns, how much more so should this apply to grandparents and teachers who are fully observant, but simply do not follow additional chumros that they have taken upon themselves!

2
 
Another phenomena we find in parts of the religious world, is a total avoidance of discussing anything sexual in nature, particular with children and teenagers.
 
There are some Torah schools that even forbid the study of biology, seeing as it includes sections about human anatomy and the reproductive system, and many frum parents and teachers refrain from giving their children a healthy, Torah- based  sex education, because of the false belief that such things are inappropriate for anyone, at least before marriage while sexual activity is forbidden.
 
Not only does such an attitude foster an unhealthy sense of self in teenagers and young adults, it is also totally contrary to the view we see both in Tanach and Chazal.
 
Although the Torah is very clear about what types of sexual behaviour are permitted and what is forbidden, and Chazal stress in many places the importance of modesty and avoiding temptation, there is an equally strong emphasis on educating  people about such things, from a relatively young age. Although they use euphemisms wherever possible, they do not do so at the expense of the clarity of the message being given over.
 
From the beginning, the young child is taught how, amongst other things,

  • the first man ‘knew’ his wife and had children
  • the generation of the flood behaved immorally
  • Noah’s son Ham “saw” his father’s nakedness, interpreted by one view in Chazal as sodomizing him
    -Sarah was abducted and taken to Pharaoh’s house
  • Reuven slept with his father’s concubine (or mixed up his beds at best)
  • Dina was raped by Shechem
    -Yehuda’s two sons, Er and Onan, died for spilling their seed on the ground rather than impregnating their wife
  • Yehuda went to someone he thought was a prostitute
  • Yoseif was seduced by Potiphar’s wife and according to a view in Chazal, almost gave in.
     
    The above is just in Sefer Beraishis, usually completed in the early years, if not first year, of primary school.
     
    A tour through the rest of Chumash, and of course the rest of Tanach, reveals an equally uncensored view of life, some striking examples being
     
    –          The section on forbidden relationships read on Yom Kippur afternoon
    –          The mass seduction of the people by the Mideanites and the case of Pinchas
    –          The gruesome story of פלגש בגבעה (concubine of Giv’ah)
    –          The rape of Tamar by David’s son Avner
    –          David’s seduction by Avigail, as interpreted by Chazal
    –          David’s sin with Batsheva
    –          Shlomo’s excesses with his many wives
    –          Many references to sexual excesses in the later Neviim.
    –          The parable of the prostitute in הושע
    –          The allegorical שיר השירים (songs of songs,) filled with sensual imagery.
    –          The highly sexualized narrative in מגילת אסתר (the book of Esther.)
     
    Ironically, the neglect of Tanach study in certain sections of the religious community has led to a high level of ignorance of many of these incidents, as has a sanitized form of studying them.
     
    The later is perhaps most symbolized by the Artscroll’s “non literal” translation of Shir haShirim with the excuse that it was never meant to be understood literally, is all parable, and “holy of holy”- forgetting the fact that there is a reason the book is written with such metaphors in the first place
     
    Yet while the Tanach has been neglected, often using the non-authoritative testament of Rabbi Eliezer (see Brachos 28b and Rashi there) as an excuse, while ignoring the clear halachik requirement to divide one’s Torah-learning hours  into 3, including a third for Tanach study (Kiddushin 30a), the same cannot be said for Talmud study, which occupies most of the time of the young Ben-Torah.
     
    It is impossible to learn even the first masechta in the Shas from cover to cover without encountering numerous explicit sexual discussions.
     
    One of the most graphic, is the description of Rav Kahana hiding under his teacher, Rav’s bed while he was engaged in enthusiastic sexual foreplay with his wife, justifying his action to the infuriated (and obviously mortified) Rav  by the need to learn Torah (how a Ben-Torah should act in the bedroom.  Brachos 62a)
     
    It is doubtful that anyone in the Torah world would, or should , even consider such a direct form of sex education today, but it just goes to show how far Chazal were prepared to go in order to educate themselves about such matters, at the correct time, so long as it was with holy intentions.
     
    In a similar vein, our daf has another mind-blowing graphic description of how Rav Chisda prepared his daughters for their married life (let us recall that one of his daughters married the leading Amora of the next generation, Rava!)
     
    It tells precisely how he told them to engage in arousing foreplay with their husbands, and although it is a clear Gemara, I will show enough respect to our more sensitive readers to refer them back to the Gemara itself for more details…
     
    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.
     
     

Conversion therapy ban

All we need now is another coalition crisis.
Can parties not just respect the understanding that divisive changes to the religious/secular status quo will be avoided during this national emergency?

I have heard mainly terrible things about conversion therapy, and would never recommend it, but I have heards lots of bad things about gender reassignment therapy too, particularly in minors, and THAT is physically irreversible, not to mention abortion on demand .

Either people need to be given the democratic choice to make educated decisions about controversial treatments or government has to protect people from them, but picking and choosing based on religious and ethical debates that divide a population almost in two, is not democracy, it is simply exploitation thereof.

And even if I am wrong, and some argue that it is an essential feature of democracy, now is just not the time.

We are at war, and in war, we are supposed to unite against those who threaten us till we have neutralized the threat.

Right now, Corona is neutralising us while we bicker amongst ourselves.

One doesnt need to be a prophet to make the connection between this and the time of year we are in.

https://www.jpost.com/israel-news/knesset-to-vote-on-conversion-therapy-ban-635916

Shabbos 135-136 The Androgonus and the Transgender

One of the biggest social changes that have taken place in recent years in the western world , together  with the greater acceptance  of homosexual lifestyles ( a topic for a different occasion but touched on briefly  in our earlier post on lesbianism,) is the acceptance of “non-binary genders” or transgender identity.

This gives greater recognition to a small but vocal minority of people who see themselves as neither male nor female in the classical sense of biological features , but as a combination of both, neither, or the opposite of their biological gender.

Although this might seem radical to most conservatives, it is an undisputed fact that 

The Torah has always recognized at least  4 different genders or gender permutations- male, female, Androgynous, and Tumtum.

The Androgynous is generally understood to refer to someone  who has both male and female sexual organs, whereas the Tumtum is one who has no visible external sexual organs, and whose actual biological gender is thus unknown. 

All 4 of these genders are based on biological features, as opposed to  the more common phenomena of people who are today known as “transgender” , who  generally have biological  features of one  specific gender and other characteristics of the opposite gender.

As such, finding precedent in the halachik treatment of the Androgynous and Tumtum for a halachik approach to  the transgender is far from simple.

Whereas it is certainly worth exploring whether transgender people might indeed fall into one of these two halachik categories despite  this fact, at a minimum we should be able to learn something  from them regarding the Torah’s approach to what is called in today’s language “gender diversity.”

The Mishna on daf 135 tells us that one may not perform a circumcision on an Androgynous on Shabbos, even on the eighth day, when a male infant may be circumcised despite the shabbos restrictions.

The Gemara learns this from the words את בשר ערלתו -his uncircumcised flesh- namely definitely uncircumcised flesh and not possibly uncircumcised flesh.

The understanding seems to be that seeing as it is not clear whether the Androgynous is considered to be a  male despite having the physical symptoms of one, his male organs are not considered halachically to be indisputably male.

As such, even though he needs to be circumcised out of doubt, the obligation is not certain enough to permit the circumcision to be performed on shabbos .

This is quite a jump, given that the Androgynous is generally understood as being someone with both types of genitals- as such, surely we should consider him as one who definitely has “uncircumcised flesh.” 

In fact, we could ask a stronger question here : if the Androgynous  is not definitely a male and thus not definitely subject to circumcision, then obviously he cannot be circumcised on shabbos- how could one push aside shabbos when the mitzva is subject to doubt?

If so, why is a specific word in the passuk needed to exclude him?

If on the other hand, he definitely has the status of both a male and a female, then his “flesh” certainly has the status of uncircumcised  male flesh and the מעוט ( exclusion) in the passuk should not affect him anyway.

Leaving these questions for another time (but refer to Tosfos who deals with them,) the starting point for any discussion about the status of an Androgynous is the fourth chapter of Bechoros, dedicated entirely to this subject.

In the first Mishna, we are told that an Androgynous is sometimes treated like a male, sometimes like a female, sometimes like both, and sometimes like neither.

Some examples given there are that 

1. regarding the impurity  of a zav or a niddah, he can become impure in either case, as a zav if he has the appropriate  type of unhealthy emission, and as a niddah when seeing menstrual blood ( a double whammy.)

2. Regarding the laws of Yichud (seclusion,) he is not permitted to be alone with a male or female, other than his permitted spouse. (Another double whammy)

3. He is permitted to marry a female but not a male.

4. He is permitted to wear male clothes but not female clothes.

5. He is liable to keep all commandments that a man is liable to keep

6. He is treated equally to everyone else regarding any damages or injuries done to him and in all matters of civil law.

7. He does not inherit together with his brothers as if he is a woman but does not get supported from the estate either like girls do (another double whammy). In the absence of other siblings, he inherits everything like any other child would.

8. He may not be sold either as a Jewish slave or maidservant (an advantage perhaps.)

It seems clear from  the pattern of these  rules that they  are based entirely on halachik reasoning, derived from verses or halachik logic, and not on any specific ethical, political,  or emotional agendas as to how Chazal felt they should be treated .

Although Chazal were fully aware of the existence of non-binary genders, emotional factors like concern for their plight, though  almost certainly  present, played minimal or zero role in the way they related to members of these genders- they treated it as a legal matter and acted according to the normal rules of ספק (doubt .)

This was despite the fact that some of these rules undoubtedly placed further limitations and inconveniences on their lives than those placed by the Torah on others.

On the other hand, as far as relating to them on a human level outside these halachik factors, it is clear that they were treated like  anyone else , all the laws against harming  or offending people applied equally towards them, and no stigma whatsoever was applied to them.

Whether today’s many categories of genders recognized in many circles can fit into the halachically recognized genders or not, it seems clear from the halachik treatment of these  already recognized minority  genders that even if they could, one can expect little wholesale halachik flexibility  for them- they would be treated as a normal part of society with the kindness that all in society deserve, but it would have little  bearing on their halachik status.

This would be assessed  purely on halachic grounds, albeit hopefully applying the golden rules of כח דהתירא עדיף (the power to permit is greater) and דרכיה דרכי נועם  (her ways are the way of pleasantness) to make life as bearable as possible for them.

It goes without saying however, that if there are issues of  either primary or secondary depression and other mental illnesses with the potential to be life threatening, which unfortunately  seem to be very common in the transsexual community (whether this is innate or a result of how they are treated is not relevant for this purpose) , all the rules of pikuach nefesh would be applied.

There is much more to discuss on this, and many more relevant sugyos to learn, but for an interesting suggestion regarding the connection between the androgynous and transgender, see Minchas Osher where Rav Weiss deals with the fascinating question of someone whose father “transitioned” to being a female, and  changed his name from “Ronny” to “Ronit”.

The question is how he should be called in his kesuba (marriage document)-” ben roni” or “ben ronit.”

It is complex, and I dont want to act as a spoiler, but will try paste a picture of the teshuva when I am home bli neder! 

Shabbos 121 מלאכה שאינה צריכה לגופא ,dangers to safety, and the foolish Chasid

One of the most far-reaching disputes amongst the Tannaim (sages of the Mishnaic period) regarding the laws of Shabbos is regarding מלאכה שאינה צריכה לגופא ,literally a melacha done for a purpose other than the improvement of the object of the melacha, but usually understood by extension to refer to melacha done for a purpose other than the purpose it was done for in the work of the mishkan.
Unlike דבר שאין מתכוין, where there is no intention to perform the forbidden act at all, here the action is performed completely intentionally, but for a different purpose.
A classic example is where someone takes a dead body out of one’s domain on shabbos (Shabbos 93a)
This constitutes the forbidden melacha of הוצאה (“carrying” or transferring an item from one domain to another.)
However, in this case, the corpse in not removed because one wants it to be somewhere else, it is removed because one does NOT want it to be where it currently is.
In such a case, Rabbi Yehuda holds that he is biblically liable still, but Rabbi Shimon holds that one is exempt on a biblical level and has only transgressed a rabbinical prohibition.
Another classic example is someone who digs a hole in the ground (Shabbos 73b). This constitutes the melacha of חופר (ploughing), which is usually defined as making the ground more suitable for planting.
What happens, however, if a person digs a hole, not because he wants the resulting hole, but because he wants to make use of the dust or sand which he digs up?
According to Rabbi Yehuda, the purpose of the melacha makes no difference, so long as it is constructive, whereas according to Rabbi Shimon, although such an action is rabbinically forbidden, there is no biblical prohibition and one is thus exempt from the harsh biblical punishment associated with it. (note that when the hold is made inside one’s home, the Gemara opines that even Rabbi Yehuda exempts the person seeing as it is מקלקל. This seems to imply that if an action itself is destructive, even if it has a constructive purpose, one is still biblically exempt, which is rather problematic in light of the fact that some מלאכות such as making a wound, knocking down a building, or tearing are by definition destructive, but still biblically forbidden seeing as there main purpose is constructive. But this is for a different discussion (see Shabbos 31b regarding סותר על מנת לבנות במקום אחר for a possible approach)
It is generally understood (see Chagiga 10b where this is explicit) that this is another example of the exemption of מלאכת מחשבת, significant and calculated work – in this case the different purpose of the action reduces the significance or importance of the action , seeing as had it been done in the mishkan for such a purpose, it would not have been a significant part of the work performed there.

Another classic example of מלאכה שאינה צריכה לגופא is most cases of extinguishing a flame or a fire.
We should all be familiar with the famous Mishna said every shabbos evening )Shabbos 29b,) which records the view of Rabbi Yossi that one is only liable for extinguishing a flame if he does it for the wick itself, in order to make it easier to burn .
In contrast, extinguishing a fire simply because one wants it to be dark, or because one does not want to waste the oil or blacken the lamp, is only a rabbinical prohibition.
It is important to note that the תנא קמא (first opinion) in the same Mishna holds that one is biblically liable for such an action and is only exempt if it was done to prevent actual danger.
This aligns the view of the Tana Kama with that of Rabbi Yehuda, and Rabbi Yossi with Rabbi Shimon.
As it is a well known rule of psak, stated by the authoritative Amora Rabbi Yochanan, that the Halacha usually follows a סתם משנה (anonymous Mishna where no dissenting opinion is recorded,) finding such a Mishna which takes a stand on this subject could be a major factor in how we rule.
On this daf, we have at least 3 different examples of what appears to be מלאכה שאינה צריכה לגופא.
In the first Mishna on the daf, which is indeed a סתם משנה , we are told that it is forbidden to actively ask a non-Jew to extinguish a fire, but one does not have to stop him from doing so.
As the reason for the extinguishing the fire is clearly to save one’s property, and not for the wick, this seems to be a clear case of מלאכה שאינה צריכא לגופא.
If the author of our Mishna held that מלאכה שאינה צריכה לגופא is only a rabbinical prohibition, it seems rather harsh that he would forbidden asking a non- Jew to do this, giving the principle of שבות דשבות that we have discussed many times, which allows one to ask a non-Jew to perform a rabbinically forbidden melacha for the sake of a mitzva, great need, or distress.
There are very few greater needs than preventing one’s house from burning down chalila, and it would certainly be a severe form of distress if it did so.
One is forced to conclude that either the author of this Mishna holds that מלאכה שאינה צריכא לגופא is a biblical prohibition, or that he rejects the entire principle of שבות דשבות as stated.
Indeed, the Rambam, (Shabbos 1/7) rules like Rabbi Yehuda that מלאכה שאינה צריכה לגופא is a biblical transgression, and this Mishna might be one of his main sources for this.
In contrast, Rabbeinu Chananel, Raavad, Tosfos and many other authorities hold that מלאכה שאינה צריכה לגופא is only a rabbinical prohibition.
Accordingly, Tosfos on our daf states clearly that there is indeed no blanket permission for a שבות דשבות even for the sake of a mitzva or great need,(presumably he holds that the example we learn this leniency from in the gemara, namely bris milah, is an exception due to the fundamental uniqueness of this mitzva.)
Yet it is the view of many other authorities, as well as that of the Shulchan Aruch and Rema, that מלאכה שאינה צריכה לגופא is indeed only rabbinical, and that the leniency of שבות דשבות applies across the board, at least when the rabbinical action is performed by a non-Jew.
As such, in order to explain this Mishna, we would need to either

  1. find another equally authoritative Mishna that holds that מלאכה שאינה צריכה לגופא is only rabbinical
  2. Conclude that even according to Rabbi Shimon who holds that מלאכה שאינה צריכה לגופא is only rabbinical, it is more severe than most rabbinical prohibitions and the leniency of שבות דשבות does not apply to it.
  3. Conclude that the author of our Mishna does not consider extinguishing a fire to save property to be מלאכה שאינה צריכא לגופא, in contrast to the explicit view of Rabbi Yossi who does.
  4. Explain why Chazal where particularly strict in the case of our Mishna

In the next Mishna on the daf, we are told among other things that it is permitted to trap a scorpion on shabbos to prevent it from biting by covering it with a vessel.
However, the Mishna then states that such a case was brought in front of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai and he expressed his concern that shabbos might have been desecrated unknowingly.
As it is obvious that if this was a poisonous scorpion that was likely to bite him, no one would argue that covering it was forbidden, it seems clear that we are talking about a non-toxic scorpion, and the basis of the Tana Kama’s leniency is that one does not want the scorpion, but merely to prevent it from damaging.
This makes it מלאכה שאינה צריכה לגופא, and given that it is only rabbinically prohibited in the first place, the Tana Kama permits it in order to prevent the pain inflict by a bite.
If this analysis is correct, we could be faced with another two Tannaim debating the status of מלאכה שאינה צריכא לגופא.

On the second side of the daf, the Amora (sage of the Talmudic period,) Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi rules that any creature that causes damage may be killed on shabbos. Rav Yosef quotes a Beraisa that mentions 5 specifically dangerous creatures (one of them being the snake of Eretz Yisroel- probably the venomous Palestinian viper that is ironically a protected species despite the danger it poises to residents.)
He derives from this that other creatures that cause damage but are not life-threatening may not be killed on shabbos, which serves to disprove the lenient ruling of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi.
Rav Yosef reconciles these two statements by saying that everyone agrees that if a life-threatening creature is running towards him, poising an immediate danger, one may kill it.
In such a case, even Rabbi Yehuda agrees that it is permitted to kill them due to concerns for pikuach nefesh.
When it comes to other non-life-threatening creatures that nevertheless cause damage (such as biting,) Rabbi Yehuda would forbid it but Rabbi Shimon would permit it, seeing as it is מלאכה שאינה צריכה לגופא , which according to him is only rabbinically forbidden, and thus permitted to prevent damage. (see Rashi and Tosfos though for 2 different ways of understanding the Gemara’s answer.)
We have shown how 3 different cases on our daf form essential primary material in the analysis of the law regarding מלאכה שאינה צריכא לגופא, and its scope- the actual halacha is beyond the scope of this post, but familiar to any serious student of hilchos Shabbos.
In addition to its ramifications for this principle, this sugya seems to imply that although the golden rule with matters of pikuach nefesh is that ספק נפשות להקיל, in case of doubt, one always errs on the side of caution, this rule does have certain limits and the perceived danger to life does have to be more than just the realm of the paranoid.
This is further illustrated in the continuation of the sugya.
The Gemara tells how a Tana(in this context, reader of Beraitot, not someone from the tannaic period) taught a Beraita in front of Rabbah bar Rav Huna:
“One who kills snakes and scorpions on shabbos, the spirit of the Chasidim (pious ones) is not at peace with (does not approve.)”
Rabbah bar Rav Huna retorted that if this is the case, the spirit of the sages is not at peace with those Chasidim! (seeing as they were being stringent in the laws of shabbos at the expense of concern for safety!)
This reminds of the case of the חסיד שוטה, the foolish pious person, who sees a woman drowning and refuses to save her because it is not modest to look at her (Sotah 21b.)
Yet, for an entirely different reason, Rav Huna disagrees in this case.
The Gemara accounts how he once saw someone killing a wasp on shabbos, presumably for the above reason, and rebuked him, saying “Have you finished killing them all?”
Rav Huna seems to be of the view that given that there is no end to how many insects one can spend one’s shabbos killing, and the efficacy of each act in itself is doubtful, this is outside the normal concern of pikuach nefesh and in the realm of paranoia.
Once again, it is not our mandate here to come to halachik conclusions, but the basic messages of this incident need to be internalized – On the one hand, being concerned about other prohibitions at the expense of danger to life is considered “foolish piety” and not to be tolerated. On the other hand, we need to be able to distinguish between real, albeit small, concerns for life and actions with a reasonable chance of mitigating that risk, and obsessive paranoia with little efficacy.

Shabbos 108-109 Matters of hygiene, wasting semen, and cutting off hands

At the end of our daf, a Beraisa is brought quoting Rabbi Muna in the name of Rabbi Yehuda.
Amongst other things, Rabbi Yehuda is quoted as saying someone who touches his eye, nostrils, ears, mouth, sexual organ, an open vein (from bloodletting) or anal opening should have his hand chopped off.
The first question to ask is why Rabbi Yehuda takes this so seriously??!
It is immediately apparent that these are all examples of places where infection can easily enter the body, and it seems logical that this has something to do with the seriousness with which Chazal took hygiene.
Whereas Rashi explains that this is because the רוח רעה (the evil spirit) that is on the hands before washing in the morning , whatever that means, could damage these places, there is no need, at least in the context of this sugya, to assume that this is something supernatural- it could simply be invisible physical micro-organisms (a broader treatment of the usage of this term and that of מזיקין ושדים [harmful forces and demons] might reveals issues with such an interpretation, but that’s for another discussion.)
What is clear from Rashi is that this harsh statement is limited to before one has washed one’s hands.
It is not clear whether this ruling is meant to be taken literally- usually such statements are not, the rule of עין תחת עין (an eye for an eye) being the אב לכולם ( father of all such non literal punishments), and the frequency of such actions would also make it somewhat impractical, but we HAVE seen cases of such penalties literally being carried out!
The Gemara (Sanhedrin 58b) discusses a person who likes to hit people habitually.
Various opinions are given as to how to handle such a person, and Rav Huna opines that his hand should be chopped off, basing himself on the passuk (verse) וזרוע רימה תשבר (and a violent hand will be broken- Iyov 38/15.)
The Gemara proceeds to tell us that Rav Huna carried this out in practice with someone, and most of the Rishonim (early commentators) understand that he did this literally (note the Meiri who suggests that it might have been a monetary payment equivalent to the value of his hand!)
There is a debate between Rashi and Tosfos in that sugya as to what halachik basis Rav Huna had for such an action.
Rashi explains that this was an application of the courts right to impose a meta halachik punishment not actually mandated by the Torah, in order to stop a current danger to society (Sanhedrin 46a)- the passuk brought would thus be only an אסמכתא (in short, a relatively weak basis in the pesukim for what remains a non-biblical law- though this definition is subject to a discussion in its own right.)
This fits in with the rule we have discussed before (Bava Kama 2b) that we do not derive Torah laws from the rest of the Tanach.
Tosfos and Tosfos haRosh both suggest, based on another sugya (Niddah 13b) that Rav Huna held that this was actually the Torah law.
Although they admit that this is problematic in view of the principle cited above, an examination of at least part of the cited sugya in Niddah is now in place.
The Mishna (Niddah 13a) makes the cryptic statement that the more a woman checks herself with her hand to see that she is not a Niddah(menstruant), the more praiseworthy she is. In contrast, a man who does this to see that he is not impure, should have his hand cut off.
The Gemara asks why this is so serious, and answers that it is because it could cause someone to spill his seed in vain, which Chazal viewed as a serious prohibition.
The Gemara (Niddah 13b) asks whether this statement is meant to convey an actual law (דינא תנן) or a curse (לטותא תנן)
The Gemara then brings Rav Huna’s ruling regarding our bully as an example where such language is actually a law, not just a curse.
Although they admit the difficulty poised by the rule of דברי תורה מדברי קבלה לא ילפינן, Tosfos and Tosfos haRosh both argue that this wording implies that according to Rav Huna, this is an actual law, at least in the case of the bully, not an example of an extra judicial punishment by the court.
Now that we have mentioned this sugya, we can return to our sugya and ask why the prohibition of touching one’s sexual organ is grouped together with all the other body parts which should not be touched for health reasons- surely the reason mentioned in Niddah puts it in its own category?
One could argue that health is treated more stringently than prohibition (חמירא סכנתא מאיסורא ) , and that in our sugya which is dealing with touching body cavities WITHOUT washing hands first, this reason was given priority.
However, it needs to be noted that some rather extreme measures were suggested by various Tannaim to avoid the prohibition of wasting seed .
These include seemingly crazy suggestions such as leaving a thorn in one’s flesh, or urinating without holding one’s sexual ,(please discuss this with a serious and down to earth Talmid Chacham before putting into practice- they are usually not be taken at face value) it is hard to say that simple hygiene which so many people are lax about would be more important to Rabbi Yehuda than this consideration.
Perhaps this concern is what pushes Rashi to say that in his opinion, the prohibition of touching one’s sexual organ on our daf is not because of רוח רעה, but because of the concern for spilling semen in vain.
Other Rishonim who hold like Rashi’s initial suggestion might not rule like these extreme opinions- there is indeed some debate amongst Chazal around them, but that requires further analysis.
There is much to discuss on all these topics, and we shall have further opportunity to do this, Hashem willing, but I believe that in the context of the above discussion, a number of things can be argued:

  1. Whether the concern of Rabbi Yehuda was because of some sort of supernatural dangerous force or simple hygiene, it is clear that washing one’s hands before touching parts of the body that are conduits for infection is to be taken extremely seriously.
  2. Although extremely harsh and barbaric punishments such as cutting off people’s hands are certainly not meant to be the norm, Chazal were certainly open to any methods necessary to save society from chaos and anarchy.
  3. There is much to discuss regarding the nature, scope, and reasons for the prohibition of intentionally spilling seed in vain.
    For example, is the desire on the part of a married couple for non vaginal sex, a single male’s overpowering desire to masturbate occasionally for sexual release, fertility testing and treatment, or sex with a condom when needed , really considered spilling seed “in vain?”

Some Rishonim |(See Tosfos, Yevamos 34b and Rambam, introduction to 7’th chapter of Mishnayos Sanhedrin for example) certainly appear to limit the scope of the severe prohibition somewhat (for a future analysis, Hashem willing.)

However, it seems clear from this sugya (at least according to Rashi) and the sugya in Niddah, as well as other sources which we should get to discuss soon, Hashem willing, that even basic needs such as urinating , thorn removal, and checking oneself might be affected by concern for this prohibition ( at least according to certain Tannaim), a point raised by Rav Moshe Feinstein zt’l in a Teshuva )Even haEzer 1/63.)

This does seem to prove that the definition of “in vain” and its severity is somewhat broader than what some interpret the above Rishonim to mean.

One could attempt to counter Rav Moshe’s proof, and I have a possible idea of how to do so, but who wants to take on Rav Moshe….

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.