Talmud Tips

For the week ending 2 April 2022 / 1 Nissan 5782

Yevamot 9 - 15

by Rabbi Moshe Newman
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Separate But Equally True

“Do not make yourselves into separate groups”

The Torah states, “You are children of Hashem, your G-d. You may not cut yourselves (lo titgodedu)… for the dead.” (Devarim 14:1) Rashi, in his commentary on Chumash, explains the straightforward contextual meaning of the words “lo titgodedu” as a prohibition against a mourner cutting his own flesh due to his grief. He explains that the reason for this prohibition is so that people will not follow in the ways of the pagan nations who practiced this mourning ritual. Rashi also explains that since we are “the children of the Hashem,” it is appropriate to be handsome and not cut ourselves when mourning, despite the fact that it is a mitzvah to mourn those who pass from this world. Commentaries elaborate on this ban against excessive mourning to be rooted in our belief of that a person’s eternal soul lives on, and that Hashem will resurrect the dead at the proper time. Therefore, mourning should be tempered with the knowledge that the degree of the enormity of the loss is only as we are able to perceive it with our physical senses, and is also only temporary.

In the course of our sugya, this verse is cited as the source for an additional prohibition that is derived from the exact wording of the text, as Chazal explain: “Do not make yourselves into separate groups.” The word titgodedu in the verse has the same root as the word for “group” — agudah.

In practical terms, what does this prohibition mean and what purpose does it serve?

First, it should be emphasized what this does not mean. It does not mean that there can be only one way to view and interpret various aspects of the Torah. When engaged in Torah study, it is not only permitted, but it is an admirable quality to ask, argue and “debate” with others in striving to understand the Torah in the truest possible way. Anyone who has ever even visited a yeshiva has likely been amazed by the sight and sounds of passionate Torah study between study partners and between students and their Torah teacher.

Rather, in practical terms, this prohibition bans people from dividing into separate groups which live according to separate codes of Jewish law. Of course, the details and parameters of this prohibition require careful definition, which are the subject of much discussion among our Sages in the gemara and through the ages. As we know, there certainly exist a variety of acceptable halachic practices, such as for Sefardic and Ashkenazic communities, and for those who dwell in Israel and those who live in the Diaspora.

What is the reason for the general prohibition against living as different groups and following more than one accepted halachic practice? Rashi’s commentary on our daf gives the reason as being so it should not seem like there is more than one Torah. If people follow more than one halachic ruling, a person might mistakenly think there is more than one Torah, G-d forbid. Just as the Giver of the Torah is One, so too is His Torah. Rashi’s explanation is consistent with the context and location of this verse, which is situated in a section of the Torah that addresses the tragic fate of idol worship and heresy.

However, a different reason for this prohibition is offered by the Rambam in his Mishneh Torah. He writes that this prohibition is meant to stem unseemly dispute and social unrest. Diverse halachic practices would likely lead to destructive disunity and confrontation. He writes: “There is a prohibition against there being two courts that follow different customs in a single city, since this can cause great strife.” (Hilchot Avodat Kochavim 12:14)

It appears that this derived prohibition is not a ban to forbid a practice that is inherently immoral, such as the transgressions to not murder or steal. Rather, according to both Rashi and the Rambam, the problem with dividing into various groups that follow differing halachic practices is to act as a preventative measure — preventing a descent into pagan ways and preventing strife within the Jewish People.

  • Yevamot 13b

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