Talmud Tips

For the week ending 14 March 2020 / 18 Adar 5780

Shabbat 2-8

by Rabbi Moshe Newman
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Rav Sheshet raised an objection: “Do we say that a person may do a transgression in order to benefit someone else?!”

This rhetorical statement on our daf is taught as a question on a suggestion in the gemara. At first, Rav Bibi bar Abayei posed a halachic question: If a person attaches dough to the wall of an oven on Shabbat, is it permitted to be removed from there on Shabbat (an act normally forbidden by Rabbinical decree) before the bread bakes and the person will be obligated to bring a sin-offering? The gemara rejects the possibility that this question is about a scenario in which the same person who put the dough there is the one who is removing it, since he would not be considered to be shogeg — forgetful of its being Shabbat or forgetful that baking on Shabbat is forbidden — from beginning to end. He would therefore not be obligated to bring a sin-offering even if he would leave the dough there to bake.

Therefore, Rav Shila avers that the case in question is one where a person other than the one who put the dough there realizes the impending prohibition and penalty that the first person would incur if the dough bakes, and wants to remove it before it bakes in order to save the first person. Rav Shila says that is the question first posed by Rav Bibi bar Abayei: Did the Rabbis permit him to remove it or not?

At this point Rav Sheshet raises his objection to Rav Shila’s depiction of the scenario in question:“Do we say that a person may do a transgression in order to benefit someone else?!” Rashi explains this to mean: Do we say to a person to go out and transgress a “light” prohibition in order that your fellow person should not be obligated a serious punishment? Since this is obviously not permitted, it follows that Rav Bibi bar Abayei’s question must involve a different scenario, one which the gemara describes as it continues.

However, Tosefot and other Rishonim raise a number of questions from cases that appear to be contrary to this principle that one person may not transgress to benefit another person. Elsewhere there is indication that one may indeed transgress in order to benefit another. For example, we are taught in a mishna (Gittin 41a) that in the case of someone who is half-slave and half-free, his owner must free him completely. This is permitted despite the prohibition against freeing a Canaanite slave: Rav Yehuda said, “Whoever frees his slave transgresses a positive mitzvah, as it states, Forever they will serve you.” (Gittin 48b) The gemara explains the rationale for permitting this act of freeing him: “Being fruitful and multiplying is different, since it is a great mitzvah.”

Another example noted by Tosefot is that when Rabbi Eliezer entered the Yeshiva and didn’t find a minyan for prayer, he freed his slave to complete the minyan — despite the known prohibition against freeing one’s Canaanite slave. In this case, the gemara states that “a mitzvah for the public is different” — and is sufficient reason to permit what would otherwise be considered as violating a positive commandment under ordinary circumstances. (The two reasons which justify permitting one person to transgress in order to benefit another are both found in Tosefot on our daf, in addition to our Tosefot teaching two other possible conditions that could serve as reason to be lenient. A fifth reason is taught in Tosefot in Masechet Gittin 41a and in the Chidushei HaRashba to Shabbat 4a. And a sixth reason is offered by Chidushei Anshei Shem, Shabbat 14:1. A complete and detailed treatment of this topic can be found in Avosos AhavaKiruv Rechokim B’Halacha, chelek dalet, perek aleph.)

This concept of not permitting one person to transgress in order to save another person from transgression is an important principle in halacha, one with potentially wide-ranging ramifications. For example, just as a person may transgress Shabbat in order to save another person’s physical life, may he transgress Shabbat in order to save another person’s spiritual life? One might argue that it is permitted based on the reasoning of kal v’chomer: One who causes another to transgress is worse than one who kills him (Sifri Devarim 23:8), and from here it may be learned that one who saves another from transgression is “greater” than one who saves him from death.

Consideration of these issues might lead to important practical applications in the event of trying to prevent a person from joining a cult or missionaries: What, if any, steps that are normally prohibited by halacha may be taken in order to intervene? This question, and other similar questions, are obviously extremely delicate and complex, and must always be carefully presented, with all details, to a Posek.

  • Shabbat 4a

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