The Nature of Sin in Philosophy and Law: Doctors/Soldiers Switching Shabbos Shifts and Yichud

I was always intrigued by the quasi-legal discussions in the Gemara that reflect highly sophisticated philosophical issues.  Even more fascinating is when those same discussions are translated into law.  Perhaps the most striking example emerges from a passage about the nature of sin that appears in several places in Shas (Kiddushin  81b and Nazir 23a).  By coincidence, I was reminded of R. Shlomo Zalman Aurbach’s approach to this Gemara from a legal perspective when giving a shiur on soldiers/doctors switching shifts on Shabbos (here) and another shiur on Yichud (here).  The full sources can be found there.

In a particularly sharp read of a possuk in the parsha of nedarim, the following discussion ensues.

א.       ת”ר: +במדבר ל+ אישה הפרם וה’ יסלח לה – באשה שהפר לה בעלה והיא לא ידעה הכתוב מדבר, שהיא צריכה כפרה וסליחה.

ב.       וכשהיה מגיע ר”ע אצל פסוק זה היה בוכה, ומה מי שנתכוון לעלות בידו בשר חזיר ועלה בידו בשר טלה – טעון כפרה וסליחה, המתכוון לעלות בידו בשר חזיר ועלה בידו בשר חזיר – על אחת כמה וכמה!

ג.        כיוצא בדבר אתה אומר: +ויקרא ה+ ולא ידע ואשם ונשא עונו – ומה מי שנתכוון לעלות בידו בשר טלה ועלה בידו בשר חזיר, כגון חתיכה ספק של שומן ספק של חלב, אמר קרא ונשא עונו, מי שנתכוון לעלות בידו בשר חזיר ועלה בידו בשר חזיר – עאכ”ו!

ד.        איסי בן יהודה אומר: ולא ידע ואשם ונשא עונו – ומה מי שנתכוון לעלות בידו בשר טלה ועלה בידו בשר חזיר, כגון שתי חתיכות אחת של חלב ואחת של שומן – ונשא עונו, המתכוון לעלות בידו בשר חזיר ועלה בידו בשר חזיר – על אחת כמה וכמה! על דבר זה ידוו הדווים.

ה.       וכל הני למה לי? צריכין, דאי תנא גבי אשה, התם הוא דבעיא כפרה וסליחה, משום דמעיקרא לאיסורא איכוון, אבל חתיכה ספק של חלב ספק של שומן, דלהיתרא איכוין – לא בעי כפרה וסליחה;

ו.        ואי איתמר הדא, דאיכא איסורא, אבל אשה דהפר לה בעלה, דהתירא – לא תיבעי כפרה וסליחה;

ז.        ואי איתמר הני תרתי, הוה אמינא הני תרתי הוא דסגי להון בכפרה וסליחה, דלא איקבע איסורא, אבל שתי חתיכות אחת של חלב ואחת של שומן, דאיקבע איסורא – לא סגי ליה בכפרה וסליחה, קמ”ל דלא שנא.


The possuk speaks about a case where a husband nullifies his wife’s vow retroactively, thus making any “violation” of the vow legally permitted.  Yet, the possuk says that if she does violate not knowing that her husband did/will nullify it, God will forgive her.  As the Gemara notes, this implies that she needs forgiveness.  In other words, the intention to sin (perhaps because of rebellion?) is itself sinful.  From here the Gemara derives that in other cases where one intends to sin, ex. eat pig, but in fact does not, he needs atonement.  The Gemara then notes the opposite is also true – when one accidentally sins (without getting into all the parameters) one is obligated to bring a korban.  This indicates that the action without the intent also is sinful.  This may be because it shows flippancy about Halacha (Rambam Shegagot 5:6).  Others, however, understand it as reflecting that sin is fundamentally problematic, even without negative intent (Ramban Vayikra 1:4, Torat HaGemul, Derashot HaRan 11).  Thus, there are two aspects to sin, and each is sinful.

This discussion becomes more fascinating as one moves through the parallel Midrashim, but that for another time.  I would just note that in the Sifrei this discussion may be about the nature of violating nedarim specifically, and in the Yalkut it expands the discussion to mitzvoth.

What interests me here is R. Shlomo Zalman’s application.  Based on this, he argues that causing someone to do something which he thinks is a sin is a violating of lifnei iver.  Thus, he claims that if a woman thinks her husband is not in the city, even if he is (and therefore yichud would not apply), she would at some level violate Yichud.  Thus, a man who will be alone with her, knowing both that her husband is in the city and that she does not know, must tell her.  One could have made the local argument about yichud that her husband being there only helps if she is scared, but he makes the global one.

More amazingly, he argues that if given the opportunity, a religious doctor (or as is mentioned in other literature, soldier) should NOT switch with a secular one.  This is because the religious doctor will know that he is violating Shabbos biheter (for pikuach nefesh), but the secular doctor will not.  Thus, for the secular doctor it is a sin and for the religious one it is not!

This argument has been rejected by many poskim for many reasons.  For example, R. Moshe focuses on the action not the intent, and notes that the religious doctor, if not in the hospital, will keep Shabbos.  The secular doctor will not.  Thus, allowing him to de facto keep Shabbos by only violating for pikuach nefesh is better.   As R. Zalman Nechemia Goldberg notes, the emphasis on action rather than intent in this circumstance seems to be correct based on a Gemara in Menachot that discusses whether in cases of pikuach nefesh it is the intention or action that determines the permissibility of the act (64a).  This point alone highlights the importance of the philosophical aspect of the discussion, namely the nature of sin, for the legal part.

[The Beit Yitzchak suggests that mitzvoth and aveirot are different in this regard, so the existence of a mitzvah changes the equation.]

Other issues that have been raised are whether it is legitimate to define two classes of Jews, secular and religious for legal purposes (R. Herzog, R. Yisraeli, R. Shlomo Min HaHar).  Additionally, is it true that non-religious Jews do not save people for the sake of a mitzvah?  Do you need formal intent?  R. Shlomo Zalman, in a position that emerges in scattered places in poskim (R. Shlomo Kluger, R. Chaim Berlin in a drasha) also claims that when doing a mitzvah that is doche a lav, you need specific intention for the mitzvah.  This is not an obvious claim.

There are many discussion that can be had concerning these issues, but I just wanted to focus on how this philosophical issue has legal implications.


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