Boldly Going Where No Man Has Gone Before

My weekly halachah column for parashas Hukas:

“And Hashem said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.” (Parashas Chukas, 21:8-9) Centuries later, the serpent was destroyed by King Chizkiyah: “And he did that which was right in the sight of Hashem … and brake in pieces the brasen serpent that Moses had made: for unto those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it: and he called it Nechushtan.” (Melachim 2 18:3-4)

The Talmud wonders how King Chizkiyah’s righteous predecessors Asa and Yehoshafat, who had destroyed “all idolatry in the world”, could have failed to destroy the serpent? It answers that “they had left place for him to be great”, and it derives from this a fundamental principle of the legitimacy of religious innovation: the fact that a novel idea was not advanced by the sages of earlier generations, who were admittedly greater scholars than contemporary ones, does not automatically render it unacceptable (Chullin 6b-7a, as explained by Toras Chaim there).

Various commentators explain that Asa and Yehoshafat had had concrete reasons for not destroying the serpent: they may have believed it prohibited to destroy an artifact commissioned by Hashem Himself (Tosafos), or they may have considered such destruction a flouting of Hashem’s will, since He had given the serpent to the people to heal them, and it had retained this power throughout the generations (Chidushei Agados of Maharal). Alternatively, they may have believed that the idolaters had no power to cause it to require destruction, due to the principle that “a man cannot prohibit something that is not his” (Maharal). Nevertheless, King Chizkiyah realized that its destruction was necessary and appropriate, and he did not shy away from his conviction of his duty, despite its novelty.

My weekly lecture for parashas Hukas, on the same topic (along with accompanying handout), is available at the Internet Archive (as is last year’s version of this lecture, previously posted here).

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Qui facit Per Alium Facit Per Se

My weekly halachah column for parashas Korah:

In parashas Korach, we are commanded to support the Cohanim (priests) and Leviim (Levites) by the donations of terumah and ma’aser respectively, and the Leviim in turn are commanded to give a tithe of their ma’aser to the Cohanim. This latter injunction is expressed by the words (Bemidbar 18:28): “So shall you, too, raise up the gift of Hashem from all your tithes that you accept from the children of Israel”. While the simple sense of the phrase “you, too” apparently refers to the parallelism between the initial ma’aser (tithe) of the Israelites and the “tithe from the tithe” of the Leviim, the Talmud (Kidushin 41b) understands it hermeneutically as an allusion to the possibility of agency: a Levi may either separate his “tithe from the tithe” himself, or he may appoint an agent to do so on his behalf. This is one of several sources for the halachic doctrine of agency.

One exception to this doctrine is where the task being delegated to the agent is sinful. A principal is not liable for the criminal consequences of his agent’s action: “There is no agent for a sinful matter”, since “the words of the master [i.e., Hashem] and the words of the disciple [i.e., the human principal], to whose words does one listen?” This seems to imply that halachah has no notion of criminal conspiracy, and indeed, the Rema (Shulchan Aruch CM 348:8 and 388:15) rules that one who merely commissions a theft or other tort but does not participate in its actual perpetration has no liability. He does, however, allow for certain exceptions, such as where the agent has an established history of engaging in the sort of tortious conduct in question, since in this case “it is widely known that he does not listen to the words of the master”. The Shach (CM siman 182 s.k. 1, siman 348 s.k. 6, siman 388 s.k. 67), however, disagrees, repeatedly insisting that as a matter of normative halachah, the inapplicability of agency to sinful conduct is absolute and without exception.

My weekly parashah lectures (with accompanying handouts), on the general topic of agency in halachah, are available at the Internet Archive.

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The Law of War

My weekly lectures for parashas Shelah (including handouts), on the topic of halachic perspectives on the law of war, are available at the Internet Archive.

I subsequently recorded a lecture on the halachic justifiability of Shimon and Levi’s massacre of Shechem – a (temporally) shorter, and perhaps tighter and more rigorous, treatment of some of the same territory. It, too (along with accompanying notes), is available at the Internet Archive.

In the course of preparing for the latter lecture, I encountered a curious error in an otherwise impressively erudite and comprehensive article by Yechiel Goldhaber. The context is Rambam’s justification for the massacre of Shechem:

וכיצד מצווין הן על הדינין. חייבין להושיב דיינין ושופטים בכל פלך ופלך לדון בשש מצות אלו. ולהזהיר את העם. ובן נח שעבר על אחת משבע מצות אלו יהרג בסייף. [כיצד? אחד העובד עבודה זרה או שברך את השם, או ששפך דם, או שבעל אחת משש עריות שלהם, או שגזל אפילו פחות משווה פרוטה, או שאכל כל שהוא מאבר מן החי או בשר מן החי, או שראה אחד שעבר על אחת מאלו ולא דנו והרגו – הרי זה יהרג בסייף]. ומפני זה נתחייבו כל בעלי שכם הריגה. שהרי שכם גזל והם ראו וידעו ולא דנוהו. ובן נח נהרג בעד אחד ובדיין אחד בלא התראה ועל פי קרובין אבל לא בעדות אשה ולא תדון אשה להם:1

Goldhaber claims:

ביאורו של הרמב”ם לא הובא בשאר ספרי הראשונים [להוציא מושב זקנים], אלא אצל רוב חכמי תימן הקדמונים. אלו שהביאו טעם זה הביאוהו בלשון הרמב”ן.2

This is incorrect; I am not sure whom Goldhaber has in mind by “those who bring this explanation” and what he means by “the language of the Ramban”, but Hizkuni’s language is quite similar to Rambam’s:

ויהרגו כל זכר. לפי שבני נח מצווין להושיב ב”ד בכל פלך ופלך והם ראו שגזל את דינה ולא עשו בו דין3

Ralbag, too, offers (inter alia) this justification for the massacre:

והנה לא היה אפשר להרוג שכם אם לא בזה האופן כי אם יהרגוהו לבדו ינקמו נקמתו אביו וכל יושבי עירו וידם גם כן היה במעל הזה כי היה בידם למחות לו לעשות זה הפועל המגונה או מפני שלא השתדלו שיהיה נהרג עליה במשפט ולזה הרגו כולם4

Ralbag’s first explanation is quite interesting and provocative: Shimon and Levi massacred Hamor and the population of (the city of) Shechem to prevent them from avenging the execution of (the person) Shechem. This seems to be the assertion of a novel and profoundly important extension of the law of the pursuer (רודף): even someone who is not currently engaged in any sort of hostile activity, and has made no declaration of intent to do so in the future, may be killed based upon the mere expectation of his future conduct.

Other Rishonim justify the massacre of Shechem by more traditional applications of the law of רודף:

מושב זקנים

ואם תאמר בשלמא חמור ושכם היו חייבים מיתה, אבל כל בני העיר למה נהרגו. [ובתירוצו הראשון כתב כדברי הרמב”ם ושוב כתב:] ועוד יש לומר שהרגו תחלה חמור, ואחר כך באו בני העיר לעזור לחמור, ועל כן הרגום.5

אור החיים

קשה למה יהרגו מי שלא חטא: ועוד למה לא הקדימו בבעל עבירה תחילה:

אכן הנה בני יעקב לא היה בדעתם להרוג אלא בעל עבירה אלא שכל בני העיר רצו לעמוד בפרץ כנגדם לבל יהרגו מלכם אשר ע”כ הרגום מדין רודף והוא אומר ויהרגו כל זכר ובזה השיגו להרוג את חמור ואת שכם וזולת זה לא היו יכולין לנקום נקם מהמחוייב להם מיתה:

עוד טעם שהרגו כל בני העיר לצד שהם היו בעזר שכם לגזול דינה ובני נח מחוייבים מיתה על הגזל אבל על העריות אין חיוב כי דינה לא היתה אשת איש: …6

In a legendary, possibly apocryphal account of the tragic fate of the Convoy of 35 (מחלקת הל”ה), the brave but humane Israeli fighters seal their own doom by declining to execute one or more Arabs they encounter, who subsequently sound the alarm and trigger the fatal ambush. I have long wondered whether the halachah would have actually allowed the execution of the Arab(s), insofar as their future hostile conduct was foreseeable. Ralbag’s radical extension of the law of רודף would indeed seem to justify such a preemptive execution.

  1. מלכים ט:יד []
  2. יחיאל גולדהבר, מעשה הריגת עיר שכם, עמוד ה’‏ []
  3. חזקוני לד:לא []
  4. רלב”ג וישלח באור הפרשה []
  5. מושב זקנים בראשית לד:לא []
  6. אור החיים בראשית לד:כה []
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