G-d Damn It!: Jewish, Christian, and Legal Perspectives

Several days ago, we discussed R. Chaim Ozer Grodzinski’s responsum on printing Hashem’s name in a language other than Hebrew in newspapers. Here is my halachah column for this week:

In parashas Re’eh, Hashem commands us to obliterate the names of other gods, but “You shall not do this to Hashem, your G-d.” (12:3-4) One interpretation of this verse is a prohibition against erasing Hashem’s Name (Rashi). It is even improper to write His Name in any ephemeral context, since this may result in it being discarded in a disrespectful manner (Rosh Ha’Shanah 18b, Rema YD 276:13). Based on this, R. Yonasan Eybeschütz is sharply critical of the practice of writing “ad-ieu”, meaning “to [or ‘with’] G-d”, in correspondence. He insists that this is a pernicious habit learned from the non-Jews, and it is based on the misconception that Hashem’s Name in a language other than Hebrew does not have the holiness of the Divine Name (Urim Ve’Tumim siman 27 urim #2). R. Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, however, defends the practice on the grounds that today “ad-ieu” has lost its original meaning and is used merely in the sense of a parting blessing (Achiezer end of III:32).

A practice that R. Chaim Ozer does recommend against on the grounds that it may cause the Divine Name to be discarded disrespectfully is the writing of it in newspapers, even in a language other than Hebrew. Ideally, a description of Hashem such as “the Eternal Creator” should be used instead, or the letters of the Name should be separated by a dash (as done throughout this article). If this is difficult, however, the Name may be written outright, at least in a newspaper containing words of Torah and Biblical verses in Hebrew, which will anyway not be treated disrespectfully. It is additionally appropriate to publicize in the newspaper itself that the paper should not be treated disrespectfully due to the Biblical verses and words of Torah, and if this is done, there is basis to permit the writing of the Divine Name in a language other than Hebrew.

R. Eybeschütz’s comments:

ובלאו הכי בעונותינו הרבים אינם נזהרים בכינוי, וחושבים מה שכותב או מדבר בלשון גוים אינו אלא תואר השם, וטועים הם וכותבים בכל החילופי כתב “אדי-ע” והוא לשון צרפית כינוי ופירושו “עם ד’”, והוא מוטל באשפה. וכבר קבעו חז”ל [ראש השנה יח:] יום טוב שלא יהיה נזכר שם שמים בשטרות, כי למחר פורע זה חובו והשם מוטל באשפה, וכעת בעונותינו הרבים למדו ממעשה גוים וחוזר הדבר לקלקולו ביותר. וזהו המרי הגורם אשר בעונותינו הרבים וידל ישראל למאד במקום ששם שמים מצוים ובפרט בבזיון ועל חנם, וצריך התחכמות ושקידות תוכחת חכמי הדור לבטל זה מהמוני עם:1

These comments follow his condemnation of another popular practice as a violation of a Biblical prohibition: the uttering of imprecations (in German or Yiddish) such as “May G-d punish him!” or “May G-d smite him!”

ובעוונותינו הרבים רוב המוני עם אינם נזהרים, ואומרים בלשון אשכנז גאט זאל איהם שטראפין, גאט זאל איהם שלאגין, ועוברים לאו של תורה.

Curiously, in Christian culture (at least in the United States), there is a common, rather incoherent, assumption that the English equivalent of these imprecations is somehow blasphemous, and a violation of the commandment against taking G-d’s Name in vain, although it is unclear why this should be so, and at least some serious Catholics understand the sin involved in the manner of R. Eybeschütz, as stemming primarily from the maledictive character of the utterance rather than from the mere taking of G-d’s Name in vain:

Q: Is using inappropriate language sinful?

A: A: Yes. Using inappropriate language is sinful. However, let’s look at each segment of the all encompassing term of “inappropriate language”. These segments include using G-d’s name in vain, cursing, blaspheming, and profanity.

The second Commandment specifically forbids using G-d’s name in vain: “Thou shalt not take the name of the L-rd thy G-d in vain” (Ex 20:7; Dt 5:11). Therefore, one of the three criteria for a mortal sin is clearly in place – it is a serious sin. If the other two conditions are in place – deliberately doing the action and knowledge that it is wrong – then taking G-d’s name in vain is a mortal sin, which deprives the soul of sanctifying grace. Saying “O my [G-d’s name]” without reason and in a vain manner is using G-d’s name in vain. And, if a person dies in mortal sin, he/she will indeed go to Hell. …

Cursing is likewise a mortal sin. Cursing is defined as calling down evil from G-d usually by invoking G-d’s holy name. Using such horrible expressions, the person calls on G-d to send a soul to Hell and/or inflict punishment on a person. How can we actually do such a horrendous thing – ask G-d to send a soul to Hell? Cursing is quite clearly also a mortal sin. …

Here’s NPR’s Ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen:

David Carr of Zionsville, IN wondered why NPR bleeped out two words but not “g-ddamn,” which he found offensive.

“Whatever it bleeped out could not possibly be as bad as what it left unbleeped,” wrote Carr. “The uncensored language is a violation of the 10 Commandments and HIGHLY offensive to many Christians. I am astonished at the insensitivity of NPR. If I want to listen to Howard Stern, I know how to turn the dial.”

It was easy for NPR editors to bleep out the other two well-known swear words that never make it on the air. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) guidelines make it crystal clear. The guidelines define profanity as “language so grossly offensive to members of the public who actually hear it as to amount to a nuisance.”

Using “g-d damn it,” for example, is not “legally profane” according to the FCC.

But taking the L-rd’s name in vain — although not all see it that way — is more problematic for all mainstream media.

“G-d Damn is more complicated, especially because of the juxtaposition here to the other bleeped words,” said Chris Turpin, ATC’s executive producer. “Usually we don’t bleep G-d Damn —there is no legal reason to do so — although we realize there are some in the audience who find this exceedingly offensive.” …

It turns out that NPR rarely airs those words g-d and damn together. A search showed 52 references in transcripts of the phrase “g-d damn” all the way back to 1990. When there’s no space between the two words (as in goddamn), there were 163 references since 1990.

But it did make me wonder how other news organizations handle these words.

When I asked CBS’ standards & practices editor, I got back a succinct email: “No gd on cbs,” wrote Linda Mason.

“As a general rule, we would not permit ‘GD’ to be used on our air,” wrote NBC’s David McCormick, who is the network’s standards & practices editor. “We would bleep one or the other….usually the first word.”

The Washington Post used the words “g-ddam” only twice in recent years. Post guidelines urge great caution in dealing with words or material that is profane or obscene, urging that it not be published except in cases where it’s essential (such as quoting from a court case on obscenity).

The New York Times has used the words 9 times in the past year — five were a direct quote from Obama’s former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s famous speech. …

That said, why needlessly offend listeners? Bleeping out “g-ddamn” would have been so easy and lost nothing.

Incidentally, Jensen’s assertion that:

Using “g-d damn it,” for example, is not “legally profane” according to the FCC.

is a highly inaccurate summary of what the FCC (and the court opinions it cites) actually say, which is that such language when uttered in anger, i.e., as a mere expression of vehement emotion, similar to

a rude request or order to go to hell, with no necessity to obey, no power to enforce obedience, and no intimation that the irresistible Power had condemned, or was invoked to condemn, them to go to hell

is not considered legally profane – but if meant seriously and literally, as an “imprecation of divine vengeance” or an “[implication of] divine condemnation”, it may very well be profane.

In Duncan v. United States, 48 F.2d 128 (9th Cir. 1931), the court affirmed a conviction for the utterance of profanity over the radio, concluding that:

[T]he defendant having referred to an individual as “damned,” having used the expression “By G-d” irreverently, and having announced his intention to call down the curse of G-d upon certain individuals, was properly convicted of using profane language within the meaning of that term as used in the act of Congress prohibiting the use of profane language in radio broadcasting.

More of the decision (including much colorful context and precedent):

The appellant was accused in that count of knowingly, unlawfully, willfully, and feloniously uttering obscene, indecent, and profane language by means of radio communication and by interstate radio transmission from his radio broadcasting station known as KVEP situated in Portland, within the state and district of Oregon. …

[T]he district attorney asserts in the argument that the taking of the name of the Diety in vain is profane within the meaning of the law. …

We will now consider whether or not the language is profane. …

In that connection we will examine the following statements: “You’re the infernal gang that put in and turned the dairy industry over to that damn scoundrel. * * *” (We omit the name.) “You’re a fine example, by G-d, for the children of this school district.” “He will do anything, there’s nothing in G-d A-lmighty’s world that * * * wouldn’t do.” And, “Wait until I get through some of the trouble you’re getting an ex-convict to make for me and I’ll put on the mantle of the L-rd and call down the curse of G-d on you, that’s what I’ll do. You infamous harlot, you arch criminal, the people should tar and feather you and yours,” etc.

The question of what constitutes profane language has been before the courts for centuries. The subject is usually dealt with as a branch of the common-law offense of blasphemy, but in the United States particularly it has been a frequent subject of legislation. In the Century Dictionary, “profane” is defined as follows: “Irreverent toward G-d or holy things; speaking or spoken, acting or acted, in manifest or implied contempt of sacred things; blasphemous: as, profane language; profane swearing.” In Gaines v. State, 7 Lea (75 Tenn.) 410, 40 Am. Rep. 64, decided in 1881, the defendant was charged with uttering a profane oath in a public place, etc. It was said: “Any words importing an imprecation of divine vengeance or implying divine condemnation, so used as to constitute a public nuisance, would suffice. Isom v. State, September Term, 1880; Holcomb v. Cornish, 8 Conn. 375.”

In Sanford v. State, 91 Miss. 158, 44 So. 801, in dealing with the following language, “Go to hell, you low down devils,” the court said: “The language does not violate the statute, since, upon strict construction, which is required of the courts, it lacks any `imprecation of divine vengeance’ and does not `imply divine condemnation.’ State v. Wiley, 76 Miss. 282, 24 So. 194, 71 Am. St. Rep. 531. There was simply a rude request or order to go to hell, with no necessity to obey, no power to enforce obedience, and no intimation that the irresistible Power had condemned, or was invoked to condemn, them to go to hell.”

In a more recent case, City of Georgetown v. Scurry, 90 S. C. 346, 73 S.E. 353, 354, the court said: “It is true that profane language is language irreverent toward G-d or holy things.” …

In Holcomb v. Cornish, 8 Conn. 375, decided by the Supreme Court of Connecticut in 1831, defendant was found guilty of the use of profanity in referring to another as a “damned old rascal,” and also using the name of the Deity in that connection. The court, speaking through Williams, Justice, in answering the contention that the language used did not constitute profane cursing and swearing, said: “Some of these words, I have no doubt, are clearly within the statute. They are imprecations of future divine vengeance upon the magistrate. Others may be of more doubtful import. It will hardly be denied that they are profane. * * *”

The Supreme Court of Mississippi in Orf v. State, decided in June, 1927, 147 Miss. 160, 113 So. 202, said: “We think the language `Well, the damn thing is done broke up’ (referring to the Sunday school being held in the church), implied Divine condemnation, and was `so used as to constitute a nuisance.'”

In reaching that conclusion the court quoted the definition of “damn” given in Webster’s Dictionary, as follows: “To invoke condemnation; to curse; to swear; to invoke condemnation upon; to condemn to eternal punishment in a future world; to consign to perdition.” …

Under these decisions, the indictment having alleged that the language is profane, the defendant having referred to an individual as “damned,” having used the expression “By G-d” irreverently, and having announced his intention to call down the curse of G-d upon certain individuals, was properly convicted of using profane language within the meaning of that term as used in the act of Congress prohibiting the use of profane language in radio broadcasting. …

In Dominic Peter Gagliardo, Appellant, v. United States of America, Appellee, 366 F.2d 720 (9th Cir. 1966), the court, citing Duncan, wrote:

Appellant also contends that his motion of acquittal should have been granted because the language alleged to have been used was not “obscene, indecent, or profane.” The government concedes, and we agree, that the language alleged to have been used can in no way be considered “obscene” because the language as a whole can not be viewed as appealing to the prurient or calculated to arouse the animal passions, but rather was made during a moment of anger. Roth v. United States, supra; A Book Named “John Cleland’s Memoirs of A Woman of Pleasure” v. Attorney General of Com. of Massachusetts, supra; Duncan v. United States, 48 F.2d 128 (9th Cir. 1931).

Although the district court’s instruction defining “profane” is not criticized by appellant, the government does not contend that the words used were “profane.” Since the only words attributed to appellant which could even remotely be considered as being “profane” were “G-d damn it,” which were also uttered in anger, there is no basis for holding that the language was “profane” within the meaning of the statute. See Duncan v. United States, supra.

Finally, the FCC, citing Gagliardo among other cases, asserted:

First, Sharp argues that licensee violated the statute by broadcasting the portion of “The West Wing” program wherein character President Bartlet “scream[ed] at G-d,” and made irreverent references toward the deity “[y]ou’re a sonofabitch, you know that?,” and “have I displeased you, you feckless thug?” Sharp cites FCC v. Pacifica, 438 U.S. 726 (1978) and Schenck v. U.S., 249 U.S. 47, 52 (1919) as precedents that support a finding that the language at issue is legally profane.

However, the cases Sharp relies on are inapposite. The courts have held that material, such as the phrase “g-d damn it” uttered in anger, while offensive to some, is not legally profane for purposes of section 1464. Gagliardo v. United States, 366 F.2d 720, 725 (9th Cir. 1966) (CB radio transmission); see also Warren B. Appleton, 28 FCC 2d 36 (1971) (broadcast of “damn” is not profane). The United States Supreme Court has also struck down a state statute banning “sacrilegious” movies as violative of the First and Fourteenth amendments. Burstyn v. Wilson, 343 U.S. 495 (1952). In so ruling the court stated: “[i]t is not the business of government in our nation to suppress real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine. …” Id. at 505. Because we believe the language at issue here falls within the scope of Gagliardo and Burstyn, we do not believe it was actionably profane.

Note: Throughout this post, I have altered the names of G-d by the insertion of dashes, as per R. Chaim Ozer’s recommendation.

  1. אורים ותומים, סימן כ”ז אורים ס”ק ב’ []

Of Rabbinic Wills and Halachic Ways

In the course of my study of the various reasons proposed for the Biblical prohibition of ריבית, I encountered this famous (or notorious) passage in the תורה תמימה:

והנה דבר ידוע הוא, שבדורות האחרונים המציאו היתר הלואה ברבית בהיתר עיסקא שנבאר ענינו בסמוך, ולכאורה דבר פלא הוא שלא מצינו כל רמז קל בתורה להמצאת היתר לאיסור זה, ולא נתבאר היסוד והבסיס על מה ראו חז”ל לבנות עמודי ההיתר.

ונראה בזה שראו חכמינו יסוד וגם הכרח להיתר ענין זה בכלל, משום דחקרו ובאו עד תכונת האיסור הזה ביסודו ועיקרו שבתורה הבנוי ומיוסד על הענין וחי אחיך עמך, שאז בימי נתינת התורה היו עיקרי יסוד חיותם ועסקם של ישראל – עבודת האדמה, והוא היה היסוד והעמוד לעשרם ולמצבם, כי מי שהיה לו תבואות בהמון היה נחשב לעשיר, והכסף לא היה נחשב להם לעיקר ויסוד החיים, וכשהיו לוים כסף לא היה למען עשות מסחר וקנין, רק לעמן השג על ידו לחם ובגד למי שחסר לו כזה משדהו ועבודתו, ולפי זה ממילא מובן כי להעני הלוה הזה לא היה כל חשבון לשלם רבית וגם להמלוה העשיר לא היה חסרון ניכר בהלואת כספו בלא רבית, אחרי כי בכלל לא היה להם עסק כספים ולא שייך בשניהם בזה וחי אחיך עמך. אבל בימי הבינים שאבדה לישראל חלק ונחלה בעבודת האדמה, ונשארו גוי החי רק על המסחר לבדו, לא יכלו עוד להחזיק באיסור רבית, כי הכסף נעשה ליסוד עיקרי לאמצעית החיים והמסחר, ונעשה עסק הרבית עסק שוה גם להלוה גם להמלוה, ושייך בשניהם בזה וחי אחיך עמך, ולכן ראו חכמים למצוא היתר לאיסור זה, וחשבו שעל דעת כן לא אסרה התורה ענין זה בכולה, כך נראה לי.

Neither the question nor the answer seems to make much sense – R. Epstein seems oblivious to the real nature of a היתר עיסקא, which is not an arbitrary dispensation of the proscription of ריבית, but rather a technical, legalistic mechanism that avoids it by recharacterizing all or part of the loan as an equity investment.

The problem that R. Epstein may have really been addressing, however (his actual words notwithstanding), is that despite the fact that a היתר עיסקא does not violate the letter of the law of ריבית, it nevertheless seems to violate its spirit. As “שש ושמח” puts it:

לשונו של התו”ת נראה שחז”ל התירו דבר האסור משום שבטל טעמו, ובודאי אסור לומר כן.

אבל לכאו’ אפשר לומר כעין דבריו בנוסח אחר – שאף שהית”ע אינו נגד הדין, מ”מ הרי הוא נגד טעם איסור ריבית והוא כהערמה, ולא היו מתירים לעשות כן בזמן מתן תורה אלא רק בזמנים שבטל טעם המצוה. האם מותר לומר כן?

Understood thus, R. Epstein’s idea is actually remarkably similar to an idea of his uncle, the Netziv regarding a different Biblical regulation of loans – שמיטת כספים:

אבל הענין דיש שני אופני הלואות. א’ בשעה שישבו ישראל בשלותה על הארץ וכל עסק האדם היה זריעת השדה ועבודתה וכשאין לו במה לזרוע הרי זה לוה תבואה לזריעה ובתבואות הוא משלם ואם הגיע שביעית ועדיין לא שילם על זה הזהירה תורה על בית דין שמוט כל בעל בית דין יעשו שמיטה היינו שישמיטו את בעל בעמיו … שהוא משה לרעהו בכחו אזי ישמיטו את ידו לא יגוש וגו’ בית דין יזהירו אשר לא יגוש וגו’. ומפרש הטעם כי קרא שמטה לד’. זה הלשון שמטה לד’ לא שייך אלא בשביתת הארץ. והוא טעם על שמוזהרים בית דין להשגיח שלא יגוש משום שהגיע שביעית ואינו עובד את השדה וכאשר יגוש אותו יהי מוכרח למכור השדה1 משום הכי הזהירה תורה שלא יגוש וגו’:

את הכנרי תגוש וגו’. בכאן מיירי בהלואה באופן שני. היינו בעסק מסחור. ומזהיר המקרא את המלוה דאת הנכרי תגוש ואשר יהיה לך את אחיך. אף על גב שאינו נוגע לשמיטת הארץ דומיא דנכרי שאינו שובת בשביעית מכל מקום תשמט ידך. אך יש נ”מ:

אפס כי לא יהיה בך אביון וגו’. לא יגרום השמטת כספים שתהיה אביון שהרי המלוה על מסחור אם לא ישיב חובו נעשה המלוה אביון ואם כן יש לעשות תקנה לזה. והיינו תקנות פרוזבול. או למסור לבית דין. ואם כן אין הבית דין רואים להשמיט אדרבה בית דין נכנסין בעובי הקורה שלא ישמיט ויהיה אביון: כי ברך יברכך ד’ וגו’. הקב”ה חפץ לברך אותך ולא שתהיה אביון:2

This linkage between שמיטת כספים and שמיטת קרקעות first appears in the commentary of R. Yosef Bechor Shor:

אבל את הנכרי תגוש: שהנכרי זורע וקוצר ובוצר ויכול למכרו לשלם ולפרוע, אבל אחיך לא חרש ולא זרע ולא קצר, במה ישלם? כי קרא אחיך שמיטה לשדותיו לד’ לשם שמים, ואין לו במה לפרוע.3

  1. ולא הבנתי, דאי משום הא הא סגי באזהרה שלא יגוש בשנה השביעית עצמה, ולמה צריך להשמיט את החוב לגמרי?‏ []
  2. העמק דבר דברים טו:ב-ד []
  3. רבנו יוסף בכור שור על התורה (חלק ג’ – תשי”ט), דברים טו:ג-ד. ועיין עוד ר’ אשר מאיר, “ועבד לוה לאיש מלוה” (משלי כ”ב, ז) – עיון בשמיטת כספים.‏ []

Theft and Thaumaturgy II

The previous post in this series discussed the idea that Rachel stole Lavan’s תרפים in order to prevent them from informing Lavan of her family’s flight; this post discusses the other main traditional explanation of her theft, that the תרפים were idols worshipped by Lavan, and Rachel stole them to wean him from idolatry.

בראשית רבה

והיא לא נתכוונה אלא לשם שמים. אמרה: מה אנא מיזיל לי, ונשבוק הדין סבא בקלקוליה?! לפיכך הוצרך הכתוב לומר: ותגנוב רחל את התרפים אשר לאביה:1

רש”י

להפריש את אביה מעבודה זרה נתכוונה:2

The simple version of this approach is that Rachel’s goal was practical: by removing the objects of Lavan’s worship from his possession, his ability to worship them would be thus thwarted. Abarbanel seems to have so understood Hazal, and he rejects their interpretation of Rachel’s motive (in favor of basically that of the previous post), essentially accusing them of naïveté: he considers it preposterous that a daughter might alter her elderly father’s religious convictions, and insists that Rachel would have been quite foolish to have had such a hope:

איך נתפתה רחל לגנוב את התרפים אשר לאביה האם חשבה להרחיקו מעכו”ם כדבריהם ז”ל באמת סכלות גדולה יהיה זה לה בחשבה כי לעת זקנתו בתו תטה את לבו ועם היות שנגנבו ממנו התרפים יעשה לו אלהים אחרים תחתיהם3

It is perhaps to counter this objection (as Dr. Alexander Klein suggests) that R. Hananel explains that Rachel’s action was not a pragmatic attempt to prevent her father from worshipping his idols, but rather a theological demonstration of their worthlessness: she meant to lead her father to the realization that “there can be no substance to a god who is stolen”:

ורבינו חננאל כתב כי מה שגנבה אותם כדי שיחזור בו ושיאמר אלוה הגנוב אין בו ממש, כדבר יואש שאמר (שופטים ו’) אם אלהים הוא ירב לו כי נתץ מזבחו, וכמו שאמר הכתוב (יחזקאל כ”ח) האמור תאמר אלהים אני לפני הורגך ואתה אדם ולא א-ל ביד מחללך:4

Vandalizing Televisions

In any event, Rachel’s act may serve as precedent to justify the theft or destruction of property in order to prevent the commission of sin, and it is indeed invoked as such by R. Moshe Shternbuch, in the course of his consideration of the case of a baal teshuvah who continually (!) vandalizes the television at his parents’ home in order to prevent the family from watching it. R. Shternbuch begins by conceding that the prohibition of watching television is “very severe”, but is nevertheless unwilling to grant unequivocal permission to vandalize the television, noting that such vigilantism is often counterproductive. He points out that Rachel did not include Jacob in her scheme, and he ultimately objected to what she had done, with his imprecation against the perpetrator ultimately causing Rachel’s death!

שאלה: בעל תשובה הנמצא בבית אביו ויש שם טלויזיא ונוהג הבן להזיק את המכשיר לעתים תכופות כדי שלא יסתכלו בו בני המשפחה, ושואל אם מותר לו להזיק כן.

הנה האיסור להסתכל בטלויזיא הוא חמור מאד, ומאביזרייהו דעריות הוא …

אמנם נחלקו הקצות החושן והנתיבות המשפט (חו”מ סימן ג’) אם הדין כפייה לקיים המצוות מסור לבית דין דוקא או לכל אחד ואחד, … ונראה שצדקו אלו הפוסקים שהצריכו בית דין דוקא לכפייה … ואף אם מעיקר הדין מוטל על כל אחד ואחד, נראה שאין להפקיר ממון ישראל בחנם, וצריכים התייעצות ופסק מבית דין, דלפעמים בדרך לקיחת ממונו גורם ריחוק יותר, ואין כל אחד ואחד יכול ליקח ממון חבירו בטענה שמתכוין לשם שמים להפרישו מאיסור. …

ובברכות דחסידי קדמאי … ומשמע שראוי לקרוע בגדי פריצות ולשלם במקום שיש חילול השם וכל שכן טלויזיא שמטמא עוד יותר, ורחל גנבה התרפים של אביה להפרישו מעבודה זרה וכמבואר ברש”י …

אמנם דעתי נוטה שכל פעולה צריך שאלת חכם, וגם רב אדא בר אהבה אמר “מתון מתון וכו’”, ואפילו רחל אמנו שגנבה התרפים מאביה להפרישו מעבודה זרה והעלימה מיעקב שהקפיד בדבר, ואמר “עם אשר תמצא את אלהיך לא יחיה” הרי שלא היתה דעתו מסכמת לזה, ולבסוף נענשה רחל על ידי זה שמתה, … ולפעמים לא הגיע עדיין הזמן להפרישו מטלויזיא, ופעולה שלא בזמנה עלולה לפעמים לקלקל, ולכל עת ולכל זמן, ובעצת חכמים ישכון אור ואין לזוז מדבריהם.5

[Translations / paraphrases of R. Shternbuch’s responsum: here and here.]

Spilling Out חלב עכו”ם

R. Avraham Weinfeld was asked about a yeshivah that persisted upon serving its students חלב עכו”ם, despite the pleas of local G-d fearing individuals, until one zealot spilled out one morning’s milk delivery, to protest the sinners and raise public awareness of the infraction. The yeshivah administration responded by suing for the loss. As R. Weinfeld summarizes, “the basic question is whether one who damages another’s property in order to prevent him from sinning is liable for compensation or not”:

שאלה, מעשה שהיה בעיר אחת בישיבה קטנה נתנו בכל יום להילדים לשתות חלב שחלבו עכו”ם, ויראי ד’ שבעיר בקשו מהנהלת הישיבה חדול מזה ולא הועילו בבקשתם ודחו אותם מיום אל יום עד שקם איש אחד וקנא קנאת ד’, ובבוקר אחד כאשר הביאו החלב עכו”ם אל הישיבה שפך את כל החלב ארצה, כדי למחות בעוברי עבירה ולעורר דעת הקהל אל האיסור, אך מנהלי הישיבה תבעו אותו לשלם ההפסד כדין מזיק, ונשאלתי אם יש ממש בטענתם, ותוכן השאלה אם המזיק ממון חבירו כדי לאפרושי מאיסורא חייב לשלם או לא.6

R. Weinfeld has a lengthy analysis of the question, inclining toward the zealous defendant, and concludes by noting that “with the aid of Heaven, the protest was effective, and they henceforth distributed חלב ישראל”:

ובעז”ה הועילה המחאה ומאז הנהיגו לחלק חלב ישראל ושלום על ישראל.

My parashah lecture and weekly halachah column for פרשת ויצא covered the topics and (most of the) sources of this and the previous post. Here is the column:

In parashas Vayeitzei, the Torah relates that Rachel stole her father Lavan’s “terafim” as she fled from him. What were these mysterious terafim, and what was Rachel’s motive and justification for stealing them? The midrashim and classic commentators offer two general approaches:

  1. The terafim were magical devices capable of speech, and Rachel stole them to prevent them from revealing to Lavan the flight of Yaakov and his household (Tanchuma #12, Chizkuni).
  2. The terafim were idols of Lavan, and Rachel stole them to cure him of idol worship (Bereishis Rabah 74:5, Rashi).

The latter approach seems to imply the legitimacy of theft as a means to prevent someone from sinning. R. Moshe Shternbuch does indeed adduce Rachel’s action in support of the permissibility of destroying property that is being used in the commission of sin, although he subsequently points out that Yaakov apparently disagreed with her decision, and that Rachel was eventually punished by death for her action (Shut. Teshuvos Vehanhagos 1:368).

In the course of his analysis, R. Shternbuch cites a dispute between the Ketzos Hachoshen and the Nesivos Hamishpat over whether the Talmudic rule approving the use of force to prevent someone from sinning (Bava Kama 28a) is limited to the courts, or endorses even vigilante action by private citizens. R. Shternbuch sides with the Ketzos that the authority to use force is the sole prerogative of the court, but he seems to overlook the fact that the Ketzos subsequently clarifies his position and concedes that even a private citizen may use force to prevent someone from actively violating a prohibition (such as eating non-kosher food), and it is only the use of force to compel someone to act in fulfillment of a positive commandment (such as taking the four species) that is limited to the court (see Ketzos, Nesivos and Meshoveiv Nesivos at the beginning of siman 3).

The lecture and accompanying handouts are available at the Internet Archive.

See also:

  1. בראשית רבה פרשה ע”ד סימן ה’ []
  2. רש”י בראשית לא:יט, ועיין גם מדרש תנחומא פרשת ויצא סימן י”ב []
  3. אברבנאל שם שאלה י”א []
  4. רבינו בחיי שם []
  5. שו”ת תשובות והנהגות חלק א’ סימן שס”ח []
  6. שו”ת לב אברהם סימן ע”ה []