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Why in Jewish Law Good Can Be Evil and Evil Good

In this week’s Talmud study: Is just thinking about pork a sin?

Adam Kirsch
September 22, 2015
(Main image: Shutterstock)thinking
(Main image: Shutterstock)(Main image: Shutterstock)thinking

Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

When is a nazirite not a nazirite? It may sound like a riddle; but in this week’s Daf Yomi reading, it became clear that there are certain circumstances in which a person could think he or she was a nazirite and be wrong without knowing it. That is because, as we read in chapter 4 of Tractate Nazir, there is a way of taking the nazirite vow that is dependent on another person’s previously taking the vow. “One who said: I am hereby a nazirite, and another heard and said: And I, and a third person added: And I, they are all nazirites,” says the mishna in Nazir 20b. Alternatively, “If someone said: I am hereby a nazirite, and another heard and said: My mouth is like his mouth and my hair is like his hair, he is a nazirite.”

In other words, it is possible to piggy-back your nazirite vow on someone else’s: The first person’s vow is the basis for the second and third persons’ vows. But as we have seen in previous chapters, it is possible to ask a court to dissolve your nazirite vow. What if, in a case like this, the first person in the series has his vow dissolved? Does this simultaneously dissolve the vows of the people who associated themselves with his vow? The mishna says yes: “If the vow of the first was dissolved by a halakhic authority, they are all dissolved.” Say Abraham makes a nazirite vow and Isaac and Jacob say, “And I,” but then Abraham has his vow dissolved; in that case, Isaac and Jacob may believe they are nazirites, but they are not.

Invalidating the first vow in a series automatically invalidates all the vows that came after it. But if it is Jacob who has his vow invalidated, then Abraham and Isaac’s vows are unaffected: Dissolving the last vow in the series does not affect the initial vow. This suggests that we should think of vows as a chain, in which each successive vow is linked to the one before it. You can remove the last link from the chain without damaging the whole chain; take away the first link, however, and it falls to pieces. But is it possible for this chain to go on indefinitely? Could, say, a hundred people all piggyback on the same original vow?

This is a matter of dispute in the Gemara. Reish Lakish lays down a rule of thumb that, if you want your vow to be linked to someone else’s, you must not allow too much time to pass before saying “And I.” Specifically, you must speak up “within the time required for greeting someone”—that is, as long as it takes to say, “Peace be upon you.” Since this is a window of just a few seconds, it would seem that no more than two people could possibly utter “And I” in time to associate themselves with the original vow. Perhaps, the Gemara reasons, that is why the mishna gives the example of two people saying “And I” and does not go on to say that the same principle holds for three or more people. After two people have spoken, the time has elapsed and further vows can’t be added.

But is this actually the mishna’s reasoning? The Gemara goes on to dispute the assumption: Perhaps the reason the mishna stopped at two people saying “And I” was not to limit the number who could say it, but simply because it was unnecessary to extend the same logic to three people, four people, and so on. “Should the tanna have continued reckoning cases like a peddler?” the Gemara asks, with the familiar impatience so characteristic of Talmudic back-and-forth. The real question at issue here, the rabbis observe, is whether the later vows in a series are all linked directly to the original vow, or whether each is linked only to the one before it.

Intending to sin is itself sinful, even if you end up not committing the sin you think you did.

The difference can be seen if you ask what happens if the middle vow—Isaac’s, in the above example—is invalidated. If Jacob’s vow is dependent on Abraham’s original vow, then removing Isaac’s vow from the chain should not affect Jacob. If, on the other hand, each vow is dependent on the vow immediately prior to it, then removing Isaac’s vow automatically removes Jacob’s as well. In the end, after debating all these possibilities, the Gemara rules that each vow in a series is dependent on the one immediately before it. For this reason, it is possible for any number of people to associate themselves with the same vow; however, if any vow in this chain is knocked out, anyone later in the chain is released from naziriteship. This is one of many situations in the Talmud that could not have arisen often in ordinary life—it’s hard to imagine a hundred people all standing in a line and shouting “And I.” But the rabbis use such hyperbolic examples in order to test the logic of the law, to find out exactly why the law says what it does.

There is one further case in which a nazirite’s vow could be dissolved against their will. This is the situation, familiar to us from Tractate Nedarim, in which a husband decides to nullify his wife’s vow. The Talmud offers two reasons why a husband might not want his wife to be a nazirite: Because abstaining from wine makes her “downcast,” and he says, “I do not want a downcast wife”; or because at the end of her term she will have to shave her hair, and he says, “I do not want a shaven wife.” In other words, the husband’s emotional and even aesthetic preferences are more important than the wife’s spiritual devotion.

This point of law opens an interesting moral question, which the rabbis address at length starting in Nazir 23a. Say a woman takes a nazirite vow and her husband nullifies it without telling her, so that she believes she is still a nazirite even though legally she isn’t. What if that woman then starts drinking wine, so that she is in violation of what she believes to be her obligations. Has she committed a sin? Legally, it would seem she has not, and the mishna says that she is not liable for the 40 lashes that are ordinarily imposed on a sinning nazirite. But since she intended to sin, it seems unfair that she should be rescued by a technicality. Thus Rabbi Yehuda says, “She should incur lashes for rebelliousness,” and in the Gemara, the sages say, “She requires atonement and forgiveness.” Intending to sin is itself sinful, even if you end up not committing the sin you think you did.

What emerges in this discussion is the way Jewish law separates sin and guilt. Ordinarily, we think of guilt as requiring what American law calls mens rea, an evil mind. If you kill someone, it is not murder unless you intend to kill them; otherwise it is the lesser crime of manslaughter. But in Judaism, there are all kinds of acts that are sinful per se, whether you intended them to defy the law or not; and contrariwise, you might set out to commit a sin and end up technically innocent. In the Gemara, Rabbi Akiva gives the example of eating non-kosher food: “One who intended to pick up pork in his hand and in fact he picked up the meat of a lamb in his hand requires atonement and forgiveness.” Such a man has not actually violated the laws of kashrut, but his intention to do so is sinful, and so he incurs some punishment—even if it is not as severe as the punishment for a person who actually does eat pork.

In some cases, the rabbis say, it is even possible that a sin committed with virtuous intent is better than a mitzvah carried out thoughtlessly. “Greater is a transgression committed for the sake of Heaven,” says Rabbi Nachman bar Yitzhak, “than a mitzvah performed not for its own sake.” The rabbis give several examples of such sins “for the sake of Heaven” in the Bible, most of them sexual in nature. When Lot’s daughters had sex with their father, in the belief that this was the only way to preserve the human race, they were acting meritoriously; so was Tamar when she posed as a prostitute in order to get pregnant by her father-in-law Judah, and Yael when she seduced the enemy general Sisera in order to kill him. Lest we wonder whether these women had mixed motives, Rabbi Yochanan assures us that Yael took no sexual pleasure from her “seven acts of sexual intercourse” with Sisera: “The good of the wicked is nothing other than evil for the righteous.” But all in all, this strikes me as a potentially subversive, even antinomian principle: If good can be evil and evil good, depending on your intentions, what is to stop people from sinning proudly, the way Sabbatai Sevi and his followers did? Perhaps only biblical matriarchs can be trusted to know when a sin is not really a sin.


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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.