12 Shevat: Defining a Public Shabbat Violator, and a Convert Who Failed to Keep Mitzvot

On the twelfth of Shevat 5704 (1944), R. Uzziel (Shu”t Mishpetei Uzziel 3; Orach Chayyim 56) was asked how to define a public Shabbat violator which, among other changes in that person’s halachic status, disqualifies him from being able to perform שחיטה, ritual slaughter. This is a topic R. Herzog discussed in a teshuvah from the 11th of Shevat (different year), as I previously noted, here, and was presented this past Shabbat at RJC by R. Shaya Katz.

R. Uzziel notes that a person cannot be considered a מחלל שבת בפרסיא, a public Shabbat-violator, if his violations occurred before only one witness, even if he knows that witness will report his actions widely. Even the man’s own admission doesn’t do it, since we have an halachic principle thatאין אדם משים עצמו רשע, a person cannot testify to his own evil, especially not to declare himself removed from the Jewish people.

Shechitah Is Different

R. Uzziel then does an about face, declaring that in terms of being able to perform valid shechitah, violating Shabbat in front of one witness, or admitting to it, is itself considered a public violation. The same would be true for two witnesses who separately saw him violate Shabbat, on different occasions.

For all that they could not combine to testify in court against him, their separate events can categorize him as a public Shabbat violator. (This is true in other areas of halachah as well, such as adultery; witnesses’ testimony suffices to categorize a woman as an adulteress, no longer permitted to stay married to her husband, even if they saw different occasions of adultery. See Shulchan Aruch Even haEzer 11;1, with commentaries).

That shows R. Uzziel that even one witness can convince us we can no longer eat this man’s shechitah, but that’s only if the witness saw it, or if the man admits it. But if the witness testifies that he heard this ritual slaughterer speak of his Shabbat violations, that’s halachically meaningless, especially if it was outside of court. In court, the witness was trying to testify; outside of court, he’s just spreading rumors, and we would reprimand him for spreading tales. If he saw a problem with this other man, he can go to the courts with it, but he can’t spread the news on his own, especially when it has no halachic ramifications.

How Many Jews?

One of the important questions about categorizing a person as a “public” Shabbat violator is the definition of public. R. Uzziel notes that he had previously taken the position—to which he still adheres—that “public” requires ten Jews, and that the act take place in front of them (not just that they’re sure to know about it). But that’s only for the question of whether a Jew has to be killed rather than violate the Torah.

To count as a public Shabbat violator, all it takes is acting flagrantly, making clear that one has tossed aside observance and has no care for the mitzvot of Shabbat.  As Chullin 6a says, one who has abandoned Shabbat observance and does not keep it in the marketplace; R. Uzziel assumes that there’s no requirement that there be ten Jews in that marketplace.

That’s why Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayyim 385 contrasts public with completely private (one who violates Shabbat in private is a sinning Jew, but still a full member of the nation); so, too, Yoreh Deah 2;5 groups public Shabbat violation with a mumar le-hach’is, who has given up observance as a way of rebelling against God. There’s no reason to think that latter category requires ten, nor does this one. Rather, as soon as one has acted brazenly to violate Shabbat, without caring who sees it, that person is like a non-Jew, at least for shechitah purposes.

It’s Just Like Avodah Zarah

R. Uzziel notes that his correspondent suggested that since Shabbat violation is less serious than worshipping other powers, perhaps it needed the added boost of being done before ten. He rejects the premise; the reason one who worships a power other than Hashem is considered to have abandoned all meaningful observance is that s/he has denied Hashem’s role in the universe. The same is true for a Shabbat violator who, by doing that, denies creation, which R. Uzziel equates to worshipping nature itself.

I want to repeat that, because this is a topic that’s worried me for a long time. R. Uzziel is pointing out that violating Shabbat isn’t just a sin, it’s an implicit denial of all Shabbat stands for—we keep Shabbat to declare a worldview, and those who violate Shabbat willfully make clear that those claims about the world do not matter to them. Since that worldview is that Hashem created the world, such that nature itself is subject to His Will, rejecting that claim seems to make nature a force of its own, separate and independent of Hashem, and that is, R. Uzziel says, tantamount to worshipping nature. He doesn’t mean that in the technical sense of having worshipped nature, but it explains why Shabbat violation is the equal in seriousness of worshipping other powers.

R. Uzziel knows of those who disagree, including Chatam Sofer, but feels comfortable stating his opinion. He’s also clear that this is a context-specific statement; he gives examples where ten are required (such as the permissibility of killing someone having relations with a non-Jew; R. Uzziel thinks that’s only if it’s front of ten), and where less is required—this Shabbat violator, for example, loses his believability as a witness as soon as we know that he violated Shabbat willingly, even if it does not yet count as public, even by R. Uzziel’s looser definition.

Nonobservant Converts

Once we’re on the topic of the impact of nonobservance, I found another twelfth of Shevat responsum (5734, 1974), this time by R. Moshe Feinstein, Iggerot Moshe Yoreh Deah 3;109. The woman had converted and married, never following the Torah (in keeping with her husband’s lack of observance). About three years after, the two began returning to observance, and the question of the validity of her original conversion arose.

R. Moshe reports that he had her interviewed by two qualified Torah scholars, who verified that she believes in Hashem and the Torah, and now keeps mitzvot as well as she can, and intends to continue doing so into the future. R. Moshe is convinced of her sincerity and therefore rules that the court should arrange for her to reimmerse in a mikveh to be sure she has a valid conversion (as should her children; the son does not have to repeat his circumcision in any way, since the original conversion makes this only for the purpose of removing any doubt, and for that, there’s no need to draw circumcision blood again.)

R. Moshe doesn’t address it, but this act would seem to make these children converts rather than children of converts, at least at a possibility level. That would mean, for example, that the daughters could not marry kohanim. It seems to me that R. Moshe might be indicating that he thinks the original conversion most likely wasn’t valid, but that their current commitment means we don’t need to hesitate to convert them. The boy was circumcised at birth, with the intent that it be for the purpose of the mitzvah, that may have been enough to obviate the need for a later conversion circumcision.

In the Family

The last twelfth of Shevat teshuvah I want to mention bears no thematic connection to the others, but was sent to R. Yehoshua Baumol, my mother-in-law a”h’s grandfather (he was also the grandfather of R. Norman and Maurice Lamm, יבל”ח, and a source of pride to that generation; he passed away in 1948, too soon for any of the children in my generation to have known him).

In 1947, he had apparently written R. Moshe regarding the latter’s claim that the obligation to pay for damages caused by a hazard one had left in a public place was pure punishment, unlike the rest of halachic tort law, where it’s a question of repaying the damage that person or his property has caused. Since hazards one has left in public are often no longer one’s property (like a pit one dug and abandoned), the requirement to pay was a punishment.

R. Baumol thought that wasn’t as novel as R. Moshe had said, since Rashba already noted the differences in the damages of a בור, a pit or other hazard, since the other cases of damage were where the property went and caused it—the ox gored or trampled or ate, the fire burned. A hazard is the sole example of property that causes damage by staying where it is.

R. Moshe disagrees, says that Rashba wasn’t dealing with that, he was dealing with why we would not have known that the owner of a pit (even when he was still the owner) would be liable for its damages, since the pit didn’t cause the damage, the damage came to it. Once that was established, though, Rashba never deals with the fact that the person who dug a pit in a public place has no ownership of it. That was the idea R. Moshe was saying he had not seen articulated before, that the Torah’s making this person liable for that was doing it as a punishment, not because the person actually owned it.

To stay with the theme of family pride, I will note that while R. Moshe closes responsa with ידידו, your friend, over 1100 times, and ידידו מוקירו, your friend and admirer, over 300 times, he only adds מאד, very much, 44 times. R. Yehoshua Baumol was one.

But the larger lesson of 12 Shevat was about when our lack of observance does or does not signal a lack of faith. For the purposes of being enough within the fold to perform valid shechitah, R. Uzziel’s standard is that the person not violate Shabbat openly; once it’s open, it’s public. For a convert who’s come back, the period of lack of observance does call into question the original conversion, such that R. Moshe recommends reimmersion in the mikveh.

One can avoid the whole problem by keeping mitzvot, especially in front of others.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.