Facilitating Repentance Without Enabling Moral Laxity
In our Gemara on Amud Aleph, a discussion arises regarding a Rabbinic dispensation made to facilitate the repentance of a thief. According to biblical law, if a person steals something and the stolen object remains intact, it must be returned to its original owner. However, if the object has significantly changed or has been lost or destroyed, the thief is obligated to provide monetary compensation. This creates a dilemma for a thief who has stolen a support beam and used it to construct an entire house. Technically, according to the biblical requirement, the thief would need to dismantle the entire house, causing significant financial loss. Recognizing this burden, the Rabbis enacted a dispensation known as Takanas Hashavin, allowing the thief to pay only for the object instead of returning it physically.
The Rabbinic dispensation of Takanas Hashavin not only carries legal implications but also represents an ethical responsibility on the part of the victim. The Gemara in Bava Kama (94b) states: “With regard to robbers or usurers that returned either the stolen item or the interest to the one from whom they took it, one should not accept it from them. And with regard to one who does accept it from them, the Sages are displeased with him, since by doing so he discourages those who wish to repent.”
This teaching highlights that it is not only the thief who bears the responsibility of repentance but also the victim. The victim is advised not to accept the stolen object or interest returned by the thief, as accepting it may discourage future repentance. This principle is codified in halakha, specifically in Shulchan Arukh Choshen Mishpat 366.1.
גזלן מפורסם (שעסקיו בכך ותשובתו קשה) הבא לעשות תשובה מעצמו אם אין הגזילה קיימת אין מקבלין ממנו כדי שלא ימנע מלעשות תשובה ואם רצה לצאת ידי שמים והחזיר אין מוחין ביד הנגזל מלקבלו: הגה וכן אם לא בא לעשות תשובה מעצמו רק שהנגזל צריך לתבעו מחייבים אותו להחזיר (טור ס”א):
A well-known robber (who was thoroughly engaged in this and for whom repentance is difficult) who comes on their own to repent: if the robbed item still exists, one should not accept it, in order not to prevent them from repenting, but if [the robber] wanted to fulfill Heavenly standards and returned it, we do not prevent the person who was robbed from accepting it. Rema’s gloss: Similarly, if [the robber] did not come on their own to repent, but was sued by the person they robbed, then we do require them to return it.
Two important conditions are present in this case: 1. That he be a career thief, and 2. That he comes forward on his own, and is not convicted in court. However, these conditions apply to the situation of stolen goods that still could technically be physically returned with relative ease if not, for the sheer number. On the other hand, in the case of the beam, put into the building, even a non-career thief would be given the exemption of having to return it, and can just make monetary compensation in order to facilitate repentance.
Shulkhan Arukh also seems to hold that if the career thief wants to “go the extra mile” and return all the stolen goods, despite the victims willingness to forgive payment, he is allowed to make the payment. It seems that most poskim agree with this, except for Chochmas Shelomo (ibid), who argues that it is an ethical obligation to refuse payment no matter what.
So far, we have discussed the case of a career thief. But what about situations of an ordinary individual who stole where the stolen object is extremely difficult to remove and will incur significant financial loss, such as the support beam in our initial example? Even though the Rabbis granted a dispensation, is it “allowed” or even commendable for the thief to go the extra mile and return the object anyway, for the sake of complete repentance?
This poses a psychological conundrum. On one hand, one might argue that a person should be allowed to pursue the fullest form of repentance dictated by their conscience. On the other hand, indulging in excessive guilt or creating an overwhelming environment for repentance may hinder others from properly repenting. In such cases, it becomes crucial to consider the overall effects versus the individual effects, a principle seen in other areas of halakha.
It is known as התיר סופו משום תחילתו that the rabbis will permit a certain action after a permitted activity that is technically a violation, because if they do not allow it, in the future people will abstain from the original activity that was permitted. As we are taught in Rosh Hashana 23b that Rabbi Gamliel allowed the witnesses who came forward to testify about the new moon and traveled outside of the techum boundary to have a full 2000 cubits in all directions even though once they discharged their duties to come forward and offered to testify, they would be strictly limited to only four cubits. However, this will discourage people from coming forward in the first place, and therefore the rabbis made this allowance (see Tosafos ibid).
This pedagogical dilemma is also subject to debate among the commentaries of Chovos Halevavos (Gate of Teshuva 7:9). Tov Halevanon and Pas Lechem assert that the penitent has an obligation to fully discharge their obligations to God and return the beam. However, Marpeh Lenefesh seems to suggest that no such requirement exists. Once the Rabbis have exempted the thief from physically returning the beam, payment alone suffices for complete repentance.
This debate reflects the need for nuanced judgment in determining when to demand full restitution and when to accept a higher extralegal form of restitution, should the penitent choose to go beyond what is required. Moreover, there are instances where refusing such extra restitution is necessary to prevent discouragement among others and to avoid burdening the process of repentance. The halakha and ethics may change depending on the situation, necessitating careful evaluation. What remains essential is finding a balance between facilitating sincere correction and moral reform without enabling moral laziness, as well as avoiding inducing despair. These considerations may vary between individuals and cultures.
Just Following Orders
In our Gemara on Amud Aleph, we encounter the poignant story of Kamtza, who was humiliated and expelled from a party while the sages remained silent. Seeking revenge, Kamtza hatched a plan to make the government believe that the rabbis were rebelling. To provide evidence, he intentionally caused a minor injury to the eye or lip of an animal designated for sacrifice. Although this was not an obvious blemish, it rendered the sacrifice invalid according to Jewish law. The rabbis faced a conundrum, as rejecting the sacrifice could be seen as an impudent rejection by the Roman authorities.
Maharal poses a question (Netzach Yisrael 5) as to why the rabbis did not send a diplomatic mission to explain the intricacies of Jewish law to the Caesar, proposing that they could clarify how even such subtle blemishes are significant to Jews. However, Maharal suggests that such an explanation would have been offensive to the Caesar. He explains that the distinction between the Jewish concept of a blemish and the gentile concept of a blemish represents a fundamental difference in worldview. Gentiles focus primarily on physical appearance, whereas Jews require more subtle forms of completeness, symbolized by the minor blemishes on the eye or lip (representing matters of vision and speech). Suggesting that the Caesar’s sacrifice was unacceptable due to these subtle blemishes would imply that the Temple was primarily intended for Jewish worship, potentially seen as insubordination and treason.
I would like to offer a different perspective. I believe that a person’s relationship with God, like any other relationship, is influenced by their overall outlook and interactions with others. The Jews of that time had a legalistic and technical approach to relating to others, which was often paranoid and lacking in compassion. This approach led them to automatically assume that the Caesar would reject their explanation, leading them to engage in discussions on how to circumvent the problem. However, just as a humble and straightforward approach to the Caesar could have been accepted, the potential for repentance towards God could have been received as well. As stated in Deuteronomy 30:11-14:
“For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off… It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.”
This passage metaphorically illustrates the relationship between Marta bas Baytus and her servant, whom she sends to buy flour from the marketplace. The Gemara recounts that despite various options of lower quality flour being available, the servant fails to exercise initiative and purchase the flour, constantly returning back to Marta for more guidance. By the time he returns to the market, each successive quality of flour is sold out. The servant’s passive aggressive attitude ultimately led to their mutual starvation. This lack of initiative stems from the fear, judgment, and intolerance prevalent in their relationship. Due to Marta’s past criticism and harshness, the servant “just follows orders”, without taking any additional risks or initiatives.
This moral quality represents an indictment of the generation that engages with others in a petty and unforgiving manner. It is why they did not expect a favorable response from the Caesar to their explanation, nor did they anticipate forgiveness from God upon their return.
Our relationships have a way of becoming complicated. When we are unforgiving or refuse to humble ourselves, we often believe that others will not forgive us. This rings true in our relationship with God and our loved ones alike.
Bizarre Punishments and Their Meaning
In our Gemara on Amud Aleph, we encounter the description of the afterlife punishments for three infamous evildoers: Bilaam, Titus, and Yoshka. Bilaam was destined to be boiled in semen, Yoshka was fated to suffer in boiling excrement, and Titus received the punishment of being ground and burned to dust. These punishments are difficult to understand literally, so let us delve into their symbolic meaning.
The Maharal provides an explanation (Netzach Yisrael 5) that connects these punishments to the fundamental forms of evil and sin represented by these three individuals. Bilaam epitomized sexual immorality and promiscuity, while Yoshka demonstrated disrespect for Rabbinic authority and the Torah. Titus, on the other hand, was a murderer. According to the Maharal, each of these sins represents a profound negation of what is positive and spiritually connected in the world. Consequently, the three cardinal sins—murder, sexual immorality, and idolatry—require such severe punishments, as they undermine the very essence of life and spiritual existence. Although living is necessary to uphold the Torah, a Torah devoid of these foundational principles is essentially lifeless, and thus even require martyrdom.
Titus, being a murderer, brought upon his soul the exact opposite of life and existence. His punishment, therefore, signifies the complete annihilation and destruction of any remnants. Bilaam, known for his sexual immorality, is destined to suffer through boiling in semen, symbolizing the extreme representation of his sexual excess. Yoshka, for disrespecting the rabbis and disregarding the Torah, experiences the torment of being boiled in excrement. Maharal explains that excrement represents the byproduct resulting from the absolute filtration and purification of what is lofty in a human being, leaving behind what must be discarded. By disrespecting the Torah, Yoshka discarded the lofty and chose the opposite path, leading to contamination rather than elevation.
As we have discussed previously in our exploration of the Psychology of the Daf (Gittin 48), we create our own heaven and hell through our choices. The punishments described in the Gemara reflect the internal process experienced by these nefarious individuals as they destroyed their own souls and cooked in their sin.
In our Gemara on Amud Aleph, we encounter a story that portrays an unusually callous and cruel fate suffered by some of the youth after the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans. It is based on the ancient belief that conceiving a child while beholding aesthetically pleasing images would result in beautiful offspring. The noble Romans would have attractive images placed by their bedsides for this purpose. Interestingly, this belief is also present in Jewish tradition, as seen in Ibn Ezra on Bereishis 30:39 and the Iggeres Hakodesh attributed to Ramban (Derech Revi’i). The Jewish children were so attractive that the Romans adopted this practice, tying Jewish children to the foot of their beds and engaging in intercourse in their presence, as they were considered exceptionally handsome.
One of the children involved in this practice asked his companion: “Where is this affliction written in the Torah?” The other replied: “As it is written: ‘Also every sickness, and every plague, which is not written in the book of this Torah'” (Deuteronomy 28:61). The first child then contemplated how far he was from studying this verse, implying that had he reached it, he would have understood that it referred to their current situation. After hearing from his friend the correct reference, he replies, “Had I reached this verse, I would not have needed you, as I would have known on my own that the verse was speaking about this.”
There are several peculiarities in this story. Firstly, one might wonder why this particular Roman couple needed two children if the belief was about having a beautiful presence during conception. Additionally, the dialogue between the two children appears somewhat strange. What can we make of the final remark: “Had I reached this verse, I would not have needed you, as I would have known on my own that the verse was speaking about this”?
Sadly, I believe this story reflects the corrupt attitude that ultimately led to the destruction of the Temple. These two students, despite being engaged in Torah study and in the midst of studying the prophetic curses that would befall the Jewish people, failed to achieve sufficient repentance to avoid their horrible fate. In fact, they represent the entire Jewish people. We may wonder why their Torah study did not bring them merit. Even more troubling, why did one of them not even manage to reach the verse that described his impending destiny? Moreover, what kind of strange curiosity led him to ponder how his suffering technically fit into the verses he had learned? Unfortunately, the answer lies in their approach to Torah study, which was competitive and intellectual rather than focused on allowing God to penetrate their hearts and bring moral improvement. This is highlighted by the fact that his response involves the concept of studying with a partner, subtly reminding him that others exist as well. However, his final reply demonstrates an ongoing lack of repentance and a competitive attitude until the very end. Instead of expressing gratitude to his friend for sharing the missing verse, he states that if he had studied a little longer, he would not have needed assistance in the first place.
This narrative brings to mind another Gemara that depicts a similar tragic encounter between Eliyahu Hanavi and a starving young child (Sanhedrin 63b-64a). Despite Eliyahu’s attempts to teach the child the words of the Shema, the child’s faith is so corrupted that he ends up kissing his idol and ultimately perishing.
At times, our beliefs can become so corrupted that even when confronted with overwhelming evidence that we have strayed and must repent, we stubbornly cling to our faulty conviction.
Torah and Greatness in One Place
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph describes Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi as a unique combination of Torah knowledge and greatness. While the exact definition of greatness is not fully outlined, it appears to encompass attributes such as wealth, status, prestige, and wisdom.
One manifestation of this combination is evident in the special relationship between Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi and a Roman official named Antoninus. The Gemara in Avodah Zara (10b) documents their longstanding association characterized by Torah study, friendship, and intellectual exchange. Tosafos (ibid) even recounts traditions in which Antoninus’ parents protected the newborn Rabbi Yehuda. In a situation where Rabbi Yehuda’s parents were accused of violating Roman law by circumcising their child, Antoninus’ parents allowed them to substitute their own child for Rabbi Yehuda, providing “proof” that the latter remained uncircumcised. Furthermore, according to the same source, there is a tradition suggesting that Antoninus converted to Judaism.
The identity of this historical figure, Antoninus, remains uncertain. It is challenging to ascertain his specific identity as Antoninus could have been a generic name used for various Roman leaders and officials, similar to Pharaoh. One plausible possibility is that Antoninus refers to the renowned stoic philosopher and general, Marcus Aurelius. Historical records indicate that Marcus Aurelius was born in 121 CE, while Rabbi Yehuda was born in 135 CE.
Although the timeline does not align perfectly with the tradition that both figures were infants at the time, we must recognize that the Gemara’s precision in historical matters, particularly aggadah, is often less pronounced. The primary objective is to impart moral lessons rather than provide a historical account, given the absence of scientific historiography in those times. It is plausible that the substitute baby offered as evidence was a sibling or cousin of Marcus Aurelius. (For more on the historical accuracy of aggadah, and the three contradictory historical aggados about Rabbi Akiva, please refer to the article “History or His-story: Nedarim – Psychology of the Daf Yomi” by Simcha Feuerman, available at https://nefesh.org/SimchaFeuerman/history-or-his-story-nedarim–psychology-of-the-daf-yomi.html.)
Regardless, if we were to consider the possibility of Marcus Aurelius being Antoninus, it would be significant because he authored a book of private meditations that has been preserved to this day. Reading his meditations, one can recognize his profound philosophical wisdom. Furthermore, if some of his ideas were influenced through his association with Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, they might even represent hidden sparks of Torah wisdom. Here are a few noteworthy quotes from Marcus Aurelius’ meditations:
“You don’t have to turn this into something. It doesn’t have to upset you.”
“Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly.”
“Because most of what we say and do is not essential. Ask yourself at every moment, ‘Is this necessary?'”
“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
“Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.”
“It’s a disgrace in this life when the soul surrenders first while the body refuses to.”
“Your mind will take the shape of what you frequently hold in thought, for the human spirit is colored by such impressions.”
“Take a good hard look at people’s ruling principle, especially of the wise, what they run away from & what they seek out.”
“Accept the things to which fate binds you and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart.”
“Dig deep within yourself, for there is a fountain of goodness ever ready to flow if you will keep digging.”
The Pedagogical Benefits of Leadership
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph presents the hierarchy of individuals called to the Torah:
אַחֲרֵיהֶן קוֹרְאִין תַּלְמִידֵי חֲכָמִים הַמְמוּנִּין פַּרְנָסִים עַל הַצִּבּוּר, וְאַחֲרֵיהֶן תַּלְמִידֵי חֲכָמִים הָרְאוּיִין לְמַנּוֹתָם פַּרְנָסִים עַל הַצִּיבּוּר, וְאַחֲרֵיהֶן בְּנֵי תַּלְמִידֵי חֲכָמִים שֶׁאֲבוֹתֵיהֶן מְמוּנִּים פַּרְנָסִים עַל הַצִּבּוּר, וְאַחֲרֵיהֶן רָאשֵׁי כְנֵסִיּוֹת וְכׇל אָדָם.
After them read the Torah scholars who are appointed as leaders [parnasim] of the community. And after them read Torah scholars who are fit to be appointed as leaders of the community, even if in practice they received no such appointment. (The Sages said that a Torah scholar who knows how to answer any question asked of him is fit to be appointed as leader of the community. See Rashi). And after them read the sons of Torah scholars whose fathers were appointed as leaders of the community. And after them read the heads of synagogues, and after them any person.
Let us analyze the order and selection of items in this list. We observe three interconnected yet distinct categories: 1. Torah scholars who are officially appointed as leaders. 2. Torah scholars whose knowledge makes them worthy of being appointed as leaders, even if they do not hold such a position in practice. 3. Sons of Torah scholars whose fathers were appointed as leaders.
It is interesting to note that we have two separate categories within the group of Torah scholars. While both possess equal knowledge of Torah, the one who serves as an actual leader merits more respect and honor. This is understandable, as action is highly valued. However, it raises the question of why the sons of Torah scholars and leaders receive distinction and honor, while the sons of Torah scholars who were not leaders seem to go unrecognized.
The answer seems to lie in the fact that if children grow up in a Torah-oriented household and witness firsthand the practical application of leadership qualities such as kindness, justice, social responsibility, and the like, they are likely to develop a higher moral stature, even if they are not themselves scholars. On the other hand, children of Torah scholars who are not actively engaged in community service, as exemplified by leadership roles, do not seem to internalize these values to the same extent.
This pedagogical lesson teaches us that in order for our children to embrace the ethical values of Torah life, beyond exposing them to scholarship and piety, they must witness the devotion to community service.
Equanimity as a Moral and Psychological Attainment
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph quotes a verse from Mishlei (10:25):
כַּעֲב֣וֹר ס֭וּפָה וְאֵ֣ין רָשָׁ֑ע וְ֝צַדִּ֗יק יְס֣וֹד עוֹלָֽם׃
“When the storm passes the wicked man is gone, But the righteous is an everlasting foundation.”
While there are various interpretations, the simple meaning of the verse suggests that the righteous possess a certain stability and are not disoriented or disrupted by the occasional storms of life. This speaks to a state of mind characterized by calmness, openness, acceptance, optimism, and faith.
In Mussar literature, this state is known as hishtavus, which can be translated as equanimity. Chovos Halevavos (Shaar Yichud HaMasechah 2:8) states:
שיהיה שוה אצלו אם ישבחוהו בני אדם או יגנוהו.
“That one should be equal within oneself whether people praise or scorn him.”
The Tzava’a of the Baal Shem Tov also speaks of equanimity, playing on the words from the verse “שויתי ה’ לנגדי תמיד,” meaning that one’s awareness of God allows everything else to be put into perspective, without being rattled or disturbed.
It seems that many philosophical and religious systems recognize this state of human calmness, peace, and receptivity. The Amish refer to it as Gelassenheit, which signifies self-surrender and resignation to God’s will, yielding oneself to God’s will, or passive openness to God’s will with peace and tranquility of mind. Similarly, there is the ancient Chinese concept of Wu Wei, which literally means “inexertion,” “inaction,” or “effortless action.” It represents a state of personal harmony, free-flowing spontaneity, and laissez-faire.
Chapter II of the Tao Te Ching states:
The Sage is occupied with the unspoken and acts without effort. Teaching without verbosity, producing without possessing, creating without regard to result. Claiming nothing, the Sage has nothing to lose.
An interesting Zen parable bears similarities to the Mussar ideal of hishtavus and even Gam Zu Letova. It goes as follows:
One day in late summer, an old farmer was working in his field when a beautiful wild stallion wandered onto his field. He was successful in capturing it.
Word got out in the village of the old farmer’s good fortune, and people stopped by to congratulate him on his luck. “How fortunate you are!” they exclaimed. “You must be very happy!” Once again, the farmer calmly said, “Who knows? We shall see.”
The following day, the farmer’s son attempted to train the wild horse but was thrown to the ground, breaking his leg. Villagers arrived throughout the day to bemoan the farmer’s misfortune. “Oh, what a tragedy! Your son won’t be able to help you farm with a broken leg. How will you survive? You must be very sad,” they said. Serenely going about his usual business, the farmer replied, “Who knows? We shall see.”
Several days later, a war broke out, and the Emperor’s men arrived in the village to conscript young men. The farmer’s son was deemed unfit due to his broken leg. “What good fortune you have!” the villagers exclaimed as their own sons were taken away. “You must be very happy.” Once again, the farmer replied, “Who knows? We shall see!” as he headed off to work his field alone.
As time went on, the son’s leg healed, but he was left with a slight limp. The neighbors came to pay their condolences, saying, “Oh, what bad luck. Too bad for you!” The old farmer simply replied, “Who knows? We shall see.”
As it turned out, the other young village boys had died in the war, and the old farmer and his son were the only able-bodied men capable of working the village lands. The old farmer became wealthy and generously supported the villagers. They said, “Oh, how fortunate we are. You must be very happy.” To this, the old farmer replied, “Who knows? We shall see!”
This Zen story illustrates the value of the Mussar attribute of hishtavus, or equanimity. It emphasizes the idea that a person should accept both apparent misfortune and apparent fortune with composure and temper their reactions.
The fact that different religious and philosophical systems place value on and exemplify this mental and psychological state indicates an intuitive awareness of its unique value, as well as the attainability of this healthy state of mind.