Ari Sacher

“Shaming” Parashat Ki Tetze 5778

An unplanned by-product of social media is the phenomenon of shaming. According to Wikipedia, “Online shaming is a form of Internet vigilantism in which targets are publicly humiliated using technology like social and new media”. At its best, shaming can coerce a person who has acted unfairly to mend his ways. At its worst, shaming can ruin his life.

A mitzvah in Parashat Ki Tetze discusses shaming [Devarim 25:11-12]: “If [two] men, a man and his brother, are fighting together, and the wife of one of them approaches to rescue her husband from his assailant, and she stretches forth her hand and grabs hold of his private parts, you shall cut off her hand. You shall not have pity.” Rashi quotes the Midrash that teaches that the verse should not be understood literally – we do not amputate her arm. Rather, her punishment is monetary – she must repay her husband’s assailant for the shame she caused him. The Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh explains that that her husband must not have been in danger of being killed. If he were, his wife would have been justified in doing all she could to protect him[1]. But because her husband’s life was never in danger, she had no right to shame another person, even if he is trying to physically harm her husband.

Rav Ovadiah Seforno comments that this law seems to contradict the previous law in the Torah, the law of yibum (levirate marriage). A man marries and dies childless. His brother must then marry his sister-in-law [Devarim 25:6]: “The child she bears will succeed in the name of his deceased brother so that [the deceased brother’s] name shall not be obliterated from Israel.” Yibum is so important that it turns a prohibited action – marrying one’s sister-in-law – into a commendable action. If, however, the brother of the deceased (called the “yavam”) decides that he does not want to marry his sister-in-law (called the “yevamah”), they undergo a process called “chalitza” [Devarim 25:9]: “His brother’s wife shall approach him before the eyes of the elders and remove his shoe from his foot. She shall spit before his face and answer [him] and say, ‘Thus shall be done to the man who will not build up his brother’s household!’” According to the normative Halacha, the yevamah does not actually spit in the yavam’s face, but, rather, she spits on the ground in front of him. The chalitza process bothers the Seforno. The yevamah seems to go out of her way to shame her husband’s brother. She spits at him, she curses him, and yet she is not required to offer him any compensation. The Seforno writes, “Even though the Torah had not only given permission to the widow to publicly embarrass her brother-in-law for failing to do his duty by marrying her, but had even commanded her to do so, when a wife tries to save her husband’s life by resorting to tactics which embarrass his opponent, she is punished for doing so.” The Seforno leaves his question unanswered. In this shiur, we will try to help him out.

When I told Rav Shuki about the Seforno’s conundrum, he answered immediately: The only time we are permitted to violate the Torah is when the Torah explicitly commands us to do so. Rav Shuki brought the example of the prohibition of idolatry [Shemot 20:4]: “You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth.” And yet, the same Torah commands us to fashion two golden cherubim, miniature angels, and to place them above the Ark of the Covenant. This is not dissonance. Rather, the Torah forbids us to fashion for ourselves a sculptured image. If Hashem wants one, well, that’s another story altogether. Similarly, continued Rav Shuki, it is forbidden to shame another person. A person who does so is fined. However, if the Torah commands us to shame another person, then we must do everything in our power to mercilessly shame him into submission. The Torah commands the yevamah to spit on her brother-in-law, so spit she must. Nevertheless, I find Rav Shuki’s explanation difficult because the Seforno concedes that “[the Torah] had even commanded her to [shame him]”. The Seforno’s question goes to the root of the matter: Why does the Torah insist that the yevamah shame the yavam?

Here is how I understand the question of the Seforno: At the end of the day, the brother of the deceased has acted most shamefully. If he does not marry his sister-in-law and does not at least try to bear a child, his brother’s memory will evaporate. He will have left nothing behind in this world other than the epitaph on his tombstone. Indeed, many of the Sages, especially the Ramban, see yibum as a kind of reincarnation. By performing yibum, the yavam gives life. Conversely, refusing to perform yibum is an unspeakable act tantamount to murder, an act deserving of eternal shame. But, asks the Seforno, the Torah is a Torah of peace. Don’t we interpret in a way that does not require cutting off the arm of a woman who has grabbed her husband’s assailant by the privates? Couldn’t we find a similar interpretation that somehow mitigates the shame of the yavam? For instance, perhaps we could have the yevamah spit not directly at the yavam but at the shoe that he has just removed from his foot[2]? Yet our Sages do not take this path. Instead of mitigating the shame of the yavam, they amplify it. They want her to spit defiantly right in front of him. They want to see a gob of saliva lying at his feet and until this happens, the chalitza is not valid. Why?

If we look closely, we can see that the Torah alludes to the reason that the yavam is treated differently than the woman who has shamed her husband’s assailant. The allusion is found in a word that appears in the first sentence of both episodes. Regarding yibum, the Torah tells us [Devarim 25:5] “If brothers live together (yachdav) and one of them dies…” and in the shaming episode it tells us [Devarim 25:11] “If [two] men, a man and his brother, are fighting together (yachdav)…” The key word here is the word “yachdav” – “together”. Our Sages use the word “yachdav” to teach that yibum is only required if the brothers lived “together”, meaning that that they were alive at the same time. A brother who was born after his brother died does not have to[3] perform yibum. I propose another use of the word “yachdav”: In order for yibum to be performed, two brothers must share a certain amount of closeness. If the yavam rejects his duty, then he is admitting that he shares absolutely no closeness with his brother. Worse, the two will never become closer because one of them is dead. It is what it is and it is a shame. As such, the shaming performed by the yevamah is most fitting. In the next episode, however, while the two men are engaged in battle, they are fighting “yachdav” – “together”. As long as they are both alive, there is a chance that they will one day begrudgingly learn to live with each other. When a wife shames her husband’s assailant, she is pushing that day further into the future and the Torah punishes her for doing so.

It is critical that we all understand that there is an infinite spectrum of views and that we are destined to share this house / synagogue / country / world with people who may not share our particular view. We don’t have to convince the other side nor do we have to agree with the him, but we must hear him out. Anything less would be a shame. As the Tupacer Rebbe teaches, “Before we find world peace we’ve got to end the war in the streets”.


Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5778

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, and Tzvi ben Shoshana.

[1] An assailant who threatens a person’s life has the status of “rodef” and anyone who can protect another human being is commanded to do so by all means at his disposal.

[2] The Abarbanel suggests this option, albeit for a completely different reason.

[3] Actually, he is forbidden from performing yibum.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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