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Class Notes - Class #19

Mitzvah #294 prohibits slaughtering an animal and its young on the same day, whether for sacrifices or for other purposes.  It does not matter whether the parent is slaughtered first or second; either order violates this mitzvah.

            The author suggests two directions for the shoresh of this mitzvah.  First he reminds us of a notion he has stated before, that God’s watchful care is over individual people but over species of plants and animals.  God’s watchful care insures that species of animals will not die out, and this mitzvah reminds us of that.  As we noted earlier, it is not clear how our author would react to modern theories about evolution or observations of species going extinct. And it is not clear how that notion relates to this particular mitzvah.  Second the author says this mitzvah helps instill the quality of pity. Even though we are permitted to kill animals for food, sacrifices, and some other purposes, we should not indulge in cruelty.

            This mitzvah applies even if one person kills the first animal and another person kills the second animal.  That creates conflicts in certain situations.  Let’s say that one person buys the parent animal and another person buys the offspring, each intending to slaughter the animal for dinner.  Only one person will be able to have the intended dinner, and the other person will have to wait a day.  The first buyer gets the preference of slaughtering the animal he or she purchased first, but if the second buyer has already slaughtered his or her animal, the first buyer will have to wait. 

There are times when someone selling animals should anticipate that the animals are being bought for immediate slaughter, specifically before holidays when people are planning fancy meals.  Thus, the seller has to warn the buyer if the seller has already sold the parent or child of that animal on the same day.  The seller has to inform the buyer because there is good reason to believe the buyer of the first animal will slaughter that animal on the same day as the buyer of the second animal; the principle is “safek d’oraita l’humrah,” that we are strict about doubtful cases governed by Biblical law.  But our author says the buyer need not ask.  From the point of view of the buyer, the case is “s’fek s’feka,” a double doubt.  The buyer is in doubt about whether the parent of the animal he or she bought is alive, and also in doubt about whether that animal was purchased for immediate slaughter if it was purchased.  And as our author has already taught us, we are lenient in cases of double doubt, even when a Torah prohibition is at stake.

The mitzvah applies to an animal and its children, but not to an animal and its grandchildren.  If someone slaughtered an animal and its grandchild, the person has not violated this mitzvah. If someone slaughtered an animal, its grandchildren and then its child, the person has violated this mitzvah twice.  But since the person violated the mitzvah twice by doing only one act, the person is punishable only once.  Consider the result if the person slaughtered the parent, then its child and then its grandchild.  In that situation, the person would violate the mitzvah twice and be punishable twice since each of the second two slaughters would violate the mitzvah.

Finally the author returns to the question of whether this mitzvah only prohibits slaughtering a mother animal and her child in one day, or also a father animal and his child.  The author introduced this question in mitzvah #244 prohibiting mating different species of animals.  There the author said simply that the prohibition on slaughtering an animal and its offspring on the same day applies to both the father and mother animals.  Here the author goes into more detail and gives us practice using principles he has taught us in the intervening mitzvot.

The author paraphrases several arguments from Talmud Hullin 78 – 79.  The source verse for this mitzvah prohibits slaughtering “oto b’et b’no,” “it/him and its/his offspring.”  The verse could be read to mean the prohibition applies only to father animals and their offspring, but not to mother animals and their offspring.  But that is not how the halachic sources read the verse.

One opinion is that we may not slaughter a mother animal and her offspring on the same day but we may slaughter a father animal and his offspring on the same day.  That opinion reads the phrase “its/his offspring” to mean the animal the offspring has a relationship with, the mother animal.

But our author explains his understanding of the Talmud’s discussion to mean that our mitzvah applies to both mother and father animals.  The source discussion in the Talmud focuses on trying to establish whether Rabbi Yehudah considered the role of the father in the mitzvah of not mating different species of animals.  Specifically, the Talmud tries to determine if Rabbi Yehudah thought only the mother mattered, or if he was not sure.  Apparently our author assumes that if Rabbi Yehudah considered the role of the father for the prohibition on mating different species he would also consider the role of the father for the prohibition on slaughtering a parent animal and its offspring on the same day. 

A mule is the offspring of a crossbreeding a horse and a donkey.  According to Wikipedia, most mules are infertile, but some female mules are fertile.  The question is what type of animal we are permitted to mate with a mule.  If we view a mule as a species of its own, we should be able to crossbreed a mule with another mule.   If we ignore the role of the father animal, we should also be able to mate a mule with an animal the same species as its mother.

The author quotes two statements attributed to Rabbi Yehudah:

1.       We need not be concerned with the father.

2.       A mule may not be mated with a male horse or a male donkey, but only with another mule.

The first statement seems pretty clear, but it contradicts the second statement.  If Rabbi Yehudah really thinks the father doesn’t matter, we should be able to mate a female donkey with an animal of the same species as its mother, but the second statement implies we cannot do that.

            Our author resolves the contradiction by saying that Rabbi Yehudah isn’t sure if the role of the father matters.  Because Rabbi Yehudah is in doubt he considers the role of the father when that is the stricter choice and ignores the role of the father when that is the stricter choice. (That analysis should sound familiar by now, although it is being used in a different way here than we have seen it used before.)  Of course we need to reinterpret the first statement so we understand it to say, “We need not be concerned with the father when that leads to a strict result.”  And now the second statement makes sense.  A mule may only be mated with another mule, and may not be mated with either a horse or a donkey.  Since each mule has a horse parent and a donkey parent, and since we might need to take the father into account, when we mate a mule with a horse or with a donkey we are mating it with an animal of a different species from one of its parents. 


Mitzvot #295 is a prohibition on desecrating God’s reputation, and mitzvah #296 is a positive commandment to sanctify God’s reputation.  Our responsibility as Jews is to live our lives as we understand God wants us to live our lives.  We implicitly set our behavior as representative of how God wants people to live.  These mitzvot define our obligation to live up to that representation in ordinary and extraordinary situations. 

            Some of the cases that trigger these mitzvot involve a Jew being willing to give up his or her life rather than violate a particular mitzvah.  The author explains that our job is to serve God, to do what God teaches us to do.  There are causes for which people are willing to give up their lives.  A loyal servant will sometimes be willing to give up his or her life in service of the master.  Our loyalty to God should not be less than that.       

            Our author starts with a lengthy quote from Rambam’s Sefer haMitzvot which outlines three different situations where these mitzvot apply: 1. When a Jew is forced to violate a mitzvah; 2. When a Jew violates a mitzvah out of spite rather than temptation; 3. When a Jew with a reputation for piety does not live up to that reputation.

            Much of the author’s discussion focuses on the first category.  That category covers two different types of situations: where one particular Jew is under threat, or where the Jewish community as a whole is subject to persecution. Analyzing those cases requires considering several factors:  what mitzvah is involved, what the threat is, what motivates the perpetrator of the threat, whether the violation involves the Jew being active or passive, and whether the incident is public or private.  The author defines “public” as in the presence of ten Jews.

            When a Jew is threatened with death unless the Jew does something that violates a mitzvah, the Jew should in general choose life.  The author repeats the famous explanation of Lev. 18:5, which says of mitzvot that we will “live by them [mitzvot];” we should live by the mitzvot but not die because of mitzvot.  That is true about mitzvot we would think of as major and mitzvot we would think of as minor. It is true whether the motivation of the person forcing the Jew’s behavior is motivated by perverse pleasure, by hatred of Jews or to show he or she can force Jews to reject God’s requirements.  And it is true in private.

            But if the behavior takes place in public, and the person using force is trying to show he or she can force Jews or reject mitzvot, the Jew should not comply even at risk of death.  However, even in public, if the person using force is acting out of personal pleasure, the Jew should comply.

            If the action involves idol worship, murder, or incest or adultery, the Jew should refuse to do the act even at risk of death.  The rubric applies whatever the motivation of the person using force.  The Jew should refuse in public or in private.  This rubric applies even if the Jew is wholehearted in service of God.  The issue is not that the Jew’s action reflects a secret desire to do the act or to reject the relevant mitzvah.  Rather it is to prevent others from thinking the Jew would reject God’s authority. 

The author goes into detail about each of these three categories.

            Not only are Jews required to give up their lives rather than worship idols, Jews are also required to give up their lives rather than violate any mitzvah specifically related to idol worship.  The author works with the example of an asherah, a tree that was worshipped as an idol.  The doctor prescribes a medicine to a Jew which is made with the leaves of an asherah.  The author says the Jew may not take the medicine because there is a specific prohibition on taking possession of any item that was worshipped.  Even in times when the asherah is no longer worshipped, if the tree was once worshipped, the Jew must refuse to take the medicine.  The author gives conflicting opinions about a case where the prescription is for leaves of a certain species of tree and the only available tree is an asherah.  Distinguish that case from a case where a prohibition not especially focused on idol worship also prohibits behavior related to idol worship.  In that case the Jew need not forego life to keep that mitzvah.  The author gives the example of the prohibition on putting a stumbling block before the blind, which includes a prohibition on selling certain items to idol worshippers in the three days before their festivals lest the Jew facilitate the idol worshipper purchasing items necessary for the idol worship.  Since the source of that prohibition is a mitzvah not specifically about idol worship, a Jew need not risk his or her life to avoid violating it.

            The author explains the requirement that Jews forfeit their lives rather than murdering someone with the famous Talmudic statement, “What makes you think your blood is more red?  Maybe the blood of the person you murder is redder than yours.”  That seems to be pointing out that ultimately we cannot judge whose life is of more value.  The author explains that the person killed might be fit to fulfill more mitzvot than the murderer, which may be a subtly different interpretation.  Then the author plays out several complex variations of the applicability of this rule.

            Consider a case where the thugs say to a group, “Give us one of you so we can kill him.  If you don’t we will kill all of you.”  Here the issue is forfeiting one life or many lives.  The author says the group may not turn over one of their members even if the thugs then kill the entire group.  But the outcome is different is the thugs identify a specific member of the group rather than forcing the group to choose.  If the thugs identify a specific person, the group may sacrifice that specific person to protect the rest of the group members.  The author says the same rule applies where thugs threaten a group of Jewish women with rape of all of them unless they surrender one of their number to be raped.

            This rubric is based on a story that appears in 2 Samuel 20.  Sheba ben Bichri led a rebellion against King David.  When the rebellion failed, David sent his general, Joab, to kill Sheba.  Sheba hid in the town of Abel.  Joab besieged the town and began an attack intended to breach the town walls.  Joab assured the townspeople that he was only interested in Sheba and that he would leave the town in peace if they surrendered Sheba.  Under the guidance of a wise woman whose name is not given, the townspeople killed Sheba and tossed his severed head over the wall to Joab.  Joab promptly ended his siege and left.  Here, Joab identified a specific individual, so the halachah would permit the townspeople to surrender Sheba.  In the original story, Sheba was risking death by rebelling against the king, but that factor does not appear in our author’s formulation of the rule.  Also, in this story it was the townspeople who ended up killing Sheba.  That also stretched the rule our author formulates, which postulates that the thugs will kill the surrendered individual. Perhaps that was the only way the townspeople could surrender him.

            The last of the three categories of mitzvot where Jews are required to forfeit their lives is incest and adultery.  The author cites Deut. 22:26 as the source for this category; that verse draws an analogy between rape and murder.  Thus, just as Jews should sacrifice their lives rather than murder, they should sacrifice their lives rather than committing certain sexual acts.  The sexual acts that a Jew must die rather than commit are those where a marriage between the two participants would not take effect.  A Jew need not forfeit life to avoid sexual acts that are prohibited between two people, but where a marriage between those two people would take effect, for example a cohen and a divorcee.

 The requirement to forfeit life only applies to the active partner in the sex act, not to the passive partner.  Consider the case of Esther, a Jewish woman who ends up in the harem of a non-Jewish king.  Since any marriage between a Jewish woman and a non-Jewish man would not take effect, it would seem Esther should have refused to have sex with the king, even at the risk of her life.  But that is not what she did. The rabbis try to justify her behavior by saying that she was passive, “like the dust of the earth.”  The rabbis assume that since Esther’s participation in the sexual acts was not voluntary, she need not sacrifice her life to avoid those acts even if she got sexual pleasure from them. 

The author also considers a case where a man feels he will die if he does not have sex with a particular woman.  That is not a parallel case; the lovesick man has no excuse for violating mitzvot that prohibit him from having sex with her.  (The translator suggests this passage may have been added by someone other than our author.)

            The cases we discussed so far involve situations where individual Jews are threatened with violence.  In times of religious persecution of Jews, though, the situation is different.  If that persecution involves requiring Jews to violate mitzvot, Jews must refuse even at the risk of their lives.  The rule is the same for any mitzvah, or even for something identified as a Jewish practice even if it does not match a particular mitzvah.  For example, if Jews and non-Jews wear different shoe laces, in times of persecution the Jews should refuse to switch shoe lace styles even on pain of death.  The author says this applies in times of “shmad,” but he does not define exactly what that means.  It may mean times of religious persecution, or it may mean times of forced conversions, or it may mean something else.  The translator notes that other editions of Sefer haHinnuch use the phrase “b’et tzarah,” “in time of trouble,” a formulation that is even less clear.  That variant reading may have been the result of censorship in Christian Europe.

            As we mentioned earlier, in general a Jew must forfeit his or her life only in situations where the Jew is coerced into doing an act which violates a mitzvah.  The Jew should not forfeit life in situations where the Jew will forego an opportunity to fulfill a positive mitzvah.  So, for example, a Jew should not risk his or her life to circumcise a baby boy, to study Torah, or so take lulav and etrog on Succot.  Sometimes, though, in times of religious persecution, Jews choose to risk their lives in order to participate in normal aspects of Jewish life.  The author says ordinary Jews should not choose to do that.  In fact, an ordinary Jew would be guilty for doing so.  But great scholars, motivated by piety and a sense that their choice might inspire the Jews around them, are permitted to make that choice.

The author explains that the sin of desecrating God’s reputation is very grave. It is especially grave if it was done in public, which the author defines as in the presence of ten Jews. But that violation is not punishable if it was done under coercion.  Rather, only acts done out of someone’s free will are punishable.  Similarly, someone who does any act that violates a negative mitzvah out of error or without full intention is not punishable.  That may be why the rabbis refuse to punish someone who did not get a formal warning; the warning assures that the perpetrator knows exactly what he or she is doing and why it matters.

The second category of desecration of God’s reputation includes sins someone commits out of spite.  That is different from someone who is tempted into violating a mitzvah by some craving, lust or pleasure.  People’s motives tend to be very complex and multivalent, so I am not sure how one would tell the difference.  After all, there can be a great deal of psychological pleasure to be had from expressing one’s frustration and anger, even if that frustration and anger is directed at God. 

The author says that this perpetrator is subject to malkos.  Since the prohibition on desecrating God’s reputation is a negative mitzvah that covers many different situations, violating this mitzvah ought not to be subject to punishment.  But to desecrate God’s reputation in this way one must also violate some other mitzvah in the process; perhaps the author means the perpetrator would be punishable for violating that mitzvah assuming that act was punishable with malkos. 

The third way to desecrate God’s reputation applies to people who have a special reputation for kindness, piety, etc.  That person has to live up to a higher standard, avoiding behavior that others will think is improper or which others will find unworthy of someone with such a reputation.  The act of desecration may not in itself violate a mitzvah.  For example, most people would be fine buying from a storekeeper on credit if the storekeeper agrees.  But that behavior is unbecoming of someone with a special reputation for piety, who should pay promptly.  Obviously this type of desecration is very subjective, depending on the person, the situation and the audience.

The author limits this to people of special piety.  But it is a goal we all might keep in mind.  We each project a persona to people around us, giving others an impression of what kind of person each of us is. When we hold ourselves out as people trying hard to represent the morality God wants Jews to live up to, in a sense we create a standard for ourselves.  We ought to try to live up to that standard.  When we do, our behavior reflects well on the God we try to serve.  When we don’t, we reflect badly on ourselves and on our God. 

Before we leave the topic of desecrating God’s reputation, let’s consider some cases from the Holocaust.  Rabbi Ephraim Oshry survived the war in the Kovno ghetto, where he was liberated in 1944.  During his years in the ghetto, he was asked questions that reflected the horrific conditions under which the Jews lived.  He took brief notes on the answers he gave, and buried those notes.  After the war, he dug up the buried notes.  He expanded his notes into complete essays and published them in five volumes, called Sh’eilos U’Teshuvos MiMa’makim.  In 1983 he published abridged versions of a few of those t’shuvot in English in a book called Responsa from the Holocaust.  Consider the following selections from that book:


#58:  QUESTION: Among the imprisoned Jews in the Kovno Ghetto were German Jews who had been exiled by the Hitler regime.  Among them was a Jew who possessed a German passport issued before the outbreak of the war, and whose name was absolutely not Jewish.

            As life for the ghetto prisoners grew more difficult, new decrees appearing daily, this Jew decided to escape, hoping he would be able to hide among the gentiles, since his appearance and name concealed his Jewish identity.  He asked the following question:  In order to complete the deception, he would have to write into his passport the two letters “R.C.” to show that the bearer of the passport was a Roman Catholic.  Thus anyone inspecting his passport would be convinced that he was a gentile by birth.  Since adding in these two letters might appear to be admitting or confessing to a deity other than the God of the Jews, he wanted to know if that was forbidden or permissible.

RESPONSE:  I ruled that he might write the two letters R.C. for, even though the non-Jews would think they mean he is a Roman Catholic, he was free to have in mind the Hebrew meaning of the two letters.  It was irrelevant how the non-Jews would construe the letters.


#33: QUESTION:  On the first of Nissan 5702 – March 19, 1942 – I was asked whether a person might purchase a baptismal certificate which – if he could escape into the forest – would enable him to join the partisans.

RESPONSE:  A baptismal certificate has only one connotation: that the owner of the certificate has, God forbid, forsaken his Creator and denied his people, the people God chose as His treasure.  It is absolutely forbidden for a Jew to use one even though he believes wholeheartedly in the Rock of Israel and its Redeemer.  He is commanded to sanctify God.  I concluded that there was absolutely no way to allow using a baptismal certificate, even if one expected to save his life with it.


#8:  QUESTION:  … The German commandant of the Kovno Ghetto, Jordan, had ordered the Eltestenrat, the council of elders, to distribute among the laborers in the ghetto 5,000 white cards, permits for the laborers to remain in the ghetto with their families, while the rest of the Jews were to be annihilated.

            At that time the ghetto held some 30,000 Jews, among them 10,000 laborers.  It is impossible to describe the confusion that broke out among the laborers, for every single one wanted a white card; without it, his family’s fate was sealed. …

            I was asked …: Is it right for anyone to grab a white card to save his life?  For by grabbing a [card] for yourself, you were sending another Jew and his family to death.  How could you determine that your life was more valuable than another’s?

RESPONSE:  …Rav Avrohom DovBer Kahana-Shapira [also of the Kovno ghetto] … ruled as follows: “If a decree is issued that a Jewish community be destroyed and a possibility exists to save some part of this community, the leaders of the community are obligated to gird themselves with the courage necessary to act with the fullest sense of the responsibility that lies upon them and to take every possible measure to save as many as can be saved.” … [I]t would initially seem that no Jew is ever allowed to do anything that places another Jew’s life in danger.  Nevertheless, according to the principle outlined  [above] … that in a case of danger to a community one must save whoever can be saved, it seemed that each laborer was entitled to do whatever he could do to save his life and that of his family.


#41:  QUESTION:  On 13 Elul 5702 – August 26, 1942 – the German enemy issued an edict forbidding the Jews of the ghetto to gather in synagogues or in study halls.  The broken-hearted residents, their bodies bent and wracked from long days of slave labor, would forget some of their suffering when they assembled at fixed hours for the study of Torah.  Listening to the encouraging words of the rabbis who were enduring the same tortured labor instilled in them a drop of hope in the Holy One of Jewry, Who would ultimately avenge the shedding of His servants’ blood. …

            Reb Naftoli Weintraub, the gabbai of the Gapinovitch Shul – may God avenge him- asked me whether Torah law obligated him to risk his life to pray with this daily minyan and compelled him to risk his life for Torah study?

RESPONSE:  I did not have the heart of rule that every Jew should risk his life in order to study Torah or pray with a minyan.  There were few with the purity of thought that could raise them to the level of a Daniel and his comrades, Chananya, Mishoel, and Azarya, who risked their lives to sanctify God even when they were not bound to.

            On the other hand, how could I forbid anyone to risk his life?  All Jews possess holy soul that originate at the highest level Above and, according to the Halacha, each individual must probe the degree of his personal love and awe of God to determine his level of service to God and his consequent right or duty to make sacrifices.  Beyond any doubt, the Master of Justice and mercy guides each person to act with sensitivity. …

            I, too, despite the decrees, continued to hold regular daily classes in public. …


#103:  QUESTION:  When the liberation took place and we were free from the yoke of the abominable Germans, it was very difficult to find an expert scribe who could repair a Torah scroll or a pair of tefilin and make it again kosher.  Most of the scribes had been among the martyred.  I was asked the following question.  Among the liberated Jews there was one scribe who knew the laws of writing, examination, and repair perfectly.  However, much to our sorrow, everyone knew that during the war years he had disguised himself as a non-Jew, had worn a cross around his neck, and had bought himself a baptismal certificate.  To save his life and protect himself from being arrested by the Germans or handed over by the Lithuanians for blood money, he had attended church like the most devout Catholic.  Might he now return to his profession, the sanctified labor of repairing Torah scrolls, tefilin, and mezuzos?

RESPONSE:  The man may return to his craft as a scribe and he is allowed to repair Torah scrolls, tefilin, and mezuzos.  One consideration is that this immediate post-war period is one of dire spiritual need and there is no one else who can inspect and correct for us.  And the fact that the man had disguised himself as a Catholic during the war years cannot be held against him for he did so out of compulsion to save his life.

            That he did not don tefilin during those years is not enough to disqualify him, because he was afraid of being recognized as a Jew.  Now, after the liberation, we see that he is an observant Jew again in every respect, and that his repentance is complete.  He even accepts insults silently.  We cannot deny him the right to serve as a scribe because of what he did to save his life, especially now that we are in need of his services as a result of the Russian domination of Lithuania.