Was Beruriah Wrong?

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by R. Gil Student

Perhaps the most famous appearance of Beruriah in the Talmud is regarding her husband, R. Meir’s, inappropriate response to hooligans who were hounding him. R. Meir prayed that God kill them. Beruriah objected that R. Meir should instead pray that they repent from their evil ways. Quoting Psalms (104:35), she pointed out that the verse says “yitamu chata’im min ha’aretz, let sins cease from the land.” It says chata’im (sins) and not chotim (sinners). Therefore, R. Meir should pray that the sinners remain intact but repentant, so their sins cease. This is a beautiful idea but it faces serious problems.

I. Grammatical Problem

The first is basic grammar. Chata’im does, in fact, mean sinners, despite Beruriah’s protests to the contrary. Someone who steals once is called a goneiv. Someone who steals repeatedly is called a ganav, a thief. Similarly, someone who sins once is called a chotei while someone who sins habitually is called a chata. The wicked people of Sedom are called “evil and sinners (chata’im) to God” (Gen. 13:13). The first verse of Psalms praises a man who does not walk in the path of sinners (chata’im). Indeed, Rashi on the verse under discussion (Ps. 104:35) comments that chata’im means chotim, in direct contradiction to Beruriah’s explanation. [1]See also Rashi and Ibn Ezra to Prov. 13:6; Ha-Kesav Ve-Ha-Kabbalah, Deut. 14:21.

The Maharsha (Chiddushei Aggados, ad loc., sv. chata’im) explains that chata’im can mean both sins and sinners. In contrast, chotim only means sinners. Beruriah’s argument was from the biblical use of the ambiguous term rather than the clear word chotim. This must mean that the intent is for sins to cease and not sinners. However, this answer also suffers a grammatical problem. The plural of cheit is chata’im vowelized with a chataf patach under the first letter and without a dagesh in the second letter. Chata’im vowelized in that way means sins. But in our verse, chata’im is vowelized with a patach and a dagesh, which can only mean sinners. Rav Moshe Ibn Chabib, in his Ha-Kosev commentary, suggests that Beruriah was referring to the written word without the vowels. In that case, chata’im can mean either sinners or sins.

Rav Chaim Elazar Shapira, the author of Minchas Elazar (Divrei Torah, vol. 2, no. 46), is so bothered by this question that he suggests Beruriah is wrong and rejected by the Talmud, pointing out her gender as a negative in this context. However, Rav Asher Weiss (Responsa Minchas Asher, vol. 1, no. 64) takes issue with this view. He points out that the Sages would not have quoted Beruriah repeatedly if they felt she overstepped her bounds. Instead, he suggests that Beruriah was offering a derash (homily) that that is theologically correct even if not textually, does not have to follow the strict rules of grammar. Rashi, in his commentary to Psalms, offered the peshat explanation of the verse. I believe that this was also the intent of Rav Moshe Ibn Chabib, mentioned above. Rav Avraham Weinfeld, the author of Lev Avraham, also strongly rejects Rav Shapira’s suggestion (Shuvah Yisrael, vol. 2, ch. 10 sec. 25, p. 110). He points out that the Zohar (Vayera, Midrash Ha-Ne’elam) explicitly supports Beruriah’s position.

Rav Avraham Dovber Kahana Shapira (Devar Avraham, Chelek Ha-Derush, p. 47) differentiates between occasional sinners and habitual sinners, as we discussed above. Beruriah’s message is that the verse only says that habitual sinners should cease (chata’im) and not occasional sinners (chotim), and even habitual sinners will not cease as we see from the end of the verse. Rather, they should repent and cease being sinners. This is what R. Meir should pray for, not their deaths. [2]See also Rav Yehudah Ginsburg,Yalkut Yehudah, vol. 1, p. 92, cited in Rav Moshe Zuriel, Leket Peirushei Aggadah, Berakhos 10a.

II. Theological Problem

The Maharsha (ibid.) raises another difficulty with Beruriah’s approach. Beruriah had suggested that R. Meir prayer for the hooligans to repent. However, the Talmud (Berakhos 33b) teaches us that everything is in God’s hands except for fear of God. In other words, God allows us the freedom to choose whether to follow God’s word or not. How could R. Meir pray that God cause the hooligans to repent when God specifically does not do that?

If you pray for your own repentance, the request falls under the saying that God helps you get to where you want to go (Makos 10b). However, you have to make the first move. If you pray for someone else to repent, that other person is not beginning the repentance process. If so, how can the prayer that Beruriah recommended help?

The Maharsha leaves this question unanswered but later commentators offered solutions. Iyei Ha-Yam (quoted in Anaf Yosef to Ein Ya’akov, ad loc.) distinguishes between internal and external reasons for sin. Sometimes people sin because the desire for a forbidden pleasure burns inside them. Other times, people do the wrong thing when they find themselves in a situation that lends toward sin. Someone mired in poverty might feel a need to steal that he otherwise would not feel if not for the poverty. Beruriah’s prayer was that the hooligans would emerge from circumstances that lead them toward sin.

Ahavas Eisan (Ein Ya’akov, ad loc.) quotes Maharsha’s distinction between natural and intellectual fear of God (Berakhos 33b sv. atu). The latter is completely subject to free will. A person can choose to recognize God’s sovereignty and power, fearing the ultimate force in the world. However, a natural fear is that of a third party, an external force God sends to punish people. God can send an enemy or a natural disaster to scare people into doing the right thing. Beruriah’s prayer was that God would exercise His power and instill a natural fear into the hooligans, sending them onto the right path.

Rav Yehoshua Hartman (Maharal, Be’er Ha-Golah, vol. 2, ch. 7, sec. 6, p. 420 n. 360) suggests that Beruriah’s prayer is a for a repentance that goes unrewarded. God does not reward people for good deeds performed under duress. However, sometimes God forces people to do the right thing, refraining from rewarding them because they did not choose to do the mitzvah. Similarly, if God installs fear of Heaven into an individual, He does not reward the person for any positive results of that fear.

The proper relationship to maintain with evil people is complex. Beruriah’s prayer is an important source but one that only shows part of the picture.

 

Endnotes

Endnotes
1See also Rashi and Ibn Ezra to Prov. 13:6; Ha-Kesav Ve-Ha-Kabbalah, Deut. 14:21.
2See also Rav Yehudah Ginsburg,Yalkut Yehudah, vol. 1, p. 92, cited in Rav Moshe Zuriel, Leket Peirushei Aggadah, Berakhos 10a.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

7 comments

  1. It’s not just the Zohar that endorses Bruriah’s position.

    What about Sotah 14a’s statement that Moses was praised for praying for the sinners of Israel to repent?

    And what about Abba Chilkia in Taanit 23b who prayed for the robbers of his town to repent?

  2. If you pray for someone else to repent, that other person is not beginning the repentance process. If so, how can the prayer that Beruriah recommended help?… Iyei Ha-Yam (quoted in Anaf Yosef to Ein Ya’akov, ad loc.) distinguishes between internal and external reasons for sin…. Beruriah’s prayer was that the hooligans would emerge from circumstances that lead them toward sin.

     

    משנה תורה הלכות תשובה ו:ה

    ומהו זה שאמר דוד טוב וישר ה’ על כן יורה חטאים בדרך ידרך ענוים וגו’ זה ששלח נביאים להם מודיעים דרכי הומחזירין אותן בתשובה ועוד שנתן בהם כח ללמוד ולהבין שמדה זו בכל אדם שכל זמן שהוא נמשך בדרכי החכמה והצדק מתאוה להן ורודף אותם והוא מה שאמרו רז”ל בא לטהר מסייעין אותו כלומר ימצא עצמו נעזר על הדבר …

     

    So, ala Rambam, too, the prayer Bruriah recommended may have been for Hashem to send the baryonim influences (external to their minds, so as not to interfere with their free-will) that could inspire them to do teshuva by their free-will.

     

    Zvi Lampel

    • Another approach would be based on another principal the Rambam presents in his preceding halacha in Hilchos Teshuva. After explaining that Pharoah’s bechirah to do teshuva was removed in punishement for the amount and gravity of sins he accumulated, the Rambam continues:

      .שם הלכה ד

      וכענין זה שואלין הצדיקים והנביאים בתפלתם מאת ה’ לעזרם על האמת כמו שאמר דוד הורני ה’ דרכך כלומר אל ימנעוני חטאי דרך האמת שממנה אדע דרכך ויחוד שמך וכן זה שאמר ורוח נדיבה תסמכני כלומר תניח רוחי לעשות חפצך ואל יגרמו לי חטאי למונעני מתשובה אלא תהיה הרשות בידי עד שאחזור ואבין ואדע דרך האמת ועל דרך זו כל הדומה לפסוקים אלו:

      We pray that Hashem has mercy and refrains from adding up our sins before we have a chance to do teshuvah for them. Pharoah’s sins in enslaving the Israelites accumulated so much that as punishment, Hashem took away his bechira to do teshuvah. Once Pharoah’s bechirah was taken away, he was as good as dead insofar ashis purpose in life was concerned. This, Rambam says, is the meaning of whatever pesukim speak of Hashem helping one see the way of truth.

      Perhaps this was Bruriah’s recommendation.

      Indeed, why in the Bruriah account are the prayer options either the drastic measure of their death, or that they should repent (אלא בעי רחמי עלויהו דלהדרו בתשובה)? Why did Bruriah not suggest, on the grounds of the posuk she quoted (דכתיב “יתמו חטאים.” מי כתיב “חוטאים”? “חטאים” כתיב! ועוד שפיל לסיפיה דקרא: “ורשעים עוד אינם.” כיון דיתמו חטאים–ורשעים עוד אינם) that R. Meir simply pray that Hashem stops them from bothering him? Following the Rambam, the question is solved: Hashem’s forcing a person to act one way or another is eradicating his bechirah, and he is thereby as good as dead. (Such as was the case with Pharoah.) Praying for someone to lose his bechirah is equivalent to praying for his death.

      I would even venture to suggest that the Rambam understood the passage to mean that R. Meir’s original prayer was for Hashem to stop them, not literally kill them. Beruriah said that even this removal of their bechirah is not the intent of the posuk, and that it is better to ask Hashem to maintain their bechirah to give them an opportunity to choose to change their ways.

      Zvi Lampel

  3. The approach of the Iyei Ha-Yam mentioned above is explained in more detail in a recent book “Aggadah sages stories & secrets” by Rabbi Immanuel Bernstein at pages 34 to 35. The author says at footnote 8 that a similar response is in Igros Moshe , Orach Chaim , vo 4 , resp 40, sec. 13. Other sources are cited in footnote 7

  4. See https://rabbidmk.wordpress.com/2015/09/18/yom-kippur-5776/, where I suggested that there is such a concept as repentance independent of free will.

  5. Your grammatical analysis might be anachronistic. It’s not at all clear that the nikud was fixed at the time of Bruriah and R. Meir. Perhaps the Rabbis who finalized the nikud were themselves expressing an opinion.

  6. Rabbi Zamir Kohen offers an answer to the theological problem per the Zohar [1]. He states that all of ‘Am Yisra’el are, in fact, one neshamah and that this is the actual meaning of “kol Yisra’el ‘arevin zeh bazeh” i.e. that all of ‘Am Yisra’el is literally one entity.

    Rabbi Kohen explains that, since all of ‘Am Yisra’el is in fact one, praying for someone else is effectively synonymous with that “other” person praying for him or herself. You are me, I am you, we are all one neshamah. This can also be understood per the Midrash that all of ‘Am Yisra’el is on the same boat. If one person begins drilling a hole in the boat, he is risking his own life and the life of everyone else. So, too, can be understood the Mitzvah of “velifne’i ‘iver lo titen mikhshol”. Since the ‘iver is actually another “part” of you, his sin is your sin. This is what the HaRav Aryeh Levine teaches us, in the context of marriage, that “Doctor, our foot hurts”.

    PS – A quick Google search brought up another fairly credible source for this concept: HaRav Avraham Yiẓḥaq HaKohen Quq [2].

    [1] http://facebook.com/10152715711934406
    [2] https://he.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D7%A0%D7%A9%D7%9E%D7%94#cite_note-3

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