Choose the Bigger Sin

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by R. Moshe Kurtz

Lomdus on the Parsha: Lech Lecha

Based on the Acclaimed Sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon

Q:  Is it worse to commit one major sin or multiple minor sins?

“Please say that you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may remain alive thanks to you.” (Genesis 12:13)

We may be inclined to think that the Egyptians were actually quite religiously observant. After all, they were prepared to eliminate Abraham in order to avoid the grave sin of committing adultery with his wife Sarah. However the Tosafists raise a very glaring question: If the Egyptians were truly concerned about violating the prohibition of adultery how could it escape their conscience that murdering another person in cold blood would also be a severe moral infraction? It is difficult to understand what the Egyptians thought they had to gain by killing Abraham in order to avoid the prohibition of adultery if by doing so they would be exchanging it for the grave sin of murder. 

The Tosafists answer that perhaps the difference lies not in the severity of the sin but in its frequency. Whereas the sin of murder was a one-time act, the sin of adultery would have been violated each and every time that Pharaoh was intimate with Sarah.

This is akin to the Ran’s (Commentary on Rif 4b) elaboration of the following passage in the Talmud (Yoma 85a):

The Sages taught: In the case of one who is seized with bulmos and must be fed until his vision is restored, one feeds him the items whose prohibition is least severe first. If he must be fed forbidden foods, he should first be fed those whose level of prohibition is least severe. For instance, if there is untithed produce and an unslaughtered neveila [animal carcass] or any other non-kosher meat, one feeds him the neveila (as the prohibition of untithed produced warrants death at the hand of Heaven, but eating non-kosher meat is a transgression punishable only by lashes)…  

This excerpt from the Talmud teaches us the principle of Hakal Hakal Techilah – that even when one is warranted  to transgress the Torah to save their own life it should be done so in a way that mitigates the severity of the sin to the extent possible. Thus it is preferable to consume non-kosher meat rather than to eat untithed produce, since the former only carries the consequence of lashes while the latter incurs death by the Hands of Heaven. 

Based on this Talmudic principle, the Ran seeks to investigate why it would be acceptable to slaughter meat on Shabbos for someone who is deathly ill rather than provide them with non-kosher meat such as neveila. After all, violating Shabbos is a capital offense (punishable by stoning) whereas neveila would only constitute a standard isolation of a negative commandment.  The Ran suggests that if all else were equal it would indeed be better to feed the ill individual neveila  before resorting to the more severe sin of slaughtering an animal on Shabbos. However, the critical difference here lies in the frequency of the sin being committed: On the one hand slaughtering an animal on Shabbos is more severe, however it is only a one-time act. Whereas in the case of eating non-kosher food, while a lesser transgression, each time he would take another bite he is in violation yet again of the same transgression. Thus, the Ran asserts that these numerous smaller sins add up to the point that they would outweigh the one time extreme sin of slaughtering on Shabbos. What we see from here is that it is better to commit a one-time major sin rather than to many smaller sins.

Rabbi Yonasan Eibeschitz suggests that this was precisely the reasoning of the Egyptians. While they knew that murder was highly immoral they reassured themselves that it was a one-time aberration that could be overlooked. However, what they could not abide was committing the sin of adultery, which in addition to its severity, would be committed over and over again each time Pharaoh would be intimate with Sarah. Thus, if the Egyptians would not have resolved to commit a one-time act of murder, Pharaoh would not have just committed a single sin, but would be living in sin each and every day of his life.

The concept of Hakal Hakal Techilah is a broad topic. However it is still worth noting a number of  salient, alternative perspectives on how to address the scenario in which one needs to choose between eating non-kosher food or violating Shabbos to save someone’s life. 

1) Unlike the Ran, the Rosh (Yoma, ad loc.) fundamentally prefers multiple acts of eating neveila to one major sin of violating Shabbos. However, we are concerned that for psychological reasons the ill person will be disgusted by the prospect of consuming  non-kosher food and will refuse to accept it. Nevertheless, when all else is equal it would actually be preferable to perform multiple smaller sins rather than one major sin such as desecrating Shabbos. 

2) In a similar vein the or Or Zaruah (sec. 108) writes that eating neveila, in particular, constitutes a genai gadol, a serious debasement. Rabbi Mordechai Carlebach suggests that this is in line with the concept raised by Tosafos (Gittin 7a, s.v. Hashta) that while non-kosher food may be a categorically smaller violation than many other sins, it carries along with it intrinsic metaphysical impurity (timtum halev) that is harmful to those who consume it regardless even when done under permissible circumstances, such as saving one’s life. Therefore, while it may indeed be preferable to perform multiple smaller sins rather than one large sin, the case of non-kosher food is an exception due to the negative metaphysical impact. 

3) Addressing this issue from a different angle,, Radvaz (Vol. 4) suggests that our case has less to do with the nature of the sins in question, and more to do about who is performing them. He claims that it would actually be preferable for the ill individual to eat numerous pieces of neveila rather than have Shabbos violated even once. The key factor here is that while the ill individual would be the one to consume the non-kosher food, it would be a second party who would bear the responsibility for slaughtering a cow, thus violating Shabbos for the ill person’s benefit. This would be in violation of the dictum introduced in the Talmud (Shabbos 4a), “Do we say that a person should sin for another person’s benefit?” Thus, it would be better that the person who is actually ill commits the act of consuming non-kosher food rather than have someone violate Shabbos on his behalf. 

4) Despite the violation of Shabbos being weightier than consuming neveila , in the context of saving a person’s life it may prove to be the preferable method. The Chasam Sofer (O.C. responsum no.  79) that conceptually when one eats non-kosher food to preserve their life, they are committing a bona fide sin, albeit it is superseded by a higher considerations (a.ka. dechuya). Whereas when one “violates” Shabbos to save ones life it not actually a transgression – perhaps even a fulfillment of what the Talmud (Yoma 85b) tells us: “Desecrate one Shabbos on his behalf so he will observe many more days of Shabbos in the future.” Thus when one slaughters an animal on shabbos to preserve someone’s life they are not violating Shabbos but upholding it (a.k.a. hutra). Whereas when one consumes non-kosher food, they are still committing a sinful act, albeit it is reluctantly permitted under the circumstances.  One practical difference between these two conceptualizations is whether one should seek to mitigate and minimize the scope of the permitted sin. If one subscribes to Shabbos being completely removed from the equation (hutra) then there is no need to minimize the non-existent “violation” of Shabbos. Therefore, it is actually preferable to slaughter an animal on shabbos to preserve someone’s life rather than making use of already prepared non-kosher food, since the act of eating non-kosher food is fundamentally a sinful act that just happens to be superseded when there is no alternative to save someone’s life.. (See Responsa of Rashba 1:689 for an alternative approach to violating Shabbos to save a person’s life.) 

Note: This series is not intended to dispense practical halachic conclusions. The Torah presented here is but a small extraction from the breadth of the sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon and is not affiliated with the author in any official capacity. Translations are adapted from Sefaria,, Mechon Mamre, and my own. Contact: [email protected] 

About Moshe Kurtz

Rabbi Moshe Kurtz is Assistant Rabbi at Congregation Agudath Sholom of Stamford, CT. He welcomes questions, feedback and speaking requests at: [email protected].

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