The Necessity of Sin

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by R. Moshe Kurtz

Lomdus on the Parsha: Naso

Based on the Acclaimed Sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon

Q: May a person sin for the sake of peace?

The priest shall write all these curses, on the scroll and dissolve them in the bitter waters. (Numbers 5:23)

The Rashba, in his responsa (1:854) was posed the following question: In a moment of anger, a man swears to divorce his wife. Is he now required to follow through on his oath or may he break it in order to preserve their marriage? The inquirer suggests that it should be permissible for the husband maintain the marriage similar to how in the case of the sotah ritual (in which we ascertain whether a woman committed adultery) the value of shalom bayis, peace between two spouses, supercedes the prohibition of erasing the Name of God (see Shabbos 116a and Nedarim 66b).

(A) The Rashba, quoting Rav Hai Gaon, rejects this suggestion, as the case of a sotah is not comparable to a husband taking an oath to end their marriage. For in the case of a sotah, God permits the erasure of His Name in order to ascertain whether the husband and wife are now forbidden to each other (as a result of the potential infidelity). Whereas, in the case of the husband’s oath, there is no matter of doubt that requires Divine clarification. 

However, this does not appear to be such a compelling description of the purpose of the sotah ritual. Afterall, if our entire concern is that we do not want this man and woman to be intimate together in potential sin we could just as easily dispense with the ceremony altogether and instruct him to divorce her rather than resorting to erasing the Name of God! Moreover, we find that the Talmud (Makkos 11a, cf. Sukkah 53b) employs the sotah ritual as a justification for cases that have nothing to do with marital status whatsoever:

When David dug the drainpipes [in preparation for building the Temple, the waters of] the depths rose and sought to inundate the world. [David] said: What is [the halachah? Is it permitted] to write [the sacred] Name on an earthenware shard and throw it into the depths, so that [the water will subside and] stand in its place? …Ahithophel raised an a fortiori inference on his own and said: And if [in order] to make peace between a man and his wife [in the case of a sotah], the Torah says: My Name that was written in sanctity shall be erased on the water, [then, in order] to establish peace for the whole world in its entirety, is it not all the more so [permitted]? [Ahithophel] said to [David]: It is permitted. [David] wrote [the sacred] name on an earthenware shard and cast it into the depths, [and the water in the depths] subsided and stood in its place.

It would appear that the purpose of the sotah ritual is not primarily about ascertaining the woman’s status inasmuch as it is intended for ensuring peace between two spouses. Accordingly, why could we not extrapolate this principle to permit a man to break his oath in order to preserve his marriage? 

(B) The Rema (responsum no. 100), also based on Rav Hai Gaon, presents an alternative explanation for why the Name of God may be erased in the case of the sotah ritual. He posits that the prohibition of erasing God’s Name is only transgressed when performed in a destructive manner. As the Torah states in Deuteronomy (12:1-4) states:

These are the statutes and judgments, which you shall observe to do in the land, which the Lord God of thy fathers gives thee to possess it, all the days that you live upon the earth. You shall utterly destroy all the places, in which the nations whom you are to dispossess, served their gods, upon the high mountains, and upon the hills, and under every leafy tree: and you shall overthrow their altars, and break their pillars, and burn their asherim with fire; and you shall hew down the carvings of their gods, and destroy the name of them out of that place. This you shall not do to the Lord your God.

Since we negate idolatry by committing an act of destruction, by the same token, we only transgresses doing so to God’s Name when also performed in a destructive manner. Whereas the sotah ritual, which is intended for the purpose of restoring peace between two spouses, the act of easing God’s Name is actually classified as a constructive deed. This is akin to how one may scrape off part of God’s Name in a Torah scroll in order to remove the ink that fell on top of it. However, in the case of one swearing to divorce his wife there is no such recourse for disregarding an oath, even if it is for a positive purpose. An oath is an oath, whether it has positive or detrimental implications.

However, the Rema’s proof from fixing the Name of God in a Torah scroll contains a potential flaw. We could easily suggest that when editing a Torah scroll, the reason it is permissible to temporarily erase part of God’s Name is becasue is directly contributes to the restoration of the Name itself. Whereas, in the case of the sotah ritual, God’s Name remains erased and is only used as a means to achieving an external goal of settling an issue of marital status. Thus, we will be forced to adjust our approach to this matter.

(C) R. Mordechai Carlebach suggests a slightly revised version of the Rema: Perhaps the difference between the sotah ritual and the case of taking an oath to divorce one’s wife is the necessity of the sin. In the case of the sotah, the only recourse available to resolve the matter is through the erasure of God’s name. At that juncture it is the only path forward, thus the erasure of God’s name is categorically a mitzvah as it is the cause for peace between this couple. Whereas, in the case of an oath, there was no imperative for the man to swear in the first place. Therefore, disregarding the oath remains a sin as it is not fundamentally a mechanism prescribed for creating peace. 

We should be wary, however, of over-extrapolating this principle. There are certain instances in which the Torah commands us to perform what is generally a sin in the service of a higher priority. However, it is not our choice to make. Our sages throughout the generations reckoned with the multitude of sources and determined how to relate to commandments such as Shabbos, preserving Jewish life, and many other values. In general one may not perform a mitzvah haba b’aveira, a good deed via a bad deed, and thus it is of paramount importance to follow our halachic tradition and know specifically when we may and may not apply unique principles such as aseh docheh lo sa’aseh (that under certain circumstances the performance of a positive mitzvah supersedes the transgression of a negative commandment).

End Note: This final approach of (C) does not provide us with an explanation as to why it was permissible for King Dovid to erase God’s Name to prevent the world from becoming destroyed.  One possibility is that this case was a grama, an indirect action – as God’s Name would only fade overtime in the water. 

For modern applications of this issue, see R. Moshe Shternbuch’s Teshuvos V’Hanhagos (3:326) in which he addresses the question of erasing God’s Name on a computer and provides several arguments to be lenient. Also see Igros Moshe (O.C. 1:4) and Doveiev Meisharim (1:99) regarding whether tefillin may be given to a person stricken with a lethal, contagious illness that would require the destruction of the tefillin after his passing. See also, Chashukei Chemed (Makkos, p. 91) who summarizes and addresses the same topic. 

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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