Thursday, August 22, 2013

Does a Mitzvah lead to another Mitzvah, or to a Sin?

Guest Post from Eddie:

Here we see the famous saying of Avot – that a Mitzvah leads to another Mitzvah. Why then, should anyone  think that a mitzvah can lead to a sin?

NY Times recently quoted researchers that “virtue sometimes begets more virtue and sometimes allows for vice.” Is this just treif psychology, or is it applicable to Torah + Mitzvot?

The researchers point to  2 mechanisms:  consistency, which is where one mitzva leads to further mitzvas, and compensation – where we compensate for mitzvot or good deeds, by doing bad deeds.

A very counter- intuitive Gemara seems to agree with the research.

Sukkah (52a): Abaye explained that the yetzer harah is stronger against sages than anyone else. For example when Abaye heard a certain man say to a woman, “Let us arise and go on our way.” Abaye said that he would follow them in order to keep them from sin and so he followed after them for three pasarangs across a meadow. However they simply parted from each other and he heard them say, “The way is long and the company is pleasant.” Abaye said, “If I were in that situation I could not have withstood temptation.” He went and leaned against a doorpost in deep anguish. An old man came to him and taught him: To the degree that a person is greater than others, to that degree his yetzer (evil inclination) is greater than theirs.

(source kindly supplied by R' Eidensohn, from his book on Child and Domestic Abuse Vol2. And upcoming).

The gemara is very surprising, after all, are we not told that a Tzaddik, or a Gadol is very finely tuned to all sorts of things that regular people cannot imagine – and would be less likely to say an evil word, or steal a toothpick?

My own understanding of the principle  “To the degree that a person is greater than others, to that degree his yetzer (evil inclination) is greater than theirs.”, was to look at it from a psychoanalytical perspective, that the more one takes on stringencies and represses bodily instincts, the more this repression is transformed into something more pernicious.

The modern research says it is a possible compensatory behaviour, which is negative.

Another source says:
Panim Yafos (Bereishis 2:7): Our Sages (Sukka 52a) state that a person’s yetzer grows stronger everyday. Thus corresponding to the strength of the yetzer tov, the yetzer harah grows to match it. The gemora there also says whoever is greater than his fellow man his yetzer his greater than theirs. Note that it doesn’t says that he is simply greater. This is in accord with Megila  (6b) that he is great only relative to others but that he is not actually a great person. In such a case his yetzer harah grows. However if he was truly a great tzadik then his yetzer harah becomes totally good…

But Chazal were not “regular rabbis”,  if we consider their greatness, they were on much higher levels than Rabbis of today who we call Tzaddikim.  So it is not altogether convincing that the Panim Yafos is claiming a Tzaddik become totally good.

Whether there is compensatory behaviour, is a matter of empirical research. The Gemara in Sukkah is still very surprising, and it seems to me there are several approaches to it.

1) Is to “deny” or whitewash it,  and base this in our Emunas Hachamim, that they could not be so base in their yetzer hara.

2) That it is limited, and applies only to a certain type of greatness, and is not a generalisation.  The quotation was actually from an unnamed old man, so how do we know if it is true?

3) My personal view is that this is a very honest and true statement, and is counter to the kind of Tzaddikism we are taught. This is taking the Gemara at face value.  Just like in the TeNach we see that key figures were not perfect, so did Chazal recognize that this is the case with Talmidei Chachamim. The statement is made  by the Gemara, and not by a secular academic.

This also ties in with a recent post  about being Frum vs. being normal.  Also the Chatam Sofer reminds us of the dangers of taking on too many chumras, and how this led to the fall of Adam and Chava, after they added a gezeira to NOT touch the tree.

In conclusion, it seems to me there is an encouragement to fulfil mitzvot as per the Mitzva goreret Mitzva of Avos, with a warning that becoming great, taking on many strictures, has its own dangers as per Sukkah, and also Avot 'd'Rabbi Nathan, who tells us of how Chava added to the Torah by being shomer negiah of the Tree.  These dangers were learned of empirically  by the greatest leaders in Orthodox Judaism.  I suggest that the lesson for today's  period is that overemphasis on matters such as ultra-znius dress, buses, and computers may also have its risks, since nobody is on such a level to be frum on the micro-level of every area of their lives, eg business, politics, bein adam l'chaveiro.  


  1. My understanding is that there’s a difference between having a bigger Yetzer Hoarh and actually sinning. The great sages DID indeed have greater Yetzer Horas, but they made sure not to sin. Abaya would make sure not to be in that situation, and not sin.

    Another Gemara illustrating great sages’ Yetzer Hora is in Kiddushin 81.
    הנך שבוייתא דאתאי לנהרדעא אסקינהו לבי רב עמרם חסידא אשקולו דרגא מקמייהו בהדי דקא חלפה חדא מנייהו נפל נהורא באיפומא שקליה רב עמרם לדרגא דלא הוו יכלין בי עשרה למדלייא דלייא לחודיה סליק ואזיל כי מטא לפלגא דרגא איפשח רמא קלא נורא בי עמרם אתו רבנן אמרו ליה כסיפתינן אמר להו מוטב תיכספו בי עמרם בעלמא הדין ולא תיכספו מיניה לעלמא דאתי

    Why do they have greater Y”H’s? I hope I’m explaining it properly – but the Maharal in נתיב כח היצר פ"ב seems to say that the Y”H rests in a place of unfulfilled potential. Talmidei Chachomim have a high level of intellect – but compared to their potential, it remains unfulfilled in this world. Therefore the Y”H is stronger.

    And about the point you make about chumras: The Chovos Halvovos says something SIMILIAR, but his point isn’t to stay away from chumras, but rather to GET OUR PRIORITIES STRAIGHT and work INCREMENTALLY:

    אם תראה לקבל על עצמך מתוספת הרשות במצוות מה שתוכל עליו, אחר שתמלא חובותיך מן המצוות לאהבת חסד, אחר שיהיה מסכים בם שכלך ורחוק מתאוותך - יהיה טוב, ואתה מקבל עליו שכר, ואינך יוצא בו מדעת הראשונים.
    כי כבר אמרו 'ועשו סיג לתורה'. ואמרו 'מפני מה חרבה ירושלים מפני שהעמידו דבריהם על דין תורה ולא עשו לפנים משורת הדין'. ואמרו 'אמר רב הונא כל העוסק בתורה בלבד דומה כמי שאין לו אלוה, שנאמר (ד"ה ב טו) ימים רבים לישראל ללא אלוקי אמת, הא למדך שאין אלוהי אמת אלא בתורה ובגמילות חסדים. ואמר אחד מן החסידים: מי שאין לו תוספת, אין לו חובה. ואין התוספת מתקבלת, עד שתפרע החובה.
    והתנהל לאט ובמתון בקנות המידות הטובות, כפי שיסבלהו ענייניך. והזהר מן הריבוי וההפלגה מבלי הדרגה פן תאבד, כי רוב השמן בנר היא הסיבה לכבות אורו,

    Lastly, on the Mishna of מצוה גוררת מצוה there’s a fascinating רבינו יונה. He explains two reasons why mitzvohs bring mitzvohs. I think his first reason meshes with Pavlov’s concept of classical conditioning and behaviorist theory. We condition ourselves to doing a little bit and thereby become accustomed and ready for greater challenges. – and the Mishna preceded Pavlov by a few years…

    1. and the Mishna preceded Pavlov by a few years…
      And all of them were preceded by Aristotle (who said the same thing) by a few more years...

    2. I actually have another example, that of R' Eliezer. however, it assumes that he actually sinned in the Aknai controversy, and that he deserved the herem.

      I suggest that his "yetser hara" that came out in the Aknai debate, leading to much destruction, was an over-compensation from his extreme ascetic practices in marital relations, where he would cover so many tefachs, and and uncover so many (i forgot how many).
      Had he not been so ascetic in his private life, perhaps he would not have gotten into the battle with the other sages in his Rabbinic life.

      What sin are you talking about? Eddie it would be better if you didn't use your creative readings to "discover" faults. If you recall that G-d said that his halachic understanding was correct. He was put in cherem for social reasons to ensure the authority of the majority.

      בבא מציעא נט:

      ואמר: רבונו של עולם, גלוי וידוע לפניך שלא לכבודי עשיתי, ולא לכבוד בית אבא עשיתי, אלא לכבודך, שלא ירבו מחלוקות בישראל.

      Rab Gamliel had to defend himself against a storm that G-d brought against him for putting his brotherinlaw in cherem. How can you say that he sinned?

      Nedarim 20a R. Johanan b. Dahabai said: The Ministering Angels told me four things: People are born lame because they [sc. their parents] overturned their table [i.e., practised unnatural cohabitation]; dumb, because they kiss ‘that place’; deaf, because they converse during cohabitation; blind, because they look at ‘that place’. But this contradicts the following: Imma Shalom26 was asked: Why are thy children so exceedingly beautiful? She replied: [Because] he [my husband] ‘converses’ with me neither at the beginning nor at the end of the night, but [only] at midnight; and when he ‘converses’, he uncovers a handbreadth and covers a hand breadth, and is as though he were compelled by a demon. And when I asked him, What is the reason for this [for choosing midnight], he replied, So that I may not think of another woman,1 lest my children be as bastards.2 — There is no difficulty: this refers to conjugal matters;3 the other refers to other matters.

      What ascetic practices are you referring to? The gemora is understood by some in the opposite direction.

      רש"י מסכת נדרים דף כ עמוד ב

      ודומה כמי שכפאו שד - שבא עלי בכח ודומה כמי ששד כפאו, ואית דאמרי שמתכסה כולו כאדם שמפחד מן השד

    4. That is why I said my explanation only works on the assumption that he sinned. I learned from some rabbis that R' Eliezer did sin, i.e. he was a zaken mamre - which I had difficulty in accepting.

      But to say he was put in cherem for social reasons seems to be worse still, since it suggests that the Herem was un-halachic.

      So The story of Aknai is actually an enigma. Rab' Gamliel died because of the cries of R ' Eliezer. It is not necessarily a punishment. Again, it is not clear if anyone did wrong in this story, or if so, whom?. (just like the case R' Yochanan/ Resh Lakish; Akabia Ben Mehalel).

      And as for R'Eleizer, the uncovering of a handbreadth, effectively is extreme ascetism, and also contrary to halacha (of today) that forbids any clothing or item to come between spouses. Indeed, R' Eliezer is cited by Rambam, also as support for ascetic practice, to consider sexual union as something being forced by the devil.

      To reiterate, I am not claiming that R Eliezer sinned, but I have been told that he did, and was a zaken mamre. Personally, I think he was right in the argument - but I don't wish to expand on this, since it could be deemed heretical, in not following the majority.

    5. Eddie the din of zakein mamre applies to the Sanhedrin which was not functioning at that time. Zakein mamre is put to death for not following the views of the majority - he isn't put in cherem. There is nothing un-halachic by putting someone in cherem if he is disturbing the nature of society and rabbinic authority. It is a rabbinic or community decree which is governed by C.M 2

      Eddie you didn't read the Rashi. It is not clear what the coving and uncovering is referring to nor is is the meaning of like being forced by a demon clear. On explanation is similar to the Berachos (62a) R. Kahana once went in and hid under Rab's bed. He heard him chatting [with his wife] and joking and doing what he required. He said to him: One would think that Abba's mouth had never sipped the dish before! He said to him: Kahana, are you here? Go out, because it is rude. He replied: It is a matter of Torah, and I require to learn.

      In addition if you look at what the Rambam poskens on sexual relations it is hard to claim that he was an ascetic. the halacha of clothing is not a modern minhag it is stated in the gemora. There is a view of Rav Yaakov Emden which might explain it.

      I think it might be better if you stopped relying on hearsay - even from rabbis and study the original material.

      There is no heresy in not following the majority - which is a din in the Sanhedrin and there wasn't a Sanhedrin at that time.

      Sometmes it is better to say we really don't understand something than to put together a hodgpodge of pronouncements which are not well supported by the facts.

    6. In the issue of Zakein mamre, yes I accept that this applies to a Sanhedrin only. However, if you argue that R' Eliezer was not obliged to follow the majority - then presumably, neither are we. If there is no obligation to follow the majority, then there is no Haredi Judaism, or even Orthodox Judaism, since it is predicated on this issue of rov.

      In any case, the issue is not a simple one, since something did go wrong, and people got killed.

      Re: Rambam, I agree, his psak is not ascetic - a year or two ago I made precisely that claim, and you argued the other side, that he says one should minimise pleasure, and not indulge in it as a sport.

      I agree with learning the texts, and that is why I participate in this discussion to learn more. My pronouncements are not pronouncements, but possible interpretations which are open to refutation.

      Finally, if you state that the cover/uncovering is unclear, then the Rashi statement is also an elliptical one, which does not really help in clarifying matters. R' Kahana was a different person from R' Eliezer. Correct me if I am wrong, but R Eliezer was taking an ascetic regime, and this was l'shem shomayim so that his children did not take on bad middos. The Chachamim rule in the same gemara, as does the Rambam, that a man can do all he wants with his wife.

    7. rov outside a Sanhedrin is not clear. Orthodoxy is not predicated on rov

      Regarding the Rambam - there seems to be split between what he says in Moreh Nevuchim and what he poskens in Mishne Torah

      There is no mention of ascetisim - that is an interpretation not a fact. In fact you can read it to mean he was focused on maximum pleasure not minimum. It is not clear from the gemora what is practices have to do with good midos for his children. the issue was specifically deafness

    8. This is a fundamental issue, so I wish to be clear about what you are saying.

      a) Was R Eliezer not obliged to follow the majority?

      b) If so, what value does the comment "acharei harabim lahatot" have in this context (outside of a Sanhedrin)?

      c) Furthermore, is anyone obliged to follow the view of Chachamim (majority) as oppsoed to a minority in the Talmud? This means, can Rambam, Meiri, Chatam Sofer , R' Rackman or any Rav today decide against a majority, whether in Talmud; or go against the Shulchan Aruch and take a minority view (eg Rambam)?

    9. Obviously that was the dispute. He clearly held that since he knew that they were wrong he had no obligation to submit to their authority. The following sources are in Daas Torah 2nd edition.

      Following the majority in most cases as the Chazon Ish puts it is for social reasons not for halachic reasons

      Minchas Chinuch (78:2): Look at Get Poshut in Principle #1. There he says this that we follow the majority opinion according to the Torah – it is only when the dissenting sides have debated the issue face to face. However if they haven’t debated the issue together but rather each side has written his opinion on his own as we find in the responsa of poskim – then even if the major of authorities agree to one view – in that case we don’t say that the majority view should be followed. That is because if they debated the issue directly than the majority might change its position and agree with the minority….

      Igros Moshe (O.C. 1 Introduction): This is the nature of disputes between our rabbis both Rishonim and Achronim in which one side prohibits while the other permits. As long as the halacha has not been finalized in accord with one view, it is possible for each side to continue issuing rulings in his community according to his viewpoint. This is so even though the objectively true view is only in accord with one of them. However both sides receive reward for their teachings.

      Get Poshut (Principle 1): The Mahari Sasson asks that since according to the view of the Maharam and his followers concerning a rabbinic dispute concerning monetary issues we don’t follow the majority - and that the one who currently has the money keeps it because of kim li – how is it possible to say that since Tosfos says the minority of judges are viewed as if they don’t exist? He answers, “That Tosfos hold this view only if the judges directly discuss the matter together. In such a case the majority is determined in the presence of all of judges and thus the minority is viewed as nonexistent. In contrast concerning views expressed in halacha books or those who posken from books – if the different sides are not in contact with each other and don’t argue the matter personally with their opponents then even if they saw the other poskim or the view stated in a sefer – then we can say kim li like the minority view. That is because it is possible that if they argued face to face that the majority would concede to the view of the minority.” This is the correct understanding and I have written something similar elsewhere in the name of the Rashba, Maharik, Ralbach in his psak concerning semicha, and all the Achronim that there is no majority except one that comes from within an actual group. This is alluded to in the Knesses Hagodola (13:22). However the Radvaz (116) disagrees and says that it is enough to count the number of poskim who agree with a view to constitute a majority.

    10. Ramban (Sefer HaMitzvos Shoresh 1):… In the time of the Sanhedrin, if there were a sage who was qualified to make halachic rulings, and the Sanhedrin ruled that something was permitted while he thought that they made a mistake – he has no requirement to obey the Sanhedrin and in fact he is not allowed to permit himself that which he thinks is prohibited – but he must be stringent. And this is surely if he is in fact a member of the Sanhedrin. Rather he is required to go before the Sanhedrin and to explain his reasons why he disagrees with them. They debate the matter with him. If they majority disagrees with his views and refute his reasoning then he must retract his position and adopt their ruling… He is only obligated to accept their ruling after his view has been discussed and rejected by majority vote. However regarding decrees and prohibitions which the sages created to protect the Torah and make a fence for it – they are not included in this prohibition of “lo sasur” except as a figure of speech…

    11. This is excellent - thank you for these clarifications.
      The Ramban here clearly contradicts Rambam, who insists that Lo Tasur applies to all gezeirot and takkanot, despite that not being the context of the Pasuk.

      Many years ago, I was invited to R' Simcha Wasserman's house for lunch in Jerusalem, one shabbat. he asked me what I think of 2 rabbis in my Yeshiva. He compared one to RambaN, and the other to RambaM. He then made an interesting remez, that one gadol had said that RambaN was greater than the RambaM.

  2. Abaye said, “If I were in that situation I could not have withstood temptation.”

    What is striking in these kinds of stories in the Talmud is a total lack of female perspective. I mean, if the woman refused Abaye's advances, was he going to rape her? Or did he think he was irresistible? Or that deep down all women are whores and would jump at first opportunity?

    1. perhaps that is what they say , perhaps it meant that they would indulge in a criminal/sinful act.

    2. Mikey it is not just women - the Talmud assumes that men as well as women would engage in intercourse if given the opportunity.

      Kiddushin (40a): Mighty of strength that do His word listening to the voice of His world (Tehilim 103:20). This is illustrated by R’ Tzadok and his companions. R’ Tzadok was asked to have intercourse a certain matron. He said he couldn’t do it because his heart was faint – perhaps she had some food for him eat. She replied that she had some unkosher food. He replied that it would seem that those who engage in sexual immorality could eat unkosher food. She lit the oven and placed the unkosher food in it. He then climbed in the oven and sat in it. She asked what he was doing. He replied that anyone who was involved in immorality falls into the fires of Hell. She replied that if she had known that what she had asked him to do was so terrible she wouldn’t have upset him. Rav Kahana was selling workbaskets. A matron asked him to have intercourse. He said that he first had to get dressed properly. He went up on the roof and jumped. However Eliyahu came and caught him. Eliyahu criticized Rav Kahana for having forced him to travel 400 parsangs to rescue him. Rav Kahana said that the reason that the incident happened was that his poverty forced him to go among women to sell his wares. Eliyahu gave him a purse of money.

      Kiddushin(81a): R. Meir used to scoff at transgressors. One day Satan appeared to him in the guise of a woman on the opposite bank of the river. As there was no ferry, he seized the rope and proceeded across. When he had reached half way along the rope, he [Satan] let him go32 saying: ‘Had they not proclaimed in Heaven, "Take heed of R. Meir and his learning," I would have valued your life33 at two ma'ahs.’34

      R. Akiba used to scoff at transgressors. One day Satan appeared to him as a woman on the top of a palm tree. Grasping the tree, he went climbing up: but when he reached half-way up the tree he [Satan] let him go, saying: ‘Had they not proclaimed in Heaven, "Take heed of R. Akiba and his learning," I would have valued your life at two ma'ahs.’

      Pelimo used to say every day, ‘An arrow in Satan's eyes!’35 One day — it was the eve of the Day of Atonement — he disguised himself as a poor man and went and called out at his door; so bread was taken out to him. ‘On such a day,’ he pleaded, ‘when everyone is within, shall I be without?’ Thereupon he was taken in and bread was offered him. ‘On a day like this,’ he urged, ‘when everyone sits at table,36 shall I sit alone!’ He was led and sat down at the table. As he sat, his body was covered with suppurating sores, and he was behaving repulsively.37 ‘Sit properly,’ he rebuked him.

      Kiddushin (81b): Whenever R’ Chiya bar Ashi said the tachanun prayer he would say, “The Merciful save us from the yetzer harah (evil inclination).” One day his wife overheard him. She said to herself, “It has been many years that we have not been intimate, so why does he have a need to pray for this – [he obviously doesn’t have a strong sex drive]?” One day he was studying in his garden and she dressed up and repeatedly walked past him. He asked who she was. She replied that she was Harusa (a well known prostitute) who had just returned. He desired her. She told him to first bring the pomegranate to her from the top of the tree. He jumped up and brought it to her. He came into his house his wife was firing the oven. He climbed in it [to kill himself – Rashi]. His wife asked him what was the meaning of this? He told her what had happened. She replied that she was the woman involved. However he paid no attention to her until she gave proof with the pomegranate. He said, “Nevertheless my intention was to sin.” For the rest of his life he fasted – until he died from the fasting.

  3. I'm sure I saw somewhere that the old man was Eliyahu HaNovi. Most old men in similar situations in the gemorrah are Eliyahu HaNovi.

    I have also been bothered by Mikey's question. Maybe Abaye would have been able to seduce her. A godol can do anything and they are all expert psychologists.

  4. The Gemorrah says Rabbi Meir's talmid was able to seduce the great Bruriah (Rabbi Meir's wife). That is what noshim daaton kalos means - that they are easy to seduce.

    1. The story is given in a Rashi, apparently no other sources for this exist. It ends in disaster - R Meir induces his gigolo talmid to seduce his own wife, and Bruria caves in - she ends up killing herself, and R' Meir goes into exile.

  5. Perhaps they are both right and as individuals we must try to know our own nature to see what best works for us?

  6. “To the degree that a person is greater than others, to that degree his yetzer (evil inclination) is greater than theirs.”

    The temptation of a person in a position of power (gadol) is stronger than a common person. Simple and logical as we read in the news every day.

  7. A modern day equivalent of the statement (To the degree that a person is greater than others, to that degree his evil inclination is greater than theirs) would be the famous quote of Lord Acton "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."

  8. Was the Tur not formulated by sifting through the shitos of the Ran theRosh and Rambam, majority?


  9. Henoch, yes indeed - how true your words are!

    ...Except that INSIDE the communities led by such leaders, adherents are falsely inoculated that doubting any action - or inaction - of their community leaders is tantamount to being an אפיקורוס!

    While their soul seeks the solace of truth and sincerity, their minds are brainwashed to accept the deceit, demoralization and rationalizations that are hallmarks of such communities.

    I believe that we are witnessing the bitter fruit, in the thousands of our coreligionists who have never known the power of an ethical religious life in giving purpose and meaning to our daily existence, and therefore leave our religion in droves.

  10. Going back to the texts Eddie started with: the Pirkei Avot and the Gemara in Sukkah are talking about two different though related things. One is dealing with the inculcation of habit. Good habits help with the yetzer's temptation, but that doesn't say anything about a given person's yetzer hara.

    What do we know about Rabbi Akiva? Despite his lowly background, he attracted a rich man's daughter. He had the force of character and powers of mind to become a great Talmid Chacham even with a late start. He attracted thousands of disciples, and he had great personal courage.

    Today, we might say he had charisma (How much was intrinsic, how much developed by his studies is another question, though there are plenty of Talmidei Chachamim who don't have much of that kind of "juice" at all. There is a connection between sexual attractiveness and charisma; it's not a 1:1 mapping but there's a relationship. So another way to describe charisma might also be to say "a greater than average yetzer." I don't think it's just opportunity or the temptations of power. In fact, the stories of the temptations of Rabbi Akiba and Abaye deal with it from the standpoint of internal processes, and doesn't have anything to do with the sort of temptation that would have come their way because of power or status.


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