Friday, June 3, 2016

In describing actions causing defects in children are Chazal describing medical facts or rabbinical curses?

I just came across and interesting article in 'Asia vol 73-74 pp 139-144 (  סכנתא או איסורא בהלכות תשמיש) by Rav Yehuda Hertzl Henkin regarding the nature of the statements of Chazal. We have discussed extensively the issue of causality ascribed by rabbis to events such as the Holocaust. There is a general obligation to try and search for the causes of misfortune in order to do teshuva and avoid wrong doing. There remains the question as to whether these causal descriptions of historical events are accurate or whether they are primarily motivational

Rav Henkin introduces a new dimension in this article. When Chazal say that if you do X then Y will happen - are they describing reality? What if the consequences they describe don't happen - does that mean that they were wrong or does it simply mean that nature has changed? Or perhaps all they mean  is that the consequences are more likely to happen if you do X but the change is only an increase in the likelihood - not that they will certainly happen.

The gemora being analyzed is Nedarim (20a-b) which is the basic text dealing with what is permitted in sexual relations.
Nedarim (20b): R Yochanon said, The above view [that talking, kissing or looking at her genitals or having unnatural sex produces defects in the children] is the view of Rabbi Yochanon ben Dehabai. However the Sages have said that the halacha is not in accord with his view but rather the halacha is that all that a man wishes to do with his wife he can do. This is comparable to meat which comes from the butcher. If he wants he can eat it salted, roasted, boiled or baked. And similarly regarding fish that comes from the fisherman. Ameimar asked, And who are the angels [that told him this]. They are rabbis. Because if in fact actual angels told him that the actions produced severe defects in children then why isn't the halacha in agreement with him? After all the angels are very knowledgeable about the nature of embryos! But why are these rabbis referred to as angels? Because they are as distinguished [by wearing white garments and tzitzis – Shabbos 25b] as angels.

Rav Henkin notes that some of the authorites dealing with appropriate behavior state that certain behavior is prohibited because of lack of modesty or the prohibition not to do disgusting things or even that one must love his fellow human being. Thus they clearly hold that these are either Torah or Rabbinic prohibitions. On the other hand there are a number of gemoras which say that inappropriate behavior causes severe defects in the child - such as epilepsy, blindness, deafness, mutism as well as spiritual defects such as an overwhelming yetzer harah.  These latter authorities are describing biological or medical dangers. The problem is how do we understand these statements when in fact to the best of our knowledge these behaviors don't produce the stated consequences? Is there an argument in medical reality?

 The gemora above notes the if these statements came from actual angels who really know what goes on - then they could be accepted. But since the source is a group of rabbis who apparently don't have special knowledge of the subject - Chazal reject their view.

If these "angels" don't have special knowledge then on what basis are they making their claims? Is it simply to scare people into behaving - even though they know the claims are not true? Perhaps it was the common understanding of the doctors of those times - even though they were mistaken.

Rav Henkin seems to suggest that the rabbis were well aware that they didn't have a medical basis for their claims. He suggests that these rabbis wanted to curse people who acted inappropriately and say that people deserved this to happen - not that it was going to happen. It seems that Chazal rejected this minority proposal and said that a person shouldn't do these things because of piety, modesty, respect of others or not to be disgusting.

והיה ראוי לפרש שר' יוחנן בן דהבאי איסורא קאמר ולא סכנתא, וחז"ל הם שאסרו לעשות מעשים אלה והם אמרו על דרך הקללה שראוי שייענשו על ידי הולדת בנים בעלי מומים. ולא שבאמת נולדים כן ושלא ככל הנ"ל. כלומר שאינו ענין טבעי כי אז מלאכי השרת בקיאים בטבע יותר ממנו, אלא הוא עניין גזירת ואיסור חכמים. וניחא שלא נחלקו במציאות שר"י בן דהבאי סובר שדברים אלה גורמים למומים ורבי יוחנן סובר שאינם גורמים למומים.

Would appreciate anybody letting me know if they have seen a similar explanation


  1. Tzava'at rav yehudah haChassid has alot of this kind of material (though i don't recall him getting into sexual matters; he probably does.)

    If you get this before shabbat, you hav ework to do over shabbat.

  2. Many of these deffects have sources in medicine, such as that they are genetic and are inherited. These same deffects run by goyim within families even though they don't have any halachic restrictions.

  3. This Pshat doesn't seem to make sense - if the Rabbis were not describing reality as they understood it, but rather some sort of curse or scare tactic, then:
    (1) in what way is their opinion rejected?
    (2) Why would their statement be accepted if it came from the angels, who have knowledge of a fetus, if the statement is anyway not a description of reality? (ויש ליישב בדוחק גדול)

  4. 1) we don't tell people that they deserve having defective children
    2) If it was actual angels then it is describing objective medical condition and thus would be a description of reality

  5. וכל זה בכלל ה"דוחק גדול".

  6. There are other effects as well, regarding character defects which result from the mode of sexual relations, as I recall from the Shulchan Aruch. The same question could be asked on these as well.

  7. 'If you get this before shabbat, you hav ework to do over shabbat.'

    Are you alleging that some of the commentators/bloggers here are mechallelei Shabbat chas vesholom?!

  8. I mean you can study the sefer chassidim over shabbat. I also meant it for people in israel (seven hours ahead of US east coast) so answer would be ready by the time shabbat is over, here.

  9. I have not seen a simiar explanation, but why cant we simply learn that the chachomim had a diffent mesorah in this inyan, that all is allowed?

    Also, quoting,

    "It seems that Chazal rejected this minority proposal and said that a person shouldn't do these things because of piety, modesty, respect of others or not to be disgusting"

    Chazal (the chachomim) never said anything like this on nedarim 20b.
    They never said a person should not do these things because of piety etc.
    The rishonim argue in the interpretation of the chachomim:

    The Raavad in shaar hakedusha says that the chachomin agreed to r' yochanan ben dahavai not to do 3 out of 4 of these acts, and the Mechaber in Orach Chaim Paskens like this.

    The rambam argues and says the chachomim allowed all 4, and this interpretation of the rambam is shared by the bais yosef, bach, magid mishna, atzei arazim, shitta mikubetzes, Rema, prisha and Tur.
    The Rema in Even Haezer paskens like the Rambam.

    The charachter defects described in shulchan oruch, of children of the 9 bad middos, appears that the chachomim agreed to, and the rambam paskens to be careful about these.


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