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Avodah Zarah, 18


OPINIONS: The Gemara describes the tragic death of Rebbi Chanina Ben Teradyon. The Romans wrapped him in his Sefer Torah, surrounded him with bundles of branches, and ignited them. To make him suffer even more, they soaked sponges of wool in water and placed them on his heart so that his death would be slow and torturous. His students cried out, "Open your mouth and let the flame enter (so that you should not suffer)!" Rebbi Chanina replied, "It is better that the One who gave life should take it away, and let man not injure himself."

Was Rebbi Chanina conducting himself beyond the letter of the law ("Lifnim mi'Shuras ha'Din") and, normally, a person is *permitted* to cause himself to die in such a situation, or was he acting in accordance with the letter of the law, and a person is *forbidden* to kill himself under any circumstances?

(a) TOSFOS (DH v'Al) comments that when a person is concerned that he will be forced to sin (such as by being tortured until he sins), he is permitted to kill himself. The Gemara in Gitin (57b) relates the tragic story of four hundred Jewish children who were captured and were being taken to be used for immoral purposes, who chose to drown themselves in the sea rather than to be forced to sin.

Tosfos in Gitin there points out that the Gemara here implies that one may *not* kill himself, even when being tortured. Tosfos answers, according to The IYUN YAKOV explains that Tosfos answers that Rebbi Chanina was acting with "Midas Chasidus," and it indeed is permitted to kill oneself when being tortured (or when being threatened with torture). However, he concedes that this answer is difficult to understand, because Tosfos in Avodah Zarah does not seen to agree that Rebbi Chanina was conducting himself with "Midas Chasidus," but rather he holds that Rebbi Chanina was acting in accordance with the Halachah.

The SEDER YAKOV says that this is not the intention of Tosfos in Gitin. Tosfos in both places maintains that if a person will be forced to sin because of torture, he is allowed to kill himself first. However, Rebbi Chanina here was not in danger of being forced to sin; rather, he was suffering more pain before death. To hasten one's death in order to avoid pain is forbidden.

The Midrash (Bereishis Rabah 34:13) discusses the verse, "However, your blood of your souls I will demand (if you take your own blood)" (Bereishis 9:5). The Midrash states, "This includes one who strangles himself. We might have thought that this includes one who kills himself like Shaul (who fatally injured himself in order to avoid capture by the Plishtim). Therefore, the verse teaches, 'However' (implying that there are forms of suicide that are permitted)." The RITVA quoted in the Ein Yakov explains that Shaul was concerned that the Plishtim would force him to sin, and therefore he killed himself (see also ROSH in Moed Katan 3:94, BEDEK HA'BAYIS cited by the BEIS YOSEF YD 157, SHEVUS YAKOV 3:10). The PERUSH MAHARZAV (to the Midrash Rabah) also gives this explanation. He comments further that had Shaul been taken by the Plishtim and forced to sin, it would have been a terrible Chilul Hashem. In such a situation it is permitted for one to kill himself. The Ritva says that this indeed was deemed to be an acceptable practice in such situations.

The YEFEI TO'AR (to the Midrash Rabah) agrees with this explanation of the Midrash, but says that the Midrash permits killing oneself *only* for a person in Shaul's situation; Shaul knew, from Shmuel's prophecy, that he was definitely going to die on that day. Normally, a person who wants to kill himself to avoid being forced to sin does not know that he will definitely die on that die, and thus he is not permitted to take his own life even if he is surrounded by enemies and has a sharp sword placed by his neck, for Hashem in His mercy can save a person even in such a situation. (A similar opinion putting further limits on the exceptional case of Shaul is quoted by the Shevus Yakov (3:11) in the name of RAV YECHEZKEL, the Av Beis Din of Hamburg.)

(b) The DA'AS ZEKENIM (Bereishis 9:5) discusses the practical applications of this Midrash. He first cites the opinion quoted above as grounds to permit the killing of children when there is a decree of forced conversion. He then quotes a different interpretation of this Midrash from the MAHARASH BAR AVRAHAM (Uchman). He explains that the Midrash means that one might think that he may conduct himself like Shaul, and thus the verse teaches "However," implying that one may *not* conduct himself like Shaul. The Midrash is saying that Shaul acted against the wishes of the Chachamim.

He goes on to describe that this issue became, tragically, a practical one in a certain town, where all of the Jewish residents were given an ultimatum to forsake their faith. One Rav in the town was killing many children out of fear that they would be taken away and forced to convert. A second Rav was with him and was extremely upset, calling him a murderer. The first Rav continued, though, to kill the children. The second Rav declared, "If I am right, then you should be killed with an exceptional death!" His curse came true; the Nochrim skinned the first Rav alive, inserting sand between his skin and flesh. The Da'as Zekenim comments that soon thereafter the Gezeirah was rescinded; had the first Rav not killed those children, they would have survived. (Y. Montrose)


OPINIONS: The Beraisa states that one who goes to a stadium or other public recreational area to watch people who use various forms of witchcraft and other types of frivolity is considered to be in the category of "Moshav Letzim." About such a person, the verse states, "Fortunate is the man who...] did not sit in the company of scoffers, but his desire is in the Torah of Hashem" (Tehilim 1:1-2). This verse shows that participating in such frivolities brings a person to Bitul Torah.

What is the intention of the Gemara? Is the reason why these activities are prohibited is because they are a waste of time and cause Bitul Torah, or is the Beraisa teaching that there are two problems: a prohibition of being entertained in ways that constitutes "Moshav Letzim," and an additional prohibition against causing Bitul Torah? According to the first possibility, participating in such activities would be *permitted* for one who is exempt from learning Torah (such as a woman). What is the nature of this prohibition?

(a) The SHULCHAN ARUCH (OC 307:16) writes that "satires and parables of mundane discourse, romance writings such as the book of Emanuel, and war stories are forbidden to be read on Shabbos, and are also forbidden during the week because of Moshav Letzim, and because of the prohibition of 'Al Tifnu El ha'Elilim' (Vayikra 19:4)." The fact that the Shulchan Aruch does not mention Bitul Torah when discussing these things implies that they are forbidden inherently as wrong things to do, which remove thoughts of Hashem from one's mind.

The MAGEN AVRAHAM there writes that this is certainly true about those who go to theaters and circuses, as stated in our Gemara. He adds that he does not know who sanctioned the apparently prevalent custom to participate in some of these forms of entertainment on Purim. The MISHNAH BERURAH there writes that none of these activities are permitted on Purim except for the joking that people do on Purim to remember Achashverosh. He adds that today, unfortunately, because of our many sins, this prohibition has become forfeited as people constant go to theaters and transgress numerous prohibitions by participating in various other frivolous activities.

RAV MOSHE FEINSTEIN (in IGROS MOSHE YD 4:11) was asked whether it is permitted to attend theaters and sporting events. He answered that "anyone who goes to these places transgresses the prohibitions of Moshav Letzim and Bitul Torah; not only does he transgress during the time spent in those places, but he also transgresses because these activities causes him to stop learning Torah entirely, as explained in the Gemara."

Apparently, Rav Moshe understands that the prohibition of participating in such activities is due to the severity of Moshav Letzim, and not merely because it constitutes a waste of time. He concludes that "there is another severe prohibition as he brings upon himself the Yetzer ha'Ra of promiscuity, as most of these things entail depraved speech and turning people towards promiscuity." This ruling is followed by today's Poskim as well (as heard from RAV TZVI WEBER, shlit'a, RAV SHMUEL KAMINETZKY, shlit'a, and RAV DAVID ZUCKER, shlit'a.)

The MAHARSHAM (DA'AS TORAH OC 224:1) also understands that the prohibition of Moshav Letzim is independent of the prohibition of Bitul Torah.

He quotes the Magen Avraham (loc. cit.) who states that even if these places of entertainment are run by Jews, they are also forbidden.

In addition, he quotes a fascinating Midrash Rabah (Ruth, end of chapter 2): After Ruth convinced Naomi that she truly wanted to become a convert, Naomi declared, "I will now start to teach you the laws of converts. It is not the way of the daughters of Yisrael to go to theaters and circuses...." Ruth said, "Wherever you go, I will go." RAV SHALOM SHWADRON, zt'l, elucidating on the comments of the Maharsham (his grandfather), explains that the Maharsham's intention is to point out that women are also included in the prohibition of Moshav Letzim. This is also the ruling of contemporary Poskim (see SHEVET HA'LEVI 7:155:2).

The SEDER YAKOV cites an additional proof that Moshav Letzim applies to women. The Gemara later (19a) quotes the verse, "Ashrei Ish Yarei Es Hashem" -- "Fortunate is the man who fears Hashem" (Tehilim 112:1). The Gemara asks is only a "man" who fears Hashem praiseworthy and not a woman? TOSFOS (DH Ashrei) points out that the Gemara should have made a point of this inference earlier. When the Gemara here discusses Moshav Letzim, it quotes the verse, "Ashrei ha'Ish..." (Tehilim 1:1), as mentioned above. Why does the Gemara here not also ask that this implies that only men who do not sit with scoffers are praiseworthy, but not women? Tosfos answers that the word "Ish" refers only to a man, and not to a woman, and thus the Gemara later asks its question. The verse quoted by the Gemara here, though, says "ha'Ish," which implies "this" man as opposed to a different man (but not to exclude a woman). The Seder Yakov points out that if the Halachah of Moshav Letzim did not apply to women, then why would Tosfos ask that the Gemara here should have asked the same question? If the prohibition does not apply to women, then there is no question! Obviously, Tosfos maintains that it applies to women as well.

It must be noted that not every activity that involves relaxation or entertainment constitutes Moshav Letzim. RAV YOSEF CHAIM ZONNENFELD, zt'l, was asked about the words of the REMA (in Orach Chaim 447:12). The Rema writes that "some people refrain from playing cards on Pesach, as they are concerned that some of the Chametz Nuksheh from the playing cards will fall into their food." The question posed was why does the Rema not say that it is forbidden to play cards because of Moshav Letzim and Bitul Torah? Rav Yosef Chaim Zonnenfeld replied that there is no prohibition of Moshav Letzim against *actively playing* games (of course, they might be prohibited because of other reasons). (The difference between actively playing and passively watching such activities needs further clarification.)

In addition, the Mishnah Berurah and others write that not every history book is forbidden. Books such as Josephus, Sefer ha'Yuchsin, and others from which one can learn Musar and the fear of Hashem are permitted (see MOR U'KETZI'AH for some guidelines for determining what type of book is permitted and what type is not).

(b) The TIFERES YISRAEL (Sanhedrin 10:1) says that it is permitted to read books about non-Jewish history in the bathroom. He implies that the prohibition against reading such books applies only when reading them frequently, in a consistent framework, but not in a temporary, infrequent manner (see also BARTENURA and TOSFOS YOM TOV). However, it is difficult to understand why he only qualifies reading such books as "Sichas Chulin" (mundane talk) and does not quote the Gemara which calls them "Moshav Letzim." He seems to differ with the logic of the opinions quoted above who do not differentiate between occasional reading and routine reading, and who maintain that these things are intrinsically wrong (and not that they are prohibited because the cause Bitul Torah).

(c) HA'GA'ON RAV CHAIM PINCHAS SHEINBERG shlit'a explains this Gemara differently (as heard from him personally). He explains that the Gemara is teaching that there is only one prohibition -- that of Bitul Torah, and it is saying that "Moshav Letzim" refers to specific things which cause Bitul Torah. He understands that when the Shulchan Aruch writes that these things are forbidden even during the week, he is only referring to situations in which these activities will cause Bitul Torah. He said that a man may read a secular book, assuming that it is free from all other Isurim (such as unclean speech, lustfulness, etc.), if he feels that he needs to take a break in order to recoup his strength for learning Torah. He commented, though, that he "does not know why one would not read a book about the Vilna Ga'on instead!" Rav Sheinberg also said (based on TESHUVOS DIVREI CHACHAMIM YD 5) that one is allowed to attend a sporting event, as the prohibition of going to theaters and circuses (mentioned both in OC 307 and implied in OC 224) applies only to places where those activities are conducted for the sake of Avodah Zarah (see RASHI and TOSFOS here regarding the argument between Rebbi Meir and the Rabanan, and see Megilah 6a and TOSFOS, RASHBA, and RITVA there). (Y. Montrose)

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