Daf 39b continued

  • Rav Michael Siev


Introduction to the Study of Talmud
by Rav Michael Siev

Kiddushin 30

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Last week, we learned that according to Rabbi Ya'akov, one is not rewarded for one's mitzvot in this world; Divine reward is given only in the World to Come. He deduced this principle from the fact that the Torah promises a long, good life to one who honors his parents and to one who fulfills the mitzva of shilu'ach ha-ken (chasing away the mother bird before taking eggs or chicks), but it is nevertheless possible for even one who is actively engaged in fulfilling both of these mitzvot to meet an untimely end. It is therefore clear that the Torah's promises are to be understood as referring to the World to Come.

The Gemara continues with its analysis of this point. We are six lines from the end of the short lines on 39b.

And maybe this cannot be!

Rabbi Ya'akov saw an incident.

And maybe [the son who died] was thinking about a sin!


The Holy One, Blessed be He, does not consider an evil thought as an action.

And maybe he was thinking about idol worship,

and it says, "In order to catch the house of Israel in their heart!"

He (Rabbi Ya'akov) also meant to say this:

"If you think that there is reward for mitzva in this world,

why did the mitzva not protect him so that he not come to think [about idol worship]?"

ודלמא לאו הכי הוה!

ר' יעקב מעשה חזא.

ודלמא מהרהר בעבירה הוה!

מחשבה רעה אין הקב"ה (הקדוש ברוך הוא) מצרפה למעשה.

ודלמא מהרהר בעבודת כוכבים הוה,

וכתיב: למען תפוש את בית ישראל בלבם!

איהו נמי הכי קאמר:

אי סלקא דעתך שכר מצוה בהאי עלמא,

אמאי לא אגין מצות עליה כי היכי דלא ליתי לידי הרהור.

The gemara questions the premise of Rabbi Ya'akov's argument. Rabbi Ya'akov argues that even one who climbs up a ladder in order to fulfill the mitzva of shilu'ach ha-ken at his parent's request can fall and die, which proves that the Torah's promise of long life is not to be taken in a this-worldly sense. Perhaps the Torah's promises should be taken at face value, and we should assume that one who is engaged in such activity will not fall and die! The gemara answers that Rabbi Ya'akov actually witnessed such an incident and was therefore forced to come to his conclusion.

The gemara questions this claim as well. Even if Rabbi Ya'akov saw such an incident, perhaps the son who died was thinking sinful thoughts while he performed his double-mitzva; if so, the very performance of the mitzvot was tinged with sin, and the person does not merit the rewards promised in the Torah! The gemara responds that God does not consider sinful thoughts as though one had actually sinned; thus, sinful thoughts could not have outweighed the fulfillment of the mitzvot. It should be noted that some commentators (Me'iri, Yere'im) explain that this does not mean that one who has sinful thoughts is not punished at all. Such thoughts express a lack of loyalty to Torah, which is inherently problematic; in addition, they may indicate a willingness to sin that one would have put into practice had the opportunity presented itself. However, one is certainly not punished for sinful thoughts with the same severity that one is punished for sinful actions, and the gemara asserts that sinful thoughts could therefore not have outweighed the actual mitzvot the person was performing. 

Finally, the gemara suggests that perhaps the person who died was thinking about idol worship while performing the mitzvot; such thoughts are exceptional in that one is punished for them as though one actually performed a sin. This is why Yechezkel (14:5) is told to rebuke the idol-worshipping Jews "in order to catch the house of Israel in their heart, that they have all separated themselves from me through their idols." The gemara responds that Rabbi Ya'akov admits the possibility that the person may have had such thoughts; nevertheless, this itself proves his thesis. If there was reward for mitzvot in this world, the mitzvot that the person was performing would have protected him from even thinking such thoughts to begin with.

Why is idol worship different than all other sins regarded the ramifications of sinful thoughts?

The gemara later on (40a) states that idol worship is an exception to the general rule regarding sinful thoughts, and expresses that point in the following way: "Idol worship is severe, for all who deny it are considered as confirming the entire Torah." This can be interpreted as explaining the difference as based on the severity and centrality of idol worship: because proper belief in God is a fundamental and critical component of one's religious identity, a wrong move in that area is simply treated with greater gravity.

Some commentators, including the Me'iri, explain that the difference is related to the nature of the sin. Belief in one God or in other deities, though often expressed through active worship, is essentially a state of mind. The main point is the belief, which is internal. Thus, idolatrous thoughts constitute not just a consideration of sin, but sin itself, and the sinner is treated accordingly.

Back to the Gemara

Based on the story that serves as the centerpiece of Rabbi Ya'akov's argument, the gemara questions another principle. We are at the end of the first medium sized line on 39b.

But Rabbi Elazar said: "Messengers of a mitzva are not harmed!"

There, when they are going [to do the mitzva], it is different.

But Rabbi Elazar said: "Messengers of a mitzva are not harmed when they go [to do the mitzva] or when they return!"


It was a rickety ladder, where harm is common;

and any case where harm is common we do not rely on a miracle,

as it says: "And Shemu'el said, 'how can I go, and Sha'ul will hear and kill me.'"

והא א"ר אלעזר: שלוחי מצוה אין נזוקין!

התם בהליכתן שאני.

והא אמר רבי אלעזר: שלוחי מצוה, אינן נזוקין לא בהליכתן ולא בחזירתן!

סולם רעוע הוה, דקביע היזיקא,

וכל היכא דקביע היזיקא לא סמכינן אניסא,

דכתיב: ויאמר שמואל איך אלך ושמע שאול והרגני.

The gemara quotes Rabbi Elazar, who states that one who is on his way to do a mitzva is not harmed; however, in the incident witnessed by Rabbi Ya'akov, the person performing the mitzva was harmed! The gemara answers that Rabbi Elazar's guarantee applies only when the person is on his way to perform a mitzva but not after the mitzva has been performed and the person is on his way back, as was the case in the story we are dealing with. This answer is rejected, as Rabbi Elazar is quoted as having included even one who is on his way back from fulfilling a mitzva. The gemara answers that the incident must have taken place with one who climbed a rickety ladder, which is a dangerous activity; therefore, the special protection offered to one engaged in a mitzva does not apply.

The gemara proves that Rabbi Elazar's statement does not apply to dangerous activities by quoting Sefer Shemu'el (I 16:2). God tells Shemu'el to go anoint David as king of Israel in anticipation of his succeeding Sha'ul, who had lost the right to the throne due to his incomplete fulfillment of a Divine command. Shemu'el expresses his fear of being killed by Sha'ul for such an action, which would be perceived as rebellious. God tells Shemu'el to make it seem as though his trip to Beit Lechem is for the purpose of offering a sacrifice rather than to anoint the next king. This clearly shows that one should not rely on a miracle in order to perform a mitzva in a dangerous situation; otherwise, Shemu'el would not have objected to the original command regarding his mission, and God Himself would not have legitimized Shemu'el's concerns.

It is interesting to note that Rabbi Elazar's principle can be understood in two ways. One understanding would view Rabbi Elazar's principle as partially limiting Rabbi Ya'akov's statement: although one is generally not rewarded in this world for one's mitzvot, there is an exception; while one is actively engaged in the performance or pursuit of a mitzva, one receives special Divine protection. This approach closely mirrors the understanding that Rabbi Ya'akov rejected; he had asserted that if not for the fact that reward for one's mitzvot is not given in this world, one would merit Divine assistance in refraining from sinful thoughts during the performance of a mitzva; apparently, such assistance is considered to be reward for the mitzva. Alternatively, Rabbi Elazar's rule can be understood as being unrelated to the issue of reward: if one pursues a mitzva, one will receive Divine protection, not as reward for one's efforts but as a form of Divine assistance in the performance of the mitzva itself. 

Rav Ya'akov Yehoshua Polak (1680-1756), in his classic commentary on the Talmud, Penei Yehoshua, asks a basic question regarding the back-and-forth of our gemara. The gemara suggested that Rabbi Elazar's promise refers to one traveling to perform a mitzva but not to one returning from the performance of a mitzva. However, the case at hand was that a child was engaged in the mitzva of shilu'ach ha-ken in order to bring the chicks to his father. Even if we posit that the accident occurred after he had performed shilu'ach ha-ken and was descending the ladder, he was still on his way to perform the mitzva of honoring his father, as he had not yet given him the chicks! He answers that the gemara's suggestion is to be taken together with its previous assertion that the son was thinking sinful thoughts as he performed the mitzva; perhaps the sinful thought was that he was going to keep the chicks for himself rather than giving them to his father. Thus, he was not really involved in honoring his father at all, and was already on the return trip from performing the mitzva of shilu'ach ha-ken.

Back to the Gemara

We continue in the gemara, on the fifth medium line of 39b.

Rav Yosef said: "If only Other had interpreted this verse

like Rabbi Ya'akov the son of his daughter, he would not have sinned."

And Other what [did] he [see]?

Some say: he saw a similar situation [to that described by Rabbi Ya'akov].

And some say: he saw the tongue of Chutzpit the meturgeman

that was being dragged by another thing (a pig);


he said: "The mouth that expressed pearls shall lick the dirt?"

He went out and sinned.

אמר רב יוסף: אילמלי דרשיה אחר להאי קרא

כרבי יעקב בר ברתיה, לא חטא.

ואחר מאי הוא?

איכא דאמרי: כי האי גוונא חזא.

ואיכא דאמרי: לישנא דחוצפית המתורגמן חזא

דהוה גריר ליה דבר אחר;

אמר: פה שהפיק מרגליות ילחך עפר?

נפק חטא.

Having quoted and explicated the opinion of Rabbi Ya'akov and continued with a discussion of the ramifications of the tragic incident witnessed by him, the gemara quotes a statement related to Rabbi Ya'akov's philosophical fortitude in the face of tragedy. Rav Yosef notes that if only Acher (lit., "Other") had  interpreted the verse in the Torah that promises long life in accordance with the interpretation of his grandson, Rabbi Ya'akov, he would not have sinned. Acher is a pseudonym for Elisha ben Avuya, the famous sage, teacher of Rabbi Meir (who is the presumed author of anonymous statements in the Mishna), who went astray due to his inability to come to terms with tragedy. He witnessed some tragedy and concluded that there is no Divine justice; had he only understood that Divine justice is not necessarily manifest in this world, he would not have rejected the Torah.

The gemara asks what exactly Acher saw that led him astray. The first answer is that he saw an incident similar to the one described by Rabbi Ya'akov; a person engaged in the fulfillment of honoring his parents and shilu'ach ha-ken was tragically killed. Alternatively, he saw the tongue of [Rabbi] Chutzpit the meturgeman being dragged by a pig ("another thing," "davar acher," being a rabbinic euphemism for this paradigm of impurity). In earlier times, when a sage would teach Torah, he would speak in a soft voice to an assistant, known as the meturgeman, who would repeat the lesson in a loud voice for all to hear. Chutzpit was the spokesman for Rabban Gamliel the Nasi (Bekhorot 36a), and was one of the ten eminent sages killed by the Romans for publicly flouting their ban on Torah study; these sages are known as the Asara Harugei Malkhut (Ten Martyrs), and are memorialized in the liturgy of Yom Kippur and Tisha Be-Av. In the aftermath of the death of Chutzpit, Acher saw his disembodied tongue being dragged by a pig. This utter desecration of the holy man, and specifically the fact that the very organ that was the vehicle of his great contribution to the spreading of Torah met such a disgraceful end, led Acher to conclude that there is no Divine justice. Rav Yosef thus bemoans the fact that he was not able to come to the understanding promulgated by his grandson, Rabbi Ya'akov.