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81b: Temptation and Repentance

Rav Michael Siev

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In our last shiur, we learned the story that the Gemara tells about Rav Amram, who was overtaken by a sudden, powerful desire to sin, but was able to restrain himself and take drastic measures in order to maintain his integrity. This story comes in the midst of the Gemara's presentation of the laws of yichud, which prohibit a man and woman from being secluded together, and the story underscores the necessity of taking these laws seriously; even a man as great as Rav Amram can be caught up in the heat of the moment. At the same time, the story emphasizes the great lengths to which one should go to avoid sin, and the fact that it is possible to overcome even a very powerful desire.

The section we will study today begins with another story that relates to these themes, although in a quite different manner, as we will see.

We begin from the first long line on daf 81b. 



Rabbi Chiya bar Ashi was accustomed

that every time he 'fell on his face' (said the tachanun prayer)

he would say: "May the Merciful One save us from the evil inclination."

One day his wife heard him,

she said: "Consider; it is several years that he has separated from me (regarding sexual relations);

what is the reason he says this?"

One day he was studying in his garden,

she adorned herself and passed in front of him repeatedly.

He said to her: "Who are you?"

She said: "I am Charuta, and I have returned today."

He propositioned her.

She said to him: "Bring me that pomegranate on the top of the tree."

He climbed and brought it to her.

רבי חייא בר אשי הוה רגיל

כל עידן דהוה נפל לאפיה,

הוה אמר: הרחמן יצילנו מיצר הרע.

יומא חד שמעתינהו דביתהו,

אמרה: מכדי הא כמה שני דפריש ליה מינאי,

מאי טעמא קאמר הכי?

יומא חדא הוה קא גריס בגינתיה,

קשטה נפשה חלפה ותנייה קמיה.

אמר לה: מאן את?

אמרה: אנא חרותא דהדרי מיומא.


אמרה ליה: אייתי ניהליה להך רומנא דריש צוציתא.

שוור אזל אתייה ניהלה. 


Rabbi Chiya bar Ashi, who was apparently in advanced age, would nevertheless pray daily that he be saved from the evil inclination. His wife, wishing to test whether he was still at all susceptible to temptation, adorned herself in such a way that he did not recognize her, and passed in front of him to arouse his desire. Upon questioning, she identified herself as Charuta, who, according to Rashi, was a woman of ill repute. When Rabbi Chiya propositioned her, she replied that she would be willing only if he would bring her a pomegranate that was at the top of the tree. So strong was Rabbi Chiya's desire that he climbed to the top of the tree and brought the pomegranate, and then cohabited with her.

The story continues:



When he came to his house,

his wife was lighting the oven,

he went and sat in it.

She said to him: "What is this?"

He said to her: "Like this and this was the matter" (he told her what happened).

She said to him: "It was me."

He did not pay attention to her until she gave him signs.

He said to her: "Nevertheless, I intended a violation."

All the days of that righteous man he would fast,

until he died that same death.

כי אתא לביתיה,

הוה קא שגרא דביתהו תנורא,

סליק וקא יתיב בגויה.

אמרה ליה: מאי האי?

אמר לה: הכי והכי הוה מעשה.

אמרה ליה: אנא הואי.

לא אשגח בה, עד דיהבה ליה סימני.

אמר לה: אנא מיהא לאיסורא איכווני.

כל ימיו של אותו צדיק היה מתענה,

עד שמת באותה מיתה.

Rabbi Chiya was apparently so shaken by his intended impropriety that he went and sat in the oven in order to commit suicide. When his wife asked about his strange behavior, he told her the story of how he had sinfully cohabited with "Charuta." His wife was finally able to convince him that it was actually she, his own wife, with whom he had cohabited. Nonetheless, Rabbi Chiya spent the rest of his life fasting in penitence for having been willing to commit a sinful act, until he actually died in a fire; the same death he had initially intended to bring upon himself.

Note the repetition of the image of fire in these stories; last week, we saw how Rav Amram called out, "Fire!" when he was consumed with desire, and that the evil inclination eventually left him in the form of a fire. This week, Rabbi Chiya attempted to kill himself via fire due to having fallen victim to his desire. Perhaps the point is that the evil inclination is compared to a fire, in that it enflames desire and passion. The gemara seeks to imply that one who fails to reign in his desire (as Rav Amram heroically did) will eventually be consumed by it, to the point that it will ruin his life.

The gemara continues and explains the significance of Rabbi Chiya's need for penitence. We are now on the tenth long line of 81b.  



For it is taught in a beraita:

"'Her husband has revoked them and God shall forgive her'-

regarding what is the verse speaking?

Regarding a woman that took a nazirite vow

and her husband heard and revoked it for her,

and she did not know that her husband revoked it,

and she was drinking wine and becoming contaminated through corpses.

Rabbi Akiva, when he would get to this verse, would cry;

he said: 'If regarding one who intended to eat pig meat

[but instead] sheep meat came up in his hand,

the Torah said: "there is a need for atonement and forgiveness,"

one who intended to each pig meat

and pig meat came up in his hand -

how much more so!'"


אישה הפרם וה' יסלח לה -

במה הכתוב מדבר?

באשה שנדרה בנזיר

ושמע בעלה והפר לה,

והיא לא ידעה שהפר לה בעלה,

והיתה שותה יין ומטמאה למתים.

רבי עקיבא כי הוה מטי להאי פסוקא הוה בכי,

אמר: ומה מי שנתכוין לאכול בשר חזיר

ועלה בידו בשר טלה,

אמרה תורה: צריכה כפרה וסליחה,

מי שנתכוין לאכול בשר חזיר

ועלה בידו בשר חזיר -

על אחת כמה וכמה!

The beraita provides a framework for understanding Rabbi Chiya's response to his deed. In order to understand the beraita, however, we must introduce two concepts: that of a nazir and that of nedarim. If a person takes a vow to be a nazir, he is subject to a very specific set of laws (see Bamidbar 6:1-21). These include a prohibition of drinking wine or consuming grape products in any form, and a prohibition from becoming tamei (ritually impure) via a corpse. A human corpse can make one tamei either through contact or if one passes over the corpse or is under the same roof as a corpse. If a nazir does become tamei via a corpse, he must become tahor (pure) again, bring special sacrifices and begin his period of nezirut (being a nazir) from the beginning (Ibid., v. 9-12). 

A neder is a general term that applies to certain types of vows that a person makes. One who makes a vow must keep it unless it is revoked, which is possible under specific circumstances. One example of a situation in which it is possible to revoke a neder is the case of a married woman. If a married woman makes a vow that might cause personal discomfort or might impact upon her relationship with her husband, her husband has the authority to revoke the neder (see Bamidbar 30:11-16). Once he does so, the vow no longer applies.

The beraita quotes a verse in the Torah's discussion of this topic (ibid., v. 13), which states that "her husband has revoked them and God shall forgive her." What need is there for forgiveness if the woman's husband has revoked her vows? The beraita explains that this is refers to a woman who takes on a vow to be a nazir. Her husband then revokes the vow, but before she hears about his revocation she violates the terms of her nezirut by drinking wine and becoming contaminated via a corpse. In such a case, the woman has not technically violated any specific prohibitions, because her husband has already revoked her nezirut vow; however, because she wilfully acted in what she thought was a sinful manner, she requires atonement.

Rabbi Akiva would be brought to tears upon reading this verse about nedarim: if someone who intended to violate a prohibition but actually failed to do so requires penitence, how much more so is there a need for atonement if one actually succeeded in violating the prohibition. This emphasizes how serious it is when one commits a sin. Sinful intent itself requires atonement even if it was never brought to fruition; how much greater is the need for atonement for a sin that actually did take place! This explains Rabbi Chiya bar Ashi's behavior in the story quoted above: despite the fact that he did not actually sin, as he had actually cohabited with his wife, since he had done something that he thought was a sin, he required atonement.

The gemara continues along similar lines:


"Similarly, you say:

'And he did not know and was guilty and shall bear his sin,'

when Rabbi Akiva would get up to this verse he would cry:

'If one who intended to eat permitted fat, and cheilev (forbidden fats) came up in his hand,

the Torah said: "And he did not know and was guilty and shall bear his sin,"

one who intended to each cheilev and cheilev came up in his hand,

how much more so!'

Isi ben Yehuda says:

'And he did not know and was guilty and shall bear his sin -

on this matter, sorrow of sorrows.'"

כיוצא בדבר אתה אומר:

ולא ידע ואשם ונשא עונו,

כשהיה רבי עקיבא מגיע לפסוק זה היה בוכה,

ומה מי שנתכוין לאכול שומן ועלה בידו חלב,

אמרה תורה: ולא ידע ואשם ונשא עונו,

מי שנתכוין לאכול חלב ועלה בידו חלב -

על אחת כמה וכמה!

איסי בן יהודה אומר:

ולא ידע ואשם ונשא עונו -

על דבר זה ידוו כל הדווים.

This passage begins with a verse in Vayikra (5:17) that discusses the sacrifice (korban) that one brings if one is doubt about whether or not he violated a particular prohibition. The general rule is that if one accidentally violates a prohibition that carries with it the punishment of karet (being spiritually cut off), one must bring a korban known as the korban chatat. What if one is not sure whether or not one has committed such a violation? For example, there are certain fats of an animal that one is permitted to eat (shuman) and some fats that one is prohibited to eat (cheilev). The prohibition of cheilev carries with it a punishment of karet. What if someone had a piece of shuman and a piece of cheilev in front of him and is not sure which one he ate? The Torah says that such a person brings a special korban in the interim; if he later finds out that he did eat the cheilev, he must then bring the standard korban chatat. The initial korban protects him from punishment until the facts of the case become known.

Rabbi Akiva would cry upon reading this verse as well. If one requires atonement in a case in which he intended to eat shuman, which is permitted, but accidentally ate cheilev - after all, the only reason one must bring a sacrifice in a case of doubt is because of the possibility that the person accidentally ate the cheilev - how much more so if one sinned on purpose. This appears to be the flip-side of the verse quoted above that made Rabbi Akiva cry: there, one is held accountable for intent to sin that was never actualize, while here one is held accountable for the possibility that the sinful action took place despite the fact that one did not intend to do so.

Isi ben Yehuda concludes by expressing great distress at this principle. Can one be fully certain that one has never, even accidentally, committed a sin? If one is held accountable for even accidental transgressions, that clearly indicates a very high level of accountability for one's actions!


Take a moment to consider the following question: why should it be true that one is held accountable for accidental transgressions? Shouldn't intent make a difference?

Ramban (Torah Ha-Adam) explains that one is not really liable to punishment for sins that were committed by accident. Nevertheless, there is a need for purification. This may be for one of two reasons: 1) On an objective spiritual level, a sinful act contaminates the sinner. Although one is not punished for an accidental sin, one still needs to be cleansed from the objective harm to one's spiritual health. 2) There remains a small measure of liability: if one had a full comprehension of the gravity of sin, and made avodat Hashem (service of God) the primary objective of one's life, one would be so careful about sin that one would not even end up sinning accidentally. Accidental sin reflects a lack of full appreciation of just how important it is to live a life of holiness.

The gemara we have studied today falls under the category known as aggada. Aggada refers to non-halakhic sections of rabbinic literature. The Gemara weaves halakhic discussion and aggadic exposition into one unified fabric, as we have seen here: the gemara transitioned from halakhic discussions of yichud to stories that display the necessity of these laws and teach other important lessons as well. Next week we will see that the Gemara moves back to its halakhic discussion of the parameters of yichud.

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