Literary Corner

For the week ending 16 October 2021 / 10 Cheshvan 5782

Hero or Thief: Revisited by Rabbi Gavriel Rubin

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The Bomb Thief: Revisited

In the previous issue of Ohrnet Magazine we presented the story of Motti Ashkenazi, who in 1997 stole a bag from a beach in Tel Aviv, only to discover that it contained a bomb. Thus instead of the crime he intended to commit, what Motti actually did was to save dozens of lives! The question we left off with was: How are we to look at Motti now – as a Hero or Thief?

This question is not merely academic. It can have practical ramifications as well. One of these, for example, is whether or not Motti needs atonement. Let’s see what the classic sources have to say about the matter:

Happy Accidents

A good place to begin is with a passage in the Talmud (Menachot 64a) discussing the scenario in which a fisherman spreads out his net on the Sabbath, a prohibited activity, and hauls in an unexpected catch — a live infant that had fallen into the sea!

Now, it is a well-known principle that the saving of human life overrides all the Sabbath prohibitions. If saving the baby had been the fishman’s intention, his act would have certainly been permitted, even if he caught a few fish at the same time. So, now the question here, as in the case of the bomb thief, is: Do we look at the intention or the result?

The Talmud tells us that this was the subject of a disagreement between two of the Sages, Rabbah and Rava. Rabbah says that we look at the result. Therefore, since a life was saved, the fisherman is off the hook. Rava, on the other hand, says that we look at the intention, which in this case was to violate the Sabbath. Therefore, in his view, the fisherman is guilty.

When the Rambam codifies this case he follows the lenient view (Hilchos Shabbat 2:16). This seems to bode well for Motti, since in his case, too, the result was the saving of lives.

The Tzaddik and the Temptress

There are, however, a number of other sources that call into question the Rambam’s ruling. For instance, the Talmud relates elsewhere (Kiddushin 81b) that Rav Chiya bar Ashi’s wife once heard him praying to be saved from the Evil Impulse. This left her very perplexed, because her husband had not had physical contact with her for years, which she presumed was due to the weakness of old age.

Determined to get to the bottom of the matter, she dressed herself up in her most alluring outfit, being careful to disguise her appearance, and then passed back and forth before the garden.

“Who are you?” asked Rav Chiya.

“Charusa,” his wife answered, giving the name of a famous woman of ill-repute.

At that moment, Rav Chiya was unable to resist and immediately sought the woman’s services. The woman agreed, but for her fee she demanded a pomegranate from the top of a nearby tree. Not in the least deterred, Rav Chiya leapt to the top of the tree and plucked for her a piece of the fruit.

Sometime later a remorseful Rav Chiya returned home. Seeing that in the meantime his wife had kindled their large baking oven, and seeking atonement for his deed, Rav Chiya climbed into the oven, sat down and awaited his fate.

Fortunately, his wife arrived shortly thereafter. “What’s this all about?” she inquired, whereupon he confessed to her the entire affair. “You have nothing to worry about,” she assured him. “It was me.”

Nevertheless, Rav Chiya was not consoled. “That may be true,” he said, “but I intended to commit a sin!” So he spent the rest of his life in fasting until at last he died of weakness.

Pardon for What?

To prove that Rav Chiya’s response to seek atonement was justified, the Talmud cites a verse concerning a woman who has made a vow, which her husband subsequently annulled without her knowledge. The verse reads: “[The vow] is not sustained, and Hashem will pardon her” (Bamidbar 30:13). From the words, “Hashem will pardon her,” our Sages infer that although the vow was annulled, the woman is still in need of pardon for any violation thereof. This shows that the intention to commit a sin is itself a sin requiring atonement even though no forbidden act was actually done.

This seems to be directly at odds with the Rambam’s ruling that the fisherman who saved the baby is not liable for violating Shabbat since in the end no forbidden act was done. So, the question we must now try to answer is: When do we say that the mere intention to sin requires atonement and when not? But, before we do so, let us see one more source.

The Fortuitous Kidnapping

The following story may ring a bell:

A group of brothers once decided for various reasons that another brother was deserving of death. Before the sentence could be carried out, however, one of the brothers, anxious to save his sibling’s life, suggested that he be sold into slavery instead. This proposal found favor in the eyes of the others, and the deed was soon done.

Despite his situation, the enslaved brother did not despair, but threw himself into his chores with all his ability. Very soon he proceeded to rise from his lowly position, withstanding awesome trials along the way, until at last he was appointed viceroy over the entire kingdom.

I am referring, of course, to the story of Yosef and his brothers. Now, Yosef would never have reached his lofty position had he not been sold into slavery. So, if one looks at the result, the brothers’ deed had a very positive outcome. On the other hand, that was certainly not their intention. They had meant to punish Yosef, but Hashem turned their action to His own purposes, a fact that Yosef himself pointed out to them after their father’s death.

A Bittersweet Cup

According to the Ohr HaChaim Hakadosh this episode can be likened to the case of a man who intended to give his fellow a cup of poison but accidentally gave him wine instead. In such a case, says the Ohr HaChaim Hakadosh, the wine-giver would be free of guilt even in Heaven’s eyes.

This seems to indicate that as long as the result is good, there is no need for atonement, just as in the case of the fisherman. How then are we to understand the cases of Rav Chiya and the vowing woman, which seem to indicate that a person requires atonement for the mere intention to sin?

A Happy Ending

One resolution given by the commentaries is that in the case of fisherman, as in the case of Yosef’s brothers, the result of the deed was actually positive. By contrast, in Rav Chiya’s case and in the case of the vowing woman, while no crime was committed, nothing positive was done either.

A Crime Against Whom?

A second resolution is to distinguish between sins towards G-d versus sins towards other people. In the case of sins again God, since He knows what is in a person’s heart, it is enough that the person merely intended to sin. By contrast in the case of a sin again a human being, all the victim really cares about is the result.

This approach explains why Rav Chiya and the vowing woman were in need of atonement, while Yosef’s brothers were not. It does not explain, however, why the fisherman also seems to have been let off. After all, violating the Sabbath is a sin towards G-d!

The answer, say the commentaries, is that we are mixing up two different issues. The Talmud says that the fisherman is off the hook only for the actual deed. Nevertheless, he is still in need of atonement for his intention. In the case of Yosef’s brothers, on the other hand, since the crime they intended was against a human being, they do not even need atonement.

What About Motti?

In Motti’s case, the result was a great mitzvah — the saving of many lives. Moreover, his attempted crime, theft, is a matter between human beings. So, it seems that according to both these resolutions he should not need atonement.

Of course, nothing in life, or in Torah, is virtually ever that simple. According to the Chafetz Chaim, whenever a person intends on sinning he is in need of atonement (Hilchot Lashon HaRa, Klal 4). How he resolves the contradiction is a question we will just have to think about on our own!

(Editor’s note: This case appears in Rabbi Rubin’s new sefer available via Amazon: The Bomb Thief and Other Curious Cases: Leaves from the Jewish Logic Tree)

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