2000–01 Hakirah or Mehkar: The Religious Implications of an Historical Approach to Limmudei Kodesh

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Rabbenu Yonah, Sanhedrin 74b

Summary: In his commentary on Sanhedrin 74b, the central sugya of yehareg ve-al ya’avor, Rabbenu Yonah (c. 1200–1263) notes that there is aggadic material which presents suicide as a means of avoiding the violation of yehareg ve-al ya’avor. However, he dismisses the aggadah as irrelevant to the halakhic discussion at hand, asserting that there is no halakhic source anywhere in the Talmud that would substantiate such pesak. Additionally, he claims that the story told must be a miracle-tale since even in the realm of aggadah, it is impossible to imagine that the Talmud would sanction active suicide.

Points to raise: How does the genre of Rabbenu Yonah’s halakhic commentary differ from the RaMBaM’s? Does this distinction affect the reliability, or applicability of his pesak halakhah? How does his style (in addition to his pesak) contrast with that of Tosafot?
Educational Considerations and Goals
Concern: Did HaZaL just “make it up”? Yehareg ve-al ya’avor is not discussed in the Torah or in the Mishnah; active suicide is not sanctioned by the halakhic sections of the gemara. Did the rabbis just create these concepts without any precedent?

Opportunity: The evolution of yehareg ve-al ya’avor as an halakhic category is an example of how halakhah develops in response to challenges presented by different situations. The rabbis didn’t just “make up” new halakhot without regard for precedent; rather, specific challenges forced the rabbis to reinterpret existing halakhah in creative ways. In each case, no matter how creative their reinterpretation, the rabbis “played by the rules” and demonstrated loyalty to the halakhic process. The arguments advanced were all argued on a halakhic basis.

Concern: What happened to the integrity of pesak halakhah? Rabbenu Yonah’s approach is the way we would expect halakhah to develop: as an objective reading of sugyot in the gemara. How are we to accept the RaMBaM and the Tosafot’s psak halakhah when it is clear that they had an “agenda” in their reading of the sources?

Opportunity: Rabbis are not supposed to be detached from the needs and concerns of the community; pesak halakhah is supposed to respond to reality. Masoret is composed of both detached analysis of text as well as response to specific concerns.

Concern: Why do the halakhic rulings of the Tosafot, which were written in response to a particular historical reality (e.g. the Crusades), pertain to me?

Opportunity: The RaMBaM and Tosafot have become part of the masoret, and we have to consider their rulings when determining the applicability of specific halakhot today. Just as Tosafot considered halakhah that was developed in the pagan, Roman world when determining the application of yehareg ve-al ya’avor to the Christian world, so too, we today continue to grapple with halakhah that was developed in response to the Crusades.

Concern: Students may not have previously encountered conflicting textual variants and the recognition that there were additions to and deletions from canonical texts may challenge their faith in the authenticity of the Talmud. Should this fact, which would not necessarily come up in the course of learning, be raised in the classroom?

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