April 20, 2024
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Editor’s note: This series is reprinted with permission from “Insights & Attitudes: Torah Essays on Fundamental Halachic and Hashkafic Issues,” a publication of TorahWeb.org. The book contains articles by Rabbi Hershel Schachter and Rabbi Mayer Twersky.

We read in Parashas Vayera about the meritorious acts of the two daughters of Lot. They thought their entire region was destroyed, and that only they and their father had survived. They truly thought that they were saving the world! The Rabbis of the Talmud point out that because the older daughter stepped forward on the first night “to save the world,” she was rewarded to a greater extent than the younger daughter (Bava Kamma 38b).

When what the daughters had done became public knowledge, however, Avraham Avinu, their great uncle, was so embarrassed that he moved away from the neighborhood (Rashi, Bereishis 20:1). The daughters mistakenly thought that the entire area had been destroyed, including Avraham and his family, and that only they and their father were meritorious enough to have been spared, singled out by Hashem for the purpose of preserving humanity. For the sake of truly saving the world, even incest would be permitted (see Rashi to Vayikra 20:17).

We permit one even to violate Shabbos in order to save someone else from shemad (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 306:14). This principle (that we encourage one to violate a lesser sin in order to save another individual from a much greater sin) only applies in very rare instances, where it is absolutely clear that the spiritual “investment” will certainly pay off in a most pronounced fashion. Every legal system contains a clause which says that in special circumstances we assume that “the end justifies the means.” The various legal systems all differ from each other regarding the details of this principle, i.e. in defining acceptable ends.

In Halacha, pikuach nefesh is considered so important a goal that in most instances it is justified to violate Torah laws when a conflict arises between a given law and pikuach nefesh.

At the start of the movement of chasidus, there were many Chasidim who would invest so much time preparing for the fulfillment of various mitzvos, such as tefilla and the seder on Pesach night, working with the assumption that the more one invests in preparation for a mitzva, the more one will gain spiritually from the performance of the mitzva, that they would not get to daven or to eat the matza until after the appropriate time. They felt that this would be an acceptable example of “the ends justifying the means” (חטא בשביל שתזכה).

Rav Chaim of Volozhin, the student of the Gaon of Vilna, vigorously opposed this practice in his work Nefesh HaChaim. When the mitzva is performed after the zeman, nothing is gained. One has not enhanced his spiritual gain from performing the mitzva with so much extra preparation, but has rather lost all spiritual gain possible, since the mitzva has not been fulfilled properly. One who recites Shacharis after the correct zeman is the same as one blowing shofar on Purim and reading the Megilla on Rosh Hashana. One who is off by half an hour is the same as one who is off by half a year. Rav Chaim concludes that the Talmudic principle that we sometimes recommend חטא בשביל שתזכה only applied before mattan Torah! After mattan Torah, all details of each Torah law must be adhered to without any exception.

Reb Osher Tiktiner, a student of Rav Chaim, points out in his Sefer Keser Rosh that this concluding statement is really an exaggeration. The Talmud and the Shulchan Aruch do speak of rare instances where we would recommend, even today, after mattan Torah, that one should sin in order to gain spirituality. But these are indeed very rare instances!

When one is dealing with a situation of pikuach nefesh, even when in doubt regarding the danger, the concern for the pikuach nefesh takes precedence over the other Torah laws, even if the doubt is only a far-fetched one. But regarding the daughters of Lot, the Chumash points out that in truth, Lot and his daughters did not really merit to have been spared. It was only in the zechus of Avraham that God spared their lives (Bereishis 19:29).

Their assessment of the situation was totally in error. The Talmud points out that sometimes when there seems to be a medical emergency on Shabbos, and the laymen present have no way of determining accurately whether there is a concern of sakana, one must treat the case as one of safeik sakana. Even if later it is discovered that the chillul Shabbos was not at all called for, nonetheless, since according to the perception of the layman there was a safeik sakana, no kappara is needed for the chillul Shabbos (Menachos 64a). Quite the opposite—the layman deserves to be rewarded for taking care of what he understood to be a safeik sakana. So too in the case of Lot’s daughters, although they were totally off in their perception, nonetheless they each deserved a reward for taking care of what they perceived as a major safeik sakana.

Rav Velvel Soloveitchik once commented that his father, Rav Chaim, was much greater than he; Rav Chaim, Rav Velvel explained, had such keen insight, and he had the ability to analyze a political situation so carefully that he would be able to predict accurately what would follow in another sixty years if one route were to be followed, as opposed to another route. Rav Velvel readily admitted that he did not at all have that ability. After pausing for a moment, he added that he did, however, think that he possessed a certain degree of insight that others lacked—“at least I’m able to see what’s under my nose!”

Many people engaged in kiruv have developed a distorted sense of reality. Many think that they’re really saving the world. And, of course, in order to save the world they allow themselves certain leniencies and they take certain liberties, like the daughters of Lot, based on the principle of חטא בשביל שתזכה! We ought all to take to heart the warning of Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, once given to young musmachim, not to develop a messiah complex!


Rabbi Hershel Schachter joined the faculty of Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary in 1967, at the age of 26, the youngest Rosh Yeshiva at RIETS. Since 1971, Rabbi Schachter has been Rosh Kollel in RIETS’ Marcos and Adina Katz Kollel (Institute for Advanced Research in Rabbinics) and also holds the institution’s Nathan and Vivian Fink Distinguished Professorial Chair in Talmud. In addition to his teaching duties, Rabbi Schachter lectures, writes, and serves as a world renowned decisor of Jewish Law.

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