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Parashat Aharei Mot – Kedoshim

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“Vahai Bahem”


Prof. Yehoshua Ivri


Department of Computers and Electrical Engineering, Ben-Gurion University


The expression, “by pursuit of which man shall live” (vahai bahem) appears repeatedly in Scriptures and has been extensively discussed in literature on the Bible.   In this week’s reading it says, “My rules alone shall you observe, and faithfully follow My laws:   I the Lord am your G-d.   You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which man shall live:  I am the Lord” (Lev. 18:4-5).  Another example can be cited from Ezekiel, where it is said:   “I gave them My laws and taught them My rules, by the pursuit of which a man shall live,” and likewise many more verses could be cited.

In the verse which we quoted from this week’s reading it says, “My rules alone shall you observe, and faithfully follow My laws,” which raises the question as to what are the rules and what are the laws?  Likewise, we need to understand why the rules are to be observed and the laws to be followed. The gemara interprets the laws (mishpatim) as being those commandments that are dictated by the intellect, that had they not been explicitly stated in Scripture, one would say that they ought to have been, such as injunctions against idolatry, illicit sexual relations, bloodshed, robbery, etc.  In contrast, rules (hukkim) are those commandments for which there is no rational explanation, such as the prohibition against eating pig and the proscription against wearing sha’atnez (a blend of flax and wool; see Yoma 67b).   Therefore, the verb to follow suffices for the first category – the laws, whereas the second category – the rules – require the admonishment to observe them. [1]

It is interesting to note that the verse in this week’s reading, “You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which man shall live:   I am the Lord,” ostensibly assures that any person – not necessarily Jews alone – who observes the commandments of the Torah, by so doing shall live.   The gemara relates to the use of the generic word man (adam) in various places.   In Bava Kama 38a, the gemara says that since the verse says man and not Priests, Levites and Israelites, also a gentile who follows the Torah is like a High Priest and is rewarded, but not as a person who “is commanded and obeys,” rather as someone “who is not commanded but obeys.”  It is unclear whether this gemara refers to a gentile who observes the seven commandments required of the descendants of Noah, or one who observes all the commandments of the Torah.  Rashba, loc. sit., interprets the gemara as referring to the seven commandments of the descendants of Noah, basing his opinion on the gemara in tractate Sanhedrin. [2]

What is meant by “shall live”?   Rashi’s interpretation on this text is:  “In the hereafter; for if you say it means in this world, ultimately everyone dies.   So it means that a person who upholds the commandments of the Torah enjoys the hereafter; his reward is in the World to Come,” or as Maimonides said: [3]   “All who improve themselves and their souls in their attributes, knowledge, and faith in the Creator, blessed be He, are among those sharing in the World to Come,” including the gentile.   Many other commentators, however, do not follow Rashi.  Rashbam, for example, says on this verse:  By pursuit of them ... shall live, but if they do not do them, then “such persons shall be cut off from their people.”  If you uphold the Torah, then you have life by it, in this world, but if you do not observe the Torah, you will be cut off from your people.   This interpretation provides an answer to Rashi’s argument that in the end we all die.

Nahmanides [4] as well interprets the expression, by pursuit of them ... shall live as pertaining to life in this world, at least as far as concerns the commandments that are termed laws.  According to Nahmanides, the laws (mishpatim) are those injunctions that appear in Parashat Mishpatim:  “These laws were given for human life in civilized society and to maintain peace between people, so that one person not cause harm to another and not kill another.”   Thus in Nahmanides’ view the expression “shall live” refers to the reward for observing the commandments which is received in this world – namely the ability to maintain proper civilized life, for the individual and the society.  Nahmanides also refers to Rashi’s midrashic interpretation, that the phrase “shall live” refers to the World to Come, where, according to Nahmanides, one receives reward not only for upholding the laws but also the rules, for which reward is received in the World to Come.

Ibn Ezra [5] states the case as follows:  “Let a person follow the Teaching of our  Lord, not departing from it to the right or the left, but keeping the commandments, then by pursuit of them a person shall live in both worlds.” This is a novel interpretation of our verse, for Ibn Ezra is explaining bahem not as ‘by pursuit of them” but rather vahai bahem “he shall live in them”--in both worlds.

From the expression, by pursuit of them ... shall live the Sages deduced not only the matter of reward for observing the commandments, but also the notion of the sanctity of life.   This theme finds halakhic expression in several areas.  The common theme of all these halakhic rules is that if, Heaven forbid, human life is endangered, we are commanded to put aside the commandments of the Torah in order to save life.  Below we give several examples.

1.    Situations in which it is permissible to eat forbidden foods.  In II Kings (chapter 6) we read about a famine in Samaria due to an extended siege or long drought.  The sources of livelihood dwindled and after the clean animals had been eaten the people also began to eat the unclean animals, causing a rise in the price of the latter.   The price of a donkey’s head even reached 80 silver coins.  Ralbag [6] comments on this passage:  “It appears that the siege must have lasted very long, so that things came to such a state in Samaria that due to the famine there the head of a donkey was worth 80 silvers, and they would eat it due to the famine, for the Torah said by pursuit of them man shall live, not that one should die by pursuit of them.”   In other words, in time of danger, one may eat forbidden foods.

2.  Desecrating the Sabbath when life is endangered.   Tosefta, Tractate Shabbat [7] says:  

If one may kill one person to possibly save the life of another person, then certainly one should put off the laws of the Sabbath to possibly save a life. [8]   Were not the commandments given to Israel so that they live by them? As it is said, ‘by pursuit of which man shall live,’ not die.  Nothing takes precedence over saving a life save for the commandments regarding idolatry, illicit sexual relations and bloodshed.

We see that the laws of the Sabbath are superceded even when there is a remote possibility of life being endangered, and likewise all the commandments of the Torah, save for the prohibitions against idolatry, illicit sexual relations and bloodshed.  If a Jew is faced with the choice of either violating a commandment of the Torah (save for the three mentioned above) or being killed, he must violate the commandment and not get himself killed, unless it is a period of religious persecution, in which case one must give up one’s life rather than violate any of the commandments.  It should be stressed that also regarding idolatry, illicit sexual relations and bloodshed, with respect to which one must sacrifice one’s life rather than violate the commandment, this only refers to acts which are performed publicly. [9]  

R. Isaac Alfasi (Rif) [10] also ruled that one should put aside the sanctity of the Sabbath not only in cases of certain threat to life, but also in cases of possible threat to life.   He adds, on the basis of the verse in this week’s reading, that this is the halakhah in actual practice.   Therefore Rav Ahai Gaon [11] ruled that when two doctors are in disagreement whether the life of a certain patient is in danger, the sanctity of the Sabbath is to be put aside for him, for this is a case of possible danger to life.

The main discussion of danger to life overriding the laws of the Sabbath appears in Tractate Yoma 85b.   Rabbi Simeon b. Menasiah said:   “It is written:   ‘The Israelite people shall keep the Sabbath.’  Better to desecrate one Sabbath so that a person will be able to keep many Sabbaths.   Rabbi Judah said, quoting Samuel ... so that ‘by pursuit of them he shall live,’ not that he die by pursuit of them.”  The gemara concludes that this is the dominant argument, since the other ones can be contradicted.  The argument of “desecrate one Sabbath on a person’s account to enable that person to keep many Sabbaths” applies to those cases where the action done to save life will surely be effective.  But the argument that the commandments were given so that one shall live, not die, applies to actions of saving life that should be performed even when there is no absolute assurance that they will be of avail.

3.  Donating organs even for monetary compensation.  This question has come up on the public agenda quite often in recent years.  There are many instances in which a person is willing to sell an organ (such as a kidney) because of financial hardship.  Is this allowed by Jewish law?  Is not such a case also covered by the saying, by pursuit of them he shall live, not die?  The question arises because the gemara in Tractate Nazir (19a) says that a nazirite is called a sinner even though he has only deprived himself of wine.   It follows that if someone deprives his or her entire body (of an organ), all the more so.   However, Rabbi S.Z. Auerbach [12] ruled that a person may injure his or her own body in order to sell an organ because, even if we need assume that without financial reward the person would not have done so, nevertheless the person surely also has in mind saving another person’s life.

4.  Heart transplants.  A heart transplant is feasible only when the donor heart is still beating (perhaps by means of artificial respiration) in a person who has become brain-dead.   The question is whether in such a situation the person is considered alive or dead by Jewish law.   Clearly, if he is considered alive, removing his heart would be an act of murder according to the view of the Torah.  The posekim Rabbi Y. S. Elyashiv and Rabbi S. Z. Auerbach [13] showed that determining the time of death, according to the discussion in the gemara, [14]   depends on cessation of breathing and therefore heart transplants are considered murder.

Although we have relied on a limited number of examples, we have managed to show that the Torah is a teaching of life, a system that cares for the well-being of each and every individual.   “It is a tree of life for those who adhere to it, and its supporters are fortunate”.

[1] Torah Temimah on Leviticus 18:5.

[2] Sanhedrin 59a. Rabbi Johanan says:  “A gentile who studies the Torah deserves the death sentence, for it is written, ‘Moses charged us with the Teaching, as the heritage…’”   There the gemara concludes that a gentile receives reward only for the commandments required of the descendants of Noah, which he is commanded to observe.

[3] Cited by Torah Temimah on Leviticus 18:5.

[4] Nahmanides on Leviticus 18:4, s.v. ve’al derekh ha-peshat.”

[5] Ibn Ezra, on Ecclesiastes 7:18.

[6] Ralbag, on II Kings 6:24,’al.”

[7] Tosefta, Tractate Shabbat (Lieberman ed.), ch. 15, halakhah 17.

[8]  The Tosefta is referring to Ex.22:1: “If the thief is seized while tunneling, and he is beaten to death, there is no bloodguilt in his case.”   Tosefta explains that the thief may be killed on the possibility that he may have come to kill the property owner, even though this is far from certain.

[9] Avodah Zarah 27b.

[10] Rif, Tractate Shabbat 40a.

[11] She’iltot de-Rav Ahai Ga’on, Parashat Shemot (queries 37-40), query 38, s.v.she’ilta de-mehayyvin.”

[12] Me-Orot ha-Daf ha-Yomi, part 3, p. 234.

[13] Me-Orot ha-Daf ha-Yomi, Part 4, p. 51.

[14] Sotah 45b.