Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Ha'azinu-Shabbat Shuva 5763/ September 14, 2002

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Parashat Ha'azinu-Shabbat Shuva 5763/ September 14, 2002

Does the Almighty Make Concessions?

Prof. Avinoam Cohen
Naftal-Yaffe Department of Talmud

The following remark, recorded in the name of Rabbi Haninah in the Babylonian Talmud (Bava Kama 50a), at first glance seems puzzling:

Rabbi Haninah said: Whoever says that the Holy One, blessed be He, makes concessions (vatran) - such a person cedes his life (yitvatru hayyav[1]); [rather, He waits His while and collects his debt],[2] as it is said: "The Rock! - His deeds are perfect, Yea, all His ways are just" (Deut. 32:4).

In other words, whoever says that the Holy One, blessed be He, tends to concede or "give up", will be punished measure for measure, resulting in his life being given up by Heavenly decree, or, if we read yutru hayyav, in his life becoming free for the taking, others being permitted to kill him.

There is no small theological problem here which the author of the Torah commentary Torah Temimah sensed, and therefore he commented as follows on the prooftext which is found in this week's reading:

We must investigate how this utterance [of Rabbi Haninah] can be reconciled with the scriptural passage, "Forgiving iniquity and remitting transgression" (Micah 7:18), which is the trait of making concessions. Moreover, we must explain why the characteristic of making concessions was considered a harsh trait and not, to the contrary, a trait of kindness, as it said previously, "Justice, justice shall you pursue" (Deut. 16:20), which has been interpreted: "Concede from your own [in apportioning gifts to the needy] and give to him" (Hullin 134a).

It appears that Rashi sensed these difficulties and offered the following interpretation in an attempt to resolve them (Bava Kamma, loc. sit.):

Makes concessions - [the Almighty] overlooks (forgives) all their transgressions (of those who sin).[3]

Cedes his life - his life and body are free to be taken, since [by saying that the Lord makes concessions] he encourages people to sin.

Two points stand out in Rashi's interpretation:

1) "Forgives all their transgressions." The prohibition is against claiming that the Lord even forgives those who transgress all the commandments; consequently such a person does not relate to the commandments with due strictness, but commits many sins. (This is the understanding of the passage in Rashi according to Torah Temimah.)

2) "Since he encourages people to sin." The very proclamation that the Lord makes concessions leads many people astray, since they rely on this trait of the Lord from the outset and do not refrain from sinning. In other words, the "whoever says" does not merely think to himself, rather he proclaims this notion to all and sundry; thus, his crime is not only in his own sinfulness, but primarily in leading others astray.

However, Rabbi Haninah's remark, in the light of Rashi's interpretation, is most difficult to understand:

1) The two principle elements stressed in Rashi's interpretation do not appear in the original saying by Rabbi Haninah (nor are they even hinted at there).

2) The principal idea in Rabbi Haninah's remark is not new in itself (but only in terms of the severity of the punishment), the parallel variant from the Mishnah being well known: "He who says, 'I shall sin, and my sins will be atoned on Yom Kippur' (parallel in our text to: the Holy One, blessed be He, makes concessions) - that person's sins are not atoned by Yom Kippur" (Yoma 8.9).

3) The expression, "Whoever says," as in the Mishnah just cited, does not necessarily mean proclaiming publicly, but rather "Says to himself".

4) Rashi does not make clear why Rabbi Haninah used as his prooftext the verse from Ha'azinu, "The Rock! - His deeds are perfect."

In light of this, it seems that the difficulty raised above by Torah Temimah about concession being a virtue ought to be resolved by distinguishing between "forgiving" and "conceding" (as legal terms). We must elucidate why the characteristics of being "forgiving and pardoning" -soleah and mohel--are good traits, befitting the Lord, whereas making concessions is a trait that must not be ascribed to Him.

Forgiving

1) is an act of pardoning, done after a transgressor has been tried, proven guilty, and convicted. Forgiveness commutes punishment.

2) Forgiveness comes in response to the entreaty of a transgressor, who acknowledges having done wrong but requests that his sins be remitted so that he be spared punishment.

According to the Midrash, this is indeed what Moses requested of the Lord, acknowledging his sin as he made his plea: "You wrote, 'Forgiving iniquity and remitting transgression,' - forgive my sin, for it is great! Forthwith he found grace (was pardoned) before the Holy One, blessed be He" (Deut. Rabbah 8.1).

The entire process described here took place after Moses' verdict had been passed. Moreover, here we have proof that he interpreted the words nose 'avon "forgiving iniquity" as meaning "pardoning."

Conceding:

1) This means refraining from bringing to trial, passing up beforehand the right to judge a transgressor. Thus concession is made before judgment. A sinner wrongly believes that this is one of the gifts the Holy One, blessed be He, bestows upon His creatures and that it is an admirable trait.

2) The offender does not need to plead for forgiveness from the Creator because, according to this misconception, he will never reach the point of being tried and found guilty.

3) Concession, therefore, is likely to encourage sin and transgression. It undermines the need for repentance and mars the notion of divine justice.

The Hebrew vitur, thus defined as ceding or giving up, is illustrated by:

1) "A first-born who takes a portion (as his inheritance) like a plain son cedes (his right to take a portion as a first-born)". [Bava Batra 126a, and Rashbam there]

2) The Sages' commentary on Job 1:1: "And turned away from evil - that he used to cede his curse" (as if he had never been cursed; i.e., it had been removed from him beforehand by his act of ceding. Jerusalem Talmud, Sotah 5.6 [20d], and the commentators on this passage).

If we accept these distinctions between the various terms, we can now proceed to reinterpret the remark made by Rabbi Haninah, elucidating the connection between his remark and the verse cited as a prooftext:

"Whoever says that the Holy One, blessed be He, makes concessions" - i.e., that He is not strict about summoning all sinners before Him, and as a result they are not brought to trial, convicted, and punished;

"Such a person cedes his life" - his life becomes free for the taking. Just as that person imputed that the Lord runs His world as a free-for-all, denying due process and divine justice, so too, will he be treated, measure for measure, his life being free for all to take.

"As it is said: 'The Rock! - His deeds are perfect, Yea, all His ways are just'" - the emphasis is on just --mishpat: the perfection in the ways of the Creator stems from their being founded on justice. He does not cede, a priori, but tries all sinners for each and every one of their sins. Yet it is clear that if afterwards the sinner entreats the Lord and is found worthy, then he can enjoy the Lord's forgiveness (pardon); however this happens only after the trial.

Hence we can also understand the added remark in the Jerusalem Talmud and the Midrashim (note that this addition is in Aramaic, in contrast to the previous remarks in Hebrew by Rabbi Haninah):

"Rather, He is slow to anger and collects His debt" - the addition comes to prove that the Holy One, blessed be He, does not make concessions, but rather, He is slow to anger. Since He is slow to anger and does not punish sinners summarily, the latter are mistaken if they interpret this as a sign that the Lord makes concessions.In truth, when the time comes He shall demand that the sinner pay his debt (if he fails to repent).


[1] The Hebrew here is uncertain; The Jerusalem Talmud (Shekalim 5.1 [48d]) and the parallel Midrashim read yitvatru (root v-t-r). The Babylonian Talmud reads yutru (root n-t-r, or possibly an archaic form of the root v-t-r). In any event, all the variants play on the verb v-t-r or n-t-r and basically mean that the person's life is placed in jeopardy.
[2] The added remark in square brackets appears primarily in the Jerusalem Talmud and in midreshei aggadah.
[3] Perhaps in place of la'avor 'al kol pish'am "to forgive all their transgressions" we should read le-'over 'al kol psha'im "to one who transgresses all the sins".