World of the Sages: Repugnant locations for sin

A crime is never a desirable action, yet the circumstances of the offense can make it more or less detestable.

A crime is never a desirable action, yet the circumstances of the offense can make it more or less detestable. The Talmud records the parting words of the sages as they exited the study hall (B. Berachot 17a-b). According to one rendition, they would cite a biblical verse: "Our leaders are laden; there is no breach and no going out and no outcry in our streets" (Psalms 144:14). The would spice the verse with commentary - "Our leaders" in Torah are "laden" with good deeds. Alternatively, "our leaders" in Torah and good deeds are "laden" with suffering for the generation. The sages continued, explaining each phrase of the verse as a prayer to avoid the pitfalls of bygone episodes (Tosafot, 12th-14th centuries, France-Germany): "There is no breach" provides a contrast with King David, who endured the rebellion of his counselor, Ahithophel (II Samuel 15:31, 16:21, 17:1-3). "There is no going out" provides a contrast with King Saul, who witnessed the depraved behavior of Doeg, the royal advisor (M. Sanhedrin 10:2; B. Sanhedrin 106b). "There is no outcry" provides a contrast with the wail of Gehazi, who was punished for his improper conduct with the disease tzaraat (II Kings 5:20-27). Concluding the interpretation of the verse, the sages explained "in our streets" that we should not have children or disciples who burn their food in public. This final construction is somewhat surprising: Burning food should be understood metaphorically as unbecoming conduct, but why are we only concerned with impropriety if it happens in public? To be sure, the homiletic interpretation is borne from the biblical verse - "in our streets" refers to the public domain. Is this a suitable parting wish - that the public behavior of future generations not embarrass us? Would it not be more appropriate to pray for decency even far from the public eye? Indeed, elsewhere in our tractate there seems to be particular concern with conduct in private quarters (B. Berachot 28b). The Talmud relates that when the sage Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai lay on his deathbed, his students paid him a visit. "Master, give us a blessing," they implored their fading leader. The insightful sage acquiesced, offering his students a parting wish: "May it be the will of the Almighty that the fear of Heaven be upon you like the fear of flesh and blood." The disciples were taken aback: "Thus far and no more?! Need not the fear of God be greater than the fear of mortals?" The aged scholar replied: "Were it only so!" Reality is very different: "Know, that when people commit crimes, they say - 'O that no one should see me!'" Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai's final words suggest that the appropriate parting prayer should be that future generations not burn their dishes in the privacy of their own homes. In the public realm, social pressures discourage sin. The question of which is a worse place to sin - in the public eye or behind closed doors - is the subject of discussion elsewhere in the Talmud. Our sages tell us that in the case of someone with no regard for the Creator, it is preferable for such a person not to come into the world (M. Hagiga 2:1). The Talmud discusses what it means to "have no regard for the Creator" (B. Hagiga 16a). According to one approach, having no regard for the Almighty is indicated by sinning in private, for this is akin to saying that the omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient God is excluded from this concealed area. The Talmud questions this approach on the basis of another rabbinic tradition: If one senses that the evil inclination is overpowering him, let him go to a place where he is unknown, and let him wear black clothes that do not draw attention or lend stature to the wearer. If he still feels the need to sin, let him do that which he feels compelled to do. Thus the sinner - though he will transgress - will avoid publicly defiling God's name. Though the passage concludes that the approaches embodied in these two rabbinic traditions are not contradictory, the thrust of the discussion is that public sin is more loathsome. This approach is echoed in Jewish civil law. The robber who snatches a purse in broad daylight displays disdain for human sanction and for Divine authority. The thief who stealthily plies his trade under cover of darkness fears mortals more than the Almighty. The audacious robber is enjoined to return the stolen item, while the furtive thief must return twice the value of the stolen goods (Leviticus 5:23; Exodus 22:3). Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai - following his earlier position - explains that the thief incurs an additional penalty for spurning the sovereignty of the Almighty, while carefully avoiding human eyes (B. Bava Kamma 79b). Hence normative law recognizes the severity of crimes committed in private as an affront to God. Thus the question of the most repugnant location for sin - the public realm or the private domain - is echoed in the Talmud. Two conflicting approaches are suggested. One line suggests that sinning in private displays a disregard for God and is therefore more odious than a public transgression. It is likely that Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai would have subscribed to this approach, as he expressed his dying wish that people would be as fearful of Heaven as they were of humans. Similarly, the night thief incurs a penalty for his crime, being punished for manifestly showing more fear of mortals than of the Almighty. The alternative approach holds that public crimes are more heinous, because they constitute and broadcast a desecration of the Almighty's name. This fits the parting words of the sages before they returned home - "May we not have children or disciples who burn their dishes in public" - and the instruction given to a person driven to sin. Crime is not condoned, but where and how it takes place is important. Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of this conversation is that our sages are willing to recognize the fallible human condition, acknowledging the possibility of transgression and discussing the least repugnant location for sin. The writer is director of Advanced Programs at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.