We try and go one level deeper when it comes to festivals, so I hope the following is digestible and understandable - and that it should never become practical.

There are two stories in Tanach which share a common question; the ‘hero’s act seems to have been a questionable one. One of those is Esther in the Purim story, and the other is Yael. The Esther incident is that she went to Achashveirosh’s chamber to plead for the life of her people, knowing that this would involve having relations with Achashveirosh (whereas previously this had not been out of choice, she now voluntarily instigated such an act to take place). The Yael story was that Yael spotted Sissrah, the fleeing captain of the enemy army who had been at war with the Jews, and invited him into her tent. They then had relations together so that he’d become tired, and whilst he was sleeping she took the opportunity to ram a tent peg through his skull. Both Yael and Esther receive much praise for their actions. The question is how were they allowed to do what they did? Let’s explain…

There are three cardinal sins; sins that dictate that one must give up one’s life for rather than commit. These are murder, idolatry, and illicit relations.[1] Now both Yael and Esther were married women (the gemarra cites that Esther was married to Mordechai), and as such it is one of the die-rather-than-do sins to have relations with another man. So how were Esther and Yael allowed to voluntarily instigate having relations with other men?

The Tosefes Yom HaKippurim[2] (an acharon) writes that perhaps Yael was mistaken; she thought that what she was doing was permitted in order to save the nation, but in reality it was forbidden. But this does not seem to fit the great praise attributed to by Devorah the prophetess, nor does it fit the tremendous accolades ascribed to her by the gemarra.[3] So, unsatisfied, we return to our question; how were Esther and Yael allowed to do what they did? There are several approaches to this amongst the Rishonim; we shall focus on the two principle answers - the Rivam and Rabeinu Tam.

Rabeinu Tam writes[4] that this rule that ‘one must rather die than commit the sin’ does not apply to having relations with non-Jews (he brings a pasuk to back himself up). Thus, since the men in question in the Esther and Yael episodes (Achashveirosh and Sissrah) were not Jewish, their acts were not ones that one must die rather than commit, and so they had the status of a ‘regular’ sin - one which they had special permission to commit (presumably due to the need to save klal yisrael[4b]). The Rivam[5] argues and says that relations with non-Jews are also of the ‘die rather than commit’ ilk. So what about Esther and Yael? The answer here, says the Rivam, is that when it comes to sexual relations, a woman is always considered the passive participant. And (as we shall soon explain) the rule that one must give up their life rather than commit one of these three sins only applies when these sins are committed actively (not passively). Thus, since Esther (and Yael) were passive in their acts, their sins were not of the ‘die rather than commit’ type. Indeed, Rashi[6] gives the same answer as the Rivam, as do others.[7] So we have two main answers to the Esther/Yael question: either relations with non-Jews are different (Rabeinu Tam), or women are passive (Rivam). Our topic will really open up when we ask the following searching question on Rabeinu Tam…

It is not only the three cardinal sins that one must die rather than commit. The same goes for any sin which one is forced to commit in public (conditions apply). The gemarra[8] therefore asks that ‘surely Esther’s act was in public (or at least in the public eye)’ and so she should have refused at all costs? The gemarra answers that Esther was passive and so is not subject to this rule of ‘die rather than sin’ here.[9] Therefore, Rabeinu Tam cannot argue on the biological fact that a woman is considered passive in such an act; the gemarra itself says that she is passive. Rather, it would seem that Rabeinu Tam would concede that though she is passive, it is still a sin that one must die rather than commit. Thus, the dispute between the Rivam and Rabeinu Tam would have to be: does the fact that a woman is passive relegate the sin from one that one must die rather than commit. The problem with this is that Rabeinu Tam has a serious question to deal with now…

The gemarra tells us that the source for this law of ‘die rather than commit’ is the case of murder; illicit relations being of this group is learnt (via a comparison in the psukim) from murder being a sin that one must die rather than commit. So how do we know that murder is a sin that one must die for rather than commit? The gemarra tells us that this can be derived from logic; how can you weigh up that your life is more important than this potential victim’s life. Thus, if Bob comes up to you and tells you to kill Mr X or Bob will kill you, who are you to say that your life is more important than Mr X’s life to be able to kill him. Rather, you must stand there are let Bob kill you. The only problem is that, as Tosafos[10] points out, this piece of logic about weighing up the value of lives only prevents one from being active; because one cannot make that judgment call, one may not take the proactive act of murdering Mr X. But what if the case was passive; let’s say that Bob told you ‘let me push you off this building’ otherwise I’ll kill you, and you know that Mr X is sunbathing at the bottom of the building and he will (unwittingly) cushion your fall, but he will die because of you falling on him. Here, says Tosafos, you are allowed to be pushed; for you are not performing an action - you are just letting yourself be pushed. And as such, you have not made a judgment call about whose life is more important; you have just remained passive, which is exactly what the ‘do not make that judgment call’ can dictate. [If you refused to be pushed here, you would be taking the active step of assuming that Mr X’s life was more precious than yours.] If so, this is a tremendous proof for the opinion of the Rivam above; we see from the case of murder (which is the source of illicit relations’ aspect of ‘die rather than commit’) that the obligation to die only applies when one is active. If so, since Esther was passive then that should be why she was allowed to go to Achashveirosh - why did Rabeinu Tam need to provide a different answer then?

The key would seem to be a chakira of the Birkas Avraham[11] as to how to understand the nature of the fact that the Torah tells us that these three are cardinal (‘must die’) sins. What did we think before the Torah told us that these three are cardinal sins? The first approach is to say that we thought that all sins are of this ‘die rather than commit’ nature, and the Torah then limited this to only three sins. The second approach is to say that due to the mitzvah ‘to live by the mitzvos and not to die because of them’ (va’chai ba’hem), we thought that no sins require one to die - so the Torah then told us that for three sins this mitzvah to live is overridden. Incidentally, Rashi[12] spells out our second approach. One practical difference of these two understandings is whether one is allowed to give up their lives rather than commit a sin which is not one of these three sins; a matter which is subject to a major dispute.[13] If we held like our first understanding, then I would be allowed to give up my life for any sin; for the Torah merely obligated me to give up my life for three sins - but it left the other sins as voluntary when it comes to giving up my life. But according to our second understanding, one may not give up one’s life here, for with regards to all sins but these three one is obligated by the mitzvah of va’chai ba’hem not to give up one’s life. We can use our first approach to answer our question on Rabeinu Tam.

These two approaches will affect how we understand the gemarra’s use of the logic of not making that judgment call in the case of murder. For if one holds like our second approach, then the Torah told us that there was a ‘new’ concept of ‘die rather than sin’ and so the logic about making that judgment call will also define the scope of application of this concept; for example that it only applies to active sins. This is what the Rivam and Rashi held. But Rabeinu Tam held like our first understanding, and so the ‘judgment call’ logic does not tell us about the concept of ‘die rather than commit’ - we knew that concept anyway (we thought it applied to all sins). Rather, the ‘judgment call’ logic was just a way of setting apart murder from other sins to allow the ‘die rather than commit’ obligation to only be applicable to murder (and its halachic derivates). Thus, the ‘judgment call’ logic does not define the scope of the ‘die rather than commit’ nature whatsoever; and so it will not tell us any distinction about passive or active. This is what Rabeinu Tam will hold. I hope that was all understandable.

We shall end with a short idea about Purim. Esther and Mordechai instituted mishlo’ach manos as part of the Purim festivities. What has this got to do with Purim? Purim is about recognising HaShem’s Hand in events - that He is behind everything that happens. Where does sending food to one’s mate come into this?[14] We can answer via a note that was hung on the door to the Beis HaMedrash in Kelm during the month of Ellul each year. The note reminded everyone to be extra careful to create unity and foster good relations with others during the month leading up to Rosh HaShanah. What does this have to do with Rosh HaShanah? For on Rosh HaShanah we coronate HaShem as King, and in order to do that, there needs to be unity amongst His subjects - as the pasuk says ‘and there was in Yeshurun a king, when the people gathered together’ (explained to mean ‘when is there a king? When the people unite). The same can be said of Purim. Yes, Purim is all about recognising HaShem’s Hand in our lives. But we want everyone to recognise this together - after all, the miracle took place to the people as a whole - and so we send food to each other to foster the unity that facilitates this communal recognition.

Purim Sam’each!

[1] Gemarra Yoma 82a-82b & Sanhedrin 74a, Rambam hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 5:2 [2] Tosefes Yom HaKippurim, Yoma 82a [3] Gemarra Nazir 23b [4] Rabeinu Tam, Tosafos Kesuvos 3b ‘ve’lidrosh’ [4b] Indeed, with reference to Ya’el, the Me’iri (Sanhedrin 74b ‘ve’yeish gorsim’) writes that she was allowed to do what she did because it was for the sake of saving the multitudes. [5] Rivam, Tosafos Kesuvos 3b ‘ve’lidrosh’ [6] Rashi Yoma 82a ‘af’ [7] Haga’os Maymoniyos hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 5:2 [8] Gemarra Sanhedrin 74b [9] Abaye. Rava gives a different answer, but he agrees on Abeye’s biological facts. [10] Tosafos Yoma 82aa ‘mah’ [11] Birkas Avraham Pesachim 25 [12] Rashi Sanhedrin 74a ‘svara’ [13] This is a machlokes between the Tur and others; cited in Kesef Mishna hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 5:4 [14] The simple answer is that these foods are supposed to be a means of providing food for others for the Purim seudah. But not everyone understands it this way.

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