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The Gemara (Talmud Bavli Shabbos 55b-56b) relates that several Biblical figures who, from the text itself, seemed to have sinned, in reality did not. These statements take the form of "כל האומר פלוני חטא אינו אלא טועה" - "Anyone who says that So-and-so sinned is merely mistaken". The Talmud applies this to the following persons:

  • Reuven, when he seemingly cohabitated with his father's concubine, Bilhah. (Bereshis 35:22)
  • Chofni and Pinchas, the sons of Eli, when they seemingly cheated those bringing offerings at Mishkan Shilo and cohabitated with the women who congregated at the Mishkan. (I Shmuel 12-17,22)
  • The sons of Shmuel, when they seemingly took bribes and corrupted justice. (I Shmuel 8:3)
  • David, when he seemingly violated אשת איש and perhaps killed Uriah indirectly. (II Shmuel 11:4, 15; 12:9)
  • Shlomo, when he seemingly became involved with idol worship. (I Melachim 11:4-6)

My question is, are these to be taken literally as historical accounts, or are they to be interpreted metaphorically like many other midrashim we find in the Talmud as they contradict the straightforward meaning of the text?

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+1 As far as I know, the other midrashim don't say "anyone who understands this according to pshat is mistaken". –  HodofHod Jan 25 '12 at 19:08
    
there are different views in the gemara, though you might not see artscroll mention that –  Ariel K Jan 25 '12 at 22:09
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When he covered the Bas Sheva incident in his (taped) navi shiur, Rabbi Yisrael Reisman (Brooklyn) devoted an hour to this IIRC. –  msh210 Jan 26 '12 at 1:56
    
+1 for "for real?" and an excellent question –  Hacham Gabriel Jan 26 '12 at 15:53
    
Cohabit? I was under the impression that what was described was a quick nookie, or at most a one-night stand, not a living arrangement. –  TRiG Sep 18 '13 at 18:08
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5 Answers 5

Rambam (Hil. Sotah 3:3), based on the Gemara (Sotah 7b), states that a sotah is told the story of Reuven in its literal sense, to induce her to confess: "Many great and honorable people before you were overpowered by their inclinations and stumbled [and yet they confessed, so you should do the same]."

Which would seem to imply that there is indeed room to understand that episode, at least, in its simple sense. However, Rema (Teshuvos, sec. 11) argues, essentially, that indeed the people who tell the sotah this know that it is in fact incorrect and is casting Reuven in an undeserved bad light, but that it is worth it to do so to prevent Hashem's name from having to be erased. So it sounds like he would hold that there is no possible way to understand Reuven's sin other than the way it is presented in Shabbos ibid.

About David, there is a different Gemara (Kesubos 9a, bottom) where it first explains the episode with him and Bas Sheva as having been actual adultery, and then continues by quoting the opinion (in Shabbos there) that she had previously been divorced (either conditionally or unconditionally, see Rashi and Tosafos there). So it would seem from there that indeed even the Gemara itself allows for more than one way of understanding that incident.

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Re David: The gemara seems to be allowing for different opinions regarding what happened, but the opinion that David never technically sinned would still be taken literally. –  jake Jan 25 '12 at 22:57
    
@jake, I'm not quite sure I understand your point. In Kesubos there the context is that since we know that a woman who commits adultery becomes forbidden to both her husband and her paramour (כשם שאסורה לבעל כך אסורה לבועל), how could David later marry Bas Sheva? And the first answer is אונס היה, she was forced into it (the rule of כשם שאסורה applies only if it was consensual). Which would mean that according to this answer, David was indeed guilty of out-and-out adultery. –  Alex Jan 26 '12 at 16:14
    
Yes, but there are two ways you can look at that: Either (1) this opinion is differing from the one that holds David never sinned, or (2) the other opinion is not a literal statement, and thus there is no disagreement. But from what I recall of the gemara in Kesubos, it is implied that it is just a difference of opinions (for the gemara interrupts with the claim that she really was divorced), not that the claim "David never sinned" is metaphorical somehow. –  jake Jan 26 '12 at 16:18
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The Abarbanel actually says Batsheva was married -- and hence his commentary was not allowed on the shelves of Ner Israel yeshiva!

I've heard Rabbi Breitowitz say that the statement of David may be taken non-literally; or with several of these, there are really two questions, "what exactly did they do wrong?", and "how deep was their repentance?" The verse made clear that King David did something wrong, but he had deep and complete repentance.

The Ibn Ezra says the simple reading of Reuben's sin is as stated, "and the rabbis who interpreted it regarding moving the beds -- they did a nice thing defending people" (something to that effect).

As I heard from Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer, Rav Dessler explains that when it comes to Aggadata, the goal is to develop a deeper religious experience. If you get more out of learning the messages of these stories with the sins as written, fine. The Midrashic interpretations here drive home different points, which have deep spiritual lessons; for instance, keeping a woman waiting when she wants to be home with her husband is an awful thing, hence the Torah describes it as if they committed a great sin with these women (and perhaps some element of lust motivated Hofni and Pinchas to take their time). With King David, the way of reading it that teaches me the greatest lesson is that Uriah gave his wife a divorce before going off to war, but they had an understanding between them. By interfering with their relationship, King David wasn't technically violating any laws, but he was doing something awful nonetheless.

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That's why they're not on the shelf at Ner Israel? I had heard it was because he made some derogatory comments about a gemara somewhere, but IIRC Abarbanel there bends over backward trying to justify how he can argue with it. I'll have to look at it again. How do you know that R' Ruderman took them down specifically because of this Abarbanel? –  jake Jan 25 '12 at 21:05
    
I don't think anyone will say that there was absolutely nothing wrong with what they did. It was just a much smaller sin. For example, as you mentioned regarding Dovid Hamelech, if it was someone else, he would probably just be told "fe". By Dovid Hamelech's standards, that little act was amplified. –  Shmuel Brin Jan 25 '12 at 21:05
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@jake would annyone nowadays claim a respected Rishon is out-of-bounds? –  Shmuel Brin Jan 25 '12 at 21:07
    
@ShmuelBrill, Absolutely. I heard a story about R' Yaakov Weinberg in which he said (or at least implied) that Ralbag is "out-of-bounds". –  jake Jan 25 '12 at 21:09
    
The Ner Israel thing is as I heard it from Rabbi Bechhofer. –  Shalom Jan 25 '12 at 21:18
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I think that we probably have to understand the Gemara along the lines of Ibn 'Ezra or R' Breitowitz, as mentioned by Shalom, such that the repentance was absolute and punishment was meted out, and therefore we don't have a right to bring up sins after the fences have been mended Bein Adam LeMakom (which is why Vidui is said silently except for the communal Vidui of Y"K - See RaMBa"M Hil. Teshuvah, 2:5).

I have another thought, which could be understood to be in line with the above. I must first say, though, that I have absolutely no source for this, and I'm totally thinking out loud. But I do wonder if, perhaps, the Gemara is to be read in reverse. What I mean is, rather than saying, "whoever claims the following people sinned is mistaken [for saying it was a sin; clearly it was not a sin]," perhaps the Gemara is saying, "whoever claims the following people sinned is merely mistaken [and not themselves sinning badly for bringing to light the sins of those who have repented; Hava Amina - I might have otherwise thought - it was itself a terrible sin to make such a statement, but in fact it is merely a mistake]."

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Interesting idea, that second paragraph. But why would anyone think that it's sinful to talk about these people's sins, when Tanach itself records the incidents? –  Alex Jan 25 '12 at 21:55
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@Alex It isn't sinful to mention them; as you say, it's black and white in TaNa"Ch. But it might be sinful to dwell on them and call them sinners in a derogatory manner, just as it is sinful to remind Ba'alei Teshuvah of their past wrongdoings. See RaMBa"M, Hil. Teshuvah. I'm not sure exactly where offhand. –  Seth J Jan 25 '12 at 21:59
    
@SethJ, I like the idea as well. But why just these people and not, say, Moshe for mei meriva and Aharon for egel hazahav etc.? Many Biblical figures sinned and I'm sure repented in full. –  jake Jan 25 '12 at 22:07
    
Did Moshe repent? Was he allowed to? I don't know, maybe there is something that was supposed to learn from those sins, and a here the lesson is repentance. But I don't know, it's just a thought. –  Seth J Jan 25 '12 at 22:42
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@Jake all the sins mentioned are/were private sins that other people would not know about, if they were not written in tanach. The sin with Moshe and Aahron were public sins affecting the whole nation. –  avi Jan 26 '12 at 13:31
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The difficulty with the Gemara is that it contradicts explicit descriptions in the Tananch of these people doing the wrong thing. How to interpret it?

My own idea is as follows:

  • The person mentioned did indeed commit a sin. It's mentioned explicitly. They did something wrong. Not necessarily the exact act as written in the Tanach (it may be allegorical), but something wrong.
  • We are incapable of fully appreciating or possibly even understanding the subtle and profound calculations they made before arriving at their decision. There were reasons against and in favour of doing what they did, and they used a level of judgement deeper than we possess.
  • They made a mistake in that judgement and came to an erroneous conclusion. They did the wrong thing - on their level, a sin.
  • When we say about them that they sinned, we are implicitly ascribing to them a sin as we could apply to ourselves. This is incorrect - they never came close to the kind of primal, gross sin that is applicable to us.

In summary, anyone who says they sinned is mistaken, because the sin we are talking about is far removed from them.

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Once you say that they did something wrong but not necessarily exactly as it is written in Tanach, why are you worried about contradicting explicit descriptions in the Tanach? In other words, either way you are contradicting explicit statements. –  jake Feb 1 '12 at 3:17
    
You're right - I wrote that a bit muddled. What I mean is that even when we accept the allegorical explanation, such as Reuven moved his father's bed rather than slept with his stepmom, he still definitely sinned. So the question remains, why am I mistaken to say so? –  Michael Sandler Feb 1 '12 at 8:10
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I know that the story of David is to be taken literally and many commentaries including Rashi and Abarbanel (among many others) explain why it is he did not sin. As it is David is punished for his interactions with Bat Sheva (as is Eli and his sons) so they clearly did something wrong. How you then understand the Gemora is another question.

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Abarbanel believes that David did sin. He does take the gemara literally though; just disagrees with it, as he claims it is merely a daas yachid. –  jake Jan 25 '12 at 20:56
    
@jake Abarbanel does seem to agree at the beginning of his commentary, listing all the possible sins but then he goes through, and through the use of other commentators and his own shows that David possibly did not sin. –  morah hochman Jan 25 '12 at 21:00
    
I'll agree with you that Abarbanel's treatment along with the other commentators shows that they all took the gemara literally, but Abarbanel makes it very very clear what he holds. –  jake Jan 25 '12 at 21:07
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