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This is part of a series of questions regarding the Braisa in Avos d'Rebbi Nassan 16:2 that lists how Yosef HaTzaddik, R' Tzadok, R' Akiva, and R' Eliezer HaGadol were able to overcome their inclination to sin.


In telling over R' Akiva's story, the Braisa relates that he was imprisoned and locked with two beautiful women adorned as if on their wedding day. Each one pleaded with him to sin with them, yet he merely spat at them and ignored them. In the morning, the ruler asked R' Akiva why he didn't sin. "Are they not beautiful? Are they not human like you? Did the One Who made you not make them?" R' Akiva replied, "They smelled like treifos, neveilos, and sheratzim."

They smelled bad. That's why he didn't sin? Not because he was prohibited from doing so? Not because he felt it beneath his dignity? That's what R' Tzadok said for why he didn't sin. R' Akiva died al kidush HaShem. He clearly didn't feel scared to stand up for Hashem's honor, so this wasn't just an excuse.

At first glance, you might claim it's a metaphor, yet the Magen Avos and Binyan Yehoshua (see link above for the latter) say it refers to the treif food they ate. Okay, so R' Akiva's just saying that they smelled bad, and they should brush their teeth and then he would sin with them? Or else get beautiful vegans? What exactly was R' Akiva thinking when he said this?

Note that I'm looking for an explanation that fits with the Binyan Yehoshua and Magen Avos' understanding that the Braisa is to be taken literally, not one that takes it metaphorically.

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    It wasn't a question of logic - it was a question of willpower. How could a human being be that strong. And Arayos is a big Taavah (See Chagiga beginning of second chapter). So he replied that they were Maus. Had they not been, Ein Apotropos LeArayaos. – Shmuel Brin May 22 '17 at 5:15
  • "R' Akiva died al kidush HaShem. He clearly didn't feel scared to stand up for Hashem's honor, so this wasn't just an excuse." Maybe he wasn't on that level yet? – msh210 May 22 '17 at 6:21
  • Where exactly is the Magen Avot? – mevaqesh May 22 '17 at 14:12
  • So is this practically accepted? – Chaim May 22 '17 at 15:13
  • One aspect that may apply, here. Perhaps, he didn't give an honest answer such as "my religion forbids me to do this" because he was afraid of being severely punished. So he made up this answer. – DanF May 22 '17 at 15:58
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First, I want to say that this seems to me a deep question for which I have rather slender qualification. I usually respond to more technical questions that don't involve introspection or contemplation of human nature. However your question didn't get very many responses here, and after I thought about it for a few days I began to feel that I had something to offer, even if something ultimately inadequate.

I'd like to start by considering the general attitude of Chazal toward temptations.

Rav Ashi wondered about the fact that even great people in earlier times succumbed to a temptation that he easily resisted, a temptation to worship idols. When occasion somehow presented itself he communicated with the spirit of Menashe King of Yehudah, who had lived and died 25 generations earlier (in the times of Hosea, Amos, Isaiah and Micah), when the desire to worship idols was strong. Rav Ashi expressed wonderment that even great men of early times wished to worship idols. Menashe responded that if Ashi had lived during earlier times he would have lifted the hem of his skirt to run to the idols. See Sanhedrin 102b1; 2 Kings 15:16 to 22; and the Judaica Press introduction to 2 Kings.

What is this story doing in Shas? Why is it helpful for us to know about Rav Ashi and King Menashe? Perhaps in this story Chazal ask us to bear in mind that when people face challenges, it is not easy for us to know whether those challenges are difficult for them; and this is especially true when our vantage is from a great distance.

Elsewhere in Shas, Abaye overheard a man and a woman planning a journey. He followed them, expecting to intervene if they came to sin. But they traveled together and then parted ways, saying, "Our paths diverge now, but the company would have been pleasant." Abaye became despondent, reflecting that he would himself have been overcome by temptation, until he learned that whoever is greater than his fellow has a greater temptation than his fellow. See Succah 52a3.

Would you say that Abaye was dissembling when he said that he would have been overcome by temptation? Whom was he trying to fool, and why? The gemara tells us directly that he was despondent because he would have failed. See also Shemonah Perakim 6 (of the Rambam); Akeidas Yitzchak, Parshas Nitzavim p. 104b ff; Or Yisrael 30.

Similarly the story you quote, from Avois d'Rabbi Nosson, seems to ask to be taken at face value. While I agree that we should consider whether people in the Talmud are always candid, I see here no reason for misstatement; there is nothing to gain by it.

Further, if the redactor had thought that R' Akiva's statement was not candid, there would seem to be no reason to include the story at all. The context seems to require it. First, AR"N quotes a statement of Pirkei Avois: the evil inclination drives a man from the world. A series of reflections on the evil inclination, on the difficulty of overcoming, leads to the tale of Joseph the righteous; then to Zadok the greatest man of his generation; then to R' Akiva, who was greater than he; and then to R' Eliezer the great, who was more distinguished than he. Each rebuffed sexual overtures. Then there follow several more paragraphs on the fearsomeness of the evil inclination. If the point is not that these men were genuinely tempted, then what is the point?

(Incidentally the stories also contain ingredients that seem to make sin more bizarre. One involves a little girl who is the rabbi's sister's child; I would consider this an almost uniquely non-tempting situation. And yet the stories praise this degree of self-control.)

R' Akiva's explanation involves the stench of carcasses. The only reason he refrained from disgraceful behavior is some detail that seems beside the point. What should our attitude be? Should we be disappointed in him for being a man of a certain nature? Or should we (perhaps like him) be glad for any contingency that helps us remain true to our goals? This whole world is a very narrow bridge, and the whole point of view of the story is that R' Akiva's level of self-control is remarkable. The jailer apparently sends women in to visit prisoners routinely because the need is widespread; he is as surprised as the women themselves when R' Akiva refuses this offer. For ourselves, we commonly manipulate circumstances (to make our own failure less likely) simply by avoiding seclusion and remaining in public view. I believe that this works, and if someone told me that the only reason he did not sin was that he would have been embarrassed to be seen sinning, I would say that he is no weaker than others, just more honest. So I would not dismiss a moral victory that is contingent. They're almost all contingent; but is this one really so small?

P.S. Some say that Yochanon Kohen Gadol was later called Yannai. See Berachos 29a1.

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First of all, it is not clear to me that the Binyan Yehoshua is saying that he repulsed by the smell of them. I think he is explaining that when it says they stink of nevelah; this means that he was disgusted by the fact they would consume nevelah; not that he was physically repulsed or anything like that.

It was the sin that he found repulsive; not the flavour, or smell.

[Incidentally, this seems to presuppose that there is something intrinsically disgusting about hukkim, such as forbidden foods, which ostensibly goes against at least some statements in Hazal, (e.g. The Sifra to Kedoshim discussed here)]

So, the Binyan Yehoshua is explains that the story is portraying R. Akiva as repulsed by their sinful activities. Would this Midrash describe a different story if they were vegan? We don't know, since it didn't choose to tell a story about vegans. However, I see no reason to assume that the sentiments indicated by the Midrash by actual consumption of these substances by those particular women. Indeed, isn't it rather strange that he just happened to get stuck with sherets eaters.

It seems quite likely that the audience for this Midrash (or if one wishes to claim this Midrash is historically significant, R. Akiva himself) had a visceral negative association with non-kosher foods (or at least some of them) much like the ubiquitous taboo around pork in particular in the Jewish world.

This would explain why the typical example of sin in numerous Hazalic works is the consumption of non-kosher foods, (for example the question of whether we force a minor to avoid prohibition is presented as the question of whether he may eat nevalah (Shabbat 121a) and the typical sinner (who does so not to anger God in particular) is presented as the one who eats nevalah for his pleasure (Hullin 3a, Sanhedrin 27a).

Furthermore, (and perhaps because of this taboo), non-Jews are classically characterised in rabbininc literature as those who eat nevelah, (cf. e.g. Bava Metsia 111b). This association between non-Jews, and the archetypal sinful forbidden foods they consume, seems to me to be the most likely understanding of this Midrash, and I see nothing in the Binyan Yehoshua to make me think otherwise.

Accordingly, it seems that that the Midrash would be just as coherent if the women were vegans, because the negative non-Jews in general were known as nevalah eaters, and this appears to be the case regardless of their diets (cf. Bava Metsia 111b).

Similarly, in popular parlance, non-Jews; even circumcised ones were known as arelim (cf. Nedarim 3:11).

Thus, it seems likely that "the stench of nevalah" was basically the same as a general repulsion with non-Jews; particularly because of their activities, regardless of whether they were vegan.

In summary

Accordingly, given the above associations, it seems likely that the even if we don't say that R. Akiva meant that he was repulsed by the idea of committing a sin, and that they (by dint of their prohibition to him) seemed repulsive, (which seems like a perfectly fine explanation, but not the one the question is asking for), and rather explain that the emphasis was on the women's consumption of non-kosher food, according to all the above we can still explain that it was not the physical smell that so bothered R. Akiva as portrayed.

  • Commentless downvote? – mevaqesh Jun 2 '17 at 2:00

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