Allow me to explain the logic of the question:

During the time of the Sanhedrin, a Jew could be put to death for not following the law. While it was certainly enforced for things like murder, it could also be enforced for things like breaking Shabbat and idol worship. It was rare and it didn't happen often but it was still a reality that every Jew lived with.

Modern Jews have no such threat of harm to their lives. If a Jew decides tomorrow that they will not observe mitzvot any longer, they simply live life as a secular person. Other than being ostracized socially, there isn't a threat of harm against them.

Can it be argued that a Jew who is observant at a time where they face no consequence for non-observance is actually more pious than a Jew who observes out of fear of the consequences?

We are taught that the main reason we were given free will was because Hashem did not want to be worshipped by mindless drones. Hashem wanted to have us come to him freely and through our own conscious choice. Wouldn't the threat of consequences through the Sanhedrin (or any other Jewish authority) arguably cheapen the idea of true free worship?

  • Sanhedrian period spanned some 1500 year, what period are you specifically interested in?
    – Al Berko
    Dec 16, 2018 at 12:05
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    1. How do you measure observance in times where practically no Halacha existed in written? 2. Do you mean observance of Mitzvos as opposed to יראת שמים?
    – Al Berko
    Dec 16, 2018 at 12:07
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    Please provide your source for "While it was certainly enforced for things like murder"
    – Al Berko
    Dec 16, 2018 at 12:10
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    Brings to mind one rabbi's quote: It's never been easier to keep Judaism if you want to ... and never been harder to want to.
    – Shalom
    Dec 16, 2018 at 15:03
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    I changed my mind and gave it +1
    – Al Berko
    Oct 16, 2019 at 9:57

2 Answers 2


Speaking on an entirely different issue, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Shu"t Igros Moshe (Y"D 4, end 2) argued that we are in no position to question the piety of previous generations. In the example you cite, while one could argue the fear of punishment from the Sanhedrin (as opposed to punishment directly from Shamayim) had an effect on their practice, they were many generations closer to Sinai than we are, and (depending on when in the "Sanhedrin Period" you would like to go to) experienced the three annual piligrimages and daily services in the Beit HaMikdash. We can only dream of these things until YH Moshiach arrives (may it be soon!)

https://www.kashrut.com/articles/bubbie/#_edn7av Moshe Feinstein[7] zt"l was asked near the end of his life about prohibiting a certain type of fruit due to a possible insect issue. Rav Moshe responded that it may not be publicized that this fruit is prohibited; as aside for the fact that there were lenient opinions to rely upon (in that specific situation), “it is prohibited to spread rumors about earlier generations, who could not have possibly been stringent on these issues, as they were unaware of them”.

Rav Moshe's thrust and main point was not that people from earlier generations were not culpable, even though they may have been eating non-kosher; rather it was that even if it is assumed that the halacha generally follows the more stringent opinion, we may not publicize that certain issues are assur (prohibited). Rav Moshe was teaching us that is preferable to rely on a lenient opinion (and saying that previous generations had what to rely on as well) than to say that something is definitely assur, and cast negative aspersions on previous generations – whom, without any doubt, were on a higher spiritual level than we are, especially as they are at least one step closer to Har Sinai.

  • I think the second part is unrelated, it falls under some "Loshon Hore" subject and bears no proof about their observance., we stringent our Halacha all the time.
    – Al Berko
    Oct 16, 2019 at 8:18
  • @Al the linkage between my statement in the first paragraph and the other paragraphs is a bit weak, but that was the source that inspired my answer. A better source would be wonderful Oct 16, 2019 at 19:55

This question can only be answered if we define the ideas of piety and observance through times. We had a dispute on this subject with R' Zvi Dermer and R' Chaim Weiss. Here are some thoughts:

CLARIFICATION: I only deal with practical observance and not Emuna or divine piety, as those can only be judged by Hashem Himself.

  1. To discuss the measure of observance, it is important to understand the idea of what the [bar of the] accepted Halachic observance was.

    a. Most of the Rabbinical decrees weren't established yet, so they kept practically Deoraysos only. We currently have thousands of detailed Halochos that we keep (are aware of) while back then they not only had the basic ones but hadn't them detailed.

    b. The overall religious observance was total as the religions were the only explanation for natural phenomena, so just as we go to a doctor and take medicine when ill, they turned to religious authorities (usually Kohanim), brought sacrifices and observed cults. Remember, they had no alternative to religion, as we do, and they had not much choice but to observe. In other words, it was natural and automatic and required no special Emunah. In our reality, religion is superstitious and inefficient in explaining life processes so to be an observant Jew nowadays requires a lot of Emunah.

    c. Social pressure: unlike our multicultural megacities and megastates, the life back then was extremely tribal - everyone had to rely on the community, and derailing from the common religious norms meant a boycott and expulsion, so again, not much choice. In our culture, not only that everyone has vital alternatives to being observant, but the constant criticism, objection, stricture of the religious lifestyle requires serious effort and Kiddush Hashem in following this path.

    d. Sectorization and locality: the Jewish community was never uniform (as it is wishfully presented by some) - there was a very broad range of sects and communities from [what later became] Karaites to Perushim (but no seculars). As there was no single Halachic document, and as Rambam outlines the Torah transmission every Rabbi kept his own "scrolls of Halochos", Halachic observance was a very vague issue. FOr example, would you consider a 100% observant Karaite as a pious Jew? But what about an observant conservative or even a Reform Jew that strictly follows his Rabbi - would you call him pious?

    e. Rabbis vs the rest - Halachah vs Chumrah: A lot of currently accepted Halachot that were codified by the Rishonim from the Gemmorah were just Chumrot that specific Rabbis held (most of the single opinions in the Gemmorah). So again, we are far more observant than they were.

    f. Economical conditions: the observance was a subject to simple economical needs, local Rabbis allowed deviation from even Deoraytah, like R'Shimon allowing to sow on Shemittah, or Rabanan allowing Pikuach Nefesh on Shabbos. So the kept Halachah was de-facto one that "can be kept". Today, B"H, we have an unprecedented level of prosperity that allows keeping Halachic laws to the levels that nobody dreamt of. Just compare our Etrogs and Teffilins and whatnot to Chofetz Haim's or earlier generations'. We can afford different Meat and Diary fridges, have Torah scrolls checked by computers and many more.

    g. Complexity of life: Talking of keeping Halochos, we nowadays have unprecedented levels of complexity on every Halachic issue. Take transportation on SHabbos - they only had two options - by foot or by an animal while we have anything from skates and bikes to cars and autonomous trains. So we must consider a far greater range of Halochos than they did.

  2. The fear of punishment:

    a. The "almighty" awful Sanhedrin [and a Beis Din in general] was more a theoretical institution than a real and functioning one. The Gemmorah states that even executing once in 70 years (two generations) was uncommon. So that can't be much of a consideration when judging their obedience.

    b. The power of Authority: In those places where Rabbis (such as Reysh Galutah in Babylon) were given the authority to punish, their decrees were not different from "secular" ones as there was no differentiation, so the level of the religious obedience equaled to overall compliance. So I assume just as we currently don't steal and cross on the red light, they kept [many of their] Halochos.

We concluded, therefore, that our Haredi way of life is far more observant than it was ever.

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