In Parshas Vayeshev we read the story of Tamar and Yehuda. Tamar is suspected of being harlot and following her conviction, she is sentenced to death by burning. Instead of exonerating herself by outing Yehuda, she accepts her fate and merely produces some evidence that shows Yehuda surreptitiously that he was the one who was with her.
The Talmud says that this teaches us that it is better to be burned alive in a fiery furnace than to embarrass one’s friend in public.
Tosafos ask the obvious question: If one must die in a fiery furnace rather than embarrass one’s friend, it should be included with the three cardinal sins of Judaism for which a Jew is required to give up one’s life? Those are murder, adultery, and idol worship. If embarrassing a friend must be avoided at the cost of death – it is equal to those three! Why is it omitted from the list?
Tosafos answer that only things that are explicit in the Torah are included in the list.
The Torah Temimah infers that Tosafos mean that one is in fact required to give up one’s life to spare a friend embarrassment. Meaning that halachically there is no leeway. One must give up one’s life in order that one’s friend not be embarrassed.
This does not make the Torah Temimah happy. He says “if not for their words I think…” which is rabbinic code for “I very respectfully disagree”. Instead the Torah Temimah says (translation mine) that it is clear that one cannot include embarrassing a friend in the list of three cardinal sins. Rather he says that the Talmud was teaching mussar and good etiquette. One who does not heed the advice of the rabbis of the Talmud is not a called a rasha, rather he is just a person with bad character. Whereas with the three cardinal sins, the law actually requires one to martyr oneself rather than sin. One who violates one of those sins is a rasha and it is as if he violated the basic tenets of faith.
I think the significant thing here is not so much that the Torah Temimah has a different answer than Tosafos. The bomb here is that the Torah Temimah is willing to tame an extreme statement of Chazal and call it mussar instead of taking it literally. Tosafos did not do that. Many charedim today do not do that. But the Torah Temimah was willing to reinterpret an extreme statement of Chazal and say it was not halachic, rather it was a sermonic point that was designed to urge people to act properly without setting actual parameters of legal ramifications.
Read the Torah Temimah here: PDF