The Torah Temimah Takes on Tosafos and Chazal Literalists

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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.

Very interesting.

Read the Torah Temimah here: PDF


  • Azi Grae

    enough of this apikores

    • curious george

      Do you have another understanding of the Torah Temima that makes more sense? Or do you consider the Torah Temima an apikores as well?

  • What I find strange is that Tosfos took the Gemarah’s statement to be halachic at all. It isn’t the Torah Temimah’s interpretation that is surprising its Tosfos’. Correct me if I am wrong (and I have certainly not done the research – I’m just relying on my gut informed by whatever Torah I have somehow managed to ingrain through osmosis), but statements like “it is better to suffer X (something really bad) than do XYZ” are always aggadic, and emphasize the importance of that which otherwise might be ignored rather than teach hard and fast halachic rules. Such statements are normally taken as establishing halachic principles that might be used to mediate among competing halachic rules in particular hard cases.

    What really need a birur is Tosfos’ interpretation. Is this kind of construction typical of Tosfos; do the Baalei Tosfos construct other similar Gemaros this way? Is there something special about the context or structure of this passage that leads Tosfos to this understanding?

  • jewinjerusalem

    Do you advocate following TT over Tosfos? Rabenu Yona in Avos and Shaari Teshuva rules that one must give up his life! This seems to be halachik!

    • I advocate that each person do their own research and come to their own Torahdik conclusion.

  • monkey

    take a look a the meiri over there, and for his approach throughout shas whenever chazal say something like this (i was told it is his approach thought out shas…. i havent seen meiri on all shas:))
    kind of takes the sting out of your tail……

  • mg

    The Torah Temimah was a scholar, but not an Odom Godol. He was unexceptional in personal righteousness, and his opinions were not considered as coming from a Daas Torah, though he was well respected for his knowledge. His derech halimud and Hashkofo were influenced by untraditional sources and he sometimes said things (some printed in the Torah Temimah) that may not be said. He was resepected as a highly knowledgable person, but not beyond that level. Its not like you cant use the sefer, just take what he says with a grain of salt (especially when it says things like change the girsa, or choshech was cataracts etc), and accept it for the maalos and chesronos that it has.