We were previously taught in Ketubot 31b about the punishment of lashes, while much of Ketubot 32b focuses its attention on the punishment of ‘eidim zomemim’ – conspiring witnesses – which the Torah (see Devarim 19:19) demands that they be given the same, or as close to the same, punishment that they maliciously intended that the innocent party to receive. Overall, these dapim are interested in punishment and consequence, and how such punishments or consequences should ‘fit’ the people or situations when they are applied.
Having explained this, we shall now look at today’s daf (Ketubot 33b) which includes a discussion about death versus lashes, asking דלמא מלקות חמור – ‘perhaps lashes are more severe?’. Of course, this seems like a strange question since lashes are generally recoverable whereas death is not. However, the Gemara explains this question by noting that ‘had Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah been lashed [as opposed to being thrown into the fiery furnace – see Daniel Chapter 3], they would have worshipped the statue’. What this means is that in contrast to the threat of death, the repeated experience of lashes (which, unlike the lashes required by the Torah which were tempered and limited) would have likely led Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah to capitulate to agree to serve idolatry.
This statement is a seemingly curious presumption of the Gemara which, significantly, doesn’t invoke any biblical verse to support its justification. Given this, Rabbi Efraim Oved explains (in his ‘Torat HaAggada on Ketubot 33b) that this comes to teach us a ‘great principle’ that God doesn’t give us tests unless we have the ability to overcome them.
Admittedly, this ‘great principle’ – which is often invoked by various modern speakers and teachers – is not one for which I know an explicit source in the Torah or classic rabbinic literature. In fact, over the years I have personally questioned whether this is necessarily a principle of Jewish thought – notwithstanding the popularity of the claim that it is. Still, according to Rabbi Oved, this principle is the basis for our Gemara’s claim, thus making our Gemara a source illustrating this principle.
Yet precisely because Rabbi Oved doesn’t just make this claim but, instead, attempts to explain it that through reading his commentary I’ve (somewhat) made my peace with this claim. This is because, beyond reminding us that tests are a way of discovering innate potential, he also reminds us that this is why we can never judge another, because it is quite likely that were we to be in that individual’s situation, we would not be able to overcome it.
Of course, this does not necessarily mean that we always recognize the challenges that we have as tests, or that there aren’t events in our lives which are not tests but are, simply, events. Still, in terms of explaining our Gemara, it is a powerful thought to consider that even the greats have their limits – which means that when we are tested, we are pushed up to our limits, but not beyond them.