One of the most startling teachings from throughout the Talmud is found in today’s daf (Nazir 23b) where we read the statement of Rav Nachman Bar Yitzchak that גְּדוֹלָה עֲבֵירָה לִשְׁמָהּ מִמִּצְוָה שֶׁלֹּא לִשְׁמָהּ – ‘greater is an aveirah lishma (for the sake of heaven) than a mitzvah that is not lishma’ – which is a principle derived by Rav Nachman from the actions of Yael (see Shoftim Chapter 5).
Interestingly, by making a general statement it seems that Rav Nachman is of the opinion that rather than being limited to a singular moment in biblical history, there are moments throughout Jewish history when the needs of the hour may call for the performance of an עֲבֵירָה לִשְׁמָהּ. The problem, as noted by Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz (1902-1979) is that there are no clearly stated rules as to what needs would justify such actions. Consequently, Torah scholars often struggle to know when to invoke this principle ‘which is not addressed in the codified law of the Shulchan Aruch’ (Sichot Mussar 5732:27).
As we know, while North America is the home of the largest diaspora Jewish community, things were quite different a century ago, and there were real and substantive spiritual concerns when the Jews of Europe began to immigrate to America as expressed in the writings of those such as the Chafetz Chaim (1838-1933).
These concerns continued even after the Chafetz Chaim’s death, and so, when Rabbi Simcha Wasserman (1899-1992) moved to Detroit just prior to World War II, he wrote to Rabbi Mendel Zaks (1898-1974) – the son-in-law of the Chafetz Chaim, in 1941 (the same year that R’ Zaks moved to the States) to discuss what halachic compromises could be justified given the needs of the time to provide Torah education for Jewish boys and girls.
Interestingly, Rabbi Zaks begins his response by writing that, ‘I am sure you know that these kinds of questions cannot be resolved from the four sections of the Shulchan Aruch, but rather from the fifth section – about which it has been said in the name of Rav Yisrael Salanter that it is, in his mind, greater than all the four sections’. At the same time, he also raised some substantive halachic concerns from the Shulchan Aruch in response to Rabbi Wasserman’s questions.
Having said all this Rabbi Zaks then quotes the teaching found in our daf about עֲבֵירָה לִשְׁמָהּ and he provides a rule of thumb for its application – namely that we can’t ‘pasken’ halacha in the spirit of aveirah lishma. However, if someone acts – without asking – and does what needs to be done, then we praise such a person.
What this tells us is that עֲבֵירָה לִשְׁמָהּ isn’t just an unusual principle in terms of justifying transgressive means for a positive end, but also an unusual principle since such actions can never be justified ahead of time. This is why עֲבֵירָה לִשְׁמָהּ isn’t – and cannot be – a Shulchan Aruch rule, nor is it a rule for which one asks a שאלה (halachic query). At the same time, there are moments throughout Jewish history when the needs of the hour may call for the performance of an עֲבֵירָה לִשְׁמָהּ – and it is sensing those needs and recognizing that hour which makes someone, like Yael, a truly great figure.