March 28, 2022

Yevamot 20

As part of its discussion about the various biblically and rabbinically prohibited relationships, today’s daf (Yevamot 20a) quotes a remarkable statement of Abaye that, כל המקיים דברי חכמים נקרא קדוש – which literally translates as ‘whoever fulfils the words of the Sages (i.e. rabbinic law) is called holy’.
Clearly, Abaye wished to stress the importance of Rabbinic law. Still, the insistence of calling someone who fulfils the words of the Sages as someone holy – at least on first glance – seems like an overstretch.
Rav Menachem Tzvi Taksin (1850-1918) addresses this point in his Orach Yesharim (Vol. 2) where he explains that the yetzer hara often lures us to ignore or transgress rabbinic law as part of its plan to eventually bring us to ignore or transgress Torah law. Accordingly, by fulfilling the words of the Sages through adhering to rabbinic laws, a person shows that they have wrestled with their yetzer hara and have nevertheless chosen not to heed its calling – and anyone who wrestles and overcomes such temptation is considered to be holy.
However, I would like to add a further perspective on this point, because Abaye could have expressed his teaching with the words, כל העושה – ‘whoever does’, or כל השומר – ‘whoever observes’, but he used the phrase כל המקיים which can be understood to mean ‘whoever sustains/keeps alive’ (as the teaching in Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5 relating to כל המקיים נפש אחד – whoever sustains/keeps alive one person), and I believe he did so in order to highlight the dismissiveness that some people have towards rabbinic law – to such an extent that they would rather some of those laws not be around.
As such, not only does someone who keeps rabbinic law demonstrate their victory over their inner struggle with the yetzer hara – and is therefore called ‘holy’, but they also give life to laws which others would be happy to see the end of – and are therefore given the title of ‘sustainer’ and someone who ‘keeps [those laws] alive’.
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