March 18, 2022

Yevamot 9

Today is Ta’anit Esther and though – from afar – today’s daf (Yevamot 9a) has little to say about this day and the overall message of Purim, I would like to highlight how contains a teaching whose reasoning is core to Judaism and is powerfully expressed in the Purim story.

We are taught in a Beraita that the Torah draws a distinction between individuals who serve idolatry and a community, and while both receive capital punishment, in the latter case – which is what we refer to as an Ir HaNidachat (see Devarim 13:13-19) – their property is destroyed.

But why is there such a difference? Why is the community not merely judged as a collection of individuals? Moreover, why is the form of capital punishment given to members of an Ir HaNidachat different and of a lower ‘degree’ than that given to an individual?
In his book examining the writings and rulings of Rabbi Yosef Rosen (1858-1936) – otherwise known as the Rogachover Gaon – R’ Dovber Schwartz explains how the Rogachover approached this topic and the overarching principles he deduced from it:

“The key to understanding all this is that halakhah relates to individuals in two fundamentally different ways: collectively and individually. In the collective modality, the individual is not seen as an independent, self-sustaining entity. In fact, if the collective is [categorized as] a ‘tsibur’, the individual is not seen at all…. But when the individual is seen and recognized, there is not only an absolute value allocated to the individual, but even individual worth…[Still], the minute a ‘tsibur’ is formed, there is no more recognition of the individual. This in no way contradicts the tremendous value given to a single person, but that value only exists from the individualist perspective of halakhah, not the collectivist.” (The Rogachover Gaon p. 187)

Then, specifically in relation to our topic he writes that, “this explains why we give the lesser punishment… to the group. Once the majority serves idols, a ‘tsibur’ of idol worshippers is formed. The laws deals with the idolaters as a single indivisible whole, not as separate individuals. There is no option of giving them the harsher penalty.. reserved from the individual, because the law sees no individuals here. Rather, we have a collective that has turned to idolatry. This is why their property is burned, because the law is concerned with utterly eradicating this collective and all traces of it. Not so with an individual. An individual who commits idolatry has only gone against the law personally… But a group that serves idols has not just committed a sin; they have created an entire category and collective unit that serves idols. This represents a challenge to the law on an entirely different scale.” (Ibid. pp. 187-188)

Before proceeding further, it is important to note that the Rogachover categorises groups in two different ways. Some groups are a ‘shutfut’ (partnership) where individuals come together as a group yet remain separate from it, while a ‘tsibur’ (group entity) represents a collective that, once formed, “takes on new properties and characteristics that are entirely different from the individual’s properties and rights” (pp. 179-180). And as should be clear from here, the consequence described in the Torah for the Ir HaNidachat leads the Rogachover to categorise it as a ‘tsibur’.

Having explained all this let us now reflect on Ta’anit Esther – because today is all about the idea that we are all connected. It is about the way in which individuals like Esther and Mordechai – representing their people – risked their lives for the sake of their people. And it is about one of many times in Jewish history when we were each reminded that we are part of a people, and that by coming together, we are physically and spiritually stronger than when standing alone as individuals.

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