Aveirah li-shmah in the Thought of R. Nachum Rabinovitch zt”l

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David Silverstein


The common theme underlying numerous books of mitzvot, halakhic codes and responsa literature is the assumption that Jewish law is a self-contained system. Meaning and virtue are found by complying with the dictates of Halakhah in whatever form they are expressed. Therefore, it is hard to imagine a traditional scholar suggesting that the violation of Halakhah could ever be seen as religiously praiseworthy. There is, however, a passage in the Talmud that seems to suggest that in extreme instances, acting in defiance of the law can actually be deemed virtuous. This idea is known in the Talmud an “aveirah li-shmah” and is loosely translated as a “sin performed in the name of God.” While the exact parameters of this principle are contested by later scholars,[1] a simple reading of the Talmud implies that there are instances where the Halakhah would sanction acting in an extra-legal way that does not conform to traditional Jewish law.

There are obviously theological challenges posed by this talmudic principle. If Halakhah is supposed to be the medium for actualizing divine virtue in the real world, how can acting against the dictates of the law be religiously meritorious? More importantly, this principle seems to blur the lines between the categories of mitzvah and aveirah (sin). Can’t an individual engage in religiously problematic behavior and claim that given his pure motives, he is simply performing an aveirah li-shma?

These questions are addressed by many medieval and modern scholars.[2] In addition to briefly reviewing some of the proposed answers, I will look closely at the unique position of R. Nachum Rabinovitch.[3] R. Rabinovitch’s understanding of aveirah li-shmah challenges some of the assumptions that underlie many of the earlier understandings of this phrase. His view however, cannot be fully understood in isolation from his broader theology of Halakhah. In this article, I would like to argue that R. Rabinovitch’s perspective on the nature of halakhic adjudication in general, and his commitment to personal autonomy in particular, serve as significant motivators in formulating his understanding of aveirah li-shmah.

Aveirah li-shmah in the Talmud

While there are allusions to the aveirah li-shmah principle in a few places in the Talmud,[4] the primary discussion takes place in Nazir 23a-b. There, the Talmud states:[5]

  1. Rav Naḥman bar Yitzḥak said: Greater is a transgression [committed] for its own sake, [i.e., for the sake of Heaven,] than a mitzvah [performed] not for its own sake.
  2. But didn’t Rav Yehudah say [that] Rav said: A person should always occupy himself with Torah and mitzvot even not for their own sake, as [it is] through [acts performed] not for their own sake [that good deeds] for their own sake come [about]?

  3. Rather, [one must emend the above statement and] say [as follows: A transgression for the sake of Heaven is] equivalent to a mitzvah not for its own sake. [The proof is] as it is written: “Blessed above women shall Yael be, the wife of Hever the Kenite, above women in the tent she shall be blessed” (Judges 5:24), [and it is taught:] Who are [these] “women in the tent?” [They are Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. [Yael’s forbidden intercourse with Sisera for the sake of Heaven is compared to the sexual intercourse in which the Matriarchs engaged.]

There are many complex elements in this talmudic passage.[6] The conclusion of this sugya however, is fairly straightforward: an aveirah li-shmah is at least as religiously meritorious as a mitzvah performed without the requisite intent. The proof text to corroborate this view is from the book of Judges and involves the story of Yael, who (in the Talmud’s understanding) engaged in forbidden sexual relations with Sisera (head of the Canaanite army) in order to save the Jewish people from danger. The Talmud elsewhere rules that in addition to murder and idolatry, sexual impropriety is one of the three cardinal sins that one must give up their life for in order to avoid possible transgression.[7] Yael, however, acted otherwise. Nonetheless, given her pure motives, she is praised by the Talmud.

Aveirah li-shmah in Later Sources

Many halakhic authorities severely limit the applicability of this principle beyond the specific case of Yael. R. Hayyim of Volozhin even goes so far as to argue that the category of aveirah li-shmah was only relevant before the giving of the Torah.[8] In that context, there was more room for personal autonomy and creativity in determining the will of God. Purity of motivation played a significant role in determining the religious virtue of a given act. This changed however, after the revelation at Sinai. At that point, legislated mitzvot themselves became the sole medium for understanding God’s will. The goal of traditional Judaism transitioned into fostering a firm commitment to Halakhah as defined by the Sinaitic revelation and subsequent halakhic literature. In this post-Sinai context, there is no room for aveirah li-shmah since the principle assumes that one is entitled to behave in a way that transcends the formal system of codified law. [9]

Other scholars similarly limit the role of aveirah li-shmah,[10] even if they don’t go as far as R. Hayyim of Volozhin to eliminate it entirely. While the details of the solutions vary, there is one unifying theme: these rabbis assume that had a religious court been asked about the case involving Yael, they would have granted her permission to engage in a sexual act with Sisera and would have justified their ruling under the rubric of aveirah li-shmah. In other words, there are times, albeit very limited, when aveirah li-shmah can be viewed as an ideal legal response to a halakhic conflict.

R. Rabinovitch and Aveirah li-shmah: From Le-hatehilah to Be-di’avad

R. Rabinovitch offers a model for thinking about aveirah li-shmah that challenges this assumption. According to his approach, non-halakhically sanctioned behavior (aveirah) can never serve as an ab initio legal solution to a state of halakhic ambiguity.[11] The context of R. Rabinovitch’s interpretation is an attempt to solve a contradiction in Maimonides’ position regarding the permissibility of giving up one’s life in circumstances not required by the Talmud. As noted above, the Talmud states that there are only three cardinal sins that one must die for rather than violate. What if an individual chooses to accept death rather than violate a religious norm not listed in this group of three? Tur rules that if done in a private setting, such behavior is permissible.[12] Maimonides disagrees and argues that it is forbidden to give up one’s life in such cases.[13] In fact, he claims that if one were to give up his life in cases not sanctioned by the Talmud, the individual would be legally liable for his unlawful behavior.

Maimonides affirms his position in a famous letter known as Iggeret Ha-Shemad. Trying to pacify a community threatened by forced conversion to Islam, Maimonides rules that there is no requirement to die in order to avoid declaring allegiance to the Islamic faith. Additionally, he makes it clear that if one decides to act beyond the letter of the law and give up his life, he is held accountable for his behavior. In an apparent change of tone, Maimonides adds a seemingly contradictory qualifier. While he concedes that a court would never sanction the act of martyrdom where not formally required, if an individual decides to do so nonetheless, he has “performed a mitzvah” and receives “great reward” before God since he has sanctified God’s name.[14]

How can we reconcile these conflicting positions of Maimonides? Both in Mishneh Torah,[15] as well as in his initial formulation in Iggeret Ha-Shemad, he is clear that under no circumstances is one to give up their life unless specifically granted license by the Halakhah. However, in the same letter he renders those who do give up their lives when not formally required as having performed a mitzvah and acted in a way that is religiously virtuous?

R. Rabinovitch argues that there is no contradiction within the view of the Rambam. He notes that Rambam consistently maintains throughout the letter that if asked, no court would ever legally sanction giving up one’s life when not required. Maimonides’ positive words for those who gave up their lives is directed at individuals who already chose death in order to avoid conversion. These people were in no way rebelling against the law. Rather, they were motivated by a love of God.[16] Why else would they sacrifice their own life to avoid violating what they perceived to be a halakhic prohibition? It is only post facto, that Maimonides is able to evaluate their behavior and claim that given the purity of their motivation, they will receive great reward. From a strictly legal perspective, their act itself is defined as a sin. Since it was performed with pure intent, however, it has the status of an aveirah li-shmah.

Applying this theory to the case discussed by the Talmud, R. Rabinovitch argues that had Yael asked a court how to behave in the case of Sisera, they would have told her not to violate the law of sexual impropriety since it is one of the three cardinal sins that one must die for rather than transgress.[17] However, once the action was already done, the Talmud is able to evaluate her behavior with the perspective of hindsight. Since the Torah equates her conduct with the religiously virtuous actions of the matriarchs, we see that God considers her actions praiseworthy. While her behavior is sinful from a legal standpoint it is still meritorious when seen from a broader religious perspective.[18]

While one can challenge the position of R. Rabinovitch as a solution to the apparent contradiction in the view of Maimonides,[19] the concept that emerges from his view stands independently and provides a fascinating medium for thinking about aveirah li-shmah. According to this approach, the Halakhah, as a system, has a responsibility to ensure that its dictates are followed and its governing principles remain unchallenged. As a result, Jewish law can never sanction extra-legal behavior even in difficult circumstances.[20] A “sin” cannot be a halakhic solution. The fact that the Talmud uses the phrase “aveirah” to describe Yael’s behavior supports this thesis. When someone drives a terminally ill patient to the hospital on Shabbat, the action is not considered a violation of the laws of Shabbat. The principle of “pikuah nefesh” teaches us that saving a life makes a generally prohibited behavior permissible. By contrast, in the case involving Yael, it is clear from the Talmud that an “aveirah” was indeed performed, yet it was still deemed religiously praiseworthy. The implication is that there are exceptional instances where Jewish law can look outside of itself and consider the possibility that an action, while halakhically problematic, is still religiously virtuous.

As R. Tzvi Haber notes, however, there is something paradoxical about R. Rabinovitch’s position.[21] After all, Jewish law is supposed to inform us about the truth of God’s will. If the Halakhah in a specific case is that one is not allowed to give up one’s life under any circumstances, then how can we assume, even after the fact, that non-compliance with the law is looked favorably upon by the Torah? Shouldn’t God only be content if we follow His will as defined by the Talmud and subsequent codes?

Moreover, R. Rabinovitch’s approach assumes that there is religious truth with real world applications that transcends formal halakhic categories. How are we intended to access these truths? What parameters can we use to determine that an action is in fact “li-shmah” beyond looking within the clearly defined boundaries of the law itself?

R. Rabinovitch and the Limits of Practical Halakhah

The notion that religious truth can exist outside of the normative boundaries of Halakhah is not without precedent. For example, R. Moshe Feinstein argues that halakhic epistemology is multi-layered. On the one hand, Halakhah is a Divine system and therefore, from the perspective of God, there are clear halakhic rights and wrongs. The revelation at Sinai, however, gave the sages of each generation the authority to solve problems that are halakhically ambiguous.[22] In theory, it is possible for a scholar to issue a ruling that is metaphysically wrong when seen from God’s vantage point. Jewish law however, is not given to angels and halakhic authorities can only be expected to try their best to use their intellect and integrity to capture the Divine will. Even if the halakhist reaches a mistaken bottom line from the viewpoint of God, as long as the conclusions are reached after a sincere evaluation of the source material, the position is considered “right” from a real-world halakhic perspective.[23]

While not citing him directly, R. Rabinovitch builds on R. Moshe’s suggestion and makes an argument about the epistemological limits of practical Halakhah in general. His perspective contains two elements: one practical and one philosophical. Practically, he argues that it is impossible for a governing system of law to account for every theoretical scenario when legislating normative behavior. He states “that there can be no such thing as a comprehensive justice system that prescribes the proper reaction to any possible circumstance.”[24] Epistemological ambiguity is a definitional component of any legal system. After all, in order to offer “unambiguous rulings” in every case, the Halakhah would “require familiarity with all relevant factors and considerations, including knowledge of human nature, the essence of the cosmos, and the like. Not all of these are known to us today, and it is possible that we will never fully know them, as they lie beyond the grasp of the human mind.”[25] Moreover, even if the Halakhah were theoretically aware of all of these variables, “it remains likely that this system does not dictate specific conclusions for all possible scenarios.”[26]

In order to address these difficult cases, halakhic decisors are authorized to create takanot (enactments) that bridge the gap between the values of the law and changing circumstances that may not have a clear halakhic address. According to R. Rabinovitch, “such enactments are required specifically when a gap has developed between Halakhah and life’s changing conditions.”[27] Moreover, the Torah provides more general framing narratives that remind the rabbinic sage of the telos of the law and provide guidance in applying these principles to changing circumstances. R. Rabinovitch cites the position of Maggid Mishneh to substantiate this thesis.[28] The context of Maggid Mishneh’s statement is an observation that many of the Torah’s loftiest ideals such as, “Be holy (Leviticus 19:2),” as well as “do that which is right and good (Deuteronomy 6:18),” are not codified with the same degree of precision and rigor as other areas of Jewish ritual life such as the laws of Shabbat. Accounting for this asymmetry, Maggid Mishneh notes that “it would not have been fitting to command the particulars of all these principles, because the mitzvot of the Torah apply at all times, in every era, and in every situation, and one must perform them, yet temperaments and manners vary from person to person and from era to era.”[29]

These principles therefore provide the narrative context that motivates halakhic adjudication. Changing circumstances provide new opportunities to apply these Torah values in real world terms. More specifically, “social, economic, and technological innovations and developments open new vistas for legislation that will lead to performance of ‘that which is right and good.’”[30] However, because these guiding principles are not clearly codified, it is incumbent upon great sages of each generation to “consider and determine what is right and good”[31] and legislate accordingly. This type of adjudication, however, “naturally leads to disagreements among our sages,”[32] since after all, the lack of clearly legislated guidance can easily lead to various halakhic approaches, each claiming the mantle of “right and good.”

In another essay, R. Rabinovitch articulates a similar idea noting that “reality is always variegated, and so every practical decision has ambivalences.”[33] To corroborate this thesis, he cites an interesting description of R. Meir in tractate Eruvin 13b. According to the talmudic account, R. Meir was the greatest sage of his generation and yet the Halakhah does not conform to his view. Explaining why this is the case, the Talmud states that R. Meir’s “colleagues could not fathom the depths of his thinking. He would say of something impure that it is pure, and show evidence; of something pure that it is impure, and show evidence.” Rashi explains that R. Meir was able to convincingly argue both sides of a halakhic question.[34] R. Rabinovitch uses this talmudic passage to support the idea that Halakhah, by its nature, is multi-faceted and it is theoretically possible to legitimately argue for competing sides of a halakhic issue. Given the multiplicity of halakhic options that could be theoretically argued, actual halakhic decisions may not necessarily capture the totality of religious truth. Simple halakhic problems do not require much creativity. Complicated cases, however, are much more nuanced. As a result, “neither emotion, nor intellectual analysis in light of the Torah—nor, in fact, both of them together—can always provide clear and unequivocal rulings on the proper course of action in cases of extreme duress, for in every situation there are reasons to incline one way as well as reasons to incline the other way.”[35]

While his argument until now focuses on the practical limitations of Halakhah, R. Rabinovitch also expands on this idea by addressing the philosophical challenges of halakhic decision making. He begins by quoting a midrashic passage arguing that God created the world by balancing the demands of justice and mercy.[36] A world ruled by justice alone would not be able to survive, while exclusive governance based on mercy would lead to an increase in sin. It is only the balance of these two values that provides the ideal medium for God’s creation. Talmud Yerushalmi uses a similar metaphor to describe the Torah itself. “The Torah is likened to two paths: one through fire and one through snow. If one turns toward this one he dies by fire; if one turns toward the other he dies by snow. What shall one do? Let him go in the middle.”[37] The imagery used by the Talmud highlights the risks of adopting more extreme positions. Even if true in a metaphysical sense, extreme formulations may actually have dangerous real world consequences. In order for the Torah to implement its ideals in the physical world, it must advocate a “middle path” that incorporates elements of both more extreme positions.

While the “middle path” approach has practical benefits, it also has its share of philosophical challenges. According to R. Rabinovitch, “the middle path may sometimes be an uncertain one, representing compromise between hesed and din. In extreme cases, it may require a choice between alternatives, neither of which offers a perfect or even an adequate solution.”[38] Theoretically, one Torah value may force the halakhic conversation in one specific direction while a parallel virtue insists on the opposite halakhic conclusion. A compromise model, or the “middle path,” recognizes the risks associated with each extreme. Its proposed solution, however, only resolves the dilemma “on the level of behavior.”[39] Philosophically, the variables that were rejected in order to allow for the halakhic decision still remain as lurking virtues lacking adequate expression. As a result, “as far as motivation is concerned, there is no escape from the paradox.”[40]

It is clear therefore, that according to R. Rabinovitch, practical Halakhah has its limits. Philosophically, halakhic legislation tries to provide real world solutions to problems that are rooted in often conflicting virtues. In most instances, there is no need to consider looking outside the clearly defined Halakhah. Jewish Law itself, however, and the hierarchy it proposes, “should not be considered complete, since, in some cases, there is a clash between values of equal weight.”[41]

Aveirah li-shmah Reconsidered

It is against this theological background that we need to understand R. Rabinovitch’s conception of aveirah li-shmah. In most areas of halakhic life, an individual is called to comply with the clear dictates of the law. There are, however, extreme scenarios where given the law’s practical and conceptual limits, proper intent may justify acting in an extra-legal manner. Such behavior is, in fact, a “sin” from the perspective of the Halakhah’s formal regulations. However, the Torah is aware of Halakhah’s epistemological limits. As a result, in extreme instances, it allows for the possibility of finding religious expression outside the confines of halakhic norms. In the case of the Talmud, Yael was presumably unsure whether or not the rules of sexual impropriety should be suspended in times of national emergency. Her desire to act on behalf of the safety of her people motivated her to engage in halakhically problematic behavior. A court could not sanction her actions since their job as judges is to adjudicate within the principles of the law itself. Even positive intent, does not have the legal power to turn a prohibited activity into a permissible one. However, proper kavanah does provide the framework for the Torah to look at her actions post facto and deem them praiseworthy when seen from a broader religious perspective.

Intent and Personal Autonomy

According to R. Rabinovitch’s theory of Halakhah, intent plays a significant role in theoretically condoning extra-legal behavior, at least after the fact. Left unchecked, this model can allow for a fair degree of religious antinomianism. After all, an individual can always see his specific case as unique and assume that given his positive intent, he is justified in engaging in an aveirah li-shmah. It is likely this concern that motivated many talmudic interpreters to severely limit the application of this principle. R. Rabinovitch is aware of the risks associated with aveirah li-shmah. His solution, however, is rooted in his larger commitment to the centrality of personal autonomy and in an individual’s ability to properly navigate his or her halakhic life. As I demonstrated in a previous essay, personal autonomy is a central piece of R. Rabinovitch’s religious worldview.[42] Personal choice, divorced from any outside coercion, allows an individual to maximally actualize his or her Divine image (Tzelem Elokim). The category of “aveirah li-shmah” makes room for an individual to express autonomy since it is his intent that makes a specific action religiously virtuous (even if halakhically problematic). While the halakhic system assumes conformity in most cases, there are instances “wherein the individual is expected to determine his own hierarchy of values.”[43] Moreover, “even with regard to the universally-applied halakhic system, the individual, as an individual, still plays a primary role.”[44]

R. Rabinovitch is clear that intent must be critically evaluated. Not every person is capable of determining whether or not his specific intent can serve as a legitimate factor in determining a course of action. Only an individual who has deeply internalized the values of the Torah is able to make this determination. Acting in a way that is not clearly delineated in a code is not “possible unless his thought patterns and spiritual qualities fit with Torah values.”[45] Studying Torah and familiarizing oneself with the details of Halakhah not only provides the autonomous medium for making halakhic decisions. Rather, through Torah-learning, one is able to achieve familiarity with the values of the Torah. It is this awareness that gives someone the right to determine the proper course of actions in extremely complex scenarios where codified law may not provide the ideal model for solving the problem at hand.

R. Rabinovitch’s approach thus avoids the challenges associated with a worldview that finds religious virtue in non-halakhic behavior. The risk with this approach is that any given individual can always act against the dictates of the law under the guise of “aveirah li-shmah.” R. Rabinovitch solves this problem by limiting the ability of a person from engaging in extra-legal activity to only those individuals (not necessarily rabbis) well-versed in the dynamics of traditional halakhic discourse. Profound knowledge of the Torah’s larger values is a necessary precursor for engaging in an aveirah li-shmah.

This also solves an additional problem that one could pose to his theory. After all, what barometer can one use to determine if one’s motivation to perform an aveirah is truly intended to serve God and not simply an excuse for personal benefit? R. Dr. Michael Avraham argues that the talmudic concept of aveirah li-shmah assumes that any sanctioned extra-legal behavior must be rooted in larger Torah values even if that virtue has limited halakhic expression in the specific case being discussed.[46] The examples of aveirah li-shmah listed in the Talmud corroborate this thesis. After all, Yael, for example, was not at all interested in deriving personal pleasure from her sin. Her motives were rooted in a larger Torah value, namely the physical survival of the Jewish people.

While not stated explicitly, R. Rabinovitch’s approach makes similar assumptions. By insisting that only someone with a profound familiarity with the halakhic canon is capable of possibly engaging in an aveirah li-shmah, R. Rabinovitch ensures that the motivating factor in their behavior is the larger value of the Torah itself. Obviously no system is perfect and there is certainly room for abuse. However, given R. Rabinovitch’s larger commitment to autonomy, he thinks that the benefits of a religious system that validates the role of intent is preferable to an authoritarian regime that minimizes individual expression. After all, “The halakhic decision-making process is not meant to release us from the struggles of conscience and rigorous intellectual inquiry involved in any decision. Rather, it is these elements that transform the process into a worthwhile spiritual experience.”[47]


Aveirah li-shmah is a fascinating topic. Not surprisingly, its application in the world of traditional Halakhah is severely limited. The possibility of misuse as well as the theoretical blurring of lines between notions of commandment and sin make aveirah li-shmah a category that finds minimal expression in much of contemporary halakhic discourse. R. Rabinovitch’s approach is unique and solves many of the problems that challenged traditional thinkers. Instead of mitigating the religious force of aveirah li-shmah, R. Rabinovitch reframes the debate surrounding its very nature.

While other scholars understood aveirah li-shmah as a legal tool, R. Rabinovitch understands aveirah li-shmah as a religious albeit non-legal category. Aveirah li-shmah reminds us of the existence of normative virtues that exist outside the realm of codified law. This understanding allows him to develop a multi-layered vision of Halakhah and its relationship to broader Torah values. On the one hand, as a traditional halakhist, R. Rabinovitch acknowledges that in the overwhelming majority of instances, religious virtue is to be found by observing the dictates of the law as defined by the Talmud and the codes. Moreover, as a devoted student of Maimonides, R. Rabinovitch is committed to the idea that uniform legislation is critical for a functioning halakhic society.[48] On the other hand, R. Rabinovitch simultaneously affirms the idea that Halakhah has its own practical and epistemological limits. Not all religious values necessarily find requisite expression in the confines of Halakhah especially in extreme circumstances. As a result, “it is only in cases of exceptional urgency that the individual is given the liberty to probe his own motives and act as he sees fit regardless of the usual rules.”

Additionally, R. Rabinovitch maintains that personal autonomy is a central component of traditional Torah discourse. One consequence of this approach is his contention that proper intent has the potential to bridge the gap between the formalities of the law and the larger religious (albeit non-legislated) virtues of the Torah. This is not a legal tool and no rabbinic court can sanction such behavior. In extenuating circumstances however, an individual may find it necessary to act in an extra-legal manner and there is at least the post-facto possibility that given pure motives, one will be judged favorably by God. The one caveat however, is that the extra-legal behavior must be rooted in a larger Torah value (even one that lacks adequate halakhic expression in the case at hand). This model validates the autonomy of the individual practitioner of the law while simultaneously ensuring that only individuals truly familiar with broader Torah principles can be trusted with the possibility of engaging in an aveirah li-shmah.

This approach presents Halakhah as more than a system of obedience. Even according to R. Rabinovitch’s framing, aveirah li-shmah is a category with very limited practical application. Nonetheless, its presence within the talmudic canon is of great significance. After all, it reminds us of the Torah’s larger religious vision and validates the role of the individual in navigating one’s halakhic life. 

[1] See for example Noda bi-Yehudah Yoreh Deah 161.

[2] For an extensive survey see R. Tzvi Haber, “Aveirah li-Shem Shamayim,” (Hebrew) available at:

[3] R. Rabinovitch addresses the topic of “aveirah li-shmah” in four places in his writings. Yad Peshutah Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah 5:4; Yad Peshutah Hilkhot Tefillin 4:11; Mesilot Bilvavam (Maale Adumim: Maaliyot, 2015), 98-99 and “Aveirah li-shmah,” (Hebrew) available at:

[4] See for example Berakhot 63a.

[5] 23b. Translation from

[6] For an close textual reading of this talmudic passage see Rabbi Dr. Michael Avraham, “B-inyan Aveirah Li-shmah,” (Hebrew) available at:

[7] Sanhedrin 74a.

[8] Keter Rosh 132 cited in R. Asher Weiss, “Gedolah Aveirah Li-shmah,” (Hebrew) available at:

[9] R. Hayyim is obviously aware of the fact that the example of Yael seems to undermine his thesis. After all, Yael lived after the Sinaitic revelation yet is cited by the Talmud as the paradigmatic example of someone who is praised for engaging in an aveirah li-shmah. To solve this difficulty, R. Hayyim offers two solutions. Quoting from the teachings of R. Isaac Luria he argues that Yael is unique since she was a reincarnated soul of someone who lived pre-Sinai. This grants her special license to perform an aveirah li-shmah. Alternatively, R. Hayyim claims that Yael’s case is different since the survival of the entire Jewish people was at stake and it is only in such an extreme case that an aveirah li-shmah can be sanctioned.

[10] See for example the views of R. Kook and Maharik cited in R. Tzvi Haber, “Aveirah li-Shem Shamayim,” (Hebrew) available at:

[11] For other thinkers who expressed similar albeit different understandings of this phrase see R. Asher Weiss “Gedolah Aveirah Li-shmah,” (Hebrew) available at: as well as R. Aharon Lichtenstein, “Does Jewish Tradition Recognize an Ethic Independent of Halakhah,” in Modern Jewish Ethics (ed. Fox), Ohio State University Press 1975, footnote 25.

[12] Tur Yoreh Deah 157:1.

[13] Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah 5:2, 4.

[14] For the relevant citation from the Iggeret Ha-Shemad see, R. Rabinovitch, “Aveirah Li-shmah,” (Hebrew) available at:

[15]Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah 5:2, 4.

[16] See Yad Peshutah Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah 5:4.

[17] Yad Peshutah Hilkhot Tefillin 4:11.

[18] There is overlap between R. Rabinovitch’s position and that of Netziv. See Meishiv Davar 2:9.

[19] R. Tzvi Haber references the view of R. Yitzhak Shilat who challenges R. Rabinovitch’s proposed solution and offers an alternative for solving the contradiction in Rambam’s words.

[20] R. Rabinovitch does not directly address whether or not someone who performs an aveirah li-shmah is punished by the court and must seek atonement. Cf. Tzidkat Ha-Tzadik 128.

[21] R. Tzvi Haber, “Aveirah li-Shem Shamayim,” (Hebrew) available at:

[22] Introduction to Igrot Moshe Orah Hayyim 1.

[23] For more about the distinction between halakhic truth and truth from God’s perspective see Yitzhak Gilat, Studies in the Development of Halakhah (Hebrew), (Jerusalem: Bar Ilan University Press, 1992), 184-190.

[24] Mesilot Bilvavam, trans. Elli Fischer (Koren: Forthcoming), chapter 2 page 2.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Hilkhot Shekheinim 14:5.

[29] Ibid. Translation from Mesilot Bilvavam, trans. Elli Fischer (Koren: Forthcoming), chapter 2 page 3. Cf. Ramban to Leviticus 19:2.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Mesilot Bilvavam, trans. Elli Fischer (Koren: Forthcoming), chapter 4 page 15.

[34] S.v. al sof da’ato.

[35] Mesilot Bilvavam, trans. Elli Fischer (Koren: Forthcoming), chapter 4 page 15.

[36] Bereishit Rabbah 12:15.

[37] Yerushalmi Hagigah 2:1.

[38] Mesilot Bilvavam, trans. Elli Fischer (Koren: Forthcoming), chapter 4 pages 16-17.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.


[43] Mesilot Bilvavam, trans. Elli Fischer (Koren: Forthcoming), chapter 4 page 18.

[44] Ibid, page 20.

[45] Ibid.


[47] Mesilot Bilvavam, trans. Elli Fischer (Koren: Forthcoming), chapter 4 page 22.

[48] He states this explicitly (idem. 21) noting that “Obviously, in many cases there are purely technical procedures for resolving legal issues, and these leave little room for a personal touch. That is vital for the orderly improvement of society.”

David Silverstein is the Sgan (Assistant) Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshivat Orayta, located in the Old City of Jerusalem, and previously served as the Director of the Overseas Program at Yeshivat Hesder, Petach Tikva. Originally from New Jersey, Rabbi Silverstein lives with his wife and four children in Modiin, Israel.