Does a Positive Commandment Override a Negative Commandment for Which the Punishment is Karet? Why is One Allowed to Marry His Dead Brother’s Wife Through Yibbum?
Masechet Yevamot opens with an attempt at clarifying the basic principles which stand at the foundation of the entire world of mitzvot, and upon which the unique mitzvah of Yibbum in particular, is based. Yibbum is a positive commandment which overrides the forbidden relationship between a man and his brother’s wife – a prohibition whose punishment is karet. However, as we saw in the mishna, the mitzvah of Yibbum only overrides the prohibition of a man marrying his brother’s wife, but does not have the power to override other forbidden relationships. The Torah here defined a limited override of forbidden relationships, formulating a double chiddush in this mitzvah: 1. overriding the forbidden relationship between a man and his brother’s wife 2. limiting this only to the forbidden relationship between a man and his brother’s wife. In light of this confusing structure, the gemara on daf 3a sets out to clarify the foundation of the world of mitzvot, which of course includes the mitzvah of Yibbum:
טעמא דכתב רחמנא עליה, הא לאו הכי, ה”א אחות אשה מייבמת, מאי טעמא? דאמרינן: אתי עשה ודחי לא תעשה. אימר דאמרינן אתי עשה ודחי לא תעשה – לא תעשה גרידא, לא תעשה שיש בו כרת מי דחי? ותו, לא תעשה גרידא מנלן דדחי?
The gemara makes a diyyuk from the wording of the passuk “יבמה יבוא עליה” – why does the Torah need the extra word “עליה”? This is needed in order to negate our possible presumption that other forbidden relationships are also overridden because of the positive commandment of Yibbum, as basic Torah logic dictates that a positive commandment overrides a negative commandment, even a stringent one whose punishment is karet! From here, the gemara continues to prove that indeed a positive commandment has the power to override a negative commandment, even a stringent one whose punishment is karet, unless the Torah specifically spells out that the negative commandment is stronger. Already at this point we will notice a fascinating point in the flow of the gemara, a point which we have seen before, but is very strong in this opening sugiya: in order to discover what the regular strength of positive and negative commandments is, we use pessukim as a mirror image. Hashem doesn’t say obvious things – the need for a commandment reveals the default. Because Hashem explicitly said that other forbidden relationships are not overridden, we understand the need for the pasuk – גזרת כתוב, to say this. גזרת כתוב is a tool which teaches us, above anything else, what the basic logic in the world of the mitzvot is – what the default is. The simple discussion is about revealing the default, but this raises some very important questions:
- The gemara introduces a fascinating topic which begs the question: why does basic Torah logic dictate that positive commandments are stronger than negative commandments? What lies at the base of the thought that the power of positive commandments is so strong that it can even override prohibitions whose punishment is karet?
- In what way do positive commandments override negative commandments? Does it cancel the prohibition lechatchila or does the prohibition still exist, but the positive commandment overcomes it?
- Is the power of positive commandments so strong that it can even overcome prohibitions whose punishment is karet?
- Does the mitzvah of Yibbum overcome the forbidden relationship because it has the power of a regular positive commandment or perhaps even if regular positive commandments can’t overcome prohibitions whose punishment is karet, there is still something unique in the mitzvah of Yibbum which allows for it to overcome?
We will try and answer these questions according to the approaches of some of the rishonim, and will see the big argument among the rishonim regarding whether or not positive commandments override prohibitions whose punishment is karet, which is connected to the long sugiya which spans dapim 3-8.
- Why do positive commandments have the power to override negative commandments?
A fascinating answer to this question can be found in the Ramban on the Torah, which deals with the mitzvah of Shabbat which is made up of positive and negative commandments.
רמב”ן שמות פרק כ פסוק ח)
כי העושה מצות אדוניו אהוב לו ואדוניו מרחם עליו, ומדת שמור במצות לא תעשה, והוא למדת הדין ויוצא ממדת היראה, כי הנשמר מעשות דבר הרע בעיני אדוניו ירא אותו, ולכן מצות עשה גדולה ממצות לא תעשה, כמו שהאהבה גדולה מהיראה, כי המקיים ועושה בגופו ובממונו רצון אדוניו הוא גדול מהנשמר מעשות הרע בעיניו, ולכך אמרו דאתי עשה ודחי לא תעשה.
As opposed to what we might assume, that prohibitions in the Torah are stricter than positive commandments, the Ramban emphasizes that the base of the positive commandments lies in the quality of love, while the prohibitions are based on fear. Therefore positive commandments are more important than negative commandments. This importance is expressed in the halacha which we are learning about, that positive commandments override negative commandments. It is true that the punishments for transgressing negative commandments are harsher, as they function in the world of fear, however in terms of importance, the power of positive commandments is greater, just as love conquers fear.
- Do positive commandments override negative commandments whose punishment is karet?
After the opening on daf 3, the gemara continues to discuss two questions which it raised. The gemara succeeds in proving that positive commandments override negative commandments, however the gemara then turns to checking from where we learn that positive commandments are so strong that they can even override negative commandments whose punishment is karet? Through the progression of the gemara, we learn important principles in the world of mitzvot. The gemara suggests a number of possible sources from which we can learn that positive commandments override even negative commandments whose punishment is karet. The first attempt, which is then rejected, is found on 5b:
The gemara brings four suggestions, each of which involve mitzvot which override Shabbat, whose prohibition of work, if transgressed, is punished by karet. The first three suggestions are actually mitzvot where nothing is said explicitly about this, yet we know that they override Shabbat:
- brit milah which overrides Shabbat B. the Korban Pesach, whose slaughter overrides Shabbat C. the Korban Tamid which overrides Shabbat
The gemara rejects these three possibilities and says that these examples are of positive commandments which have a special power, and therefore what we learn from them can’t be applied to all other positive mitzvot. What is the special strength of these mitzvot? Brit milah is special for two reasons: this mitzvah in the Torah has the word “brit” thirteen times, and because it is a unique mitzvah in that one who does not perform it is punished with karet! Pesach too is a positive commandment whose failure to perform is punished with karet (these two mitzvot are a special pair, but we will not go into this right now). The Korban Tamid is stringent for a different reason – because of its constancy. Even the combination of all of these mitzvot can’t teach about a general rule, as these are all positive commandments which preceded the giving of the Torah, and therefore their strength is greater than regular positive commandments. After the gemara rejects these three mitzvot as a source for learning the rule that positive commandments override negative commandments whose punishment is karet, it suggests a new mitzvah as the source – the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents:
אלא איצטריך, סד”א תיתי מכבוד אב ואם; דתניא: יכול יהאh כבוד אב ואם דוחה שבת? ת”ל: איש אמו ואביו תיראו ואת שבתותי תשמורו, כולכם חייבין בכבודי; מאי לאו דאמר ליה שחוט לי בשל לי, וטעמא דכתב רחמנא את שבתותי תשמורו, הא לאו הכי – דחי! לא, לאו דמחמר.
This time, the gemara again suggests the method of learning which appeared at the beginning of the sugiya – revealing the default through an explicit גזרת כתוב. Since Hashem had to explicitly say that honoring one’s parents doesn’t override Shabbat, we can learn that without an explicit passuk, we would arrive at the opposite conclusion, as positive commandments override even negative commandments whose punishment is karet…The gemara rejects this line of thought through a claim which will accompany us on the next page as well – “לאו דמחמר”. The gemara reveals to us that within the halachot of Shabbat, there are certain activities which were prohibited merely as a לאו. Rashi comes to our rescue and adds important information – among the prohibitions explicitly mentioned in the Torah, there is the prohibition of mechamer, which is learned from the passuk “לא תעשה כל מלאכה אתה ובהמתך”. At this stage, the gemara claims that the words “אני ה'” come to teach that even if one’s mother told him to do mechamer on Shabbat, he should not obey, however it is clear that it would not even enter one’s mind that if one’s parents told him to transgress a Shabbat prohibition whose punishment is karet, he should do so.
When we move to daf 6, we arrive at the big dispute among the rishonim regarding how to read the gemara, and through this to the question of whether we learn from the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents that positive commandments override negative commandments whose punishment is karet.
- Rashi’s Approach – positive commandments override negative commandments whose punishment is karet:
The gemara on daf 6 challenges the claim that “אני ה'” was written corresponding to the prohibition of mechamer, and not corresponding to Shabbat prohibitions whose punishment is karet. It rejects this claim (we will not go into this now for lack of time), and at the end of the rejection, the gemara goes back to its first assumption that positive commandments override even negative commandments whose punishment is karet. In the end, we do learn this from the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents, however, this assumption is not correct regarding the mitzvah of Yibbum. We will examine the gemara and Rashi’s commentary on it:
“אלא, משום דאיכא למיפרך: מה להנך שכן הכשר מצוה!”
אלא – לעולם דאמר ליה שחוט לי בשל לי ואפ”ה לא איצטריך עליה דאיכא למיפרך מה להנך שחוט לי בשל לי שכן הכשר מצוה בחילול שבת בעקירת לא תעשה הוא מקיים עשה דכיבוד וזהו הכשר קיומו ואי אפשר לקיימו בלא עקירת לאו הלכך אי לא כתב את שבתותי תשמורו ה”א לידחי אבל ייבום לא זה בלבד הכשר קיום העשה שהרי יכול לחלוץ ולא יעקור לאו של ערוה ולא איצטריך עליה.
Rashi understands from the gemara that positive commandments override prohibitions whose punishment is karet only in situations where there is no other way to perform the positive commandment. However, when it is possible to perform it in a way which does not uproot the prohibition, it does not override it when the punishment is karet.
When parents tell a child to cook for them on Shabbat, the child has no way of getting around transgressing the Shabbat, and really, were the words “אני ה'” not written in the Torah, we would have concluded that the positive commandment of honoring one’s parents overrides the negative commandment of Shabbat, whose punishment is karet. However, Rashi understands from the gemara that even if a positive commandment overrides a negative commandment whose punishment is karet, this is still not enough to explain why the mitzvah of Yibbum overrides the forbidden relationship between a man and his brother’s wife. In the case of Yibbum, there are two options – Yibbum or Chalitza, and therefore, it seems that one should always need to turn to the solution of Chalitza rather than overriding the forbidden relationship between a man and his brother’s wife, in contrast to the clash between transgressing Shabbat and honoring one’s parents.
We will summarize Rashi’s approach:
- Positive commandments override negative commandments whose punishment is karet, however only regarding mitzvot which cannot be performed in any other way.
- We learned a rule from the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents. Hashem needed to strengthen the Shabbat’s power through the statement “אני ה'” in order to negate the presumption that honoring one’s parents should override Shabbat.
- From this we can understand that Yibbum is not explained using this rule, as it can also be performed through Chalitza, thereby not transgressing the prohibition of being with one’s brother’s wife. Therefore this needed to be said explicitly.
Another rishon who went in the way of Rashi is the author of ספר הכריתות who paskined l’halacha the rule that positive commandments override negative commandments whose punishment is karet. We will examine his words:
ספר הכריתות לשון למודים שער ג (רבי שמשון ב”ר יצחק מהעיר קינון שבצרפת בסוף המאה ה13)
קסג. כללא דמילתא כל עשה דוחה לא תעשה אף ל”ת שיש בו כרת כדאיתא ריש יבמות ל”ת שיש בו כרת מנלן דדחי ומסיק לאו לא תעשה חמור מיניה מה לי חומרא רבה מה לי חומרא זוטרא.
The words of ספר הכריתות connect to the idea of Ri, on another line in this long sugiya – on daf 7a:
הדר אמר: אטו עשה דוחה את ל”ת, לאו לא תעשה חמור מיניה? וקאתי עשה ודחי ליה, מה לי חומרא זוטא, ומה לי חומרא רבה?
In this line, a sevara is brought, which connects to the words of the Ramban which we saw at the beginning of our learning today. If positive commandments have the power to override negative commandments, why does the stringency of the negative commandments matter? The power of the positive commandments is absolute, and should not distinguish between stringent and lenient prohibitions. Or, to paraphrase the Ramban – love is greater than even the greatest fear.
- The approach of Tosfot and majority of rishonim – a positive commandment does not override a negative commandment whose punishment is karet.
Tosfot throughout our dapim oppose the approach of Rashi in reading the sugiya, and also the approach of ספר הכריתות who paskins this rule as halacha. How do Tosfot see it? We will examine Tosfot’s words on daf 3:
לא תעשה שיש בו כרת מי דחי – וא”ת ואמאי לא ילפינן דלידחי מעשה דייבום דדחי לא תעשה דכרת דאשת אח ….ו ואומר ר”י דמאשת אח לא מצי למילף בעלמא דלידחי עשה לא תעשה שיש בו כרת דשאני אשת אח דמצותו בכך ואי אפשר בענין אחר לקיים מצות יבום דאל”כ בטלה מצות יבום…
The Tosfot ask a strong question on the sugiya – why, throughout these three dapim did they not try to prove that positive commandments override negative commandments from the mitzvah of Yibbum itself? This is a perfect example of a positive commandment overriding a negative commandment whose punishment is karet. Yibbum overrides the forbidden relationship between a man and his brother’s wife. Ri gives an answer that is 180 degrees opposite of Rashi – in order to perform the mitzvah of Yibbum, we must uproot the forbidden relationship between a man and his brother’s wife, and there is no other way to perform this mitzvah.
What do Tosfot paskin as halacha? In order to understand the psak of Tosfot which appears a number of times throughout these pages, we will examine the end of the sugiya on daf 8, where there is a statement of Rava which rejects the attempt to prove that positive commandments override negative commandments whose punishment is karet: “רבא אמר: ערוה לא צריכא קרא, דאין עשה דוחה לא תעשה שיש בו כרת, כי איצטריך קרא – למיסר צרה.”
At the end of this long sugiya, Rava opposes the entire complicated progression and claims that the word “עליה” is not needed to limit the law of Yibbum. Rather, it comes to expand it and prohibit the tzarot as well. From here it is clear that positive commandments do not override negative commandments whose punishment is karet. Tosfot in a number of places throughout the masechet, and also here on daf 8 adopt Rava’s words as halacha.
ואילו פטורות ופוטרות לא קתני – ….דפשיטא דאין עשה דוחה ל”ת שיש בו כרת.
We will summarize the approach of Ri in the Tosfot and the point of argument between him and Rashi and ספר הכריתות:
|Rashi and ספר הכריתות||Ri in the Tosfot|
|Does a positive commandment override a negative commandment whose punishment is karet?||Yes and this is learned from the clash between honoring one’s parents and the Shabbat prohibitions whose punishment is karet.||This limmud is rejected and we need to understand the gemara differently from how Rashi understood it.|
|Is Yibbum a mitzvah where the positive commandment overrides the negative commandment whose punishment is karet?||No, since the rule only works when there is no other way to perform the mitzvah, and it is possible to perform the mitzvah of Yibbum through Chalitza. Therefore, we need a special גזרת כתוב of “עליה”, where here too, the forbidden relationship is overridden.||No, since it is only possible to perform Yibbum by uprooting the forbidden relationship, and therefore there is no overriding of the prohibition, rather it is completely removed in a situation of Yibbum. It is not the גזרת כתוב of “עליה” which allows this, but rather the commandment to do Yibbum itself, which cannot be performed without one having a relationship with his brother’s wife.|
|What is the mechanism through which the mitzvah of Yibbum works?||Overriding the forbidden relationship between a man and his brother’s wife through the גזרת הכתוב||The removal of the prohibition against having a relationship with one’s brother’s wife through the commandment to do Yibbum|
|Is Chalitza a way to perform the mitzvah of Yibbum?||Yes||No|
|What is the reasoning behind the rule that positive commandments override negative commandments?||Positive commandments are an expression of love and therefore they always overcome fear, even strong fear.||When the fear is strong, love does not have the strength to overcome it, but Hashem can remove prohibitions, and this is what happens with the mitzvah of Yibbum|