Can We Ever Sin in Order to Do Good?

Dear Jew in the City-

Can we ever sin in order to do good? On one hand, I know you can’t do an aveirah to do a mitzvah, but on the other, I heard that Queen Esther committed a sin for the good of the Jewish people. Which one is it?

Thank you,

Dear L.E.-

Let’s take the coyness out of your question so that everyone will understand what it is that we’re talking about. The Talmud (Megillah 15a) is working under the assumption that Esther and Mordechai are married. Until that point, every time Esther was intimate with Ahasuerus, it was considered compulsion and Esther remained permitted to Mordechai. Now (in Esther chapter 4), Mordechai was asking Esther to present herself to the king in order to plead for the Jews. Esther knew what Ahasuerus would expect of her so, by placing herself in the situation voluntarily, it would no longer be considered coercion. She would be considered a willing participant and would become prohibited to Mordechai under the laws of adultery. This is how the Sages understand verse 4:16, “if I’m lost, I’m lost,” i.e., lost to Mordechai as his wife.

Yes, there is a principle that one should surrender his life rather than participate in an incestuous or adulterous act but the gemara in Sanhedrin (74b) clarifies that that refers to when one is an active participant (as a man must necessarily be). A woman has the option to be passive, in which case she need not give up her life rather than submit. Additionally, the Talmud in Sanhedrin differentiates between when non-Jews want to cause Jews to sin specifically for the purpose of making them violate their religion, as opposed to those people like Ahasuerus who are merely interested in satisfying their own desires. One need not sacrifice one’s life if the coercion is simply to satisfy the oppressor’s desires rather than a form of forced conversion.

So I would stop short of saying that Esther “sinned.” I would say that circumstances enabled her to participate in an act that is normally prohibited. That doesn’t mean, however, that there are no consequences.

Consider, if you will, the case of a baby boy who isn’t circumcised because of hemophilia. This is a perfectly valid reason not to circumcise based on the concept of v’chai bahem – the ideas that we’re supposed to live because of mitzvos, not die because of them (Leviticus 18:5). Nevertheless, a male who is uncircumcised, even for a perfectly valid reason, cannot participate in the Passover offering (Exodus 12:48) and, if a kohein, cannot perform the Temple service (see Ezekiel 44:7 and Rashi there). That’s not a punishment, it’s a natural consequence.

Consider also the case of King David, who really wanted to build the Temple to God. God responded that David would not be the one to build it because he was a “man of war” who had shed blood (I Chronicles 28:3). This is not a criticism of David’s military record. David was a war hero whose service was not only justified, it was absolutely necessary – he saved the nation several times over! His inability to build the Temple was a consequence but it was not a punishment.

Finally, consider a case that was heard by the Shvus Yaakov (Rav Yaakov Reischer, 1661–1733), which closely parallels Esther’s situation. A group of traveling Jews was set upon by highwaymen, who let them go after a married woman in the group had relations with them. The Shvus Yaakov wrote that coerced relations do not prohibit a woman to her husband if the relations are part of the coercion. Accordingly, if the brigands had made a demand to have relations with this woman, it would be considered coercion and she would remain permitted to her husband. Here, however, since she offered relations as a means to save the group, it’s not considered coercion and she may not remain married to her husband. Her actions may be praiseworthy, and she’s not criticized for them, but there are consequences. (Thanks to Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein for helping me to locate this source.)

The reality is that sometimes circumstances require us to do things that are normally prohibited. If someone needs to go to the hospital on Shabbos, drive them. If you’re lost in the Sahara with nothing but ham sandwiches, eat them. But sometimes our decisions have consequences. David was a warrior, and his necessary military actions meant that he couldn’t build the Temple. A man might choose to remain uncircumcised because of potential medical dangers, but then his religious service options are limited. Similarly, Esther approached Ahasuerus knowing what he might then expect. She considered it necessary and was permitted to do something normally prohibited. But she also knew that there would be consequences for acting voluntarily rather than passively, under coercion. Far from “sinning,” I see Esther as willing to undergo a huge personal sacrifice in order to “take one for the team.”

So, yes, if you steal a lulav and shake it, or embezzle money and donate it to charity, that’s no mitzvah at all. But in extenuating circumstances, specifically in life-saving situations, different rules may apply. There may be consequences to operating outside the normally permitted parameters of halacha but that doesn’t necessarily make actions in extraordinary circumstances “sinful.”

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
Educational Correspondent
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