In Spite Of The Consequences
‘There Is Birtha di’Satya In Babylon’
We are told (Kiddushin 72a) that on his deathbed Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi was granted prophetic vision (ruach hakodesh) and revealed to his disciples a number of secrets. Among them was the fact that the inhabitants of the Babylonian town of Birtha di’Satya had abandoned Judaism, becoming apostates. Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, who lived in Eretz Yisrael, was able to tell them something that had occurred very recently in Babylon, even providing the detail that R. Ahi had excommunicated them because they had, on Shabbos, caught fish that they trapped in a pond that had overflowed.
Why did Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi reveal an event to his disciples that they would subsequently hear about anyway? Why did he choose to reveal this incident amidst sharing mysteries and secrets of the Torah?
A Harsh Punishment
The Terumas HaDeshen (138), cited by the Rema (Yoreh De’ah 334:1), concludes that Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi intended to teach his disciples an important halachic principle: A person who commits a grave transgression – such as desecrating Shabbos – must be excommunicated even if doing so may lead him to abandon Judaism altogether, just as the residents of Birtha di’Satya were excommunicated by R. Ahi even though this act drove them to apostasy.
The Taz, on the other hand (Yoreh De’ah ibid.), maintains that excommunication should be avoided if it might lead the transgressor to apostasy. He claims that Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi mentioned what was taking place in Birtha di’Satya for a different reason – as if to say: Just as this event will be proven true within a short while (when the news reaches Eretz Yisrael), so too will the rest of the secrets I am divulging.
He might, perhaps, also have been cautioning his disciples to refrain from excommunicating those who stray if it can lead to an extreme reaction.
The accepted halacha is in accordance with the position of Rema, who notes that someone who does not act in accordance with halacha should be dealt with severely, and beis din is not required to take into account the possible repercussions of the punishment it plans to impose.
The Shabbetai Zvi Cult
The Chasam Sofer (Yoreh De’ah 322; Even HaEzer 36) adopts a similar position and touches on a point his predecessors did not mention. He maintains that, based on Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s remarks, we can deduce that even if the wife and children of someone who is excommunicated are liable to abandon Judaism following the excommunication of the head of the family, the punishment should still be carried out, just as it was against for the residents of Birtha di’Satya and their wives and children, who did indeed convert after they were excommunicated.
He mentions, as an example, the followers of Shabbetai Zvi, who were excommunicated by the leading rabbanim of their generation even though they knew what would likely happen to the children of the cult members. Ultimately, however, the Chasam Sofer stipulates that this rule only applies when it is clear to beis din that the individual who stands to be excommunicated would corrupt his children anyway.Rabbi Yaakov Klass