Photo Credit: Jewish Press

As Rabbi Joseph Telushkin (author of Uncommon Sense) has pointed out, many people regard a lack of common sense as merely a personality flaw. Jewish law, however, sees it as a character flaw as well.

Good intentions that are misguided, or simply the absence of any intention to cause harm, are not adequate defenses if detriment results. Reb Chaim Shmuelevitz, zt”l, famously explained that middos (character traits) are like fire. Meaning that nothing, barring extinguishing, can prevent a fire from burning. If one accidentally puts his hand in a fire, it will get singed. The fact that the act was unintentional makes no difference.


Reb Chaim’s analogy (as always, with an airtight source) applies to the unintentional hurting of someone’s feelings. Lack of malice or premeditation does not make one less culpable. In the realm of interpersonal relationships, people are judged by the results of their actions, not by their intentions.

The Talmud (Sotah 21) refers to a person who is well-meaning but lacks common sense as a “pious fool.” Seeking to clarify what precisely a pious fool is, the Talmud offers the following example: A man sees a woman drowning in a river and reasons that it is inappropriate for him to look at her in that state, and accordingly declines to rescue her. The Mishna comments that the perpetrators of such foolish piety are the destroyers of the world.

It is not uncommon for our credence to be challenged by examples that the Talmud offers. Upon occasion, our sensitivities view the examples as somewhere between unbelievable and absurd. Before we come back to the scenario of the woman drowning in a river, allow me to cite a better-known example. Anyone who spent even a little time in yeshiva knows how much the Rabbis frown upon public humiliation. Chazal say that it is akin to murder, and Rabbeinu Yonah explains that when one is publicly humiliated, the red corpuscles withdraw from the face, leaving the victim as white as a cadaver. Hence the expression in English, “character assassination.”

The Torahitic source regarding the gravity of this crime stems from the story of Yehuda and Tamar (Parshas Vayeishev), where Tamar is accused of immoral behavior and Yehuda rules that her punishment should be death by burning. Unbeknownst to anyone, Yehuda had been the perpetrator of the act in question and Tamar could have easily pointed an accurate finger of accusation at the guilty party. Instead, however, she sent a private message to him, gambling with her life rather than publicly shaming Yehuda.

From here the Rabbis deduced that it is preferable for a person to have himself thrown into a fiery furnace than to shame a fellow human being in public (Kesubos 67). Once again, it seems odd that such a cardinal offense would be conveyed with a proclamation that seems so unrealistic and irrelevant. If ever a sin would require a practical adage, this severe crime would be the one. Or so I thought – until I read an episode about the saintly Rabbi Yisrael Yaakov Lubchansky, zt”l, written by Rabbi Chaim Shapiro.

In Eastern Europe, it was the job of the shamas (sexton or caretaker) to tend to the synagogue’s oven early every morning during the freezing winters. Thus, when people came at daybreak to recite Tehillim or study before prayers, they would find the place warm. In one particular synagogue, however, the shamas would rely on the out-of-town beggars who normally arrived during the night to light up the oven. But many times, the beggars would not show up, and the synagogue would be freezing in the morning. People began to complain.

Then all complaints stopped; the oven was fire-hot every morning. People thought that the shamas was doing a good job, and the shamas took it for granted that the beggars were tending to the oven. No one suspected that the Rabbi of Baranovitch, Rabbi Yisrael Yaakov Lubchansky, was the one lighting the oven before sunrise.

One morning, the wood happened to be particularly wet so that it required a lot of blowing to get a fire kindled. With his head in the oven door, Rav Yisrael Yaakov was blowing upon the fire when the shamas entered. In the darkness of the winter dawn, he did not recognize the Rabbi. Certain that one of the beggars was tending to the oven, the shamas, in a joking manner, gave the man a kick in the posterior.

Rav Yisrael Yaakov knew that if he took his head out of the oven, the shamas would be terribly embarrassed. He therefore pushed his face deeper into the oven. The smoke was burning his eyes and choking his lungs, yet he would not remove his head until the shamas left. By the time the shamas walked away, half of the Rabbi’s beard was gone – it had caught fire!

This story about Rabbi Yisrael Yaakov Lubchansky was cited as an example of how rabbinic expressions that appear prima facie to be extreme can in fact be precisely pertinent. Thus, we return now to the Talmud’s seemingly far-fetched example of a pious fool – one who would be prepared to allow a woman to drown rather than be forced to look at her.

In 2002 (and there have been other examples), a fire broke out in a girls’ school dormitory in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The Islamic firemen would not go into the building to rescue the students, lest they see the girls immodestly dressed. Fifteen girls who managed to escape were beaten back into the blazing building as they were not attired in head scarves and abayas (black robes). These fifteen young women were burned alive.

I suspect the victims’ families would have no trouble identifying with the Talmud’s declaration that pious foolishness destroys the world.


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Rabbi Hanoch Teller is the award-winning producer of three films, a popular teacher in Jerusalem yeshivos and seminaries, and the author of 28 books, the latest entitled Heroic Children, chronicling the lives of nine child survivors of the Holocaust. Rabbi Teller is also a senior docent in Yad Vashem and is frequently invited to lecture to different communities throughout the world.