A Smaller Sin

Parshas Vayeishev

“השליכו אותו…למען הציל אותו” (בראשית לז:כב)

Zevulun Frankel lived in a luxurious upper class neighborhood. His neighbors, the Boors, were traditional Jews who went to their shul every Shabbos. A regular Davening was held there, albeit without a Mechitzah between the men and women. Not only was there no Mechitzah, but the men and women actually sat together.

One day, Jeff Boor was mowing his lawn when he saw Zevulun pull up, and the two started a conversation. Jeff mentioned that he had just been elected shul president, and was thinking about implementing different changes in the shul. With a ray of hope in his heart, Zevulun asked what type of changes he was planning on making. “Well,” Jeff said with authority, “One thing that has really been bothering me is the kiddush. I mean, there is really nothing substantial served there, and don’t tell me that herring and cake is a suitable effort at tikun olam!”

“Hey, Jeff!” Tracy Boor called out from her deck chair. “You missed a spot!” “Sorry,” Jeff said, “I’ll get to it in a second.” It was at this point that Zevulun mentioned to Jeff his own suggestion about his presidency. “Maybe you should try to make some changes in the seating at the shul.” “Certainly!” Jeff said, “Those old seats in the front row have to go.” “No,” Zevulun said, “I’m referring to having the men and women having separate sections. After all, wouldn’t it be nice to daven without anyone disturbing your davening, or telling you that you missed a prayer?” The two smiled. “Well,” Jeff said, “Maybe we’ll talk about this again a different time, so I can get a better understanding, besides of course the basic understanding I already have, of why this is important.”

After excusing himself from Jeff’s thoughts of “tikun olam,” he thought about whether or not he should try to influence Jeff to make minor changes in the synagogue. For example, perhaps he could influence him to have the men and women sections separated as he had suggested, even if it would not be with a Mechitzah. Then again, he thought, they will still be sitting without a Mechitzah and I will be the one to sanction and encourage it. He therefore called his Rav to get a better perspective whether or not he should instruct Jeff on how to commit a smaller sin.


The Pasuk quoted above notes that Reuven did not really think that Yosef should be thrown in the pit at all. Rather, he thought that this was the only way to get out of the situation. By instructing them to throw him into the pit, he was essentially telling them to commit a smaller sin in order to save them from a bigger sin of killing him, and to return Yosef to his father.

The truth is that there is a clear source to lessen a sin, even though the people in question will continue to sin. The Gemara in Sotah (48a) says that when men sing and women answer them in song, it is promiscuous behavior. When women sing and men answer them in song, it (the evil inclination) is like a blazing fire. The Gemara asks, what is the difference? Why discuss which sin is worse? The Gemara answers, the difference is in order to abolish one before the other. In other words, if a person has the power to stop one of the behaviors, he should stop the practice of women singing and men answering. This shows that we do lessen the sins of sinners.

However, as Zevulun thought above, why isn’t this considered agreeing and condoning sin? Moreover, telling a sinner that his behavior is appropriate is a transgression of “Chanufah” — “flattery” which is forbidden.[/fusion_text][fusion_text][See Nedarim 22a that this is only permitted when there is danger to one’s life (see also Tosfos in Sotah 41b, DH “Kol ha’Machanif”).] How can one balance these two instructions?

Igros Moshe

The Igros Moshe (Orach Chaim 1:44) was asked a similar question regarding sitting mixed or sitting separately, and said that it was a Mitzvah to get involved so that men and women would sit in separate sections. He quoted the Gemara in Sotah (ibid.) as proof to this concept.

However, when asked a different question (Orach Chaim 4:35), he said not to do anything to help. The dilemma was in a town where the Jewish boys and girls were unfortunately going to the local gentile dances. Certain people had an idea that they should use the shul’s social hall to organize mixed dancing for the Jewish teenagers. In this manner, at least they would be saving the possible intermarriage that occurs due to the mingling with the gentiles at the dances.

The Igros Moshe replied that this should not be done. He explained that in no way can the Orthodox Jewish leadership of the community condone mixed dancing among teenagers. We do not give our stamp of approval to sins. At the end of his response, he explains that the Gemara in Sotah (ibid.) only applies regarding getting involved behind the scenes to stop a larger sin. However, in no way can one appear to condone a smaller sin (which would be the case if the dance was organized by any religious body).


It seems clear that Zevulun should try to persuade Jeff as much as possible that there should be separate seating. Of course, if he could persuade them to have an Orthodox shul in general, it would be a great Mitzvah. However, under no circumstances can Zevulun say that this is a correct practice or attend their services himself in order to show that this is acceptable.

There may be some room to even allow a Rav to sanction a smaller sin, when the smaller sin is abolishing a weak custom. This was the ruling of the Chida in Teshuvos Chayim Shi’al (1:6).

The case there was a community where it was widespread behavior to shave with a razor. Multiple Torah prohibitions are transgressed for every hair shaved with a razor. The leaders of the community thought that they had a way to convince everyone to switch to a permitted manner of shaving. They would say that it is even permitted to cut one’s hair in this manner during Sefiras Ha’Omer.

The Chida quotes the Gemara in Sotah (ibid.) as reason to be lenient. He continues that this is especially so in this case, where shaving during Sefiras Ha’Omer involves many arguments and discussions regarding when exactly it is permitted to shave. Even today there are varied customs regarding when exactly it is forbidden to shave. Although, he agrees, even weaker customs must be kept, in this case it is permitted to abolish the custom if the leaders of the community felt the people would only stop shaving if this leniency was permitted.

While this seems to argue with the Igros Moshe, it is possible that the Chida would only permit this when the smaller sin is a weak custom. It is also possible that the Igros Moshe would agree that if such a great change would indeed take place, this would be permitted. However, on the surface, it does seem that they argue.

If a person has a question of this nature, he should make sure to present it to a competent Rav. Additionally, it is well known that the facts presented to the Chida (that the community would stop shaving with a razor if they were lenient regarding Sefirah) do not usually hold true in most situations. In most situations, this would merely cause a spiritual downfall. Rav Elyashiv Shlit’a is known to advise people in Kiruv that “One does not do Mitzvos by sanctioning Aveiros.” While every situation is different, which is why a Rav should be consulted, spiritual gain is not usually obtained by condoning a sin.