The last Mishnah of the first perek of Masechet Keritut mentions the case of a woman that has had numerous births or numerous instances of zava tum’ah. The law is that such a woman is obligated to bring one korban, and only then is she permitted to eat from kodshim. However, following this, she still is obligated to bring korbanot for each of times she gave birth (or each of times she became tameh)19.
The Mishnah brings a case following this where the price of birds in Yerushalaim increased to a gold dinar (twenty-five silver dinarim). Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel responded by entering the Beit Midrash and teaching the opposite of the Tana Kama – after a woman has had a number of births (or zavot) she is only obligated to bring one korban to permit her from eating kodshim and she has no other obligatory korbanot to offer. The point of this ruling was to soften the demand for birds fit for korbanot and therefore ease prices. Following this ruling the price of birds went down to a quarter of a silver dinar!
The question is asked: How could Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel issue a decree that blatantly disregarded the Torah law? Rabbi Ovadya MiBartenurah states that he was able to do this because of a pasuk in Tehillim (119:126), “Et la’asot L’Hashem, heferu Torahtecha” (“It is a time to act for Hashem; they have nullified your law”). The Gemara in numerous places20 discusses this concept whereby in order to fulfil Hashem’s will, the Chachamim are able to permit (at certain times of great need) acting in a manner which brings about a nullification of His Laws. Thus, in this instance, Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel felt it appropriate to nullify the Halacha of bringing supplementary obligatory bird offerings, since he felt that the prices were so high that it led to women being unable to bring even the first obligatory korban. Subsequently, these women would be at risk of eating kodshim in a state of tum’ah.
The Tifferet Yisrael provides another explanation. The general rule is that Chachamim have the authority to override a Torah law if deemed necessary at the time. It is debated in what exact cases they have this authority. All agree however that they are able regarding a law that is a “shev v’al ta’aseh”21, where the Chachamim instruct one to remain passive. This is indeed the case here for the woman and her korbanot.
The Tifferet Yisrael however argues, in this case there was no requirement to override a Torah law at all. This is because we have a separate concept of “Ones Rachmana Patrei” (‘The Torah makes an Ones exempt’). In other words, one who is restricted from doing a mitzvah by something out of his control is exempt from that performing that mitzvah. Therefore in this case, since the bird offerings are currently too expensive there should be no chiyuv on the woman at all! By the letter of the law, the woman should be patur until the prices of the birds begin to fall, and then her chiyuv would return.
The Tiferet Yisrael answers that theoretically, that would be the case. Ideally, Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel did not have to make a decree which overrode the Torah law as the woman would be patur. However, had Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel not made his decree, then the forces of supply and demand would still drive the prices. That is, there would still be people in the market that could afford to pay for the numerous bird offerings that they would have been obligated to bring at the higher price. Therefore had Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel not made his decree, the prices would have stayed high. It is only due to his ruling that caused the easing of demand for bird offerings which led to his intended outcome - cutting prices.
We see from here the extreme lengths that the Chachamim will go to in order to ensure that a person does not transgress a serious aveirah. Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel issued a ruling that effectively cancelled a mitzvat asseh (the obligation for the woman to bring the remainder of her sacrifices) in order to save the woman from incurring possible karet (eating kodshim in a state of tumah).
19: This is a D’oraita law (see Vayikra 12:7).
20: Gittin 60a; Yoma 69a; Brachot 54a, 63a.
21: See Gittin 90a.
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