Emergency Halachic Measures: Et La'asot L’hashem

In extenuating circumstances, there are often grounds to allow for modification, radical leniency, or even outright dismissal of halacha. This concept is referred to in halachic literature as "et la'asot l'hashem hefeiru toratecha" – “It is a time to act for God, and therefore, they annulled your Torah” -- a term first coined by King David.[1]

The scope and purpose of "et la'asot l'hashem…" is probably best articulated by the Rambam, who writes:

...if [the rabbis] see a need to waive a commandment on a temporary basis in order to return people to the faith, or to save many Jews from stumbling in other matters, they should instruct the people to do as necessary. Just as a doctor will amputate the hand or foot of a person in order to save his life, so too, the rabbis are permitted to uproot commandments when required for the greater good. As the Talmud says, “We allow someone to desecrate one Shabbat if it will mean him being able to keep many more Shabbats."[2]

The first person to apply the principle of et la'asot l'hashem might have been Eliyahu Hanavi who offered a sacrifice to God on Mt. Carmel. Although offering a sacrifice outside of a specifically designated sanctuary is forbidden by Torah law, he laid aside the prohibition in order to sanctify God's name in the eyes of the “Ba'al” idol worshippers.[3] Eliyahu's decision to violate this Torah prohibition in order to sanctify God's name was ultimately sanctioned by God.[4] Indeed, we are required to listen to a prophet who instructs us to violate a Torah law on a one-time basis.[5] So too, we are taught that an eminent rabbinical authority is considered to be greater and more authoritative than a prophet when it comes to applying the "et la'asot l'hashem" principle.[6] Although most applications of "et la’asot l’hashem" have historically been for the benefit of a community, it is occasionally applied to the needs of an individual, as well.[7]

There are numerous examples -- from the Talmud right through to modern times -- where the sages of the day have utilized the "et la'asot l'hashem" principle.[8] Perhaps the most notable of these "et la'asot l'hashem" applications, whose influence continues to this day, was the dispensation to commit the Mishna to writing. The Oral Torah was never intended to be written down; it was only intended to be passed down orally from father to son and rabbi to student.[9] However, as the generations progressed, along with the many difficulties, persecutions, and exiles that followed, the sages realized that such extensive memorization was no longer possible. As such, they permitted committing the Oral Torah to writing in order to ensure that it would remain extant in perpetuity. There is little doubt that, if the Oral Torah had not been written down, it would have been all but forgotten today.[10] Similarly, although the Talmud rules that the books of Tanach may only be translated into Greek,[11] nowadays it is permitted to translate them into any language due to “et la'asot l'hashem.”[12] Here too, there is little doubt that if the Tanach wasn’t translated into the more common languages, it would essentially be a “closed book” and out of reach for the majority of Jews who aren’t fluent in Hebrew or ancient Greek.

There are a number of interesting cases in which "et la'asot l'hashem" has been applied in recent times. For example, there were times when women were told to disguise themselves as men in order to avoid being attacked, something that is otherwise forbidden under the prohibition against cross-dressing.[13] Additionally, although it is forbidden to immerse oneself exclusively in Torah study if it means having to live off of charity,[14] there are authorities who permit doing so based on "et la'asot l’hashem.” It is argued that advanced Torah study is so sorely needed in our day that it justifies having to live off charity or otherwise taking money in order to do so.[15]

Furthermore, although one should not take payment to do a mitzva, it has become customary nowadays to pay and to be paid for performing certain mitzvot. This is especially true when there is no one else willing to perform them, making the situation an “et la’asot l’hashem.” For example, it is customary to pay someone to serve as a chazzan to lead services, or to serve as a shomer to watch over a dead body until burial.[16] Finally, while separate-gender education is the halachic ideal, a number of rabbis have permitted establishing co-ed Torah day schools where no other alternative exists, based on the principle of "et la'asot l'hashem."[17]

[1] Tehillim 119:126.

[2] Rambam, Hilchot Mamrim 2:4.

[3] Melachim I:18.

[4] Yevamot 90b.

[5] Rambam, Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah 9:3.

[6] Bava Batra 12a.

[7] Tosfot, Bava Kamma 3b.

[8] Berachot 9:5; Yoma 69a; Tamid 27b. See also CM 2:1.

[9] Gitin 60a; Temurah 14b.

[10] Introduction to the Mishna Torah.

[11] Megilla 8b; Rambam, Hilchot Tefillin, Mezuzot, Sefer Torah 1:19.

[12] OC 334:12; Mishna Berura 331:31. See also Igrot Moshe, YD 4:38.

[13] Sefer Chassidim 200.

[14] Rambam, Hilchot Talmud Torah 3:10.

[15] Kesef Mishna, Hilchot Talmud Torah 3:10; Shach, YD 246:20.

[16] Ha’elef Lecha Shlomo, OC 263.

[17] Igrot Moshe, YD 4:28.