Aveirah Lishmah

 וַתִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ מוֹאָב... וַתִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ בֶּן עַמִּי

And she called his name Moav…and she called his name Ben-Ami. (Bereishit 19:37–38)

The Rambam writes (Hilchot Melachim 11:1):

The Mashiach will, in the future, arise and restore the monarchy of the house of David to its original sovereignty…Anyone who does not believe in him…denies not only the words of the prophets, but also of the Torah and Moshe Rabbeinu…the first Mashiach was David who saved Yisrael from the hand of their oppressors, the final Mashiach who will arise from his descendants will bring about the final salvation of Yisrael.

With these words, the Rambam introduces the principle of Mashiach, which he proceeds to elaborate upon over the course of two perakim (ibid. 11–12).


In light of the central importance of the House of David HaMelech for Bnei Yisrael, it is quite astonishing to consider that much of its emergence seems to be bound up with episodes of arayot, starting with Lot and his two daughters,[1] through Yehudah and Tamar,[2] and culminating with the episode of David and Bat-Sheva.[3] This is indeed quite remarkable!

The Seforno (Bereishit ibid.) opens up a window through which we may understand the episode with the daughters of Lot:

Since the intention of the women was praiseworthy, their descendants emerged as two nations that inherited Avraham to some degree,[4] as Chazal said[5] “בְּכָל דְּרָכֶיךָ דָעֵהוּ — אפילו לדבר עבירה In all your ways know Him, even in matters of aveirah.”

Similarly, commenting on Yehudah’s words concerning Tamar “צָדְקָה מִמֶּנִּי” (38:26), the Seforno explains:

Even though she approached me deceitfully…nonetheless, she was more correct in her deceit which was for a good purpose…than I was in keeping my word…as Chazal said “גדולה עבירה לשמה ממצוה שלא לשמה — An aveirah for the sake of Heaven is greater than a mitzvah done with ulterior motives.”

Aveirah Lishmah in the Gemara

This concept of “aveirah lishmah” is one that requires serious study from the words of Chazal and the mefarshim. Let us begin with the discussion of this sugya as found in the Gemara (Nazir 23b):

אמר עולא, תמר זינתה, זמרי זינה. תמר זינתה יצאו ממנה מלכים ונביאים, זמרי זינה נפלו עליו כמה רבבות ישראל. אמר רב נחמן בר יצחק גדולה עבירה לשמה ממצוה שלא לשמה. והאמר רב יהודה אמר רב לעולם יעסוק אדם בתורה ומצוות אפילו שלא לשמן, שמתוך שלא לשמן בא לשמן! אלא אימא כמצוה שלא לשמה, דכתיב (שופטים ה, כד) "תְּבֹרַךְ מִנָּשִׁים יָעֵל אֵשֶׁת חֶבֶר הַקֵּינִי מִנָּשִׁים בָּאֹהֶל תְּבֹרָךְ", מאן נשים שבאהל? שרה [רבקה] רחל ולאה. א"ר יוחנן שבע בעילות בעל אותו רשע באותה שעה...והא קא מתהניא מבעילה דידיה! א"ר יוחנן כל טובתן של רשעים אינה אלא רעה אצל צדיקים.

Ulla said: Tamar engaged in illicit relations[6] and Zimri engaged in illicit relations.[7] Tamar engaged in illicit relations, kings and prophets descended from her,[8] Zimri engaged in illicit relations, tens of thousands from Israel fell on his account.

Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak said: An aveirah committed for the sake of Heaven[9] is greater than a mitzvah done for ulterior motives. But Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav: A person should always involve himself in Torah and mitzvot even for ulterior motives, for through doing them for ulterior motives he will come to do them for their own sake! Rather, say “[an aveirah done for the sake of Heaven is as great] as a mitzvah done for ulterior motives.”[10]

As it says (Shoftim 5:24), “May Yael, wife of Chever Ha’keini be blessed more than women,[11] she shall be blessed more than the women in the tent.”[12] Who are the “women in the tent”? Sarah, [Rivkah], Rachel, and Leah.[13]

R’ Yochanan said: That rasha [Sisra] was intimate with her seven times. [The Gemara objects:] But she derived pleasure from his intimacy! Said R’ Yochanan; All that is good in the eyes of resha’im is nothing other than bad in the eyes of tzaddikim.

From the Gemara’s question “but she derived pleasure!” we may learn a fundamental point in our sugya, namely, deriving pleasure from an aveirah lishmah does not only lower it from its elevated status of being equal to a mitzvah shelo lishmah, rather, it leads it to become simply an aveirah! When it comes to an aveirah, the element of lishmah is not an “added quality,” rather, it is an absolute requirement for the permission to engage in an aveirah for the sake of a mitzvah, and any personal enjoyment serves to detract from that level of lishmah.

Yaakov and Esav

This yesod regarding deriving personal benefit from an aveirah lishmah is discussed by the Netziv in the Harchev Davar[14] in (Bereishit 27:9)

Chazal said in the Midrash Rabbah that Yaakov was punished for causing Esav to cry out " צְעָקָה גְּדֹלָה וּמָרָה עַד מְאֹד — an exceedingly great and bitter cry,” (ibid. 28:34) and this is what caused Mordechai to cry out “זְעָקָה גְדֹלָה וּמָרָה” (Esther 4:1). This is seemingly difficult to understand; why was Yaakov punished for causing Esav to cry out, more than for causing his father to “tremble greatly” (Bereishit 27:33)? Rather, the matter is as follows, in order to be able to engage in an aveirah lishmah one must take great care not to derive any personal benefit from it at all. For it is not as with a mitzvah, where even if one derives benefit, the mitzvah nonetheless remains. Rather, with regard an aveirah lishmah, the benefit the person derives is certainly an aveirah, since it comes from an aveirah. This was also the case with the aveirah lishmah performed by Yaakov,[15] he derived no enjoyment whatsoever from Yitzchak trembling, and was certainly himself most distressed by this, except that he had no choice. Not so with Esav’s cry, which brought Yaakov some happiness in his heart, and for this he was punished, for [this enjoyment] was brought about through the aveirah of falsehood.

This peirush is characteristic of the Netziv in terms of perceiving an important element within the story which was not explicitly mentioned by the pasuk or Chazal, which, in this case, is the enjoyment Yaakov received upon hearing Esav cry out, and its effects and repercussions.

Peninah and Chanah

A similar discussion is found in the Alshich HaKadosh (Shmuel I, 1:6) regarding the aveirah lishmah of Peninah, the co-wife of Chanah, who, with all her good intentions to better Chanah’s situation, did not completely fulfill the stringent requirements of “lishmah”:

Chazal (Bava Batra 16a) said that both the Satan and Peninah acted for the sake of Heaven. The Satan acted for the sake of Avraham’s honor — as Iyov was being regarded as greater than Avraham — and Peninah acted in order that Chanah should cry out to Hashem that He should give her a child. In spite of this, Chazal said that with each child that Chanah bore, Peninah buried one of her children. This seems very strange, why should her children die, is this Torah and its reward?

Rather, it appears that Peninah had two motives. The first was out of jealousy, for she saw that her husband loved Chanah more than her, giving her a portion equivalent to that of Peninah and all her children. The second motive was for the sake of Heaven, so that Chanah should daven and be blessed with children and the feelings of jealousy should thereby be removed, for then the portions would be given out in accordance with the number of people.

And this is the meaning of the pasuk (Shmuel I, 1:6)[16] “וְכִעֲסַתָּה צָרָתָהּ — and her co-wife provoked her,” which refers to the feelings of jealousy over Chanah receiving a portion equal to Peninah’s entire family, “גַּם כַּעַס — and provoked (her),” referring to the element which was for the sake of Heaven, “בַּעֲבוּר הַרְּעִמָהּ — in order to agitate her,” so that she should cry out to Hashem over her distress and He should save her and open her womb. For she (Peninah) knew that the fact of Chanah’s womb being sealed was not permanent, rather, it was because Hashem desires her tefillot, as was the case with the Imahot.

It is clear that according to the Alshich, Peninah’s punishment of having her children die was due to the fact that her aveirah lishmah (her intention that Chanah should daven) was tainted by an element of shelo lishmah (jealousy). Therefore, in the absence of complete lishmah motivation, the act remained in the category of aveirah, with all the consequences that ensued therefrom.

[1] From whom Moav emerged, resulting in the drashah of מואבי ולא מואבית — that the issur of Moav marrying into the Jewish People applies only to the males, thus allowing David’s great-grandmother, Rut, to marry Boaz.

[2] Tamar bore Peretz, from whom Boaz was descended.

[3] Bat-Sheva bore Shlomo, from whom Mashiach will come.

[4] This refers to Rut from Moav, and Na’amah from Amon who joined and were integrated into the Jewish People, each one at her own time.

[5] Berachot 63a, commenting on the pasuk in Mishlei 3:6.

[6] With the intention of fulfilling a mitzvah and bearing children. (All comments here are based on Rashi to Gemara Nazir ibid.)

[7] With the intention of performing an aveirah.

[8] Kings from David and prophets from Yeshayahu, as derived in the Gemara Sotah 10b.

[9] That is, for the sake of a mitzvah.

[10] That is, they are both equal.

[11] Meaning, equivalent to the women who performed a mitzvah shelo lishmah, in connection with whom the word “ohel” is mentioned.

[12] On account of her aveirah lishmah in order to weaken the rasha, so that she could kill him.

[13] Who told their husbands to marry their servants, but their intention was not for the sake of a mitzvah, rather, they were motivated by jealousy.

[14] [The Netziv’s excursive footnotes to his peirush Haamek Davar on the Torah.]

[15] That is, the aveirah of deceiving his father.

[16] The pasuk uses a double expression; “וְכִעֲסַתָּה צָרָתָהּ גַּם כַּעַס.” The Alshich explains the double usage of the term “כעס.”