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Ear Ache on Shabbos

Ha'azinu (Deuteronomy 32 )

by Rabbi Ozer Alport

In the beginning of Parshas Ha'azinu, the Midrash (Devarim Rabbah 10:1) cryptically asks whether it is permissible to treat somebody who is suffering from an ear ache on Shabbos. The Midrash answers that the Sages have taught that saving a person's life takes precedence over the desecration of Shabbos. What is the connection between this Midrash and Parshas Ha'azinu (literally: "Listen")? Secondly, what is the intention of the Midrash, as ear aches are generally not life-threatening, and the law that one may desecrate Shabbos to save a person's life is a more general rule not specific to ear aches?

The Chasam Sofer explains the Midrash by noting that there is a legal dispute whether a person is permitted to confess his sins on Shabbos. Some maintain that it is permissible since it gives him pleasure to repent and atone for his transgressions, while others forbid it because the focus and emphasis on his misdeeds causes him anguish. Therefore, it is questionable whether it is permissible for somebody lecturing on Shabbos to rebuke the listeners. Even if he feels that they need to hear his reproof to inspire them to improve their ways, doing so on Shabbos may be forbidden because it causes them pain.

However, on the Shabbos preceding Yom Kippur, commonly known as Shabbos Shuva, which has the power to rectify all of the Shabbosim of the previous year (Mishnah Berurah 603:2), the rebuke which the speaker gives is classified as pikuach nefesh (life-saving) and permissible according to all opinions. Proof to this may be brought from the fact that Tosefos writes (Talmud - Menachos 30a d.h. mi'kan) that Moshe died at the time of Mincha on Shabbos. On his final day in this world, Moshe said the harsh words of rebuke contained in Parshas Ha'azinu. Because Moshe realized that this was his final opportunity to do so, he considered the admonishment to be life-saving which was allowable even on Shabbos.

We may now understand the true intention of the Midrash and its connection to Parshas Ha'azinu. In discussing a person whose ear hurts him, the Midrash doesn't refer to a medical ailment but rather to a person who suffers anguish upon hearing words of rebuke. The Midrash questions whether it is nevertheless permissible to "cure" him on Shabbos by giving him needed words of reproof. The Midrash answers that although this question is normally subject to a dispute, in a case of pikuach nefesh - such as on Shabbos Shuva, when Parshas Ha'azinu is often read - it is certainly allowed, with the proof coming from the rebuke given by Moshe on Shabbos which is contained within the parsha!

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How many words are there in Parshas Ha'azinu, and what is its significance?

The Vilna Gaon (Genuzos HaGra) points out that there are 613 words in Parshas Ha'azinu, which corresponds to the number of mitzvot in the Torah, because Moshe alluded to the entire Torah in Parshas Ha'azinu.

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Rosh Hashana is the beginning of a 10-day period known as the Ten Days of Repentance. The Talmud (Rosh Hashana 18a) teaches that God is particularly close to us during this time, and it is therefore an auspicious time to repent for our mistakes.

In addition, the Noda BiYehuda suggests that this period presents another unique opportunity. If a person's transgressions are so great and include transgressions which can only be forgiven through death, we would think that repentance during this period is unable to help him because he is too far gone. However, even though it is true that his misdeeds may indeed be so great that his teshuva might not be able to help him, nevertheless it may be able to save the entire world, and as an amazing result, to save his own life as well.

Maimonides writes (Teshuva 3:2) that just as each individual is judged based on whether he has done more mitzvot or more sins, so too is each nation judged, and so too the entire world. In light of this, it is possible that even after this wicked individual does teshuva, he is still judged as possessing more sins than mitzvot and should be sentenced to die in the upcoming year. However, during the Ten Days of Repentance the entire world is being judged as well, and it is possible that the entire world together with all of this person's sins was considered just more than 50 percent wicked. His repentance, even though it is insufficient to save him, could be enough to take away his transgressions from the accounting of the entire world and switch the world from being destroyed to being saved.

Although that will certainly be beneficial for the rest of the world, we would assume that it's still too late for him because at the end of the day, his sins are still greater than his mitzvot. Since Maimonides writes that God first judges each individual, then each nation, and the entire world only at the end, we would think that even though he managed to save the entire world, his verdict was long-ago sealed that he must die for his sins.

However, the Noda BiYehuda maintains that even though this person is in fact deserving of death, the fact that his teshuva managed to save the entire world will cause his own personal verdict to be changed to life as well, adding that even if his judgment was already signed and sealed for death and even if God sealed it with an oath, his contribution to saving the entire world is enough to tear up his own decree and save him.

His novel proof for this fascinating claim is an episode in the Book of Shmuel in which Shaul swore in the name of God that whomever was singled out by a Heavenly lottery that he conducted to determine who had committed a certain sin would be put to death, even if it was his own son Yonason (1-Shmuel 14:39). After the lots indeed confirmed that Yonason was indeed the guilty party, Shaul again repeated his death sentence together with the oath (14:44).

In response, the rest of the nation pointed out that even though Yonason had in fact violated Shaul's command and according to the strict letter of the law deserved to be killed for doing so, he had one redeeming point: His actions had saved the entire nation from the looming danger posed by the Philistine army, and as such, it wasn't right that he should be punished for his sin (14:45). Shaul accepted their argument and annulled Yonason's death sentence even though it included an oath. So too concludes the Noda BiYehuda will God do for somebody whose repentance is able to save the world during the Ten Days of Repentance.

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The Shulchan Aruch rules (OC 606:1) that Yom Kippur will not atone for sins in which one has hurt another Jew until he has been appeased. Is a person required to pacify somebody who is upset at him without a legitimate cause?

The Talmud records that one of the rabbis felt insulted by one of the other rabbis and was upset. The other rabbi approached him in order to appease him. Based on the details of the original incident, the S'fas Emes (Yoma 87b) notes that the first rabbi had no legal basis for his feelings. Nevertheless, the second rabbi went to pacify him.

The S'fas Emes derives from here that one is required to appease his friend even if the ill feelings are not legally warranted. This is because there is a goal that everybody should make peace with one another before Yom Kippur, independent of whether the wounded party is justified in his feelings. On this topic, the Mishnah Berurah (606:3) rules that when asking forgiveness, a person is required to state explicitly what he did for which he is seeking forgiveness. If a person insulted another person (who suffered as a result of his speech) who is presently unaware of his actions, and asking him for forgiveness for this will make it known to him and cause him additional anguish, is one still required to do so?

The Chafetz Chaim (4:12) rules that in such a case, one is required to inform the victim that he spoke negatively about him and to beg him for forgiveness.

However, Rabbi Yisroel Salanter argues that the gossiper must carefully evaluate the situation and weigh the potential repercussions of doing so. In many situations, shattering the other person's ignorance and revealing to him the details of the insults and rumors that he spread about him will cause him even more pain. Instead, he recommends approaching the person and asking him for general forgiveness for anything harmful which he may have done to him or said about him, without specifying the details of his sin. (Moadim U'Zmanim 1:54, Shu"t Az Nidberu 7:66)

Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Shalmei Moed pg. 56) agrees that if the victim is unaware of the incident and would be upset by it, one should not inform him of it.

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