Laugh With The Sinners

My 9:00am Sunday morning shiur at The Stanton St. Shul has been discussing as of late topics in Mahchsevet Hazal / Rabbinic Thought and Theology. In today’s class we were discussing various sources regarding Gehenom / Hell (PDF) in the Rabbinic tradition and we came across a fascinating contradiction in the thought of one of the Sages.

In B. Avoda Zara 18b we find the following statement:

R. Shimon Ben Lakish said: He who scoffs1 will fall into gehenom, as it is said, A proud and haughty man, scoffer is his name, worketh for arrogant wrath (Mishlei 22:24). And by ‘wrath’ nothing but gehenom is meant; as it is said, That day is a day of wrath (Tzefania 1:15).2

While the punishment for scoffers may seem severe, the Torah really does not suffer such people lightly.3 But the real difficulty with this Gemara is that we have a mutually contradictory statement by the same R. Shimon Ben Lakish in B. Nedarim 8b:

R. Simeon b. Lakish, said: There is no gehenom in the world to come, but the Holy One, blessed be He, will draw forth the sun from its sheath: the righteous shall be healed, and the wicked shall be judged and punished thereby

In B. Avoda Zara 18b, Reish Lakish4 says that the scoffers will inherit gehenom, but in B. Nedarim 8b he says that gehenom does not exist!
The astute reader may note that in B. Nedarim 8b Reish Lakish only says there is no gehenom in “the world to come” (ein gehenom l’olam haba), thus opening the possibility for some other form of gehenom to exist. For example the Ran in Nedarim5 explains Reish Lakish as meaning there is no gehenom after the resurrection of the dead (ela l’atid lavo l’achar techiyat hameitim ka’amar). The Ran bases his interpretation on a variant citation of Reish Lakish from B. Avoda Zara 3b:

R. Shimon Ben Lakish said, there is no gehenom in the future (ein gehenom l’atid lavo)…

The Ran’s distinction assumes a specific eschatological sequence of 1. death 2. world to come 3. resurrection, an assumption I will not address here. For our purposes he does prefer the formulation of “future” rather than “world to come.” On one hand this could be a matter of interpretive convenience – preferring the vaguer term “future” rather than specific point of “world to come” but we do find this formulation in later Midrashic texts, though not in the name of Reish Lakish (see Kohelet Rabba 1).
However appealing to later Midrashic collections to evaluate the validity of one formulation over another will actually create more problems. In Bereishit Rabba 6:5 (6:17 in Albeck), we find R. Yannai and Reish Lakish simply saying “there is no gehenom” (ein gehenom) without any further qualification!
As I explained in shiur when we find such contradictory statements in the Talmud and Rabbinic literature, there are several strategies for resolution:

  • Reinterpretation – This attempt was employed by the Ran we saw earlier. Simply put, when one finds contradictory statements, reinterpret one of them to match the other. This solution is highly speculative and unverifiable, qualities which makes it less attractive in academic circles but significantly more attractive in yeshivot.
  • Check Critical Editions for AttributionsSadly I did not have the time or resources to do due diligence here, but one obvious solution to the contradiction in Reish Lakish is that it is possible that he did not in fact make one of the statements. I am not making a Neusnerian argument that we should disregard all attributions, but it is not uncommon to find different attributions in other manuscripts in which case our “contribution” could just as easily been a scribal error.
    Update 08/31/2009: I just found a dikdukei soferim on Avoda Zara and found no variants.
  • Someone Misheard – Speaking of mistakes, it is possible that whomever was citing an opinion misheard or misunderstood what was being said. The Talmud is full of such disputes where students argue over what their teacher actually said. So for example, it is theoretically possible that Reish Lakish did not in fact make the statement in B. Avoda Zara 18b, especially given that there are no parallel statements in the Talmud. However, questioning the veracity of the transmission of the Oral Law without empirical evidence is not an academically or religiously responsible solution.
  • Rabbis are Inconsistent in Their Derashot – One of my points in the classes on gehenom and ‘olam haba was that when the Sages say X deserves one or the other they are not “paskening” i.e. invoking a judgement typically left to God. Rather, the sages are likely sermonizing and embellishing to encourage one action and discourage other behaviors. In this context the details of the derashot do not need to always match up. I gave the example that if we take the collected the sermons of a career pulpit Rabbi and analyzed them with the same rigor that we do for Talmudic texts, we would likely find inconsistencies in the details. In this context, the point of Reish Lakish in B. AZ 18b is not that scoffers inhereit gehenom, but the much simpler lesson that “scoffers are bad”.

In any event, I think I’m going to let the “shtick” section of the bog lie fallow for a while just in case.

1. Meaning mocks or jokes derisively.
2. Talmudic translations are modified from Soncino for copy and pastability.
3. See Yeshayahu 28:14, 29:20, Tehillim 1:1, and throughout Mishlei.
4. Abberviation of R. Shimon b. Lakish
5. Thanks to Ben for pointing this out.


  1. YK
  2. Jeff Eyges
  3. Jeff Eyges
Send this to a friend