Sunday 15 May 2022

382) Is "holy sin" a bad theology?


Yitav Lev is an acronym for Yekutiel Yehudah (Zalman Leib) Teitelbaum of Sziget, known as the  (1808–83). 


This article, based extensively on the research by Professor Benjamin Brown[1] deals with the paradoxical idea of “holy sin” or “aveirah lishma”- where sometimes it is considered a mitzvah to sin - as found in some kabbalistic and Chassidic thought.

Origins in the Babylonian Talmud

The origin of “aveirah lishma”, or “sin for its own sake” is found in a discussion in the Babylonian Talmud:

אָמַר רַב נַחְמָן בַּר יִצְחָק גְּדוֹלָה עֲבֵירָה לִשְׁמָהּ מִמִּצְוָה שֶׁלֹּא לִשְׁמָהּ

“Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak said: Greater is a transgression committed for its own sake (i.e., for the sake of Heaven) than a mitzva performed not for its own sake.”[2]

A famous biblical example is Yael who entered into a physical relationship with the Canaanite general Sisra and then killed him. She sinned, we are told, so that the Israelites would win the war. The incidents concerning Lot’s daughters, Yehuda and Tamar, and Ester and Achashverosh, are viewed in a similar manner.

Revitalisation of “holy sin” in later times

While this idea of “holy sin” did not seem to manifest itself during medieval times, it experienced a revitalisation in the promiscuous theology of the false messiah Shabbata Tzvi (1626-1676) and his Sabbatian movement. It was believed that messianic redemption would come about only through sin. This was based upon an earlier kabbalistic notion of tikkun where is it sometimes necessary to descend into the sin in order to remedy it.

The Chassidic movement

The Chassidic movement which followed soon on the heels of the Sabbatian movement accepted the kabbalistic notion of descent into the sin, but as Brown (2013:347) points out:

“There are no extant testimonies that describe the Hasidim committing acts that were justified as sins for the sake of Heaven.”

However, the Mitnagdim, or opponents of the Chassidic movement, particularly under R. Chaim of Volozhin (1749–1821) were eager to point out that at least in principle, the notion of “holy sin” was sustained by the Chassidim. R. Chaim emphasised that the original Talmudic doctrine of “holy sin” only applied to biblical times, prior to the giving of the Torah, or to Gentiles, but now Chassidim (and, as we shall see, predominantly Hungarian Chassidim) had revitalised it.[3]

As is well-known to students of Chassidism, by the third and fourth generations, the movement became far more ‘neutralised’ as it began to lose its original revolutionary radicalism. The symbolic date for this change is 1815. During that year, the Congress of Vienna reshaped the borders of Eastern Europe, and:

“Galicia [southeastern Poland and western Ukraine] was returned to full Austrian rule, and its Hasidic leaders became closely linked with those of Hungary, who now shared the same sovereign” (Brown 2013:348).

The Hungarian Chassidim were predominantly in the backwaters or “Unterland”, including the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, where Jews spoke Yiddish - as opposed to the more built-up areas known as the “Oberland” where Jews spoke Hungarian and German.[4] It was also in these more rural areas of Hungary that the Chareidi or “Ultra-Orthodox” movement was soon to emerge in the late nineteenth century. The extreme rabbinic “manifesto” signed in the Hungarian town of Mihalowitz in 1865 is seen as the official beginnings of the new Chareidi movement.

[See: Kotzk Blog: 041) The Reforms Of The Ultra-Orthodox - A Short History Of Haredim]

The Hungarian Jews were known to be very strict and placed a huge emphasis on “Yiddishkeit” as in “Yiddishism” as opposed to the way the term is used today to denote general “Judaism”. They wanted to distance themselves, not just from non-Jews, and not just from non-religious Jews, but even, if not particularly, from other Orthodox Jews. They used their language (which was Yiddish, not Hebrew), dress code (which wasn’t particularly Jewish in the first instance, as it imitated that of non-Jewish nobility) and their particular customs to separate themselves from all others. They were also opposed to the Enlightenment and all forms of modernity which threatened their way of life. Brown (2013:349) writes:

“Hasidism adopted many of the conservative values of its antagonists, the Mitnagdim, and sometimes presented them in an even more extreme manner.”

Although the shift to ultra-Orthodoxy in Hungary was germane to both Mitnagdim and Chassidim, the Hungarian Chassidim became the most extreme. It is ironic that it was this extreme wing of ultra-Orthodoxy that re-introduced the dormant notion of “holy sin”.

The move away from the ethos of earlier Chassidim

The move away from early Chassidic radical mysticism was spearheaded by R. Naftali Tzvi of Ropshitz (1760–1827). He discouraged the practice of “elevating fallen sparks” as did R. Shneur Zalman of Lyadi (1745–1812) who wrote in his Tanya that this practice was only for the few tzadikim.[5]

Later, R. Tzvi Elimelekh of Dynow (known as the Bnei Yissoskhor, 1783–1841) urgently opposed the earlier Chassidic practices of “elevating alien thoughts”. This was where a worshipper would think forbidden thoughts in order to overcome them and ‘elevate’ them during prayer. He also suggested that the Hitlahavut or burning religious energy of the Chassidim would be better served by becoming more Halachically strict and by adopting gedarim u-syagim (“fences and safeguards”).

And then the concept of “descent of the tzadik” was soon abolished too, because not all rebbes were comfortable associating with the sinners and the non-observant. In this vein, R. Yitzhak Meir of Gur (1799– 1866) is quoted as saying:

“It is well known that coming close to the wicked, even in order to uplift them, is of great danger, lest they draw the tzaddik to them…”

The Hungarian world becomes stricter, more isolated and ‘secedes’

After the Mihalowitz “manifesto” of 1865, which signalled the official birth of the Chareidi movement, another political event occurred whereby in 1869, in Budapest, a meeting was convened to cement the breaking away of the new Ultra-Orthodox (Chassidim and Mitnagdim) from the rest of Jewish world. They called themselves the “Shomrei haDa’as” (guardians of the faith) and requested official recognition from the Hungarian and Galician governments to be regarded as a separate entity from the general Jewish community. In 1871 this right was officially recognised. Brown (2013:353-4) explains:

“In dozens of Hungarian Jewish population centers, the Orthodox seceded from the existing Jewish communal organizations and established separate communities under the auspices of a national organization… Only a few Hasidic rebbes refused to accept the separatist policy.”

In 1878, the “Machzikei haDa’as” (enforcers of the faith) was established to promote secession from the other Jewish communities in Galicia as well, but it failed to get official recognition.

Forbidden behaviours and social practices become permitted

One of the fiercest antimodernists was R. Yekutiel Yehudah (Zalman Leib) Teitelbaum of Sziget, known as the Yitav Lev (1808–83) and the leader of one of the largest group of Chassidim. (His grandson, R. Yoel Teitelbaum was to become the rebbe of Satmar.) The Yitav Lev proclaimed that any Jew who did not observe Shabbat, was regarded as if they had rejected the entire Torah and were to be treated like converts. Burial in a Jewish cemetery was restricted under certain conditions. It was time to fight the secular as well as the central Orthodox world with what he called “azut deKedusha” or “holy defiance”. It was permitted to behave in ways that were normally not permitted. It was acceptable to shame and humiliate those who did not follow the ways of the ultra-Orthodox. He wrote that although haughtiness, anger, hatred, and envy are bad, they become good when directed against the ‘other’:

“[When] one shows anger towards those who disobey His will ... or hate the haters of the Lord, and the like…[e]ven the [actions reflecting] improper traits ... when done for His sake, are good and beautiful.”[6]

This was a manifestation of the notion of “holy sin” where something admittedly wrong and evil is essentially theologised into something right and enviable. His son, R. Chananyah Yom Tov Lipa Teitelbaum (known as the Kedushas Yom-Tov, 1836–1904), who even wrote about conformity regarding home furnishings, was not averse to using:

“thugs to drive a promiscuous woman out of Sziget, to hurt students of a dance school, and to ‘close accounts’ with anyone who opposed the rebbe.”

He explained that even though compassion was a good trait:

“it is sometimes necessary for any leader of the Jewish people to act with cruelty and to use a powerful stick ... so that they will listen to his voice, and he can instruct them and lead them with his strong arm on the paths of Torah and its commandments.”[7]

A return to “holy sin” whilst abrogating other early Chassidic innovations

As mentioned, the “elevation of alien thoughts” fell into disuse because generally, it was advised not to play dice with the evil inclination. The “descent of the tzadik” was also minimised, as to the contrary, borders were set up between Jew and Jew, and few “tzadikim” would want to associate with sinners. However, surprisingly, Brown (2013:359) shows that when it came to “holy sin”:

“this very doctrine continued to flourish—at least as a theory—in the most unexpected place: among the rebbes of Hungary and Galicia, particularly those of the ultra-conservative rabbinical faction. Those rebbes, who were the first to reject less radical doctrines as dangerous, did not hesitate to preach “holy sin” until as late as the early twentieth century.”

Some examples of this newly revitalised theology follow:

1) R. Menachem Mendel of Vizhnitz

Although some rebbes were recommending no contact between the righteous and the sinners, R. Menachem Mendel of Vizhnitz wrote that sometimes the tzaddik must perform an actual transgression in order to find a common denominator with sinners and thus save their souls.[8]

2) R. Tzvi Elimelekh of Dynow

It was R. Tzvi Elimelekh of Dynow who, as we saw earlier, was fighting for more and stricter gedarim u-syagim (“fences and safeguards”), also developed an unusual theology regarding “holy sin”. This is his logic:

“any act, even the fulfillment of a commandment, which is not done with the intent to honor God but rather for some other purpose such as the glorification of a person or for monetary gain or honor is considered idolatrous because he worships that thing, be it the person or the money.”[9]

So, he reasoned, if one can fulfil a commandment but still be regarded as an idolater, then it follows that:

“the opposite can at times be true—‘great is a sin for the sake of heaven’.”

And sometimes one can equally perform a sin, but be regarded as “tzadik”! Furthermore:

“When a person does not want to perform a sin that is necessary ... thinking it to be an evil—his action is considered improper.”

According to this theology, actively choosing “holy sin” is so important that it is worth enduring the punishment for it.

3) R. Yekutiel Yehudah (Zalman Leib) Teitelbaum

The Yitav Lev, R. Yekutiel Yehudah (Zalman Leib) Teitelbaum takes this idea even further. He believes that sometimes a “holy sin” must be performed even when there is another sinless way of achieving the same end. Brown (2013:361) explains:

“In the opinion of the Yitav Lev, Esther sinned when she agreed to marry the king of Persia, since mixed marriages are forbidden according to Jewish law. However, this sin was in the category of a sin for the sake of Heaven because it was necessary in order to save the Jewish people. In fact, the Yitav Lev explains, it would have been possible to bring about this salvation without the sin, for, as Mordecai himself said, “enlargement and deliverance [shall] arise to the Jews from another place” (Esther 4:14). Esther, however, was adamant that the salvation be brought about through a sin for the sake of Heaven in order to correct the mistake of her ancestor Saul, who failed precisely because he refrained from performing a sin for the sake of Heaven.

The reference is to King Saul who refused to kill Agag of Amalek . R. Elimelech of Lizensk explains that Saul thought it was forbidden to kill him. However, G-d was angry with him for not doing so – specifically because it was forbidden! It was indeed forbidden but he should have done it anyway because it was "holy sin". So - on this view - later on in history, the Saul and Agag episode was reenacted by Ester and Haman as rectification or tikkun (Noam Elimelech, Nasso, 70a-b).

4) R. Tzvi Hirsch of Liszka

R. Tzvi Hirsch of Liszka also develops an ingenuous theology to explain “holy sin”. According to Kabbalah, when performing a mitzva, the actual deed is regarded as the ‘body’ and the intent, or kavvanah, is considered the ‘soul’. When the mitzvah is performed incorrectly, one is left with a body without a soul.

However, when performing a “holy sin” the person activates the soul without the body, and then:

“God combines the two ... as if they are one act. And therefore, ‘great is the sin for the sake of heaven,’ for the intent is provided by the sin, which represents the soul.”[10]

R. Tzvi Hirsch of Liszka continues that although Jacob lied and deceived his father, Isaac, it was a “sin for the sake of heaven” and it was elevated to the level of holiness.[11]


In the final analysis, we are left with a simple question: Can there be such a thing bad theology? Subjectively, there clearly can because any theology that a person dislikes, immediately becomes ‘bad’ theology. The theology is considered ‘bad’ relative to that particular person.

But is there a point where, objectively, a certain theology becomes ‘bad’ by any standards? Does “holy sin” cross a theological line? Are there any lines in theology? Should there be? - It will be left for the reader to decide.

Further Reading

[1] Brown, B., 2013,’The Two Faces of Religious Radicalism: Orthodox Zealotry and “Holy Sinning” in Nineteenth-Century Hasidism in Hungary and Galicia,’ The Journal of Religion, vol. 93, no. 2, The University of Chicago Press, 341-374.

[2] b. Nazir 23b. See also b. Horayot, 10b.

[3] R. Asher HaCohen, Keter Rosh (Orchot Chaim) (Valozhin, 1819), art. 132. See also R. Chayim of Volozhin, Nefesh HaChayim, 7, 90, where he warns that such practices are nothing but the temptations of the evil inclination.

[4] See Michael K. Silber, “The Emergence of Ultra-Orthodoxy: The Invention of a Tradition,” in The Uses of Tradition, ed. Jack Wertheimer (Jerusalem: 1992).

[5] R. Shneur Zalman of Lyadi, Tanya (Slavuta: Shapiro Brothers Press, 1796), 1:28.

[6] R. Yekutiel Yehudah (Zalman Leib) Teitelbaum of Sziget, letter no. 26, in R. Israel Moshe Hazan et al., Kin’at Tziyon (Amsterdam, 1845).

[7] Teitelbaum, Kedushat Yom-Tov, Shemot, 42b.

[8] Rabbi Chaim of Kosov, Torat Chaim (Lemberg: F. Grossmann Press, 1855), Likkutim, 4b.

[9] R. Tzvi Elimelekh Shapiro of Dynow, Agra deKhala (Lemberg: Poremba, 1868), 55b–56a.

[10] Friedman, Akh Peri Tevuah, Vayera, 22a–22b, and Bo, 88b–88c.

[11] Friedman, Akh Peri Tevuah, Toldot, 32b–32c.


  1. extremely informative on a delicate subject. Yeishar koikh'kha!

  2. Bnei Noach are allowed to marry their daughter, so Loth did not sin with his daughters and there is no incest. Tamar did not sin with Yehuda because before the giving of the Torah, prostitution was considered a type of marriage. MOST IMPORTANTLY, "redemption through sin" is a Christian concept. So there you go!

  3. Did the Talmud get the terminology "aveirah lishemah" from Christianity? And did R. Tzvi Hirsch of Liszka take his “sin for the sake of heaven” from a Christian theological work?

  4. No I don't think so, but the interpretation attributing salvation through sin is...

  5. PS. I forgot to mention that Boaz and Ruth did not live in Victorian England and that Yael and Esther did not derive any pleasure from their deed. When King David says "My mother conceived me in sin" he is clearly speaking against the immaculate conception!