Today’s daf includes an extended conversation about the zimmun, the short ritual that precedes the recitation of Grace After Meals when a group has dined together. If you’re not familiar with this practice, the short of it is this: When a group of three or more people has eaten a meal together, they recite a few words prior to the Grace After Meals that serves as a kind of invitation to bless together. If there are ten or more, a slightly modified version is recited.
In this context, the Talmud recounts a story:
There was an incident involving Rabbi Eliezer, who entered a synagogue and did not find a minyan (a quorum of ten) and he liberated his slave and he completed the quorum of ten.
The Gemara asks: How did he do that? Didn’t Rav Yehuda say: Anyone who frees his Canaanite slave violates a positive mitzvah, as it is stated with regard to Canaanite slaves: “You will keep them as an inheritance for your children after you, to hold as a possession; they will serve as bondsmen for you forever?” (Leviticus 25:46)
The Gemara asks: It is a mitzvah that comes through a transgression, and a mitzvah fulfilled in that manner is inherently flawed?
The Gemara responds: A mitzvah that benefits the many is different.
The idea that the rabbis of the Talmud owned slaves, and that one rabbi was prepared to free a slave only so that he could fulfill a religious obligation, is obviously troubling from the modern perspective. But we’ll set that discussion aside for the moment. What concerns the Talmud in this particular instance is that freeing a slave as Rabbi Eliezer did violates a biblical precept that bars the freeing of slaves. How could he do this? Even if we ignore the fact that one of our sages violated a clear biblical prohibition, there is a talmudic principle that would render invalid any mitzvah done by way of a transgression. (This is why, for example, one cannot fulfill the mitvzah of the four species on the holiday of Sukkot with a stolen lulav.)
The solution offered by the Talmud is striking: A mitzvah performed for the “the many” is different. In other words, a communal need can justify an action that would typically be prohibited — even a prohibition that is explicit in the Bible. Since achieving a quorum is a public good, Rabbi Eliezer was allowed to act decisively for its creation, even though it meant violating a Torah ruling.
This principle of mitzvah d’rabim shani (“a mitzvah for many is different”) leaves all of us involved in Jewish life with crucial questions. What are the circumstances which justify the shattering of accepted norms? When do we act like Rabbi Eliezer and prioritize the greater good over an established boundary? And when do we compromise the greater good for the sake of enforcing that boundary?
The Talmud doesn’t address these questions and moves on to other topics, but we would all do well to linger on them.