The Prohibition of Lo Titgodedu (Part 1)

  • Rav Moshe Taragin



By Rav Moshe Taragin



Shiur #07: The Prohibition of Lo Titgodedu (Part 1)



In Parashat Re'eh (chapter 14) the Torah describes various prohibitions relating to avoda zara. Among them is the issur of lo titgodedu, excessive mourning for the dead through self-mutilation. Many ancient pagan cultures engaged in this mourning practice and it is therefore prohibited.


The gemara in Yevamot (13b) derives an additional (presumably unrelated) issur from this pasuk – “lo ta'asu agudot agudot” – which is commonly referred to as the issur of lo titgodedu. In broad terms, this issur relates to behaving in a deviant halakhic manner, “dividing into groups” that have differing halakhic practices. The prohibition appears to be aimed at guarding against the disintegration of accepted halakhic behavior or the splintering of shemirat ha-mitzvot. Given the robust role of machloket within our tradition, however, this issur of “dividing into groups” seems odd. Given that there are numerous acceptable halakhic practices, what is wrong with observing one which differs from that of others?


In his comments to the gemara in Yevamot (13b), Rashi claims that the issur prevents the development of multiple “torot.” Just as we assert the unity of Ha-Kadosh Baruch Hu Himself, we similarly maintain the oneness of His Torah; it was ALL delivered at Sinai as an indivisible corpus representing His will. Allowing different groups to practice divergent halakhot would suggest multiple torot and present theological confusion.


The Rambam in Hilkhot Avoda Zara (chapter 12), however, claims that the issur is meant to stem machloket and social dissent. Allowing diverse halakhic practices would undoubtedly yield disunity and confrontation. While according to Rashi, the issur represents a theological agenda, according to the Rambam, it represents a social one.


Each position is rooted in the textual reference to this issur. The fact that the phrase “lo titgodedu” is positioned after a lengthy description of avoda zara-related halakhot would initially seem to support Rashi's view that the issur has a theological purpose. Alternatively, the preface of the pasuk containing the phrase lo titgodedu claims, "Banim atem le-Hashem Elokeichem,” “You are all children of God;” while this preface emphasizes the Jewish aversion to paganism, it also reinforces the importance of social unity. If we are truly one family, sons of the same father, solidarity is an asset worth protecting, and lo titgodedu and halakhic conformity may be part of that protection.


In fact several Amoraim limited this issur of lo titgodedu and their differing understandings of the nature of this halakha may be reflected in these limitations. The gemara's (only) discussion of the issur centers around the practice of differing Megilla readings; while those in most cities read on the 14th of Adar, those in walled cities read on the 15th. Reish Lakish questions why these divergent readings do not violate lo titgodedu. R. Yochanan is surprised at Reish Lakish's concern. After all, this is hardly the only example of differing minhagim. On Erev Pesach, some towns adopted a minhag of refraining from melakha, while other locations allowed it. Why was Reish Lakish so alarmed about different Megilla readings but undisturbed by differing Erev Pesach practices? R. Yochanan implies that neither situation violates the prohibition of lo titgodedu, a position later elaborated by Abbaye and Rava.


Reish Lakish attempts to respond to R. Yochanan's claim by differentiating between the two examples. Differing labor practices on Erev Pesach are clearly unrelated to lo titgodedu, as the differences are based PURELY upon MINHAGIM or customs; abstaining from melakha on Erev Pesach has no halakhic source. Discrepancies in minhagim certainly do not violate lo titgodedu! Reish Lakish was concerned about different Megilla reading schedules, however, as this is a discrepancy anchored in HALAKHIC factors.


Presumably (as reasoned by many Acharonim, including the Keren Ora), Reish Lakish would agree with Rashi's reasoning for the prohibition of lo titgodedu. According to the Rambam, lo titigodedu deters disputes and dissent, in which case there should be no difference between minhag and Halakha. In fact, people are often more passionate about their minhagim than they are about Halakha! Disputes are just as likely, if not more likely, to erupt as a result of minhag divergence as they are about halakhic differences, and lo titgodedu should be just as applicable in the former case. If Reish Lakish agrees in principle with Rashi, however, and lo titgodedu prevents the presentation of a splintered Divine Torah, we could easily envision the suspension of lo titgodedu in situations of minhag.


Ascribing Reish Lakish’s position to Rashi's logic does not constitute a problem for the Rambam, as we may not ultimately accept Reish Lakish's position. Thus, his underlying logic may not represent the true essence of lo titgodedu. The question of whether to accept Reish Lakish's position and suspend lo titgodedu in situations of pure minhag was hotly debated by several Acharonim. This dispute has implications for numerous issues, such as divergent nusach ha-tefilla, differing schedules of mourning practices during sefirat ha-omer, and Medieval period fast days established on a local basis (such as 2 Sivan).


Subsequently the gemara (Yevamot 14a), provides an additional limitation of the prohibition of lo titgodedu in order to explain the differing yibum practices of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel (recorded in the first mishna in Yevamot). Why didn’t this discrepancy violate lo titgodedu? Rava and Abbaye each suggest answers which effectively limit the scope of the prohibition.


Rava claims that lo titgodedu would only apply if members of a split Beit Din continued practicing their halakhic opinion in defiance of the majority ruling of the Beit Din. Essentially, Rava radically changes the essence of lo titgodedu. We had previously assumed that this issue prevents splintered halakhic practice, intending either a social or theological agenda. According to Rava, however, lo titgodedu DOES NOT govern or limit halakhic pluralism at all; it merely limits behavior of outvoted dayanim. It is merely a judicial tool to ensure the authority of the Beit Din.


Abbaye is less constricting of lo titgodedu, but nonetheless imposes a limitation. In his view, the prohibition does not apply if the differing practices are spearheaded by different batei dinim located in different cities. Somehow, the distance between the two locales eliminates lo titgodedu concerns. The Rambam's logic appears to be a compelling explanation of this limitation of the issur. Since the entire concern was avoidance of social dissent, distancing the two parties avoids argument; the two different practices can coexist. In fact, the Rambam cites Abbaye's distinction as proof that lo titgodedu is entirely based upon concern of dispute. When these concerns are alleviated, lo titgodedu does not apply; the rule is proven by the exception (the situation of distant towns where is the issur is suspended).


However, even Rashi could theoretically accept Abbaye's limitation. If the two practices are geographically distant from one another, differing practices do not apply splintered torot. Once an independent Beit Din establishes a tradition in a particular locale, it no longer constitutes a splintered tradition, but rather an autonomous, co-existent one. Halakha allows for parallel differing approaches; the Divine will is too infinite to be limited to one truth. WITHIN one tradition, however, Halakha does not tolerate splintered and multiple approaches. In the absence of a separate Beit Din and unique locale, the practice entails a deviance; anchored to a source of authority and locale, it becomes one version of the Divine will.


Thus, while Abbaye's assertion that distance circumvents lo titgodedu is easily understood according to the Rambam, it can also be shaped to fit Rashi's view.


The next shiur will further explore explanations of lo titgodedu advanced by the Rishonim within the context of Abbaye's shitta.