1) SUICIDE IN EXTENUATING CIRCUMSTANCES
OPINIONS: The Gemara describes the tragic death of Rebbi Chanina ben Teradyon. The Romans wrapped him in his Sefer Torah, surrounded him with bundles of branches, and ignited them. To make him suffer even more, they soaked sponges of wool in water and placed them on his heart so that his death would be slow and torturous. His students cried out, "Open your mouth and let the flame enter (so that you should not suffer)!" Rebbi Chanina replied, "It is better that the One who gave life should take it away, and let man not injure himself."
Was Rebbi Chanina conducting himself beyond the letter of the law ("Lifnim mi'Shuras ha'Din") when he refused to hasten his own death and end his suffering, but the law itself permits a person to cause himself to die in such a situation, or was he acting in accordance with the letter of the law, and a person is forbidden to kill himself under any circumstances?
(a) TOSFOS (DH v'Al) comments that when a person is concerned that he will be forced to sin (such as by being tortured until he sins), he is permitted to kill himself. The Gemara in Gitin (57b) relates the tragic story of four hundred Jewish children who were captured at the time of the Churban, and while being transported to be used for immoral purposes chose to drown themselves in the sea rather than be forced to sin.
Tosfos in Gitin there points out that the Gemara here implies that one may not kill himself, even when being tortured. Tosfos answers, according to the IYUN YAKOV's explanation, that Rebbi Chanina was acting with "Midas Chasidus," and one indeed is permitted to take his own life when being tortured (or threatened with torture). However, the Iyun Yakov concedes that this answer is difficult to understand, because Tosfos in Avodah Zarah does not seem to agree that Rebbi Chanina conducted himself with "Midas Chasidus," but rather that Rebbi Chanina acted in accordance with the Halachah.
The SEDER YAKOV writes that this is not the intention of Tosfos in Gitin. Tosfos in both places maintains that if a person will be forced with torture to sin, he is allowed to kill himself and not sin. However, Rebbi Chanina here was not in danger of being forced to sin; rather, he was suffering more pain before death. To hasten one's death in order to avoid pain is forbidden.
The Midrash (Bereishis Rabah 34:13) discusses the verse, "However, your blood of your souls I will demand (if you take your own blood)" (Bereishis 9:5). The Midrash states, "This includes one who strangles himself. We might have thought that this includes one who kills himself like Shaul (who fatally injured himself in order to avoid capture by the Plishtim). Therefore, the verse teaches, 'However' (implying that there are forms of suicide that are permitted)." The RITVA quoted in the Ein Yakov explains that Shaul was concerned that the Plishtim would force him to sin, and therefore he killed himself. (See also ROSH in Moed Katan 3:94, BEDEK HA'BAYIS cited by the BEIS YOSEF YD 157, SHEVUS YAKOV 3:10.) The PERUSH MAHARZAV (to the Midrash Rabah) also gives this explanation. He adds that had Shaul been taken by the Plishtim and forced to sin, it would have been a terrible Chilul Hash-m. In such a situation one is permitted to kill himself. The Ritva says that this indeed was deemed an acceptable practice in such situations.
The YEFEI TO'AR (to the Midrash Rabah) agrees with this explanation of the Midrash, but he says that the Midrash permits killing oneself only for a person in Shaul's situation. Shaul knew, from Shmuel's prophecy, that he was definitely going to die on that day. Normally, a person who wants to kill himself to avoid being forced to sin does not know that he will definitely die on that day, and thus he is not permitted to take his own life even if he is surrounded by enemies and has a sharp sword placed by his neck, for Hash-m in His mercy can save a person even in such a situation. (A similar opinion, which places further limits on the exceptional case of Shaul, is quoted by the Shevus Yakov (3:11) in the name of RAV YECHEZKEL, the Av Beis Din of Hamburg.)
(b) The DA'AS ZEKENIM (Bereishis 9:5) discusses the practical applications of this Midrash. He cites the opinion quoted above as grounds to permit the killing of children when there is a decree of forced conversion. He then quotes a different interpretation of this Midrash from the MAHARASH BAR AVRAHAM (Uchman). He explains that the Midrash means that one might think that he may conduct himself like Shaul, and thus the verse states "however," implying that one may not conduct himself like Shaul. The Midrash is saying that Shaul without the consent of the Chachamim.
He goes on to describe that this issue became, tragically, a practical one in a certain town, where all of the Jewish residents were given an ultimatum to forsake their faith. One Rav in the town began to kill children out of fear that they would be taken away and forced to convert. A second Rav who was with him was extremely upset and called him a murderer. The first Rav continued to kill the children. The second Rav declared, "If I am right, then you should be killed with an exceptional death!" His curse came true; the Nochrim skinned the first Rav alive, spreading sand between his skin and flesh. The Da'as Zekenim adds that soon thereafter the Gezeirah was rescinded; had the first Rav not killed those children, they would have survived. (Y. MONTROSE)
2) HALACHAH: NOVELS AND THEATERS
OPINIONS: The Beraisa states that one who goes to a stadium or other public recreational area to watch people who use various forms of witchcraft and other types of frivolity is considered to be in the category of "Moshav Letzim." About such a person the verse states, "Fortunate is the man who... did not sit in the company of scoffers, but his desire is in the Torah of Hash-m" (Tehilim 1:1-2). This verse shows that participating in such frivolities brings a person to Bitul Torah.
What is the intention of the Gemara? Are these activities prohibited because they are a waste of time and cause Bitul Torah, or does the Beraisa mean that there are two problems: a prohibition of being entertained in ways that constitute "Moshav Letzim," and an additional prohibition against causing Bitul Torah? According to the first possibility, participating in such activities would be permitted for one who is exempt from the Mitzvah to learn Torah (such as a woman). What is the nature of this prohibition?
(a) The SHULCHAN ARUCH (OC 307:16) writes that "satires and parables of mundane discourse, romance writings such as the book of Emanuel, and war stories are forbidden to be read on Shabbos, and are also forbidden during the week because of Moshav Letzim, and because of the prohibition of 'Al Tifnu El ha'Elilim' (Vayikra 19:4)." The fact that the Shulchan Aruch does not mention Bitul Torah implies that these activities are forbidden because they inherently are wrong things to do which remove thoughts of Hash-m from one's mind.
The MAGEN AVRAHAM there writes that certainly this is true about going to theaters and circuses, as the Gemara here says. He adds that he does not know who sanctioned the apparently prevalent custom to participate in some of these forms of entertainment on Purim. The MISHNAH BERURAH there writes that none of these activities are permitted on Purim except for the jesting that people do on Purim to remember Achashverosh. He adds that today, unfortunately, because of our many sins, this prohibition has become trodden underfoot as people commonly go to theaters and transgress numerous prohibitions by participating in various other frivolous activities.
RAV MOSHE FEINSTEIN zt'l (in IGROS MOSHE YD 4:11) was asked whether one is permitted to attend theaters and sporting events. He answered that "anyone who goes to these places transgresses the prohibitions of Moshav Letzim and Bitul Torah; not only does he transgress during the time spent in those places, but he also transgresses because these activities causes him to stop learning Torah entirely, as explained in the Gemara."
Apparently, he understands that the prohibition of participating in such activities is due to the severity of Moshav Letzim, and not merely because it constitutes a waste of time. He concludes that "there is another severe prohibition as he brings upon himself the Yetzer ha'Ra of promiscuity, as most of these things entail depraved speech and turning people towards promiscuity." This ruling is followed by today's Poskim as well (as heard from RAV TZVI WEBER shlit'a, RAV SHMUEL KAMINETZKY shlit'a, and RAV DAVID ZUCKER shlit'a).
The MAHARSHAM (DA'AS TORAH OC 224:1) also understands that the prohibition of Moshav Letzim is independent of the prohibition of Bitul Torah.
He quotes the Magen Avraham (loc. cit.) who states that even if these places of entertainment are run by Jews, they are forbidden.
In addition, he quotes the words of the Midrash Rabah (Ruth, end of chapter 2): After Ruth convinced Naomi that she truly wanted to become a convert, Naomi declared, "I will now start to teach you the laws of converts. It is not the way of the daughters of Yisrael to go to theaters and circuses...." Ruth said, "Wherever you go, I will go." RAV SHALOM SHWADRON zt'l, expounding upon the comments of the Maharsham (his grandfather), explains that the Maharsham's intention is to point out that women are also included in the prohibition of Moshav Letzim. This is also the ruling of contemporary Poskim (see SHEVET HA'LEVI 7:155:2).
The SEDER YAKOV cites an additional proof that the prohibition of Moshav Letzim applies to women. The Gemara later (19a) quotes the verse, "Ashrei Ish Yarei Es Hash-m" -- "Fortunate is the man who fears Hash-m" (Tehilim 112:1). The Gemara asks, is only a "man" who fears Hash-m praiseworthy and not a woman? TOSFOS (DH Ashrei) points out that the Gemara should have made a point of this inference earlier. When the Gemara here discusses Moshav Letzim, it quotes the verse, "Ashrei ha'Ish..." (Tehilim 1:1), as mentioned above. Why does the Gemara here not also ask that this implies that only men who do not sit with scoffers are praiseworthy, but not women? Tosfos answers that the word "Ish" refers only to a man, and not to a woman, and thus the Gemara later asks its question. The verse quoted by the Gemara here, however, says "ha'Ish," which implies "this" man as opposed to a different man (and it is not intended to exclude a woman). The Seder Yakov points out that if the Halachah of Moshav Letzim did not apply to women, then why would Tosfos ask that the Gemara here should have asked the same question? If the prohibition does not apply to women, then there is no question! Obviously, Tosfos maintains that it applies to women as well.
It must be noted that not every activity that involves relaxation or entertainment constitutes Moshav Letzim. RAV YOSEF CHAIM ZONNENFELD zt'l was asked about the words of the REMA (OC 447:12), who writes that "some people refrain from playing cards on Pesach, as they are concerned that some of the Chametz Nuksheh from the playing cards will fall into their food." The question posed was: why does the Rema not say that it is forbidden to play cards because of Moshav Letzim and Bitul Torah? Rav Yosef Chaim Zonnenfeld replied that there is no prohibition of Moshav Letzim against actively playing games (of course, they might be prohibited because of other reasons). (The difference between actively playing and passively watching such activities needs further clarification.)
Moreover, the Mishnah Berurah and others write that not every history book is forbidden. Books such as Josephus, Sefer ha'Yuchsin, and others from which one can learn Musar and the fear of Hash-m are permitted. (See MOR U'KETZI'AH for some guidelines for determining what type of book is permitted and what type is not.)
(b) The TIFERES YISRAEL (Sanhedrin 10:1) writes that one is permitted to read books about non-Jewish history in the bathroom. He implies that the prohibition against reading such books applies only to reading them frequently, in a consistent framework, but not in a temporary, infrequent manner (see also BARTENURA and TOSFOS YOM TOV). However, it is difficult to understand why he only qualifies reading such books as "Sichas Chulin" (mundane talk) and does not quote the Gemara which calls them "Moshav Letzim." He seems to disagree with the logic of the opinions quoted above who do not differentiate between occasional reading and routine reading, and who maintain that these things are intrinsically wrong (and not that they are prohibited because they cause Bitul Torah).
(c) HA'GA'ON RAV CHAIM PINCHAS SHEINBERG shlit'a explained this Gemara differently (as heard from him personally). He explained that the Gemara is teaching that there is only one prohibition -- that of Bitul Torah, and it is saying that "Moshav Letzim" refers to specific things which cause Bitul Torah. He understands that when the Shulchan Aruch writes that these things are forbidden even during the week, this refers only to situations in which these activities will cause Bitul Torah. Rav Sheinberg said that a man may read a secular book, assuming that it is free from all other Isurim (such as unclean speech, lustfulness, etc.), if he feels that he needs to take a break in order to recoup his strength for learning Torah. He added, though, that he "does not know why one would not read a book about the Vilna Ga'on instead!" Rav Sheinberg also mentioned (based on TESHUVOS DIVREI CHACHAMIM YD 5) that one is allowed to attend a sporting event, as the prohibition of going to theaters and circuses (mentioned both in OC 307 and implied in OC 224) applies only to places where those activities are conducted for the sake of Avodah Zarah (see RASHI and TOSFOS here with regard to the argument between Rebbi Meir and the Rabanan, and see Megilah 6a and TOSFOS, RASHBA, and RITVA there). (Y. MONTROSE)