Sunday, May 06, 2007

Free will or God?

The Gemara in Yoma 38b says:

תלמוד בבלי יומא לח ע"ב

אמר ריש לקיש: מאי דכתיב +משלי ג+ אם ללצים הוא יליץ ולענוים יתן חן. בא לטמא - פותחין לו, בא לטהר - מסייעין אותו.

Resh Lakish explains the verse: If it concerns the scorners, He scorns them, but unto the humble He gives grace - If someone wants to defile himself they open the door; if someone wants to become pure they help him.

Who is the “they”?

Rashi explains:
רש"י מסכת יומא דף לח עמוד ב

כיון שבא אדם לטמא - להיות רשע.
פותחין לו - פתח הטומאה ליכנס בו, מספיקין בידו, ואין מונעין ממנו מן השמים לעכבו.

If someone wants to defile himself – to become evil – they open the door to impurity to allow him to enter it. Heaven does not stop him.

Rashi’s is the common understanding of this popular saying. “They” is God (Heaven). God does not stop a person when he wants to defile himself but helps him when he wants to improve himself.

What exactly does this mean? Especially if we accept that we have free will, what part does God play in our choices?

Rambam, explains this as follows:

רמב"ם תשובה ו:ה

מהו זה שאמר דוד טוב וישר ה' על כן יורה חטאים בדרך ידרך ענוים וגו', זה ששלח נביאים להם מודיעים דרכי ה' ומחזירין אותן בתשובה, ועוד שנתן בהם כח ללמוד ולהבין, שמדה זו בכל אדם שכל זמן שהוא נמשך בדרכי החכמה והצדק מתאוה להן ורודף אותם, והוא מה שאמרו רז"ל בא לטהר מסייעין אותו כלומר ימצא עצמו נעזר על הדבר,

What did David mean when he said, "Good and upright is the Lord - therefore He instructs sinners in the way, He directs the humble in justice, and He shows the meek His way"? This is referring to the Prophets who were sent to publicize the ways of God and to make the people return by repentance.

It could also mean that people have been given the power to learn and understand. This is characteristic of any person: Whenever he follows the ways of wisdom and righteousness he desires them and pursues them. That is the saying of the Rabbis “if someone wants to become pure, they help him” i.e. that one will find oneself helped in this matter. (Courtesy of Jonathan Baker with my edits).

In other words “finding oneself helped in this matter” means that it is the characteristic of any person. God is not involved other than having created man all the way at the beginning of time with this characteristic of wanting to pursue wisdom and righteousness. “They” is human nature! Free will has been preserved!


  1. 'They' in the negative context seems to be referring to the kofrim. I.e. The minim* with open hands will help anyone who wants to join them in their heresy. While in the positive context it seems to mean righteous of Israel. Likewise we see this meaning in the story of Rabbi Preida and his pupil.

    *No, this is not a cryptic reference to Christianity. By minim I refer to heretical sectarian groups, like in the Talmud.

  2. Anonymous,

    FYI, Rashi - in the uncensored versions of his commentary on Talmud Bavli - consistently interprets "minim" and "minus" as references to "Christians" and "Jesus the Nazerene and his followers" (see Rosh haShanah 17a "minim", Yoma 40b "al titnu", Megilah 17b "kalu minim", and Megilah 24b "shema minim"; I used Bar-Ilan for the uncensored texts).

    Of course, I'm sure others disagree with Rashi, but there you have it.

  3. The only minim that Rashi knew of were the Christians. Okay I know this is not correct but I needed a witty come back and here it is.

  4. my email is