Parsha Halacha

Parshat Beshalach – Shabbat Shira

Yael, Wife of Chever; Sinning for the Sake of Heaven

Sponsored by Michael Cariglio in honor of his wife Stephanie and their children

 Parsha Halacha is underwritten by a grant from Dr. Stephen and Bella Brenner and Dr. Morton Berg in loving memory of Stephen’s father, Shmuel Tzvi ben Pinchas, and Bella’s parents, Avraham ben Yitzchak and Leah bas HaRav Sholom Zev HaCohen

Click here for a print version of this article 

The Haftorah of the Torah portion of Beshalach describes the battle that Devorah and Barak fought against Sisra, the general of the Canaanites whose king was Yavin, and tells the song that they sang to G-d after their victory. One of the brave characters in this story was Yael, wife of Chever HaKeini. When the Jews were chasing after the Canaanite soldiers, their general Sisra ditched his chariot and fled by foot to the tent of Chever, the Kenite, who had made a private peace treaty with Yavin, King of Canaan, despite his Jewish heritage (see below). Chever not being present, his wife Yael invited Sisra into the tent, promising that she would not reveal his presence to anyone. She gave him milk to drink and, when he fell asleep, she smashed a tent peg through his temples, killing him instantly.

Devorah praised Yael for her decisive actions saying,[1] “Blessed above women shall be Yael, the wife of Chever, the Kenite; she shall be blessed above women in the tent. Water he requested, but milk she gave him; in a lordly bowl she brought him cream. She put forth her hand to the pin, and her right hand to strike the weary; she struck Sisera, pierced his head, and wounded and penetrated his temple. At her feet he sank, fell, lay; at her feet he sank and fell; where he sank, there he fell down dead.”

This article will focus on who Yael was as well as the details of her heroic act and the blessing she received.

Who Was Chever, the Kenite?

The verse tells us that Chever was a descendant of Yitro (also called Chovav) the father-in-law of Moshe whose family had converted to Judaism and who were living in the area of Jericho and then in the Judaean desert.[2] Chever, however, separated himself from them and camped near Kedesh and aligned himself with the Canaanite king, Yavin, even thought he was oppressing the Jewish people. The commentaries offer several reasons for this alliance:

●       He wanted to stay out of the battle that was brewing.

●       He had a personal friendship with Yavin for reasons that are unclear.[3]

●      He was pretending to be Yavin’s friend, planning to help the Jewish people under this guise, as indeed happened through his wife Yael.[4]

Yael as a Judge

In the song of Devorah, there is a reference to “the days of Yael”[5] from which the commentaries[6]derive that Yael was a judge and leader of the Jewish people in her own right. The Midrash says that Yael was one of the judges in the time of Avimelech and Ruth.[7]

How Can a Woman Be a Judge?

Generally, a woman is not permitted to adjudicate in matters of Jewish law.[8] As such, Tosfot[9] questions how Devorah (the other woman who features in this Haftorah) was allowed to judge the Jewish people in her era. He offers three explanations, some of which can be applied to Yael:

1)     She Was a Torah Teacher

Devorah (and the same can be said for Yael) did not judge people per se. Rather, she taught them Torah and the laws relevant for court cases.

2)     She Was a Prophetess

Since Devorah was a prophetess, people willingly accepted her as a judge, despite her technically being ineligible. This would not explain how Yael was a judge since she is not considered a prophetess.

3)     A Divine Exemption

Although normally a woman may not be a judge, there was a specific Divine instruction that allowed Devorah to be a judge. It is possible that a similar Divine instruction was given in Yael’s case as well. Although it is not clear who would have been the messenger to deliver this information.

Wife of a Torah Scholar

If we accept that Yael was a teacher of Torah (as per the first answer of Tosfot, quoted above), she may have been taught by her husband. As the Targum Yonatan writes,[10]“Yael (who is) the wife of the peaceful Chever who serves (him) in the Beit HaMidrash (study hall) should be blessed

It is also noteworthy that the expression אֵשֶׁת חָבֵר which, in Rabbinic literature,[11]refers to the wife of a Torah scholar, is first used (in the Tanach) albeit with different vowels, to refer to Yael who is called אֵשֶׁת חֶבֶר הַקֵּינִי.[12]

The Name of G-d is Upon Her

The verse says that Yael covered Sisra with a שְּׂמִיכָֽה. Although this word is commonly used in modern Hebrew to mean a blanket and this is also the understanding of the commentaries, the Midrash points out[13] that this word is not found anywhere else in the Tanach. As such, Reish Lakish says that the word is a contraction of שמי הוא כאן – My name is here, i.e., G-d Himself is testifying that Sisra did not touch Yael.

Aveira Lishma – A Sin for the Sake of Heaven

On the other hand, the Talmud says[14] that Yael offered herself to Sisra, and they had relations seven times in order to tire him out so that she could kill him during his deep sleep afterwards. The number seven is based on the fact that the verse repeats the expression of “bow,” “fell,” and “sleep” seven times in the one verse.[15] The Talmud adds that Yael did not feel any pleasure from this act as she was disgusted by this wicked man. The Talmud even equates her act, a sin done for the sake of Heaven (Aveirah Lishma), with that of a mitzvah done for an ulterior motive (Mitzvah shelo Lishma). In the case of sin for the sake of Heaven, the action is deficient but the intention is good, whereas in the case of a mitzvah for an ulterior motive, the action is good while the intention is deficient.[16]

A Mitzvah or a Sin?

The Talmud (above) considers Yael’s act a sin since one is not allowed to actively commit any of the three major sins (idolatry, sexual immorality or murder) even if it is to save a life.[17] Despite this, the Me’iri says[18] that in this instance, Yael did the right thing as she was acting to save, not just one person, but all the Jewish people. As such, the normal rules of what is forbidden were suspended.

Rabbi Shimon Krasner explains[19] that, although the Canaanite army had been decimated, Sisra was such a powerful general that he could have put together another army and once again attacked the Jewish people.

Forbidden to her Husband or Not?

Some say[20] that Yael became forbidden to her husband since she had adulterous relations with Sisra. While a woman who is raped does not become forbidden, in the case of Yael she enticed him; thus it is not considered rape. Since according to the standard rules of the Torah, it was considered adultery, she was forbidden to her husband.

Others say[21] that since her actions were permitted under those circumstances, it is not

considered a willing act, and she remained permissible to her husband.

Why Milk?

The text says that Yael gave Sisra milk instead of water. According to the opinions that she seduced him, it can be said that the purpose of the milk was to increase his desire[22] for her while according to the opinion that she remained pure, the milk was simply to make him drowsy.[23]

Rabbi Akiva’s Soul

According to Kabbalist Rabbi Menachem Azariyah of Pano, Italy,[24] Yael bore a child from that union, and Rabbi Akiva descended from that child Rabbi Akiva’s soul was connected to the Oral Torah just as Moshe Rabeinu’s soul was connected to the Written Torah. This is why Rabbi Akiva lived during the time of the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash – to protect the Jewish people during that difficult time period and to ensure that the Oral Torah not be forgotten. The verse (in Devorah’s song[25]) that describes Sisra’s mother looking through the window and weeping while wondering about his late arrival is alluding to the Shechina (Divine presence) that was “peering” through the window of the exile and ensuring that Sisra remain alive long enough for his offspring (Rabbi Akiva) to “arrive” in this world (through Yael) and eventually reach the Jewish people when they needed him most.

May the concluding verse of Devorah’s song[26] be soon fulfilled,

“May all Your enemies perish, L-rd, but may His friends be as the sun rising in might!”

[1] Judges 5:24-27

[2] Judges 1:16 See commentaries there as to why they moved from Jericho to the Judaean Desert.

[3] Ralbag on ibid 4:11

[4] Abarbanel on ibid

[5] Judges 5:6

[6] See Rashi, Metzudot,

[7] Rav Huna in Rut Rabbah, 1:1 See there as to how he derives this from the verse. But see Yefeh Anaf (by Rabbi Shmuel Ashkenazi) who suggests that the text be amended.

[8] The reason for this is that a woman cannot be a witness as the verse says (Deut. 19:17) “The two men will stand,” and only one who is fit to be a witness is fit to be a judge (Niddah 49b).

[9] Shavuot 29b D.H. Shevu’ot and Yevamot 45b D.H. Mi Lo Tavla

[10] On Shoftim 5:24

[11] See Shavuot 30b, Rama on Yoreh De’ah 351:9 and in many places

[12] Shoftim, 4:17

[13] Vayikra Rabbah 23:10 quoted in Radak on ibid, verse 18v

[14] Nazir 23b

[15] Shoftim 5:27 בֵּ֣ין רַגְלֶ֔יהָ כָּרַ֥ע נָפָ֔ל בַּאֲשֶׁ֣ר כָּרַ֔ע שָׁ֖ם נָפַ֥ל שָׁדֽוּד שָׁכָ֑ב בֵּ֤ין רַגְלֶ֙יהָ֙ כָּרַ֣ע נָפַ֖ל, – At her feet he bowed, fell [and] slept, At her feet he bowed, fell; Where he bowed, there he fell—destroyed.

[16] Maharal in Netivot Olam, Netiv Ahavat Hashem, chapter 2

[17] See Yoreh De’ah 157:1.

[18] On Sanhedrin 74b

[19] Nachalat Shimon on Shoftim, vol. 1, page 200, based on Bereishit Rabbah 48:15 and Yefeh Toar there. See Abarbanel on Shoftim 14:4 that the Jewish people had Divine assistance specifically on that day and not on any other day.

[20] Maharik, Responsa 116

[21] Lechem Yehudah (by Rabbi Yehudah Ayash) on the Rambam, Laws of Ishut 24

[22] See Alter Rebbe’s Shulchan Aruch 6:08 a

[23] Likutei Sichot vol. 9 pg. 386

[24] Asarah Ma’amarot, mamar Chikur Din, section 5, chapters 10 and 22

[25] Shoftim 5:28 – 30

[26] Ibid, 31

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom UMevorach!

Add Your Comment