Posted by Rabbi Benjamin J. Samuels

The Talmud offers a curious teaching about the consequences of intimidation and abuse within the family context (TB Gittin 6b):

Rabbi Judah said in the name of Rabbi: Whoever terrorizes his or her household, will eventually commit three sins:

  1. Infidelity
  2. Murder
  3. The desecration of the Sabbath

Rabbi Benjamin J. SamuelsSeveral questions immediately come to mind. Why these three sins? Is their order of presentation telling? And most peculiar, why group the desecration of the Sabbath with infidelity and murder? The first two seem of a different order of magnitude in terms of their injury and offense.

Let's begin our analysis by considering each of these sins as a category of covenantal relationship. Infidelity is a breach of the exclusive spousal bond. It is a transgression of the interpersonal boundaries of the marital relationship and its attendant commitments and responsibilities. It trespasses the moral perimeter of the family household. Infidelity represents the breaking of the sacred covenant of marriage and family.

Murder escalates the interpersonal violation further. Not only is murder a crime against another human being, but it is also a crime against society and state. Rabbi Judah seems to be teaching that someone who disrespects his or her household through abusive and controlling behavior will not only come to maltreat and betray kith and kin, but will license him- or herself to disregard the dignities and rights of other human beings, and even undermine the foundations of society itself.

In the worldview of the Bible and the sages of the Talmud, the Sabbath represents the covenant between God and Israel. Observing the Sabbath attests to God as our creator, as well as affirms our covenantal partnership with God to sustain creation. After working hard for the first six days of the week, the Sabbath comes to offer rest and time to renew one's sense of self and purpose, one's relationship with family and community, one's sense of wonder at how we in our own finitude can spiritually connect to something greater than ourselves, to infinity, to God. Desecrating the Sabbath, for the rabbis, thus represents breaking ultimate boundaries. It denies our accountability to God, our stewardship for our planet and society, our responsibility to be our brothers' and sisters' keepers.

Rabbi Judah therefore teaches that not only is family abuse, domestic violence, bigotry and bullying a local offense, but a violation that ripples through all of our spheres of relationship, and breaks all covenantal boundaries.

Malice knows no gender and there exists too many forms of abuse in all types of relationships. However, on Thursday, March 1, White Ribbon Day, all men are called upon to stand up and take action against the most common, widespread and violent form of abuse, domestic abuse against women. Join us at the State House from 1 – 3 pm as we affirm with one voice that abuse, intimidation, controlling behaviors, terror and violence have no place in our relationship, within our homes, in our society, and before God, in whose image we are all made affording each of us absolute dignity, uniqueness and value.

Rabbi Benjamin J. Samuels has served as the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Tefillah in Newton since 1995. He has participated in numerous DV trainings for clergy and has in the past served as a board member of Safe Havens Interfaith Partnership Against Domestic Violence.