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Music of Halacha: Shabbat #9

Blame it on Napoleon

Following the Napoleon Wars (1804-1815) in which Napoleon conquered much of Europe, came the emancipation of the Jews of Western Europe.

t;hr id=”system-readmore” /> For hundreds of years, Jews had been economically and politically marginalized and physically confined to ghettoes. After Napoleon, the ghetto walls came down and Jews were free to enter European society for the first time. For better and for worse, this represented one of the greatest periods of transformation for these Jewish communities. While these new freedoms allowed the Jews of Europe to prosper and have tremendous impact on European society, they also led to a wave of secularization, assimilation and even conversion to Christianity.

Can Napoleon be held responsible for the countless Jews who assimilated, converted and intermarried because of his decree?

The laws of Shabbat address this question of whether the emperor was responsible for the negative consequences of his effort to emancipate the Jews.

We have already established that Napoleon cannot be held responsible if he did not consider the results of his decrees or for consequences that were not inevitable, or, that he did not foresee. Despite vociferous protests by various Churches and the Russian government that Napoleon’s favor of the Jews “would lead to the end of the world,” Napoleon argued that his decrees would harm the Jews far more than the Russian strategy of breaking their spines and limiting them to the Pale of Settlement. According to this school of thought, Napoleon expected assimilation to tempt Jews away from their religion and to dilute their faith in a way that the direct confrontation of the Church and Russia could never accomplish. Napoleon expected that the indirect result of his decrees would be the weakening of Jewish identity.

If this were the case, would Halacha consider Napoleon responsible for the indirect result of his seemingly favorable efforts?


We have been discussing P’sik Reisha, inevitable consequences. There is a category of P’sik Reisha called “Grama” (an indirect act.) An example is pouring spoiled water into a (rocky, as opposed to grassy,) yard in a manner that will allow the water to flow into a public thoroughfare. We are ordinarily prohibited from transferring something from an enclosed private property into a large public street. However, if water flows into a public place on its own according to the laws of physics, not as a direct result of the original pouring, (Rashi, Eruvin 88a, “They pour”) then the secondary consequence is caused indirectly and is therefore not prohibited. A person is not responsible for the water flowing from a private to public place unless he poured the water specifically with this intention, and in a manner, that it would flow into the street. (Chazon Ish 105:8) A person is only responsible if he intends to take advantage of the other physical forces and causes at work.

Napoleon would only be held responsible for the disastrous results of his generous decrees if he specifically planned that they would happen and if he hoped to benefit from the compelling outcome of assimilation.

This may all sound slightly farfetched; however, do we not hold politicians responsible even for the indirect consequences of their actions, whether the results were intended or not?

Are there not numerous autobiographies published by famous, and not so famous, people who blame their parents for their faults?

I often joke that a person needs three things in order to survive: food, clothing and someone to blame. We spend a great deal of time assigning blame. Just think back to the shock of our current economic crisis and the many designations of blame.


The laws of Shabbat offer us a sobering reminder about blame. We do not hold people responsible for consequences that are the result of indirect action or the unplanned involvement of other facts and forces.


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