In the second incident, another pregnant woman smelled food and craved it,
and Rebbi Chanina ruled that they whisper into her ear that it is Yom Kipur.
They did so, but her craving did not abate, and they had to feed her in
order that her life not be endangered. Rebbi Chanina referred to the unborn
child with the verse, "The wicked are estranged from the womb" (Tehilim
58:4). That child turned out to be the wicked Shabsai who hoarded produce,
driving prices up and causing many people to suffer.
The Acharonim have several insights about this Gemara.
(a) Why did Rebbi apply the verse, "... before you left the womb I
sanctified you," to this child? In what way did the unborn child demonstrate
"Kedushah," sanctity, and in what way did Rebbi Yochanan, after he was born,
stand out as being especially Kadosh?
Likewise, why did Rebbi Chanina choose the verse, "The wicked are estranged
from the womb," to describe the unborn child who did not give up its
craving? What does that verse have to do with the specific act of the unborn
Regarding the righteous child, the TOSFOS YOM HA'KIPURIM explains that the
Gemara (Ta'anis 10a) says that "one who fasts is called Kadosh" (because he
separates himself from worldly pleasures). Rebbi saw that the unborn child
was Kadosh because he abandoned his craving for food. We find that Rebbi
Yochanan was known for his attribute of Kedushah, for he was able to sit by
the Mikvah and instruct women how to be Tovel, without fear that his Yetzer
ha'Ra might be aroused (Berachos 20a). The Gemara in Yevamos (20b) says that
someone who is not attracted to sensual lusts is also considered Kadosh.
In what way does the verse, "The wicked are estranged from the womb,"
describe the unborn child in the second incident, and how does that verse
reflect Shabsai's actions?
The TOSFOS YOM HA'KIPURIM and the VILNA GA'ON answer that the verse in
Tehilim there go on to say, "He does not listen to the voice of the
whisperers" (Tehilim 58:6) -- which alludes to the unborn child that does
not listen to the people when they whisper to him that today is Yom Kipur,
and he continues to crave for food. The unborn child in this incident did
not listen to the whisperers and insisted on fulfilling his lustful desires.
Likewise, when he grew up, Shabsai, was not able to curb his lust for money,
and he oppressed the poor by hoarding the produce and raising the prices.
(b) How could Rebbi and Rebbi Chanina declare the unborn child a Tzadik or
Rasha? The Gemara (Sanhedrin 91b) concludes that a person only has a Yetzer
ha'Ra upon exiting from his mother's womb!
The TOSFOS YOM HA'KIPURIM explains that the Gemara there means that the
Yetzer ha'Ra only begins to *rule* ("Sholet") over the person after he is
born. But even before he is a born, a person has a Yetzer ha'Ra, and it was
the presence of that Yetzer ha'Ra which influenced the unborn child to eat.
Alternatively, RAV S. WOLBE (Alei Shor II:182) explains this incident to
mean that the first child exhibited the attribute of changing one's natural
tendency, while the child of the second incident did not exhibit the trait
of suppressing one's desires. Since the essence of a "Tzadik" is the trait
of changing one's natural tendency, while a Rasha is one who gives in to his
desires, the Gemara applies these terms to the fetuses who exhibited similar
traits (-- and not because they actually were held accountable for their
actions in utero).
The SEFER CHASIDIM (#1137) says that we find on very rare occasions a child
who *does* have a Yetzer ha'Ra, and may be described as a Tzadik or Rasha,
before he is born. This is a result of the child being one of the people
from the 974 generations who were supposed to exist before the Torah was
given, but whose existence was pre-empted by Hashem when He saw how wicked
they would be, and He gave the Torah instead after only 26 generations. The
souls of those people were dispersed throughout the history of the world, so
that in each generation some of them are created (Shabbos 88b, Chagigah
13b). Those individuals were pre-inclined to do evil before birth.
(The Sefer Chasidim probably means that it is harder by nature for some
people to do good than it is for others; the word "Rasha" in this Gemara's
context means "a person for whom it will be very hard to do good." See, for
example, Shabbos 156b, the story of Rav Nachman and his head-covering, and
Insights to Yoma 22:3b. See also Rashi, beginning of Parshas Toldos, with
regards to Esav and Yakov's character in utero. -M. Kornfeld)
(c) The VILNA GA'ON finds an allusion in the Torah to show that one can test
whether an unborn child will be righteous or wicked by seeing how he
responds when he craves food and is told that it is Yom Kipur.
The last verse in Parshas Shemini says, "To distinguish between the impure
(Tamei) and the pure (Tahor), and between the creature (Chayah) that may be
eaten and the creature (Chayah) that may not be eaten" (Vayikra 11:47). The
Vilna Ga'on explains this homiletically to mean, "In order to distinguish
between the Tamei (the wicked person) and the Tahor (the righteous person),
we must see *which Chayah (pregnant woman) eats* [on Yom Kipur when the
fetus craves food] and *which Chayah does not eat*."