By: Reb Avi Lebowitz
Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai’s students asked of him: Why is the Torah stricter on a thief than on a robber. He replied: The robber puts the honor of the servant (man) on the same level as the honor of his owner (Hashem),whereas the thief does not put the honor of the servant on the same level as the honor of the master (for by stealing covertly, he is displaying a fear of man, but not Hashem). He made, as it were, the eye of the one Below (Hashem) as if it would not be seeing, and the ear of the one Below as if it would not be hearing, as it says: Woe to them who hide in depths to conceal their counsel from Hashem, and their deeds are in the dark, and they say, “Who sees us, and who knows of us?” And it is written: And they say, “Hashem will not see, neither will the God of Jacob give heed.” And it is written: For they say, “Hashem has forsaken the earth and Hashem does not see.”
Many years ago (14 Teves 5761), I had a question based on the halachah found in Hilchos Shechita (siman 2) – One who violates Shabbos in public is considered a mumar for the entire torah tantamount to one who worships avoda zara, and his shechitah is invalid just as the shechitah of an idolater. But, one who violates Shabbos in private, although he is not trusted, so long as there are mashgichim who determine that he shechted properly, his shechitah is valid. Based on the Gemora’s logic by ganav and gazlan, we should consider one who desecrates Shabbos in private to be worse than one who desecrates Shabbos in public!?
R’ Moshe (Igros O.C. 1:33) raises this question and based on it, he is mechadesh an important yesod. It is not clear why one who desecrates Shabbos in public is so severe, but R’ Moshe suggests that one who violates Shabbos in public is not just a mumar l’teavon (a heretic out of desire), but the fact that he is doing it in public indicates that he is a mumar l’hachis (a heretic out of spite). Although the concept of the Gemora is true, that one who steals in private and hides from Hashem is worse, that is when both the act in private and the act in public are for the sake of fulfilling his. However, when one violates Shabbos in public, he enters a new realm of being a “mechalel Shabbos l’hachis,” which is certainly worse than merely being motivated by desires. Even if deep down, he is only doing it to satisfy his desires, we do not regard his inner thoughts, and the act is an act of l’hachis.
Based on this, he suggests that this only applies at a time when people understand the severity of Shabbos, so that when one violates Shabbos publicly, it is an indication that he has a complete disregard for the Shabbos, but nowadays, where people no longer take Shabbos seriously, and their desires would bring them to desecrate Shabbos in public just as fast as it would bring them to desecrate Shabbos in private, even one who desecrates Shabbos in public will not have the status of an idolater (and therefore his shechitah is valid and he can be counted for a minyan).
I had an alternate approach to answer this question. Stealing is an aveira between two fellow men that every society recognizes as wrong and destructive. It is part of human nature to consider theft to be bad, and is inherent in human nature to try and hide these actions from others. When one hides these actions from people because he is worried that people will think less of him, or may catch him to punish him, he is outwardly displaying a fear for people that exceeds his fear of Hashem. Since it is part of human nature to hide acts of theft, we assume his intention is to hide it from other people. However, Shabbos is between man and God, and therefore the violation of Shabbos is not considered bad by human nature. When one hides his desecration of Shabbos from others, we assume that it is not because he is afraid of people, because people don’t view desecrating Shabbos as inherently bad. So why would he hide his actions from people? We assume his attempt to hide his desecration of Shabbos is out of respect for Hashem, rather than trying to hide from Hashem. But when he is desecrating Shabbos in public, we consider it to be a lack of respect, violating Shabbos in the open showing no regard for it at all.