What should our attitude be towards sinners? And what hope of success must we have when working with them?
The Gemara on today’s daf quotes a passage from Shir HaShirim (4:3) “…your temples are like a pomegranate split open behind your veil,” which Reish Lakish interprets homiletically to mean that “even the emptiest among you are full of good deeds like a pomegranate [is full of seeds].”
Similarly, Rabbi Zeira quotes a passage in Sefer Bereshit (27:27) where Yitzḥak smells Esav’s clothing that Yaakov was wearing, and concludes that they have the beautiful smell of the fields blessed by God. Rabbi Zeira interprets this pasuk homiletically to mean that even Jewish evildoers have outstanding qualities (according to the Maharsha, just as Yitzḥak was able discern Yaakov’s good qualities even though he was disguised, similarly the good qualities of an evildoer may be hidden, but they are there).
In support of his interpretation, the Gemara relates the following story about Rabbi Zeira. In Rabbi Zeira’s neighborhood there was a group of troublemakers who Rabbi Zeira was always friendly with hoping that they would repent from their problematic ways, a position discouraged by the other Sages. Upon Rabbi Zeira’s death the troublemakers said: With the passing of ḥarikha katin shakei – “the short one with singed legs” – who will pray on our behalf? At that time, they repented and reformed their behavior.
The reference to Rabbi Zeira as ḥarikha katin shakei refers to a story told about him following his emigration from Bavel to the Land of Israel, where he undertook a number of fasts. Enamored with the learning style in his new home, he fasted in order to forget the method of study in which he had been trained in the Diaspora. He also took upon himself a series of fasts so that he would merit avoiding the fires of Gehenna. To ensure his success, he would test himself in a hot oven, where his legs once became burned, and gained a nickname from that event.