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Thursday, June 17, 2010


“Going beyond the letter of the law” is a familiar phrase, one which comes up in our current study of Baba Metzia. On a whim I googled the phrase and was surprised to find that roughly 2/3 of the hits on Google and other search sites were to Jewish sources. It made me wonder if the Jewish and general usage of the phrase matched, so I did a small comparison study.

Here are some examples of its usage in the general culture:

* Northrup Gruman posts its standards for dealing with Kickbacks, gratuities and such. They state that employees must go beyond the letter of the law to “avoid even the appearance of improper conduct in all of our business dealings.”
* Toyota in Kentucky describes its environmental commitment to the surrounding communities as going beyond the letter of the law to do more than required as part of their corporate citizenship.
* When HP was confronted by the fact that their printers were being sold by outside distributors to Iran, possibly in violation of US law, they vowed to go beyond the letter of the law to stop all such shipments.

Other examples use the phrase to indicate a desire to embrace the spirit of the law rather than focusing on its details. By contrast a column extolling the conservative-leaning Federalist Society considered the phrase a negative quality: “some judges go beyond the letter of the law, usurping the Congressional power to legislate and the Executive power to administer.”

Based on this brief survey I would suggest that in common usage the phrase refers to public efforts to be a good citizen and to act to distance one’s self from the appearance of misconduct. It addresses something greater than the details of the law. While a positive quality in most of these cases, none of them presented this to be a basic or universal value.

In Jewish tradition “going beyond the letter of the law”, lifnim mesurat hadin, is basic. Among the key passages which illustrate this phrase in Talmud is B. Baba Metzia 30a. A tale is told of the scholar, Rabbi Yishmael son of Rabbi Yosi. While walking down a road he encountered a laborer carrying a bundle of wood. The laborer stopped to rest and then asked Rabbi Yishmael for help lifting the bundle. Rabbi Yishmael, according to halakhah was exempt from doing this work which was below his status as a scholar (that’s a discussion for another time), but offered to buy the wood so the laborer did not need to carry it any farther. The deal was completed. The Talmud commends Rabbi Yishmael who could have simply declined to help, but went beyond letter of the law to purchase the goods and relieve the worker of his burden.

The gemara proves its point by examining Exodus 18:20 in which Jethro lays out a moral map for Moses to teach the people: Moses should “teach them the laws and the teachings, and make known to them the way they are to go and the practices they are to do.” The last phrase, “to do”, is interpreted as to act lifnim mesurat hadin. The implication is that going beyond the letter of the law is an integral part of living a moral life.

The gemara underscores that idea when it cites the teaching of Rabbi Yohanan. He states that "Jerusalem was destroyed because they judged there only according to the dictates of law, and did not go beyond the letter of the law.” This is a stunning charge. It means that those who limit their understanding to the letter of the law undermine both law and society. A strict reading of the letter of the law becomes instead a transgression of both law and the moral order.

The classic Torah commentators linked the concept of lifnim meshurat hadin to a few key verses. They teach that this notion is crucial to the very existence of our world.

Ramban, 13th century Spain, as part of his discussion of the verse (Leviticus 19:2) “You shall be holy because I the Lord your God am holy,” says:

This is the way of Torah…for after the warnings about the details of the laws regarding business relationships … God stated the general rule (Deuteronomy 6:18) “to do that which is right and good," that he should do that which is right and equitable and go beyond the letter of the law for the sake of pleasing his fellow.
Ramban connects this concept to the very idea of holiness. It offers us a way to emulate the Holy Blessing One.

Similarly, Rabbi Baruch Epstein in his commentary, Torah Temimah, discusses this concept in relation to Exodus 34:6, the enumeration of God’s thirteen attributes. He cites a passage from B. Rosh HaShannah that asks how God’s attributes can include both truth and mercy then explains:
Hesed, lovingkindness, means going beyond the letter of the law, while Emet, truth, is the attribute of judgment. Once the Holy One saw that it was impossible to rule entirely with pure judgment, Emet, God judged with Hesed, lovingkindness.
He cites Bereshit Rabbah 12 as proof that without the inclusion of Hesed, which he identifies with going beyond the letter of the law, the world could not exist.

According to Jewish understandings, then, to go beyond the letter of the law is both praiseworthy and necessary. More than good citizenship, it is linked to God’s nature and to the very fabric with which the Holy One created the universe.

It is not unusual for common phrases or terms to appear both in Jewish and general English usage, nor is it unusual that the meanings would differ. It helps to take a little extra time to go beyond our normal routine and explore the deeper meanings.

© 2010 Rabbi Louis Rieser

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