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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

R. Berekhiah's prescient warning

In yesterday’s post I noted that Mishnah Peah opens with two lists of mitzvot that share common characteristics. The first list is:

These are the things [i.e. mitzvot] that have no measure: peah (corners of the field), bikkurim (first fruits), rei-ayon (appearing at the Temple on the pilgrimage festivals, gemilut chasadim (deed of loving kindness) and talmud torah (Torah study).

Mishnah is telling us that Torah did prescribe fixed minimums or maximums for these mitzvot. We might well ask: How much of my field must I leave for the poor to glean (peah)? For that matter, may I declare an entire field peah? How much of my early harvest must I bring to the Temple (bikkurim)? Do I have to travel to Jerusalem for all three pilgrimage festivals (Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot) each year, or would one suffice? How many kind deeds fulfill my obligation of chesed? How much Torah, or how much time studying, fulfills this mitzvah?

While Torah does not establish fixed amounts, we should not be surprised that the Rabbis do. They are not fans of doing the bare minimum. But before they get to that, an interesting question is raised on J.Peah 2b. What other items might have been included in the Mishnah’s list of mitzvot without minimum or maximum measure? Torah describes other obligatory rites without prescribing precise amounts.

R. Berekhiah asked: Why dont we include in the list of items without a specified limit [stated above in the mishnah] the following as well: the quantity of dust used in the ordeal of the sotah (Numbers 5:11-31), the quantity of ashes used in the rite of the red heifer (Numbers 19:1ff.), the quantity of the yebamah’s spittle (Deuteronomy 25:7-10), and the quantity of blood of a bird offering of a metzorah (Leviticus 14:1-8)?

[A brief interlude to explain the four practices mentioned here. If you’re familiar with them, skip this paragraph. (1) Torah prescribes a complex ordeal for a woman whose husband, wrought with dangerous jealousy, believes her to have committed adultery but has neither proof nor witnesses. The ordeal entails her drinking a concoction of water into which is mixed the ink that inscribed the curse of the sotah — the suspected adulteress — and some dust from the floor of the Temple precinct. Torah doesn’t say how much dust to use. (2) There are several levels of ritual impurity described in the Torah, the highest of which is ritual impurity imparted by contact with a corpse. The only way to remove this purity is through the ashes of a perfect red heifer that has been slaughtered in a prescribed manner and thoroughly burned to ashes. The ashes are mixed with water and sprinkled on the someone who has corpse impurity. Torah does not provide a recipe to tell us how much water and how much ash. (3) The institution of the levirate marriage is ancient. If a man dies without having fathered a child, his brother is obligated to marry his widow, and the male child resulting from that union inherits from the deceased brother. If, however, the brother of the deceased refuses to marry his brother’s widow, Torah prescribes a public ritual to declare that this marriage will not take place and the widow is free to marry another man. She removes her brother-in-law’s sandal and spits in his face, both of which are negative symbols of what should happen to a man who refuses to fulfill this obligation to this deceased brother. As Mishnah reminds us, Torah does not say just how much the woman must spit on her brother-in-law. (4) A metzora, person who suffers from any of a number of skin ailments lumped together under the umbrella term tzara’at (and often mistranslated “leprosy”), is rendered ritually impure by this condition. The ritual for recertifying the metzora as ritually pure entails the slaughter of a bird and the use of some of its blood in the ritual. Torah does not specify how much blood.]

R. Berekiah asks why these four mitzvot are not included in Mishnah’s list of commandments for which Torah does not prescribe a minimum or a maximum measure. Good question! Also an interesting set of mitzvot. Note that R. Berekiah did not include the minimum amount of matzah one must eat on Pesach to fulfill the mitzvah to eat unleavened bread; the Rabbis tell us, however. Nor did he include the maximum height of the walls of a sukkah, which the Rabbis also tell us. Clearly, he wants to make a distinction between these mitzvot and those listed in Peah 1:1.

Here is the Yerushalmi’s answer:

We include in the Mishnah’s list only items that if one increases the quantity in doing them, this does not constitutes an additional commandment. [Concerning R. Berekhiah’s four examples] even if one increases the quantity in performing the rites, doing so does not constitute a [greater] mitzvah.

There is a natural tension in the halakhic system between fulfilling commandments because they are commanded, and attempting to perform them to a greater extent. Is bigger always better? Is more always better? We know that the Sages champion the concept of hiddur mitzvah (making a mitzvah more beautiful). B.Shabbat 133b lauds a particularly beautiful shofar or Torah scroll and R. Zeira expresses the opinion that one should be willing to spend even one-third above the normal price to fulfill hiddur mitzvah (B.Baba Kamma 9b). R. Ishmael, commenting on This is my God and I will glorify Him (Exodus 15:2), says: Is it possible for a human being to add glory to the Creator? What this [verse] means is: I will glorify God in the way I perform mitzvot. I will prepare before God a beautiful lulav, beautiful sukkah, beautiful tzitzit, and beautiful tefillin. [Mechilta, Shirata, ch. 3, ed. Lauterbach, p. 25.]

At the same time, Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi taught:

Be as attentive to a minor mitzvah as to a major one, for you do not know the reward for each of the mitzvot. Consider the cost of a mitzvah against its rewards, and the rewards of a transgression against its cost. (Pirke Avot 2:1)

Rabbi presumes that people are calculating their reward in olam ha-ba, the world-to-come (which is not mentioned in the first list of mitzvot in Peah 1:1, although it is mentioned in the second list of the same mishnah) and tells us that cherry-picking among the mitzvot based on expected payoff is not in consonance with accepting ol malchut shamayim, accepting all the mitzvot as an obligation toward God. Does this mean that we should not weigh one mitzvah against another, investing more time and energy in one than in another?

It appears that R. Berekhiah was prescient or had a crystal ball that permitted him to peer into the 21st century. Given the craziness going on in sectors of the Jewish community — not limited to spitting at young girls whose skirts are not deemed long enough, and banning municipal water because of micro-organisms — which absorbs seemingly limitless energy and attention that might be put into more worthy endeavors, R. Berekhiah’s comment provides sage advice and a sadly needed moral distinction: Where doing more benefits others, it is encouraged. This includes peah because there are always more hungry people to feed, bikkurim because it is a rite that teaches gratitude, and appearing in the Temple because it is religiously inspiring and promotes community. Gemilut chasadim and talmud torah speak for themselves. But the amount of dirt in the concoction the sotah is compelled to drink, or the volume of ashes in the purifying red heifer mixture, or the amount of spittle in the ritual of chalitzah, or the quantity of blood of the metzorah’s bird offering? How could more possibly benefit anyone? Rather, those who are are card-carrying members of the Chumrah-of-the-Month Club are involved in a dangerous and wasteful exercise in holier-than-thou piety.

R. Berekhiah offers us sage advice.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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