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

Monday, June 7, 2010

Possession Protection / Baba Metzia 29b

Mark Russell once quipped, “The scientific theory I like best is that the rings of Saturn are composed entirely of lost airline luggage.” Anyone whose baggage has been lost while traveling has probably wondered if this isn’t true. How would you feel about Martians using your stuff until you came to reclaim it? That is the subject of a discussion on Baba Metzia 29b.

For Torah, and Talmud as well, a well-ordered society revolves around the notion that, as Hillel taught, “What is hateful to you, do not do to another” (Shabbat 31a). Indeed, as Hillel taught, “That is the whole of Torah. Now go and learn.” In Baba Metzia, we learn the nitty-gritty of how that principle operates in the case of finding a lost object.

Mishnah teaches:
If one finds books [i.e. scrolls], he should read them every thirty days. If he cannot read, he should roll them. But he should not learn from them something new, and he may not read them with another person.

If he finds a suit of clothes, he should shake it out every thirty days, and spread it out for its need [i.e. for the benefit of the garment], but not for his own honor.

Silver and copper vessels may be used for their own benefit, but not [so much that they become] worn out.

Gold and glass vessels may not be touched until Elijah comes.

If one finds a sack or basket, or any object that he does not customarily take with him, he need not take it.
The general principle uniting these disparate examples is that objects in our care until the owner comes to claim them may be handled for their own sake, but not for ours. Books may be aired, clothing spread out, and vessels used, but none may be worn out or damaged. Gold and glass require no maintenance and hence should not be touched at all.

The Rabbis explore the limits of this principle in the Gemara. They recognize that when you have a lost article in your possession, it is natural to want to make good use of it, and if the use to which you put it is a mitzvah, we have conflicting obligations here: setting the lost object aside and handling it only for its own sake, and the obligation of the mitzvah that could be fulfilled through the lost object. Hence:
Shmuel said: If one finds tefillin (phylacteries) in a sack, he must have their monetary value assessed and set the money aside.

Rabina objected: [Mishnah says:] If one finds books, he should read them every thirty days. If he cannot read, he should roll them. Thus, he may only roll, but [he may not] not sell them and set the money aside.

Abaye said: tefillin can be obtained at Bar Habu [i.e. are easy to purchase] whereas books are rare.
Shmuel presumes the owner of lost tefillin would be pleased to know that his tefillin are being used to fulfill a mitzvah (commandment). Therefore, the finder may set aside their monetary value for when the owner appears to claim them, and in the meantime use them for prayer. Rabina, however, objects that tefillin are covered by the Mishnah’s prohibition against reading found books beyond a month airing out. This elicits the interesting explanation of this seeming discrepancy by Abaye that tefilling are ubiquitous – since every adult man (in his time, only men wore tefillin) required a pair for daily prayer – whereas books are rare. Hence tefillin may be used because they are easily replaced, but books may not be used because they are much harder to come by.

But what about a sefer Torah? Does it follow the rule for tefillin (it is needed on a daily basis) or does it follow the rule for books (it is rare and costly)? The Rabbis bring a baraita (a mishnaic-era teaching that was not incorporated into the Mishnah of R. Yehudah na-Nasi) that speaks of a borrowed sefer Torah because it speaks to the subject of how the scroll is to be treated while under the care of someone other than the owner.
Our Rabbis taught [in a baraita]: If one borrows a Scroll of the Torah from his neighbor, he may not lend it to another person. He may open and read it, but may not study [a subject] in it for the first time; nor may another person read it together with him. Likewise, if one leaves a Scroll of the Torah for safe keeping with his neighbor, he [the neighbor] must roll it once every twelve months, and may open and read it. But if he opens it for his own sake, it is forbidden. Symmachus said: In the case of a new [Torah scroll], every thirty days; in the case of an old one, every twelve months. R. Eliezer b. Yaakov said: In both cases, every twelve months.
The Sages, as well as Symmachus and R. Eliezer b. Yaakov all agree that a sefer Torah follows the rule of books: its preservation trumps the finder’s desire to fulfill a mitzvah through it, because it is a rare and expensive item.

R. Yehudah ha-Nasi (compiler or our Mishnah) now comments that one who borrows a sefer Torah may not turn around and lend it to another with the owner’s permission. This comment seems peculiar to Resh Lakish: wouldn’t we have known that already? We have been discussing found objects, not borrowed objects.
The Master [R. Yehudah ha-Nasi] said: If one borrows a Scroll of the Torah from his neighbor, he may not lend it to another. Why particularly a Scroll of the Torah – surely the same applies to any article? For R. Shimon b. Lakish said: Here Rabbi has taught that a borrower may not lend [the borrowed article], nor may a renter rent it [to another person]. It is necessary to state this for the case of a Scroll of the Torah. I might have said: One is pleased that a precept be fulfilled by means of his property: therefore we are informed [otherwise].
Resh Lakish tells us that the baraita specifies the sefer Torah because, although we would know that we can neither lend a borrowed object nor rent a rented object, we might have though that the owner would make an exception in the case of a sefer Torah and be pleased that a mitzvah might be fulfilled through his property. But this is not a presumption we have a right to make.

We might be surprised at this. After all, doesn’t Torah study trump the responsibility to guard a found object until the owner comes to reclaim it? Yet it is precisely Torah that confers this responsibility! How then could the learning of Torah be permitted to violate the teaching of Torah? A new twist on what John D. Rockefeller, Jr. once wrote, “I believe that every right implies a responsibility; every opportunity an obligation; every possession a duty.”

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman