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

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Tzedakah ta-tzil mi-mavet — Righteousness saves from death

Tzedakah (righteousness) is a hallmark of Jewish tradition. It figures prominently into our value system and culture. While the term tzedakah covers a range of righteous behaviors, most often we use it to connote charity. I spent a year in college studying at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where every single dorm room, classroom, meeting room, all bore a plaque of the sort, “Donated by Sadie and Max Silverstein.” Hundreds of them. Birth, bar mitzvah, and marriage are celebrated by giving tzedakah. Friends and relatives are mourned by giving tzedakah in loving memory. It’s Tuesday afternoon and you have nothing to do? Give tzedakah. Mishei 10:2 (Proverbs) boldly claims: Tzedakah mi-mavet / Tzedakah (righteousness) saves from death. This has always been interpreted as meaning that the giver is protected by his/her act of righteousness, but more immediately, the receiver who lacks even basic food, is saved by someone’s generosity.  Given the importance of tzedakah, it’s natural to ask: How much do I have to give? Torah doesn’t specify. Mishnah points out this lacuna.

Tractate Peah is named for the mitzvah of peah that requires a farmer to leave the corners (peah means “corner”) of his field unharvested so that the poor may come and glean. The Book of Ruth jumps immediately to mind: Ruth gleaned in Boaz’s fields. In the ancient world, this was an effective way to insure that the poor could obtain food. Mishnah Peah begins (1:1):

[A] 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).

[B] These are the things [i.e. mitzvot] whose fruits a person eats in this world, but the principle remains for him in the world-to-come: kibud av v’eim (honoring father and mother, gemilut chasadim (deeds of loving kindness), ha’va’at shalom bein adam l’chaveiro (bringing peace between a two people), and talmud torah k’neged kulam (Torah study is equal to them all).

The second list [B] is oft quoted, but it may be a later inclusion, placed here because it is similar to the first list, which is the Mishnah’s primary interest. The first list [A], put another way, says: Torah does not prescribe either a minimum or maximum measure for the mitzvot of the corners of the field, first fruits, appearance at the Temple, deeds of loving kindness, and Torah study. Not to worry, the Rabbis will fill that gap.

While the Bavli has no gemara for Peah, the Yerushalmi does. On the first daf we find a discussion of the obligation of peah from a ground-level viewpoint. The Gemara opens with a discussion of why terumah is not on the list. The Gemara compares peah with terumah and decides that they differ because one can declare his entire field to be peah, but not so with terumah: there must be a remainder (as with challah). The obligation of peah is triggered when the first stalk is cut. Mention of the first stalk initiates this comment:

If the farmer cuts the first stalk and the stalk was burned up [and hence is no longer in his possession], what is the law concerning [whether he must] cut a second stalk?

Let us find the answer in the following [baraita]: If the farmer harvested half [of his field, and then sold] this harvested produce, [or if he] harvested half [of his field], and then sanctified [to the Temple], he must declare peah from everything [including what was sold or sanctified to the Temple].

            Now isn’t the produce sanctified to the Temple like [the stalk that] was burned?   This tells us that if he cut the first stalk and it was burned, he does not have to cut    another stalk [the field is subject to peah from the moment he cut the first stalk,    even though it was burned up].

If he finished reaping his entire field [without having designated a portion as peah] and you say the obligation to designate peah devolves on the sheaves, does the obligation of peah devolve also on the first stalk [that he cut[?

R. Yosi said: Let us derive the rule for peah designated from sheaves from the rule for peah designated from standing grain. Just as with peah set aside from standing grain the obligation to designate peah does not apply to the first stalk that has been cut, so in the case of peah set side from sheaves, the obligation to designate peah does not apply to the first stalk that is cut.

The Rabbis make it clear that if some of the harvest leaves the control of the farmer —  because it was burned, sold, or sanctified to the Temple — the farmer’s obligation of peah is unchanged and applies to the entire field, including the produce that was burned, sold, or sanctified. The Rabbis obviate a farmer’s ability to an end run around the obligation of peah by moving produce out of his possession. In fact, if the farmer harvested the entire field and tied it in sheaves — which presumably means he cannot fulfill the obligation of peah since Torah specifically says (Leviticus 19:9 and 23:22) that peah must remain standing in the field for those in need to harvest it on their own — this, too, is an ineffective end run around the obligation. The obligation of the standing grain devolves on the sheaves.

Two things we might consider here: (a) The Rabbis want to insure that the obligation of peah kicks in as soon as possible: cutting down one stalk triggers the obligation, and even if that stalk is destroyed, the obligation remains. (b) The Rabbis want to insure that the institution of peah remains strong and functioning, even in the face of inadvertent mistakes and attempts to cheat.

We are rightly proud that Judaism places a premium on tzedakah. The Bavli weighs in numerous times in numerous ways. While we could cite any number of dozens of texts, I want to share B.Baba Batra 10a because it provides a clever and entertaining exchange between R. Akiba and Turnus Rufus, the Roman Governor of Judea that culminates in a verse from the Isaiah haftarah of Yom Kippur we love to quote:

It has been taught: R. Meir used to say: The critic [of Judaism] may bring against you the argument: If your God loves the poor, why does God not support them? If so, answer him: So that through them we may be saved from the punishment of Gehinnom (purgatory).

This question was actually put by Turnus Rufus to R. Akiba: If your God loves the poor, why does God not support them?

[R. Akiba] replied: So that we may be saved through them from the punishment of Gehinnom. [R. Akiba does not mention Proverbs 10:2 here, but clearly that verse is in the background of this understanding.]

On the contrary, said the other, it is this which condemns you to Gehinnom. I will illustrate with a parable. Suppose an earthly king was angry with his servant and put him in prison and ordered that he should be given no food or drink, and a man went and gave him food and drink. If the king heard, would he not be angry with him? And you are called “servants,” as it is written, For to me the children or Israel are servants [Leviticus 25:55].

R. Akiba answered him: I will illustrate by another parable. Suppose an earthly king was angry with his son and put him in prison and ordered that no food or drink should be given to him, and someone went and gave him food and drink. If the king heard of it, would he not send him a present? And we are called children, as it is written, Children you are to the Lord your God [Deuteronomy 14:1].

[Turnus Rufus] said to [R. Akiba]: You are called both children and servants. When you carry out the desires of the Omnipresent you are called children and when you do not carry out the desires of the Omnipresent, you are called servants. At the present time you are not carrying out the desires of the Omnipresent.

R. Akiba replied: The Scripture says, Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the poor that are cast out into your house (Isaiah 58:7)? When do you bring the poor who are cast out to your house? Now. And it [also] says, Is it not to share your bread with the hungry?

This is a constructed story. I don’t claim the conversation took place, but rather it was imagined and created to juxtapose two starkly different worldviews and theologies. For Turnus Rufus people suffer at God’s will since God has the ability to make it otherwise. Hence tzedakah (here, charity) violates the divine will. R. Akiba counters that God sometimes withhold good because of divine anger, but never truly wants people to suffer. It is our job to insure that everyone is fed, because everyone is a child of God. This theology gave rise, in our time, to MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger ( (Note that MAZON suggests a “measure,” a minimum contribution.)

Building on R. Akiba’s assertion that we are charged with feeding hungry people, and when we do, we are doing what God truly wants, B.Ketubot 67 has a lengthy discussion on our obligation to be God’s hands to feed the hungry. I will quote only two small sections, which illustrate how seriously the Sages took the obligation of tzedakah:

Our Rabbis taught: Sufficient for whatever he needs (Deuteronomy 15:8) [implies] you are commanded to maintain him, but you are not commanded to make him rich; for whatever he needs [includes] even a horse to ride upon and a slave to run before him. It was related about Hillel the Elder that he bought for a certain poor man who was of a good family a horse to ride upon and a slave to run before him. On one occasion he could not find a slave to run before him, so he himself ran before him for three miles…

It is generally understood that the reason one leaves the corners of the field for the poor to come and do the work of gleaning themselves is to protect their dignity. Here, too, we see that Hillel’s primary concern is the dignity of a man, once of economic standing, who has fallen on hard times. The story is hyperbolic — the image of Hillel playing the part of a slave — but the point is well made that giving is not sufficient; the dignity of the recipient is important, too. Here is another story from the same daf (Ketubot 67):

Mar 'Ukba had a poor man in his neighborhood to whom he regularly sent four hundred zuz on the Eve of every Day of Atonement. On one occasion he sent them through his son who came back and said to him, “He does not need [your help].” “What have you seen?” [his father] asked. “I saw that they were spraying old wine before him.” “Is he so delicate?” [the father] said, and, doubling the amount, he sent it back to him.

As with the Hillel story above, we see the effort being made to restore a person to their previous “lifestyle” but there is an additional factor here that is very important. Mar ‘Ukba’s son seems offended that a man who lives off their largess is living so well. Mar ‘Ukba, however, does not choose to interpret what he has heard that way. He gives the man the benefit of the doubt and presumes, instead, that his health is so severly compromised that he requires special treatment. It is easy to become judgmental and accuse poor people of being lazy, irresponsible, and worse. Mar ‘Ukba’s story is an excellent and often needed reminder to avoid that.

And finally, a humorous story told of the Hasidic Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov:

One day Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov told his students, “There is no quality and there is no power of man that was created to no purpose. Even base and corrupt qualities can be uplifted to serve God.”
One student raised his hand and asked, "Rabbi, to what end can the denial of God have been created? Surely there is no purpose to atheism."
Rabbi Moshe paused and then replied, "This too can be uplifted through deeds of tzedakah. For if someone comes to you and asks your help, you shall not turn him off with pious words, saying: ‘Have faith and take your troubles to God!’ You shall act as if there were no God, as if there were only one person in all the world who could help this person - only yourself.”

Moshe Leib reminds us that we are the hands of God and even if we don’t believe there is a God, all the more reason to feed the hungry. Beautiful, isn’t it?

Rosh Hashanah is around the corner. Time to give tzedakah. May the coming year be one of blessing and joy, and of course the mitzvah of tzedakah.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman