Follow by Email

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Withholding Information is a Form of Theft (Eruvin 71)

A merchant once sold a barrel of wine with oil floating on top.  The purchaser believed that it was a barrel of oil, and invited guests to share it with him.  When the host went to serve them the oil, he found that it was a barrel of wine.  Thoroughly embarrassed, the fellow tragically went off and choked to death (Chulin 94a).

שֶׁמֶן שֶׁצָּף עַל גַּבֵּי יַיִן, וְנָגַע טְבוּל יוֹם בְּשֶׁמֶן — לֹא פָּסַל אֶלָּא שֶׁמֶן בִּלְבַד, וְרַבִּי יוֹחָנָן בֶּן נוּרִי אוֹמֵר: שְׁנֵיהֶן חִיבּוּרִין זֶה לָזֶה.

If tithed oil was floating on the surface of wine, and one who immersed during the day, touched the oil, he disqualifies only the oil.  Rabbi Yochanan ben Nuri says: They are connected to each other.

Our Sages (Chulin 94a) caution against a number of ‘geneivas daas’ common practices.  Geneivas daas – literally ‘stealing the mind’ – best translates as ‘misleading.’  It’s not exactly stealing, but even if you give a false impression, that is wrong.  An example of geneivas daas is going into a store and examining a product.  You ask the shopkeeper the price of the item and he tells you.  You then proceed to bargain him down.  Eventually, you leave the shop, never having desired the item in the first place.  You just fancied a game of bargaining.  Meanwhile, the poor proprietor had been led to believe that he had a bona fide potential customer.  That’s geneivas daas. 

Another example of geneivas daas suggested by the Gemara in Chulin is the story of the fellow who thought he was purchasing a barrel of oil and it turned out to be wine.  Why would they place oil on top of the wine in the barrel?  The Sefer Iyunim B’Divrei Chazal (110) connects our Gemara with the story in Chulin and explains that this is the Italian method of preservation.  The oil is placed atop the wine in order to prevent oxidisation. 

It’s hard to imagine that the fellow thought he was purchasing oil and he bought wine instead.  Perhaps he intended to purchase a barrel of wine and was then flummoxed when he could not remove the layer of oil from on top.  He couldn’t bear to face his guests knowing that he had invited them to taste his special wine.  Now it was tainted by this oil! 

What should the remedy have been?  It’s simple.  Instead of trying to scoop up wine from the top, one attaches a spigot to the side of the barrel, towards the bottom.  That way, the wine can be drawn from the barrel without disturbing the oil perched on top of the wine.   Rather than taking from the top, you take from the bottom.

At first blush, the case of geneivas daas offered by the Gemara seems a little inconsequential.  How often do people sell wine and try to disguise it as oil?  And why would anyone fall for such antics?  The geneivas daas here was the explanation of how to extract the wine without dealing with the oil.  Had someone simply explained the method to the purchaser, the story would have had a happy ending.  Instead, the fellow “choked” on his oil and wine mixture. 

In other words, our Sages are teaching that it is geneivas daas not only to give someone an impression with your words or actions, but even by your absence of words or actions.  Either the seller or one of the guests should have had the good sense to explain to the purchaser-host how to serve the wine from the barrel.  Instead the guests probably stood around snickering as they watched him struggle with the removal of the oil from the wine.

If you have information that can assist another person and you withhold that information from them, in a certain sense, that’s geneivas daas.  You’ve stolen that knowledge from them. 

Sometimes we think that that helping another person means financial or other forms of tangible assistance.  But it needn’t necessarily always mean reaching your hand into your pocket.  The classic notion of teaching a person how to fish underpins the importance of sharing knowledge and information with others.  The right advice and guidance have the potential to long outlast a monetary endowment.  Setting someone on the right path with the right guidance enables everything in their life to fall into place.

Withholding information and watching your fellow struggle is a form of geneivas daas.  May you strive to become a source of information and guidance for all those around you!

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Schnapps on a Yahrzeit and the World’s First Paternity Test (Eruvin 70)

 A wealthy individual once took a business trip with his assistant, leaving his pregnant wife at home.  While overseas, the businessman died.  The assistant then claimed that he was the son of the deceased man and seized all of his possessions.  Sometime later, he married off his daughter to the son of a prominent family.  Meanwhile, the real son was born and reared by his single mother.  He eventually grew up and recounted this story to Rav Saadia Gaon (C10 Iraq), explaining that he was afraid to reclaim his assets, given the former assistant’s powerful familial ties.

When Rav Saadia Gaon heard the story, he offered to advocate on behalf of the young man in the king’s court.  He then took a sample of the young man’s blood and sought a sample of the former assistant’s blood that he had let.  He placed the blood of the assistant into a jar containing a bone from the deceased businessman, but the blood and bone stayed separate.  He then repeated the exercise with the blood of the son and immediately the blood was absorbed into the bone, thereby demonstrating who the real son was (Sefer Chasidim 232).

בְּעָא מִינֵּיהּ רָבָא מֵרַב נַחְמָן: יוֹרֵשׁ מַהוּ שֶׁיְּבַטֵּל רְשׁוּת הֵיכָא דְּאִי בָּעֵי לְעָרוֹבֵי מֵאֶתְמוֹל מָצֵי מְעָרֵב — בַּטּוֹלֵי נָמֵי מָצֵי מְבַטֵּל, אֲבָל הַאי כֵּיוָן דְּאִי בָּעֵי לְעָרוֹבֵי מֵאֶתְמוֹל — לָא מָצֵי מְעָרֵב, לָא מָצֵי מְבַטֵּל. אוֹ דִּלְמָא: יוֹרֵשׁ כַּרְעֵיהּ דַּאֲבוּהּ הוּא?

Rava asked Rav Nachman: With regard to an heir, may he renounce rights in a courtyard? (If a person who had forgotten to establish an eruv died on Shabbat, may his heir renounce his rights in his stead?) On the one hand, perhaps only in a case where, if the person wanted to establish an eruv on the previous day he could have established an eruv, he can also renounce his rights on Shabbat. But this heir, since, if he wanted to establish an eruv the previous day he could not have established an eruv, as he was not then a resident of the courtyard, therefore, today he cannot renounce his rights either. Or perhaps an heir is like his father’s foot (an extension of his father).

The Sefer Chasidim (231) offers our Gemara as the source for the traditional custom to fast on the yahrzeit of a parent.  As further evidence of the fact that a child is an extension of the parent, Rabbi Yehuda Hachasid recounts the story of Rav Saadia Gaon’s miraculous paternity test.  He explains that since a child is an extension of the parent, the commemoration of their death is a physically painful day, manifested by placing pressure on the body by fasting.  The Shelah adds an additional reason for fasting.  Since one’s parent passed on that date, it is a day of poor mazal for the individual.  One fasts in order to be engaged in teshuvah and have no further difficulties befall him that day.

Nowadays, however, fasting on a yahrzeit is rare.  Most prefer to invite their friends for a l’chaim.  The source for the reversal of the traditional practice is the Zohar.  Prior to his passing, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai instructed his students that his yahrzeit should not be a day of sadness, but one of celebration.  Each year on the yahrzeit, he explained, the souls of the righteous are elevated from one level of heaven to the next, based on an assessment of the ongoing consequences of their actions and accomplishments during their lifetime. 

Let’s say, for example, a great individual started a charity for orphans while they were alive.  Certainly during their lifetime, they accrue merit and reward for their efforts.  But the orphans who go on to lead well-balanced lives, replete with mitzvos and positive behaviour, all continue to accrue merit to the soul of the charity-founder, without whose assistance they may never have gotten a decent start in life.  They will then parent children and further generations, all of whom owe their accomplishments to a righteous person who lived decades and centuries earlier.  Each year that soul continues its heavenly ascent, on account of the enduring consequences of their actions during their lifetime.

The Shem Aryeh questions the promulgation of this practice amongst the masses.  It’s one thing, he contends, for Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and particularly righteous individuals to claim this fasting exemption on their yahrzeit.  But who decided that every Moshe Goldberg merits a feast rather than a fast on their yahrzeit?  In fact, it’s gotten so bad, he says, that minyanaires are made to feel guilty if they fail to bring a bottle on their yahrzeit!

The Chesed L’Avraham responds with a justification of the contemporary practice.  He explains that the act of bringing people together in brotherly love and unity to make blessings brings merit to the neshama, prompting its annual elevation.  He maintains that the contemporary practice did not happen randomly, but was encouraged by our saintly rabbis, who instituted the custom in order to standardize the customs of a yahrzeit.  Since fasting was too difficult for most people in recent generations, the preference is to bring people together to evoke merit for the soul.

Sadly, right now, due to coronavirus, the yahrzeit l’chaim is more challenging.  Shuls conscious of the health and safety of their congregants have proscribed the sharing of food and drink.  Nevertheless, we Jews are always creative and innovative.  The solution to the l’chaim conundrum is the 5cl whiskey bottle. 

When air travel began shutting down, whiskey proprietors wondered what they would do with all their 5cl bottles.  All of a sudden, shuls starting ordering them for their kiddush-to-go and yahrzeit-to-go bags!  Strictly speaking, the Chesed L’Avraham’s reason for commemorating a yahrzeit with a l’chaim entails the gathering of people together in brotherly love, which we can’t fulfil properly right now.  Nevertheless, the merit of the joy you give your fellow minyanaires when they receive their yahrzeit-to-go bag is the next best thing!

May you constantly accrue merit for your dearly departed loved ones every day of the year, and may you set the wheels in motion for merit to accrue to your soul long after you have passed into the Garden of Eden!

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Why Get a Job when you can Be a Schnorrer? (Shabbos 53)


A woman once died in childbirth, but the baby survived.  The father, however, did not have sufficient funds to hire a wet-nurse.  But a miracle occurred and he was able to nurse the child himself!

Why did God need to alter the laws of nature?  Why didn’t He simply provide the father with the financial means to hire a woman to nurse his baby?  

תָּנוּ רַבָּנַן: מַעֲשֶׂה בְּאֶחָד שֶׁמֵּתָה אִשְׁתּוֹ וְהִנִּיחָה בֵּן לִינַק וְלֹא הָיָה לוֹ שְׂכַר מְנִיקָה לִיתֵּן, וְנַעֲשָׂה לוֹ נֵס וְנִפְתְּחוּ לוֹ דַּדִּין כִּשְׁנֵי דַּדֵּי אִשָּׁה וְהֵנִיק אֶת בְּנוֹ. אָמַר רַב יוֹסֵף: בֹּא וּרְאֵה כַּמָּה גָּדוֹל אָדָם זֶה שֶׁנַּעֲשָׂה לוֹ נֵס כָּזֶה! אֲמַר לֵיהּ אַבָּיֵי: אַדְּרַבָּה כַּמָּה גָּרוּעַ אָדָם זֶה שֶׁנִּשְׁתַּנּוּ לוֹ סִדְרֵי בְרֵאשִׁית. אָמַר רַב יְהוּדָה: בֹּא וּרְאֵה כַּמָּה קָשִׁים מְזוֹנוֹתָיו שֶׁל אָדָם, שֶׁנִּשְׁתַּנּוּ עָלָיו סִדְרֵי בְרֵאשִׁית. אָמַר רַב נַחְמָן: תִּדַּע, דְּמִתְרְחִישׁ נִיסָּא וְלָא אִבְּרוּ מְזוֹנֵי

Rav Yosef said: Look how great this person was that a miracle of that magnitude was performed on his behalf. Abaye said to him: On the contrary, how despicable that person was that the order of creation was reconfigured on his behalf. Rav Yehuda said:  Look how difficult it is to provide for a person’s sustenance, for the order of creation had to be changed on his behalf. Rav Nacḥman said: Know that it is so, as miracles happen often; and yet food was never miraculously created.

The Vilna Gaon explains the difference between altering the man’s anatomy and biology versus providing the funding to hire a wet-nurse.  The former ensured the baby would be fed.  The latter would have left the spending decisions up to the father and would not have guaranteed that the baby would receive sufficient sustenance. 

That’s the meaning of Abaye’s sharp criticism of the fellow.  If he had been a good person, Heaven would have simply provided him with the extra cash he needed.  Clearly, he couldn’t be trusted to use the funds for their intended purpose.  And so the sole solution to the child’s feeding problem was to change the laws of nature. 

Rav Yehuda responds to Abaye’s criticism and points out that it’s not that easy to make a living.  Our Sages have declared (Sotah 2a) that “the provision of a livelihood is as complicated (for God) as the splitting of the Red Sea.”  Now, for God, nothing is difficult.  The point is that from our perspective, the parting of the Red Sea was a supernatural event.  Likewise, we should never take our sustenance for granted.  A steady income is a blessing from Heaven. 

Proof of the appreciation we must have for our parnassah (livelihood) is that, in this case, it was ‘easier’ for God to alter the laws of nature than to find this fellow a better-paying job. Why that was the case, the Gemara does not say.  Perhaps the man was physically or otherwise impaired.  Perhaps he was overwhelmed by his new role as father and sole-provider.  Who knows how many other children they had at home?  Altering the man’s biology was the quickest solution to the problem.

Actually, Rav Nachman responds, the quickest solution would have been for food to magically appear in the house.  But that never happens.  Every miracle requires a conduit to draw down Heaven’s bounty.  Even when the Prophet Elisha provided an abundance of oil for the poor widow, she still needed to gather pots and pans to become vessels for the blessing.  Even winning the lottery requires the purchase of a lottery ticket! 

Most of the time, of course, the vessel for God’s blessing is one’s occupation.  Yes, God will provide.  But unless you find gainful employment, there will be no conduit through which He can provide Heaven’s bounty.  And if this individual had no earning capacity, all the potential heavenly bounty is worthless.  One needs a vessel to capture the blessing.

Have you ever received a knock at the door from a schnorrer (beggar) and been tempted to tell them to get a job?  Who do they think they are, sponging off the hard work of others?  Isn’t it time they got up and engaged in a hard day’s work, like the rest of us?

Now, take a step back, and think about a day in the life of a schnorrer.  They get up early to do the shul rounds.  Some shuls allow them to collect throughout the service.  Others make them sit there and wait until the conclusion of the service.  They manage to get a couple of quid before running off to try their hand at another shul.  After shul, they start to pound the pavement.  Most people look through the keyhole and don’t open the door for them.  Of those that do, many slam the door in their face.  And others give them a few dollars, dismissively.

If you think that’s an easy way to make a living, try it one day.  The effort one must make to earn a living as a schnorrer is quite something.  You don’t go into the schnorring business because you’re lazy.  Presumably, the only reason schnorrers engage in their line of work is that they could not find a job in a more honourable occupation. Some may by physically or psychologically impaired.  Others may have spotty records or backgrounds that are impeding their employability.  And yet others are struggling to the extent that they have no fixed address.  How do you apply for a job without an address?

It’s not easy for anyone to earn a living.  Every human being must be treated with the utmost dignity and honour.  Next time you get a knock on the door, may you take a moment to ask yourself what motivates a person to spend their days and weeks knocking on doors, and thank Hashem who has provided you with alternate means to earning a livelihood!

Why are there so many Jewish radicals? (Shabbos 52)


Why are there so many Jewish radicals? (Shabbos 52)
As Jews, we are innately attuned to spirituality.  When we appreciate that idea, it’s no longer surprising that so many of us are tempted to reject the values of our parents.
Dama ben Nesina lived in Ashkelon. Once, the Sages sought to purchase precious stones from him for the breastplate of the High Priest for six hundred thousand gold dinars’ profit. But the keys to the chest holding the jewels were placed under his sleeping father’s head, and he would not disturb him.  So they lost out on the sale.
The following year, a red heifer was born in Dama’s herd and the Sages of Israel approached him, seeking to purchase the cow. Dama said to them, “I know that if I were to ask all the money in the world, you would give it to me. Now I am requesting from you only that amount of money which I lost by refraining from waking my father.”
Rabbi Eliezer exclaimed (A”Z 24a), ‘If this non-Jewish fellow was willing to sacrifice so much to honour his father – even if it meant not disturbing his sleep – we must constantly ask ourselves how our behaviour towards our parents matches up in comparison!’
אִתְּמַר: רַב חִיָּיא בַּר אָשֵׁי אָמַר רַב: בֵּין לְנוֹי בֵּין לְשַׁמֵּר — אָסוּר. וְרַב חִיָּיא בַּר אָבִין אָמַר שְׁמוּאֵל: לְנוֹי — אָסוּר, לְשַׁמֵּר — מוּתָּר. מֵיתִיבִי: קְשָׁרָהּ בְּעָלֶיהָ בְּמוֹסֵרָה — כְּשֵׁרָה. וְאִי סָלְקָא דַעְתָּךְ מַשּׂאוֹי הוּא, ״אֲשֶׁר לֹא עָלָה עָלֶיהָ עוֹל״ אָמַר רַחֲמָנָא! רָבָא אָמַר: שָׁאנֵי פָּרָה דְּדָמֶיהָ יְקָרִין
שאני פרה דדמיה יקרין. במס' ע"ז בפרק אין מעמידין בהמה (דף כ"ד) אמאי דמיה יקרין הואיל ושתי שערות פוסלות בה
(Background: Just like man must cease working on Shabbat, so too must his animals. Thus, an animal may not carry into the public domain.  But is a strap considered carrying?)
Rav Chiya bar Ashi quoted Rav: Whether the strap was placed for adornment, or whether it was placed to secure the cow, it is prohibited. And Rav Chiya bar Avin quoted Shmuel: For adornment, it is prohibited; however, if it was placed to secure the cow, it is permitted. The Gemara raises an objection from the following law: If its owner tied a red heifer with its reins, it remains fit for use in the purification ritual. And if it should enter your mind to say that a strap is considered a burden, why does a red heifer remain fit for use? The Torah explicitly stated: “Speak to the children of Israel, that they bring you a red heifer without defect, in which there is no blemish, and upon which never came a yoke”. Rava said: A red heifer, whose monetary value is high, is different.
Rav Nissim Gaon: In Tractate Avoda Zara, chapter Ein Maamidin (p.24), the Gemara states, “Why is a red heifer expensive?  Because if it displays so much as two white hairs, it is invalidated.”
Rav Nissim Gaon offers the story of Dama ben Nesina in Tractate Avoda Zara as evidence of the expensive price of a red heifer.  The Gemara tells the story above and then proceeds to describe the process of procuring a red heifer, which combined elements of nature and nurture.  Nevertheless, the Gemara concludes that only certain herds had the genetic qualities to issue red heifers, one of which was owned by Dama’s family.
Take a step back and ask yourself what Dama was thinking.  Here, he was presented with the opportunity to make a small fortune with the sale of the precious stones his family had in their possession.  Logically, if you were the father, would you not have desired to be woken in such a situation?  He could always go back to sleep later.  Was it really so wise and honourable to forego such a profitable transaction just to catch a few extra winks?
The Maharal explains (Kiddushin 31a) that the Gemara uses a non-Jewish young man as the gold standard of parental honour for good reason.   In our people’s tradition, the honour accorded to biological parents does not always come so naturally.  Given our focus on the spiritual dimension of life, biological connections may be superseded by spiritual connections.  The Maharal offers an extreme example: If you were to see two people drowning – your father and your Torah teacher – who would you save first?  The Gemara dictates that the Torah teacher takes preference, because “your father gave you life in this world, but your Torah teacher gives you eternal life in the World to Come.”
In fact, continues the Maharal, who is the epitome of parental honour in the Torah?  Not Yaakov, but his brother, Esav.  The child who does not follow the spiritual heritage of his parents is nonetheless the model of the mitzvah of honouring parents.  But, in fact, that is the reason for this role-reversal.  If you are focused on this world, then respect for one’s biological parents who gave you the gift of this world is paramount.  If, however, this world is but a “corridor” preparing us for the World to Come, then your biological parents were merely participants along the way, but not necessarily the key players in your spiritual journey.
Given the logic of such reasoning, the Torah must go to great lengths to emphasize the mitzvah of honouring one’s parents.  It’s so important that it appears in the Ten Commandments.  Not only does it appear on the Tablets of Stone, but the mitzvah features on the side dealing with our relationship with the Almighty.  It is precisely because honouring our parents might not happen organically that the Torah gives the mitzvah such prominence and emphasis.  
The moral of the story of Dama is that we must honour our parents even when it seems illogical.  The Gemara uses this non-Jewish fellow as the epitome of such an attitude, because parental honour is more organic for those who are focused on this world.  The punchline of this particular episode is that the young man demonstrated that the transaction and exchange was a two-way street.  While we were learning parental honour from his dedication, he learned how dear mitzvos and spiritual pursuits are to us.  And so, at the end of the story, he declares that all the money in the world is not worth the mitzvah that he performed.  In other words, he would prefer to be rewarded in the World to Come, as the God promises His people for fulfilling this mitzvah, “in order that you should prolong your days.”  Our length of days refers to the prolonging of eternal life. 
The Sages assumed that this fellow would have chosen financial reward, hence his name Dama (from the Aramaic word for money) ben Nesina (giving) from Ashkelon (the city of shekels).  But Dama showed himself to be motivated by more than the temporary rewards of this world.  He understood that parental honour must be more than just an organic certainty. It’s a mitzvah, a Divine, non-negotiable commandment.
It’s not always easy to honour your parents.  They might be difficult or even abusive.  But we don’t respect our parents because they’re nice to us.  We honour them because Hashem commanded us to do so.  If it doesn’t always feel natural, there’s a reason for that.  As Jews, we are innately attuned to spirituality.  When we appreciate that idea, it’s no longer surprising that so many of us are tempted to reject the values of our parents.  It also explains why so many Jews have been at the forefront of radical ideologies and movements.  By our very nature, we seek to progress to a sense of self-fulfillment beyond mere accident of birth.
The challenge is to balance our natural and supernatural tendencies.  We must honour our parents and utilize their values as a foundation for our own personal spiritual journey.  True, they may not necessarily hold the keys to the World to Come, but had they not brought us into this world, we would not have made it to the starting line!  If you have any appreciation whatsoever for what this world has to offer, then you remain eternally indebted to your parents for providing you with those opportunities.  Whatever pain they have caused you comes nowhere near outweighing the gift of life they have given you!
Every mitzvah is a challenge and an opportunity.  If it came naturally, then there would be no need to make it a mitzvah.  Just like Dama, may you be an inspirational example of parental honour!