Torah Readings, May 9, 2015


In Israel This Week: Parshat BeHar (Leviticus 25:1-26:2):


Using What You Know to Someone’s Disadvantage


Ancient Israel was largely a farming economy. This week’s Torah portion stipulates that every seventh year is to be a sabbatical for the land: “You shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard.” In addition, once every fifty years a jubilee year was declared, whereby, among other things, real estate property reverted to its original owner.


This raised an obvious question, however. If the jubilee year was just around the corner, what would be a fair price to charge for any land being bought or sold? And, on the other hand, what if the jubilee had occurred only recently, so that many years would pass before the land would revert to its original owner? The Torah stipulates that in either case, the price should be determined by the total number of anticipated annual harvests: the more harvests, the higher the price.


To this general rule, the Torah adds this specification: “When you sell to your neighbor or buy from your neighbor, do not take advantage of him” (25:14). That is, the price has to be fair, determined in keeping with the number of anticipated harvests. Then why does the same commandment occur a second time, just three verses later: “You shall not take advantage of one another, and you shall fear your God; for I am the Lord your God.”


Well, texts sometimes do repeat things. But the Rabbis of the Mishnah operated on the assumption that the Torah never repeats: if something seems to be restated, they maintained, it must certainly contain some additional teaching. In this case, the Mishnah goes on to explain that there are in fact two different kinds of “taking advantage”: the first is taking financial advantage—charging an unfair price—and the other is “taking advantage with words” (in Hebrew: ona’at devarim).


Taking financial advantage is quite straightforward—charging an unfair price. This can happen especially if the victim is unaware of the law: for example, he doesn’t know that property reverts to its original owner in a sabbatical year, and that the price should be determined by the total number of anticipated harvests. “Taking advantages with words” is similar: the person uses something he knows to the other fellow’s detriment.


The Mishnah provides a number of examples of the latter. Someone who pretends to be interested in buying something and enters into negations with a seller over the price—“How much do you want for this?”—when he knows perfectly well he has no intention of buying; such a person is guilty of taking verbal advantage. True, there is no actual monetary loss involved, but he is still putting the seller through his paces quite needlessly.


Some more examples: if he knows about a person that he is a ba’al teshuvah (someone who became religious after having not been), he cannot say to him, “Don’t be so uppity—remember the things you used to do.” Or if he knows that the person is the child of parents who had converted to Judaism, he cannot say, “Remember the things that your ancestors used to do.”


The Babylonian Talmud (Baba Metzia 58b) goes on to give further illustrations: If a donkey driver comes into town in search of grain, you cannot tell the man, “Go to such-and-such an address,” when he knows perfectly well that the person who lives there has never sold any grain. Maimonides also suggested that asking a person a scientific question when the person knows nothing on the subject was likewise a form of ona’at devarim: the result can only be to display the person’s ignorance.


The verse mentioning this second kind of “taking advantage” adds a further note: “And you shall fear your God.” The Rabbis interpreted this expression as asserting that the matter in question cannot always be pinned down to a specific act. Two people can do exactly the same thing, the first in all innocence, the second out of malice: it is a “matter given over to the heart,” that is, you know it when you’re doing it for the wrong reason.


Here is the Talmud’s example. King David, in the Talmud’s account, was not only busy with the affairs of state, but was also a teacher of the laws of ritual purity—some of the most complicated laws in Judaism. Once when David had finished an exposition of these laws and asked the class if they had any questions, one person replied: “David, what is the penalty for someone who sleeps with another man’s wife?”—an obvious allusion to David’s sin with Bathsheba, and something that had no connection to the matters discussed. David answered: “If found guilty, he is punished by death, yet he still has a portion in the World to Come. But someone who shames another person in public”—as the questioner had just done—“has no portion in the World to Come.” What might otherwise look like a student’s innocent question in this case was not; that is why ona’at devarim is a “matter given over to the heart.”


Shabbat shalom!



Outside Israel this week: Emor (Leviticus 21-24): “An Ox and its Offspring in a Single Day”


There is a curious law in this week’s reading. Lev 22:27-28 commands: “When an ox or a sheep or a goat is born, it shall stay seven days with its mother, but starting from the eighth day onward, it will be acceptable as an offering by fire to the Lord. But you shall not slaughter an ox or a sheep along with its son on the same day.


There are some translation difficulties here: In the italicized sentence, I used the word “ox” because that’s what the verse says (shor). But certainly translators and commentators are right in saying that “ox” here really means either an ox or a cow—that is, you can’t slaughter the parent (either the mother or the father) of the animal and its offspring in the same day. (Indeed, many commentators say that this verse applies only to slaughtering the mother and her offspring in the same day.) Perhaps the Torah says “an ox or a sheep” because those words were used in the previous verse, and there as well, they are apparently used as general categories, since the text could have said more age-specifically “when a calf or a lamb or a kid is born…”


But leaving all this aside, the whole idea of this verse is strange. What is its purpose? Many commentators suggest that this commandment is intended to impart basic notions of morality: killing the mother and the offspring in a single day would be intolerably cruel. Oh yeah? That’s cruel, but according to the previous verse it’s okay to take an eight-day-old calf (presumably still a suckling) away from its mother and slaughter it, perhaps even within earshot of its mother? This can’t be the reason.


What’s more, what are the circumstances, now that the newborn is past the age of eight days, that would lead someone to slaughter it and its mother in the same day—why would anyone want to do that? A month has passed, let’s say, or a year or two, and now the owner of the cow and the calf decides it would be a good idea to slaughter both of them on the same day. What for? Some kind of sadistic ceremony, or perhaps just a big barbecue requiring a lot of meat? Is that what the Torah has in mind? And on the other hand, if indeed two or five years have passed, does the cow even remember that this big bull was once her baby? (Farmers, excuse my ignorance: I’m just asking.)


One of the texts found among the Dead Sea Scrolls suggests an entirely different interpretation. Having forbidden in the previous verse the killing of a newborn animal during the first week of its life, the Torah then adds that it is also forbidden to slaughter a pregnant animal, since doing so would result in killing the mother and its offspring in the same day. To do this would be, in a certain sense, even worse than taking the newborn animal away from its mother during the first week, since here, the slaughter results in killing mother and offspring simultaneously.


Such an interpretation seems altogether better—so why wasn’t it adopted in rabbinic halakhah? Perhaps the problem had to do with an issue discussed earlier (see on Parshat Mishpatim), the status of a fetus in its mother’s womb. On this subject there was a long-running dispute (in a sense, it is still going on in today’s political argument about abortion).


Our rabbis held that, until the fetus left its mother’s womb, it was legally merely a part of the mother’s body. This had important consequences. If it was just a “limb of the mother,” then the fetus could, in an emergency, legally be killed in order to save the life of the mother. This, alas, was not an uncommon circumstance in ancient times, when even after protracted labor, babies sometimes could not be extricated from their struggling mothers’ wombs.


But if the unborn fetus was deemed simply part of the mother’s body, then killing a pregnant animal did not mean that two separate lives were being taken in a single day—so, from a rabbinic standpoint, Lev 22:28 ought not apply to killing a pregnant animal.


However, for the Dead Sea Scrolls community (and others), the fully-formed fetus was deemed a separate being even before it came out of the womb. That is why, for them, slaughtering a pregnant animal did (or could, toward the end of the pregnancy) indeed mean taking two separate lives at once, that of the mother and her baby. This, they said, was the real meaning of “you shall not slaughter an ox or a sheep along with its son on the same day.” On this somewhat grisly note,


Shabbat shalom!



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