Talmud Tips

For the week ending 15 July 2017 / 21 Tammuz 5777

Bava Batra 171 - 176

by Rabbi Moshe Newman
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The Path to Wisdom

Rabbi Yishmael said, “One who desires to become wise should pursue the study of monetary laws, since there is no portion of the Torah that is larger than it, as it is like a spring of water that never ceases to flow.”

The statement is taught in the final mishna of masechet Bava Batra, and with the completion of the study of the gemara on this mishna we conclude this tractate and celebrate by making a siyum with a festive meal, as is the widespread custom.

I’ve heard from more than one Rosh Hasyeshiva over the years that the custom in yeshivot to include many Tractates and chapters from Seder Nezikin — the Order of Damages — is based on this mishna, that the study of monetary matters helps increase one’s wisdom. One reason is because many concepts and ideas in this area of study are often largely based on logical and analytical thinking, and not derived from verses in the Torah. Another reason is that it helps instill the wisdom of treating other people and their property in a conscientious manner in everyday life, and what the consequences are for causing monetary or other damages to another person or his property.

What is meant by this statement by Rabbi Yishmael that study of monetary laws will make one wise? The commentary of the Tiferet Yisrael on our mishna explains this connection in great, poetic detail. He notes that the Written Torah gives one main directive in dealing with monetary cases: “You shall judge your fellow with righteousness” (Lev. 19:15). However, since what people think to be “righteous judgment” is liable to be mistaken, the Oral Law — the Mishna and the Gemara — was developed and redacted by countless great Sages who elucidated in greater detail the proper meaning of “righteous judgment”. But even with all the guidelines that are recorded in the Written Law and the Oral Law there is still the possibility that the judge in a monetary case will need to make very difficult decisions in how to apply these guidelines to the specific case he is dealing with, using his finely-honed ability to reason logically according to the wisdom of the Torah. This is why Rabbi Yishmael greatly urges a person involved in judging monetary litigation to be an expert in his ability to reach logical conclusions that are in tune with the teachings of the Torah. This can only be accomplished by deep immersion into the study of the many complex teachings regarding monetary laws that are found in the Torah, thereby acquiring the appropriate wisdom needed for judging such cases.

The Tiferet Yisrael adds another point that stresses the importance of a judge attaining superior wisdom in monetary laws in particular. Regarding other Torah rulings, in deciding whether a particular act is permitted or prohibited, if the judge is in doubt he always has the prerogative to be strict and thereby avoid a mistaken transgression occurring as a result. However, in matters of monetary cases, there are two people standing in front of him: one who is claiming monetary compensation and the other who is counter-claiming an exemption from payment. In this type of case there is no such concept as being strict, since being strict to one party would automatically mean being lenient to the other party, and vice versa. Therefore, the judge must be absolutely certain in his judgments being wise and true beyond a shadow of a doubt.

When a kollel that I was part of as a newlywed disbanded, one chevruta with whom I studied decided to join a prominent “Choshen Mishpat Kollel” where they studied the sections of gemara and the halachot dealing with monetary matters. One of the reasons he cited for his decision to study there was our mishna, and stated that he wanted to increase his wisdom as much as possible. At first I thought that it was a somewhat unusual choice, since virtually all of the other participants were decades older than him, and desired this particular Kollel in order to prepare to become dayanim — judges — who could be part of a recognized Beit Din and rule in case of monetary claims between one person and another. Once when I visited him at his Kollel I was taken aback somewhat when I saw a number of the older and “more experienced” students coming to my friend to seek help in understanding one point or another. In fact, more than one student who had been there for a number of years told me that he was by far the wisest Torah scholar in the Kollel.

  • Bava Batra 175b

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