Talmud Tips

For the week ending 31 October 2020 / 13 Heshvan 5781

Eruvin 86 - 92

by Rabbi Moshe Newman
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Honoring the Righteous Rich

“Rebbi honored wealthy people. Rabbi Akiva honored wealthy people.”

These statements on our daf require explanation. Why are we taught that these great Torah Sages apparently singled out wealthy people as deserving honor? Is it not important to honor everyone who does not show contempt for Hashem and His Torah? Indeed, we are taught in Pirkei Avot (4:1): “Who is honorable? One who honors others.”

Our gemara relates a reason why Rebbi and Rabbi Akiva honored the wealthy. Rava bar Mori expounded a verse that states, “May he dwell forever before Hashem; kindness and truth should be prepared to guard him.” (Tehillim 61:8) The primary meaning (pshat) of this verse is to describe King David’s prayer to Hashem to extend his life, due to his virtues. However, Rava bar Mori expounds on an additional meaning of this verse. He explains it in a wider sense, as referring to wealthy people who supply food and other needs for the hungry and the downtrodden. These wealthy people, he teaches, justify the world’s continued existence. As we learn in Pirkei Avot (1:2), Shimon HaTzaddik would say, “The world stands on three things: Torah study, service of Hashem (in the Beit Mikdash, in the synagogue and via mitzvah observance), and acts of loving-kindness (e.g., giving charity and assisting those in need).”

Wealthy people are best-positioned and generally predisposed to provide food and other needs for the poor, and are therefore “pillars” who sustain the existence of the world. For this reason, they are undoubtedly deserving of being shown special honor and gratitude for what they do! This seems to be the approach of Rashi in our sugya. (Anecdotally, the Nobel Peace Prize was recently awarded to the “World Food Program” for its efforts to minimize and hopefully eradicate hunger in the world. Real hunger is not just an idea, but is unfortunately still a reality in our world of plenty. Even if this author or the reader has never been in a state of real hunger, virtually everyone knows of a hungry soul, especially in the era of COVID-19. And many of us have known relatives who miraculously survived unimaginable starvation during the Holocaust.)

Another explanation for honoring the wealthy is found in Rabbi Akiva Eiger’s Gilyon Hashas on our daf. Rebbi, in addition to being a great Torah scholar, was also exceedingly wealthy. He made a special effort to honor the wealthy so that people would learn to honor him for his wealth, just as he honored others people for their wealth. Why was it important to Rebbi that he be honored for his wealth? He was concerned that people would honor him for being a Torah scholar, and he did not want to “use the crown of the Torah” as a reason for his being honored and treated with special deference. As we learn in Pirkei Avot (4:5), Rabbi Tzaddok would say, “Do not make the Torah a crown to magnify yourself with, or a spade with which to dig.”

Similarly, Hillel would say, “One who makes personal use of the crown of Torah shall perish. Therefore, one who benefits himself from the words of Torah removes his life from the world.” Therefore, Rebbi showed special honor to the wealthy so that people would honor him for his wealth and not for his Torah greatness. Although this approach does not mention Rabbi Akiva, one may assume that he too honored the wealthy for the same reason as Rebbi, when he was financially blessed later in life. (Sources: Likutei HaMaharil in the name of the Maharam; Iyun Yaakov.)

Another meaning of the honor shown to the wealthy by Rebbi and Rabbi Akiva is taught by the Meiri, and, unlike the previous explanation, is not based on the fact that Rebbi and Rabbi Akiva were wealthy individuals. Rather, says the Meiri, it is fitting that a Torah scholar or a pious person should show respect and honor for others in a manner that is indicative of the specific reason for honoring each individual. For example, a wise person should be honored for his wisdom, a wealthy person for his wealth and a kind person for his kindness. “I am glad you are feeling better, dear Rabbi; here is a sefer that was just published and when I saw it I was sure that you would enjoy learning it.” Or, “How wonderful is it that Hashem has blessed you with great wealth! I am sure that you must have given much tzedaka that helped you merit your wealth, and that you will use your resources to continue helping the needy.” (Chidushei HaMeiri. Eruvin 86a)

It is essential to note that honoring another person for his wealth, wisdom or other positive attribute, is permitted and correct only in honoring a person who is worthy of the honor. False flattery of the wicked is called chanufa in the Torah and halachic writings, and is considered one of the most serious transgressions in the Torah. (See Avosos Ahava by Rabbis Newman and Becher, chelek gimel perek gimel, for a detailed presentation of the source texts.)

  • Eruvin 86a

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