Talmud Tips

For the week ending 22 July 2017 / 28 Tammuz 5777

Sanhedrin 2 - 8

by Rabbi Moshe Newman
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The First Question

Rav Hamnuna says, “The first judgment of a person is regarding Torah study.”

Rav Hamnuna states this based on a verse in Proverbs (17:14). Tosefot cites a gemara in Tractate Shabbat (31a): “First a person is asked whether he dealt honestly in business matters, and then afterwards he is asked whether he established fixed times for Torah study.” That gemara and our gemara pose an apparent contradiction, and require reconciliation.

Tosefot offers two answers. Answer one: The statement in Tractate Shabbat speaks about a person who learns Torah but does not establish fixed times for study. Our gemara speaks about a person who does not learn Torah at all. Answer two: The two gemaras speak about the same type of person, but Tractate Shabbat teaches although he is asked first about his business dealings, he is judged first about his Torah study, and this is what Rav Hamnuna is teaching here, that the first and primary judgment concerns a person’s Torah study.

The Maharsha resolves the apparent difficulty posed by these two different statements in a third manner. Rav Hamnuna teaches about the first question asked to a person who was capable of great success in his Torah study in this world, but failed to live up to expectations. The teaching in Shabbat refers to a person who was not capable of Torah scholarship, and therefore it was understandable that he would live a life of business matters, while maintaining connection to the Torah by establishing part of his day to its study. Therefore he is asked first about whether he indeed handled business dealings with honesty, and then asked about whether he was vigilant to establish fixed times for Torah study.

  • Sanhedrin 7a

Unbiased Judgment

Rav said to him, “I am disqualified from judging your case”.

Our gemara tells of a case in which Rav’s landlord came to him, requesting that Rav be the judge in a monetary case the landlord was involved in, reminding Rav of the favor he had done for Rav as his landlord. Rav replied that he was ineligible to judge the case since he would be favorably biased toward the landlord when hearing the court case. Tosefot notes that Rav was not ineligible, strictly speaking, but was acting with an extra degree of cautiousness and piety. (See Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 7:7 regarding the variety of factors and halachic opinions that this matter entails.)

Our gemara, in which Rav declared himself as ineligible to judge a case when he perceived there was a positive bias to one of the litigants, reminds me of a personal story that occurred when I was a much younger Kollel student. I had agreed to rent out our apartment to a friend for his parents’ usage for a summer month for a certain price, and gave him the keys. He told me that he would get the money from his parents when they arrived and pay me upon my return. However, to my great surprise, he claimed that his parents arrived but had stayed somewhere else — unexpectedly to him as well — and that they had not used the apartment and he was therefore not obligated to pay me anything.

I was newly married, with debts, and had spent the anticipated rental windfall-to-come, and was not happy, so to speak. I went to my Rav for help and told him my “sob story”. He replied, “Moishe, I’m sorry but I can’t make any ruling in this case. First of all, you are my closest student and I have a special chiba (affection) for you (blush!). Secondly, I have heard your side of the case without the other person being present to defend himself from your claim. This is an additional issue since I will now be inherently favoring your claim, as it was not immediately countered. Therefore, I suggest that the two of you go together to Rav So-and-so, who anyway is considered the official judge in this location, and present your cases in front of him. We did, a compromise was reached, neither of us was “happy”, but we were also not so “unhappy” as to break off our friendship. In fact, after the first payment of many, I saw that he had great difficulty in raising the money (his parents didn’t participate even after the ruling), and I forgave the debt and we have remained friends until today.

  • Sanhedrin 8a

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