Talmud Tips

For the week ending 4 September 2021 / 27 Elul 5781

Chagim 5782 - Succah 48 - Beitzah 34

by Rabbi Moshe Newman
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A Greater Good

Our Sages taught in a beraita, “Gemilut chassadim (acts of kindness) are greater than tzedakah (charity) in three ways. Tzedakah can be extended only with money, only to the poor and only to the living. Gemilut chassadim can be extended with money and with the body, to the rich and the poor, and to the dead as well as the living.”

While tzedakah is financial aid, chessed can be done not only with money but also with an act of kindness, such as visiting the sick and comforting mourners. And chessed would include also the burial of someone who was wealthy.

  • Succah 49b

Setting a Bad Example

“Abayei explained, ‘The reason for the penalty is based on a popular folk saying: The manner of a child’s speech in public is a reflection of what the child heard from the parents.’ ”

The mishna teaches that Bilgah and the shift of kohanim which he headed were punished and disgraced in three ways. Why? Bilgah’s daughter Miriam became a heretic, and blasphemed when she saw the Altar in the Beit Hamikdash: “Wolf, wolf! Until when will you consume the property of the Jewish People and not be there to help them when they are in dire need?!” The gemara asks why her father was punished for his daughter’s disgraceful words. Abayei answers that it must have been that her father had spoken at home with great disrespect for the service in the Beit Hamikdash. And what the father said was heard and internalized by his daughter, who felt no shame in publicly speaking with contempt for the Beit Hamikdash.

This folk saying quoted by Abayei reminds me of my first taste of anti-Semitism as a youth. I was on a baseball team that included twin brothers whose parents had immigrated from Lithuania shortly after World War II. The twins and I were also in the same school one year. In the hallway one day, as one of the brothers passed by me, he said “dirty Jew!” slightly under his breath. It shook me momentarily but I shook it off. Anyway, it was only one of the twins, and their father showed great love for me as a “star” on the championship team that he coached. He even offered to head my campaign when I ran for a minor public office. But, despite the affection and praise he always showered on me, I was never really sure about his true feelings after hearing one of his sons say to me what he said.

  • Succah 56b

Love Is Stronger Than Fear

“A positive mitzvah overrides a negative mitzvah.” (“Aseh docheh lo ta’aseh.”)

In a situation where there is a mitzvah to refrain from a certain act, but at the same time there is a different mitzvah to do that particular act, the rule is to do the act based on the principle of aseh docheh lo ta’aseh. A possible example would be wool tzitzit on a linen garment. Although the Torah forbids mixing wool and linen in a garment (shatnez), in certain cases and according to certain opinions the positive mitzvah to put tzitzit on a four-corner garment would override the shatnez prohibition, permitting the linen garment to have wool tzitzit.

The Ramban in his commentary on the Chumash explains the reason for this principle. An act done to fulfill a mitzvah (aseh) shows a person’s love for Hashem. Refraining from an act due to a mitzvah to refrain shows a person’s fear of Hashem. Showing love for Hashem is a loftier way for a person to be close to Hashem than by refraining from certain acts due to fear of Him. Therefore, a positive mitzvah is “stronger” than a “negative mitzvah” — and will push it off and override it.

  • Beitzah 8b

The Affectionate Informant

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said, “A person who gives a gift of food to a child should inform his parents and let them know the identity of the giver.”

Rashi explains the reason for this. By informing the child’s parents of the identity of the giver of the gift of food to the child, the parents will be aware that he has an affection for them. This will lead to increased friendship and closeness among the Jewish People. (However, this does not mean that a child should accept candy from a stranger!)

  • Beitzah 16a

Be Bold Like a Leopard

Rabbi Meir said, “Why was the Torah given to the Jewish People? Because they are the boldest of all of the nations.”

The Maharsha explains that although our Sages teach us that Hashem offered the Torah first to all of the other, only the Jewish People was the nation chosen to be urged into acceptance, by placing a mountain — Mount Sinai — over their heads.

  • Beitzah 25b

Mercy as a Family Trait

Shabtai bar Marinas said, “One who does not feel and show mercy towards people is not a descendent of Avraham Avinu.”

One need only mention the presence in Jewish communities of the Gemach system — free loan services of everything from money to medical equipment to clothespins — to see the desire of the Jewish People to be extremely merciful to others. Just as Avraham Avinu showed great hospitality in difficult circumstances to the visitors who came to him in the desert, so too should a Jew treat others at all times. My mother, of blessed memory, was born to a family in a Czechoslovakian village shortly before World War II. Her parents’ home was known as the place to go for both travelers and locals who needed anything: food, lodging, and much more. And I merited seeing her — and her two sisters who miraculously survived the horrors of Auschwitz — open their homes to others in need of food, lodging, kindness. No one ever walked out of our home hungry, without shelter and without a parcel of food to take with them (a home-made lukshen kugel at the very least!). And, whenever she heard that a tragedy had happened somewhere in the world, I could see that she could “feel their suffering.” It was part of her moral and passionate DNA. When the decision was made to go to war with Iraq, I will never forget the pain in her eyes, voice and being when she said, “Oh no! Why are they going to war? How much suffering and tragedy will it lead to!” It was an instinctual reaction of mercy, based purely on humanitarian (not political) concern for the wellbeing of others — often at the expense of her own needs. Countless books could be written with stories depicting the merciful traits of my mother, her sisters and, certainly, all of the Jewish People.

  • Beitzah 32b

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