Simcha Feuerman
Psychology, Torah and the Daf Yomi

Easy Mitzvos? Sitting is the New Smoking Bava Metzia and more 110-113


Do Away With the Middleman

Our Gemara on Amud Beis discusses an interesting exemption to the rule that one must pay workers promptly (by sunset or sunrise of the day or evening that the work was completed, subject to certain conditions. See Ahavas Chessed, Laws of Payments of Wages, 1:9.):

תָּנוּ רַבָּנַן: הָאוֹמֵר לַחֲבֵירוֹ צֵא שְׂכוֹר לִי פּוֹעֲלִים – שְׁנֵיהֶן אֵין עוֹבְרִין מִשּׁוּם ״בַּל תָּלִין״. זֶה, לְפִי שֶׁלֹּא שְׂכָרָן , וְזֶה, לְפִי שֶׁאֵין פְּעוּלָּתוֹ אֶצְלוֹ.

The Sages taught: Concerning one who says to another: Go out and hire workers for me, both of them do not violate the prohibition of delaying payment of wages if they fail to pay immediately. This one, the employer, is exempt because he did not hire them himself, and strictly speaking they are not his hired workers. And that one, the middleman, is exempt because his work is not performed for him. 

Essentially, on a technicality, there is a deflection of responsibility since the one who hired them is not the one who they are working for.

There is a famous question that since we are taught that the reward for mitzvos is in the world to come, and not in our physical lifetime (Kiddushin 39a), how is God not in violation of delaying payment of wages?

There are several clever answers, but we will focus on one, which also can be used to explain another theological principle. Rav Dovid Hamilnik (see Bas Ayin, Re’eh, “O Yomar”) says, based on our gemara, since the Torah was given via Moshe, the above rule applies.  God cannot be held accountable to make the payment of wages at the set time, since Moshe “hired” us on his behalf, not God.

This is where it gets interesting. We have a tradition that the first two commandments were heard from God himself, and not via Moshe. Those commandments are about belief in God: “I am the Lord your God” and: “You shall have no other gods” (Exodus 20:2, 3).  (See Makkos 24a. Also see introduction of Rabbenu Kreskas’ Ohr Hashem, where he points out that the first two commandments are written in first person, as if God is speaking himself, unlike the rest of the commandments.)  Therefore, since these mitzvos did not come indirectly through Moshe, the commandments of faith in God must be compensated for immediately.

This shrewd derush allows us to understand how simple faith may transcend beyond merit.  That is to say, even when a person might not ordinarily merit divine intervention, possibly due to not receiving reward in this world, faith will “require” compensation from God in a more timely manner.  This also can be explained in a spiritual-psychological fashion. If faith creates a more direct relationship with God, which of course eliminates the middleman, it follows to reason that it will result in a more direct conduit of divine blessings. 


Is There Morality Without God?

Our Gemara on amud aleph discusses the wage payment obligation toward a Ger Toshav, which is often defined as a gentile that commits to follow the Seven Noachide Laws. 

גֵּר תּוֹשָׁב יֵשׁ בּוֹ מִשּׁוּם ״בְּיוֹמוֹ תִּתֵּן שְׂכָרוֹ״, וְאֵין בּוֹ מִשּׁוּם ״לֹא תָלִין פְּעוּלַּת שָׂכִיר אִתְּךָ עַד בֹּקֶר״.

One who hires a gentile who resides in Eretz Yisrael and observes the seven Noahide mitzvos [ger toshav] is subject to the prohibition of: “On the same day you shall give him his wages,” but is not subject to the negative mitzvah of: “The wages of a hired laborer shall not remain with you all night until the morning.”

Notably, Rashi here defines the Ger Toshav as one who commits to abstain from idolatry.  Rashi does not mention the other six Noachide Laws. Did Rashi just choose the main  Noahide Law, but really meant the others too, or was Rashi specifically and exclusively defining the Ger Toshav by this one law?  Rashi is careful with his words, so the latter is likely. But if so, why?

The Ger Toshav righteous gentile benefits from some Torah protections, while he does not benefit from others. For example, one may still charge him interest (Bava Metzia 70b), as well as that he does not benefit from consumer protections such as certain laws against overcharging (Bechoros 13b).  But we still find that there is a special mitzvah to support such gentiles financially, by gifting them animals that were not successfully slaughtered (Chullin 114b), and allowing them to purchase land and live in Israel (Pesachim 21b).  Yet, the gentile who is still an idolator is afforded none of these protections, and even is subject to a degree of loss due to their money being made “hefker” as a result of them not keeping basic laws of civilization, such as if a Jew’s ox gores his ox (though outright theft is still forbidden, see Bava Kamma 38a and Tosafos “Amad”.)

How do we understand these distinctions?  The Maharal (Be’er hagolah

Be’er 7, Mishnah 4) explains that the gentile who commits to serve Hashem, while not part of a brotherhood of Jews, is still respected. Therefore, one may argue that in regard to laws such as pertaining to overcharging or interest, which are extra consumer protections, the moral burden is on the buyer or the borrower, and they have been de facto waived. The Jew has no obligation to go above and beyond for a non-brother. Yet, when it comes to helping this gentile live peacefully in the land of Israel, we are supportive and provide certain benefits. The full convert receives all the legal benefits as he is now considered a full citizen and therefore is part of the brotherhood.  The idolator on the other hand, has lost almost all civic rights, as without a fealty to God, all bets are off.

Why does the Torah take such a hard line on the idolator?  Idolatry is not a sin to be compared to other sins.  It is a break with basic morality, as how can one be held accountable to a moral authority and master if there is more than one voice and power?  Monotheism was not just a religious revolution but a psychological one as well, because Man began to contend with the idea that there is a unified structure, a wholeness that comes from order and consistency, instead of chaotic warring forces.  

In recent times, especially, we have seen the failure of so-called moral and rational people to behave morally and rationally without divine Torah law. How else could one explain “Queers for Palestine?”, which would seem to be the equivalent as “Elephants for Ivory Tusk Industry” or “Mice for kitten rights”.  

(While technically we can find moral atheists in the world, the Torah does not deal with isolated situations, but basic trends in human nature which are statistically true. For more on this, see Rambam in the Guide for the Perplexed (III:34) where he explains that the reasons for the commandments are basically one of three purposes: To promote physical health, spiritual health or the smooth running of society. He compares the commandments to Nature (also designed by G-d). Just as the general welfare and survival is provided for by natural processes, yet individuals may have diseases or defects that nature does not protect them from, so too the Torah is designed for the welfare of the majority.  Torah law, like civil law, is designed to promote the greatest good and common welfare, as a legal system aside from a spiritual system.) 


Is There Such a Thing as an Easy Mitzvah?

Our Gemara on amud beis makes a linguistic observation in regard to a teaching that referred to “great halachos”.  The Gemara  comments that if they are described as “great”, there must also be halachos that are considered minor, which it finds odd, since can any halacha be considered small?  Therefore, the Gemara rejects and revises the text of that teaching. 

But we must ask ourselves, on a practical level, aren’t there halachos that are more serious than others?  No legal or moral system can operate by treating everything with equal priority (see Tosafos Yom Tov on Avos 2:1). Additionally, the Gemara (Chullin 142a) describes certain mitzvos as lighter, such as sending the mother bird away, as it incurs minor cost and bother.

Mishna Avos (2:1) tells us:

וֶהֱוֵי זָהִיר בְּמִצְוָה קַלָּה כְבַחֲמוּרָה, שֶׁאֵין אַתָּה יוֹדֵעַ מַתַּן שְׂכָרָן שֶׁל מִצְוֹת

Be careful with a light commandment as with a grave one, for you did know not the reward for the fulfillment of the commandments.

This statement is confusing and contradictory.  If one mitzvah is lighter and the other more serious, but yet they should be treated with equal caution, how can one be lighter and the other more serious?  

A simple reading of this Mishna might be as follows: Though some mitzvos have greater punishments or severity than others, treat them all the same, because since we cannot understand the reward for even a minor mitzvah, we would not want to let even the smallest one go by. In fact, Midrash Shmuel (ibid) says something similar. However, there are other compelling answers, each one providing meaning in a different way.

Rambam (ibid) says a logical answer, which is that the Torah quantifies various punishments for prohibitions, and therefore it is obvious that one that incurs death is more severe than a simple prohibition. The Mishna however is referring to positive commandments, of which it is impossible to determine which is more important.  The Rambam elegantly proves this from the principle that when one is involved in one mitzvah, he is exempt from another, and no equation is made to determine if the second mitzvah is more important. 

Kedushas Levi (Bereshis 21) explains that the so-called light and heavy mitzvos have to do with how frequent there is opportunity for the mitzvah. Thus, a light mitzvah is prayer or Torah study which is daily, versus the mitzvah of succah or matzah, which is annual. We then read it as “scarce” versus “routine”, instead of light versus heavy, and Avos is instructing a person not to take a frequent mitzvah for granted.

Chiddushei Harim interprets light mitzvos versus heavy, as referring to the standard default reward. However, in each situation, there is a subjective reward and punishment based on the person’s particular circumstances.  Therefore, one should treat a light mitzvah with the same severity as a heavy one, as it is unknown what the effects will be for him.

Maharal (Tiferes Yisrael 61) offers a different idea. He says that there are mitzvos that are easier to do, and harder to do. In that sense, there is absolutely a greater reward for mitzvos that one must work harder to achieve, as it says elsewhere in Avos (5:23), “The greater the hardship, the greater the reward.”  However, there is also an intrinsic reward and value to each mitzvah that is beyond the human ken, and may not be in line with our subjective logic.  We can think of this by way of the following metaphor: A lay person might believe such a food is healthful and another food is harmful, but an expert physician might have a different perspective and evaluate the harm and benefit differently, based on his knowledge of the scientific facts. Similarly, Sefer Baal Shem Tov (Va-Eschanan 5) learns from a play on words “careful” in Hebrew “Zahir”, which also means to shine.  One can get a greater enlightenment or glow from an apparently light mitzvah than an apparently heavy mitzvah.

I will conclude with a fascinating notion that can also be used to interpret this passage. The Ishbitzer (Beis Yaakov Vayechi 26) says every Jew has one mitzvah that is somehow tied deeply and extraordinarily to his neshama. A Tzaddik cannot break with such a mitzvah that is tied to his Neshama, no matter what, and must even martyr himself though not from the standard three sins that all must give their life for. 


Sitting is the New Smoking

Our Gemara on amud beis relates medical advice from the great Amora and physician Shmuel, and one of the practices that he considers to be in the top three of irreparable bodily harm is to “Eat bread and not walk four cubits afterward.” Rashi adds that this warning is in regard to going to sleep right after eating without walking a bit. There are some technical contradictions between Shmuel’s advice and the Rambam’s medical advice (Deos 4:2) which the commentaries deal with, however taken as a whole, the implications of these teachings are that sedentary behavior is deleterious to one’s health.

It is not for nothing that some health experts are calling sitting, the “new smoking.” Is it that harmful? According to Vallance et. al (American Journal of Public Health. 2018 November; 108(11): 1478–1482, “Evaluating the Evidence on Sitting, Smoking, and Health: Is Sitting Really the New Smoking?”), while sitting is not truly as bad as smoking, it is seriously detrimental:

“Excessive sitting time almost doubles the risk of type 2 diabetes, but only increases incidence and mortality risk associated with other common chronic diseases by approximately 10% to 20%. In terms of absolute risk difference, these relative risk (RR) estimates correspond to an excess of around 33 Cardio-Vascular related deaths, 27 cancer-related deaths, and 610 incident cases of diabetes per 100 000 persons per year in people with the highest volumes of sitting compared with those with the lowest volumes of sitting. Sitting has also been found to be adversely associated with the risk of depression and physical health-related quality of life domains.” 

We might rationalize that what we do with our bodies is a personal choice and not a moral matter. However, the Rambam (Deos 3:3 and 4:1) exhorts: 

“It is impossible to understand and become knowledgeable in the wisdoms when one is starving or sick, or when one of his limbs pains him…Since maintaining a healthy and sound body is among the ways of God – for one cannot understand or have any knowledge of the Creator, if he is ill – therefore, he must avoid that which harms the body and accustom himself to that which is healthful and helps the body become stronger.”

Why do we tend to ignore such mitzvos? Why would some be horrified to choose a lenient hechsher but have no problem eating way beyond what causes clinical obesity?  Of course there is a natural hesitancy to overemphasize physical health as it can lead to narcissistic preening and strutting about. On the other hand, gluttony, aside from the terrible health costs which really are mitzvos-related opportunity costs, it also leads to indolence and arrogance. As it states in Devarim (32:15):

וַיִּשְׁמַ֤ן יְשֻׁרוּן֙ וַיִּבְעָ֔ט שָׁמַ֖נְתָּ עָבִ֣יתָ כָּשִׂ֑יתָ וַיִּטֹּשׁ֙ אֱל֣וֹק-ה עָשָׂ֔הוּ וַיְנַבֵּ֖ל צ֥וּר יְשֻׁעָתֽוֹ׃

So Jeshurun grew fat and kicked. You grew fat and gross and coarse. They forsook the God who made them And spurned the Rock of their support.

We have to be careful and not assume that all heavy girth represents bacchanalia, as one of the most notable ascetic amoraim, Rabbi Yochanan was also unusually corpulent (Berachos 13b). Yet, we know that Rabbi Yochanan was so ascetic that even while in utero, he was able to reverse and quell the cravings he was inducing in his mother, avoiding her having to eat on Yom Kippur (Yoma 82b). Additionally, he miraculously had his eyes covered with drooping eyebrow hair so as not to see forbidden sights (Bava Kamma 117a). Therefore, while for our own [personal standards we must take seriously the obesity epidemic of modern life, we also should not judge or condemn others.  And, this is aside from a quest for extreme thinness that does not have to do with health, but rather represents an insane standard imposed by a crazy culture.


About the Author
Rabbi, Psychotherapist with 30 years experience specializing in high conflict couples and families.
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