Simcha Feuerman
Psychology, Torah and the Daf Yomi

God’s Responsibilities and Our Responsibilities Bava Kamma 22-24


God is Responsible 

Our Gemara on Amud Beis discusses the concept of damages caused by fire.  There is a principle known as “Isho Mishum Chiytzav”, which means that the fire is not merely treated as a possession that he must watch, but it is like his arrow.  The action of sending a fire has implications as if he caused the damage directly from a physical action.

אָמַר רָבָא: קְרָא וּמַתְנִיתָא מְסַיַּיע לֵיהּ לְרַבִּי יוֹחָנָן. קְרָא – דִּכְתִיב: ״כִּי תֵצֵא אֵשׁ״ – תֵּצֵא מֵעַצְמָהּ, ״יְשַׁלֵּם הַמַּבְעִר אֶת הַבְּעֵרָה״ – שְׁמַע מִינַּהּ אִשּׁוֹ מִשּׁוּם חִצָּיו.

Rava said: A verse and a baraisa both support Rabbi Yoḥanan’s opinion. The verse supporting his opinion is as it is written: “If fire breaks out” (Exodus 22:5), indicating that the fire breaks out on its own; yet the verse continues, “the one who ignited the fire shall pay,” indicating that the fire was ignited by a person. Conclude from the verse that one’s liability for the damage caused by his fire is due to its similarity to damage caused by his arrows, as the resolution of the apparent inconsistency in the verse is that it relates to the individual as if he had himself started the blaze, and that is why he is obligated to pay for the damage.

Related to these verses, the Gemara (Bava Kama 60b) teaches:

״כִּי תֵצֵא אֵשׁ וּמָצְאָה קֹצִים״ – ״תֵּצֵא״ מֵעַצְמָהּ, ״שַׁלֵּם יְשַׁלֵּם הַמַּבְעִר אֶת הַבְּעֵרָה״. אָמַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא: עָלַי לְשַׁלֵּם אֶת הַבְּעֵרָה שֶׁהִבְעַרְתִּי –

In the verse that states: “If a fire breaks out, and catches in thorns” (Exodus 22:5), the term “breaks out” indicates that it breaks out by itself. Yet, the continuation of the verse states: “The one who kindled the fire shall pay compensation,” which indicates that he must pay only if the fire spreads due to his negligence. The verse can be explained allegorically: The Holy One, Blessed be He, said that although the fire broke out in the Temple due to the sins of the Jewish people, it is incumbent upon Me to pay restitution for the fire that I kindled.

אֲנִי הִצַּיתִּי אֵשׁ בְּצִיּוֹן, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״וַיַּצֶּת אֵשׁ בְּצִיּוֹן, וַתֹּאכַל יְסוֹדוֹתֶיהָ״; וַאֲנִי עָתִיד לִבְנוֹתָהּ בָּאֵשׁ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״וַאֲנִי אֶהְיֶה לָהּ חוֹמַת אֵשׁ סָבִיב, וּלְכָבוֹד אֶהְיֶה בְתוֹכָהּ״.

I, God, kindled a fire in Zion, as it is stated: “The Lord has accomplished His fury, He has poured out His fierce anger; and He has kindled a fire in Zion, which has devoured its foundations” (Lamentations 4:11). And I will build it with fire in the future, as it is stated: “For I, says the Lord, will be for her a wall of fire round about; and I will be the glory in her midst” (Zechariah 2:9).

שְׁמַעְתְּתָא – פָּתַח הַכָּתוּב בְּנִזְקֵי מָמוֹנוֹ, וְסִיֵּים בְּנִזְקֵי גּוּפוֹ; לוֹמַר לָךְ: אִשּׁוֹ מִשּׁוּם חִצָּיו.

There is a halakha that can be learned from the verse in Exodus, as the verse begins with damage caused through one’s property: “If a fire breaks out,” and concludes with damage caused by one’s body: “The one who kindled the fire.” This indicates that when damage is caused by fire, it is considered as though the person who kindled the fire caused the damage directly with his body. That serves to say to you that the liability for his fire damage is due to its similarity to his arrows. Just as one who shoots an arrow and causes damage is liable because the damage was caused directly through his action, so too, one who kindles a fire that causes damage is liable because it is considered as though the damage were caused directly by his actions.

Maharshal (Netzach Yisrael 61) explains Hashem’s Middas Hadin as perfectly parallel to “Isho Mishum Chiytzav”. The fire sent out is considered a direct action and incurs liability. Though Hashem allowed the “fire”, the destructive forces of the invaders to destroy the Temple, in reality all forces in the world originate from him.  Therefore, God himself will take responsibility to restore the Bais Hamikdash.  Chasam Sofer (Mishpatim 27) explains this aggadah along similar lines.  The “fire” is the evil inclination. Hashem takes responsibility for our sins and our nature, because really he is the owner of the fire. As it states in Berachos (31b-32a):

וְאָמַר רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר: אֵלִיָּהוּ הֵטִיחַ דְּבָרִים כְּלַפֵּי מַעְלָה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״וְאַתָּה הֲסִבֹּתָ אֶת לִבָּם אֲחֹרַנִּית״. אָמַר רַבִּי שְׁמוּאֵל בַּר רַבִּי יִצְחָק: מִנַּיִן שֶׁחָזַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא וְהוֹדָה לוֹ לְאֵלִיָּהוּ, דִּכְתִיב: ״וַאֲשֶׁר הֲרֵעֹתִי״.

And on a similar note, Rabbi Elazar said that Elijah spoke impertinently toward God on High as well in his prayer at Mount Carmel, as it is stated: “Answer me, Lord, answer me, that this people will know that You are the Lord, God, and You have turned their hearts backward” (I Kings 18:37), claiming that God caused Israel to sin. On this topic, Rabbi Shmuel bar Rabbi Yitzḥak said: From where do we know that the Holy One, Blessed be He, ultimately conceded to Elijah that he was correct? As it is written in a future prophecy: “In that day, says the Lord, I will assemble the lame, and I will gather those who are abandoned and those with whom I have dealt in wickedness” (Micah 4:6). God states that He caused Israel to act wickedly.

What are we to make of these ideas psychologically?  We are not alone in this journey.  Though we may sometimes succumb to the evil parts of our nature, not only does God know us well but He made us that way and is partners with us. God knows that man must have conflicting drives in order to struggle and actualize his true freedom, that of meaningful and moral choice.  It cannot be moral if there is no choice. 


Safeguarding Other’s Possessions 

On amud beis Tosafos (“Velichayev”) infers from our Gemara that there is a stronger moral obligation and expectation that one safeguards his possessions from damaging others than from being damaged. Thus, in the case where a dog enters an area and grabs a cake with a hot coal attached to it, which ends up causing a fire, we expect the owner of the coals to be mindful that a dog might enter and he therefore shares liability with the dog owner. Yet, the dog is fully responsible for the cake, despite that in theory it is the same area that needs to be guarded by the owner of the house to prevent a dog from entering. We see therefore that there is less expectation to safeguard your own losses than to stop your possessions from damaging others. 

Mishna Avos (2:12) states:

רַבִּי יוֹסֵי אוֹמֵר, יְהִי מָמוֹן חֲבֵרְךָ חָבִיב עָלֶיךָ כְּשֶׁלָּךְ

Rabbi Yose said: Let the property of your fellow be as precious unto you as your own

Sefer Daf Al Daf quotes a question from Gilyonei Hashas.  In Avos it seems like one should treat others’ possessions as EQUAL to his. Yet, Tosafos here says one should guard others’ property MORE than his own? Rabbenu Yona (Ibid) makes a distinction.  Tosafos is referring to actual safeguards against damage, which one must be more careful than of his own property.  Avos is referring to responding to needs and favors that someone might ask to assist them with their possessions. For example, your friend asks you to feed or milk his cows. Feed them and treat them to the same standards as your herd, but you do not need to do more than you would do for yourself. However, in terms of safeguarding, that is a different story, and requires more.

Similarly, we find Ramban commenting on the verse (Vayikra 19:18), “Be loving to your neighbor as yourself”. The letter lamed connotes acting loving toward but not actually loving your neighbor as much as yourself, as that is unrealistically against human nature. So too, it can be more of a requirement to make sure your property does not damage another’s property than even your own, because that is a concrete financial liability. But in terms of concern for general welfare and favors, the Torah ethic is realistic. Be as helpful and willing to assist your friend in preserving or growing his possessions as you would your own, but you don’t need to do more.


“Ox-shanus” and The Dangers of Legalistic Thinking 

Our Gemara on Amud Aleph discusses a process by which we can discern if an ox who became accustomed to goring can recover its prior status of a docile ox, thereby reducing the owner’s liability back to half damages.

וְתָם – שֶׁיְּהוּ הַתִּינוֹקוֹת מְמַשְׁמְשִׁין בּוֹ וְאֵינוֹ נוֹגֵחַ

And it reverts to its former innocuous status if children touch it and nevertheless it does not gore; 

Tosafos (ibid, sheyiyhu) explains that this an extreme proof of its docility as children do not have the sense to be cautious and could easily provoke the ox to gore them.  According to Tosafos, we are evaluating and testing the ox’s temperament and noting it is safe for children.

There is a famous Maharam Merutenberg (Tur O.C. 114) who extrapolates from our Gemara a trick to create a chazakah so that he can assume he said Mashiv Haruach in Shemoneh Esre even if he doesn’t remember, even without 30 days passing. He should say it 90 times on Shemini Atzeres, which will be equivalent to 30 days (of approximately 3 daily Shemoneh Esres.) However, Rabbenu Peretz (ibid) disagrees with the Maharam Merutenberg. He says, the lack of goring, despite being provoked, indicates something about the nature of the ox. In other words not goring doesn’t make the ox into something else or change its nature, but rather, it shows something about the nature of the ox has changed for unknown, spontaneous reasons. On the other hand, he says, when it comes to human regulation and habit, who says saying something 90 times or even 1,000 times changes this aspect of human nature? We may not know what changes human nature. So according to Rabbenu Peretz you can’t apply a halakhic chazakah to every aspect of human behavior unless our sages have specifically endorsed and codified the application (such as 30 days, but NOT 90 iterations.).

This brings to mind the errors that were made decades ago in response to sexual predators in the Orthodox community. Certain rabbinic authorities were found to have erroneously turned a blind eye or even participated in covering up crimes because of a well meaning belief that the person did teshuvah. I believe misapplication of halakhic technical thinking and misguided halakhic rationales, such as the concept of accepting the Baal Teshuva have been incorrectly applied to dangerous and unmanageable compulsive behavior. We have come to understand that sexual abuse is not merely a moral lapse, but rather comes from more complex psychological dynamics that cannot be remediated by remorse alone. Teshuvah is fine for God but it doesn’t necessarily make the potential offender safe. Similarly, since halakha did not categorize certain molestation in severe terms, it led to assuming there was minimum psychological damage. But spiritual damage and psychological trauma may not always correspond. If a sexual sin is not defined as sexual intercourse and therefore considered less severe halakhically it has nothing to do with trauma. It’s like comparing violating Shabbos to verbally abusing someone. Technically and legally, Shabbos is more severe, however the psychological damage for verbal abuse could be far worse. 

Regardless, human behavior is complex and cannot be predicted in the same manner as a beast. Perhaps the children can be proven to be safe with this ox who was formerly dangerous, but we cannot say the same for a former predator. That is not to say that all predators or sexual offenders are the same. The research shows that they are different kinds of predators and not all are alike. There are those who have committed one time crimes never to offend again and others who molest hundreds. Expert assessment is required so as to neither panic and excessively ostracize the offender, especially in the case of adolescent offenders, and at the same time not to minimize the possible severity and concern that the behavior is part of a predatory personality and behavioral profile. The bottom line is that halakha can tell us what is permissible or impermissible, and it can also provide moral guidelines and boundaries, but it cannot predict human behavior nor diagnose that which is considered illness or health anymore than it can tell us how to build rocket ships. (I suppose a master of Sefer Yetzira could fly to the moon using “sheimos”, but that is not in the typical expertise of a posek.)

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