The Tzaddik Who Inspires
Our Gemara on Amud Beis quotes a verse that serves as the source that payment for damages can come from assessing the value of any movable object that has worth.
תָּנָא: ״שָׁוֶה כֶּסֶף״ – מְלַמֵּד שֶׁאֵין בֵּית דִּין נִזְקָקִין אֶלָּא לִנְכָסִים שֶׁיֵּשׁ לָהֶן אַחְרָיוּת. וְהָתַנְיָא: ״יָשִׁיב״ – לְרַבּוֹת שָׁוֶה כֶּסֶף, וַאֲפִילּוּ סוּבִּין!
The verse states the superfluous phrase: “He shall recompense” (Exodus 21:34), to include items worth money, and even bran, a relatively inferior commodity, is accepted as a valid form of payment.
The full verse comes from Shemos (21:33-34)
וְכִֽי־יִפְתַּ֨ח אִ֜ישׁ בּ֗וֹר א֠וֹ כִּֽי־יִכְרֶ֥ה אִ֛ישׁ בֹּ֖ר וְלֹ֣א יְכַסֶּ֑נּוּ וְנָֽפַל־שָׁ֥מָּה שּׁ֖וֹר א֥וֹ חֲמֽוֹר׃
When any party opens a pit, or when any party digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or an donkey falls into it,
בַּ֤עַל הַבּוֹר֙ יְשַׁלֵּ֔ם כֶּ֖סֶף יָשִׁ֣יב לִבְעָלָ֑יו וְהַמֵּ֖ת יִֽהְיֶה־לּֽוֹ׃
the one responsible for the pit must make restitution—paying the price to the owner, but keeping the dead animal.
The idea of a pit is rife with symbolic content for sin, as it is something one falls into, gets stuck in, and is dark and deep. Noam Elimelech (Toldos 6:1) expands on this theme. The verse (Bereishis 26:15) tells us:
וְכָל־הַבְּאֵרֹ֗ת אֲשֶׁ֤ר חָֽפְרוּ֙ עַבְדֵ֣י אָבִ֔יו בִּימֵ֖י אַבְרָהָ֣ם אָבִ֑יו סִתְּמ֣וּם פְּלִשְׁתִּ֔ים וַיְמַלְא֖וּם עָפָֽר׃
All the wells that his father’s servants had dug in the days of his father, Avraham—the Philistines plugged them, and filled them with earth.
יָּ֨שָׁב יִצְחָ֜ק וַיַּחְפֹּ֣ר ׀ אֶת־בְּאֵרֹ֣ת הַמַּ֗יִם אֲשֶׁ֤ר חָֽפְרוּ֙ בִּימֵי֙ אַבְרָהָ֣ם אָבִ֔יו וַיְסַתְּמ֣וּם פְּלִשְׁתִּ֔ים אַחֲרֵ֖י מ֣וֹת אַבְרָהָ֑ם וַיִּקְרָ֤א לָהֶן֙ שֵׁמ֔וֹת כַּשֵּׁמֹ֕ת אֲשֶׁר־קָרָ֥א לָהֶ֖ן אָבִֽיו׃
Yitzchok returned and excavated the wells of water which were dug in the days of his father, Avraham, and were plugged by the Philistines after Avraham’s death. He gave them the same names that his father had given them.
וַיַּחְפְּר֥וּ עַבְדֵֽי־יִצְחָ֖ק בַּנָּ֑חַל וַיִּ֨מְצְאוּ־שָׁ֔ם בְּאֵ֖ר מַ֥יִם חַיִּֽים׃
Yitzchok’s servants dug in the valley and found there a well of spring water.
Noam Elimelech says the Tzaddik’s job is to “go down into the pit” and inspire lost souls and bring them back up. The verse uses a language of “uncovering the pit” and “digging a pit”, representative of an initial inspiration (opening), but then also a much deeper digging. These lost souls are the ox and donkey, humans who behave as beasts. But when they are brought back up, the Tzaddik not only gains a restoration for them but also for himself, hinted in the verses statement that restitution will be fully made. (The word “kesef” aside from money also means longing, in this case a spiritual longing. Think of the haunting Shabbos Zemer, “Kah Echsof”.)
Why did the Philistines stop up the wells dug by Avraham so that Yitschok had to reopen them? Noam Elimelech says a fascinating psychological idea, along the lines of the adage that a little knowledge is dangerous. Avraham positively influenced the Philistines, but it did not last. In fact, they became spiritually haughty and saw themselves as superior to Yitschok (thus stopping up his father’s wells.) It took extra effort and a second time for Yitschok to finally prevail and bring full spiritual restoration to reopen the wells.
Noam Elimelech concludes with a chassidish re-reading of the idiom דברים היוצאין מן הלב נכנסים ללב that which comes from the heart enters the heart. The typical understanding of that phrase is that what you say sincerely is heard by people and deeply taken into their hearts. But he says, it can also mean, “That which comes from your heart, will also go back into your heart, with greater intensity and benefit.” Thus, the Tzaddik’s effort to bring about restoration for others and redeem them from the pit brings him redemption as well.
The Venomous Tongue
Our Gemara on Amud Beis discusses the status of the snake, and the liability its owners would incur due its tendency to bite. The damage of “tooth” (what an animal eats) is exempt in the public domain and only obligated if it enters a private domain, because it has a strong desire and benefit from eating, and so the owner is held less liable in the more chaotic, uncontrolled situation of public hustle and bustle. A snake bites but it does not eat, and therefore doesn’t really enjoy the bite. Tosafos says even so, since it is a regular activity of the snake, the owner is not held liable in a public domain. Rashba (Bava Kamma 2b) offers a different reason for the Gemara’s ruling regarding the damages of a snake’s bite. He says, true the snake doesn’t enjoy the bite in terms of food gratification, but it does enjoy biting in terms of instinct gratification.
This Rashba is supported by an interesting Gemara (Taanis 8a):
אָמַר רֵישׁ לָקִישׁ, מַאי דִּכְתִיב: ״אִם יִשֹּׁךְ הַנָּחָשׁ בְּלוֹא לָחַשׁ וְאֵין יִתְרוֹן לְבַעַל הַלָּשׁוֹן״, לְעָתִיד לָבוֹא מִתְקַבְּצוֹת וּבָאוֹת כׇּל הַחַיּוֹת אֵצֶל הַנָּחָשׁ, וְאוֹמְרִים לוֹ: אֲרִי דּוֹרֵס וְאוֹכֵל, זְאֵב טוֹרֵף וְאוֹכֵל, אַתָּה מָה הֲנָאָה יֵשׁ לְךָ? אֹמֵר לָהֶם: ״וְאֵין יִתְרוֹן לְבַעַל הַלָּשׁוֹן״.
Reish Lakish said: What is the meaning of that which is written: “If the snake bites before it is charmed, then the charmer has no advantage” (Ecclesiastes 10:11)? In the future, all the animals will gather together and come to the snake and say to him: A lion mauls its prey and eats it; a wolf tears apart its prey and eats it; but you, what pleasure do you have when you bite a person, as you are incapable of eating him? The snake will say to them: “The charmer has no advantage.” The Hebrew phrase for snake charmer literally means the master of the tongue, and therefore the snake is saying that he has a more difficult question: What pleasure does a slanderer receive, as he inflicts more harm for which he obtains no physical enjoyment.
This gemara needs more understanding. If there is no enjoyment in l’shon hara why do we do it? Sadly, we must admit there is great pleasure in revenge or putting someone else down. If so, what does the Gemara really mean? The Gemara means to say that you have less of an excuse for indulging in this admittedly base and instinctive pleasure. This is different than someone who steals because he desires an object, or even someone who commits a sexual crime. At least there is some tangible physical object which we can claim is irresistible. But slander is simply a gratification of the lowest animal instinct. This corresponds with the peshat of the Rashba regarding the snake. The snake’s bite is still considered “tooth” because even though it is true that he does not get nourishment from the bite, he really enjoys the gratification of the pure instinct to bite. So too, of course l’shon hara feels good. That is why it is so awful. Because it is just raw hate and venomous revenge.
The Price of Stubborn Arrogance
Our Gemara on Amud Beis tells us:
שִׁדְרוֹ שֶׁל אָדָם – לְאַחַר שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים נַעֲשֶׂה נָחָשׁ. וְהָנֵי מִילֵּי דְּלָא כָּרַע בְּ״מוֹדִים״.
A person’s spine, seven years after his death, metamorphoses into a snake. The Gemara qualifies the last statement: And this matter applies only to a case where that person did not bow during the blessing of thanksgiving, the eighteenth blessing of the Amida prayer.
Tosafos brings two peshatim.
- What relationship is there between the sin of not bowing by modim and the spine becoming a snake? Because it is a mitzvah to bow when reciting modim, and when straightening after bowing, one must straighten himself like a snake, who raises his head first and then his body, so that it should not appear as if the bowing is a burden upon him, as we find about Rav Shaishes in Berachos (14b).The punishment is measure for measure, since he did not bow and then raise his spine like a snake does, his spine becomes a snake. This is his punishment, for it is humiliating for him that his spine becomes a snake
- Because the Midrash says that there is a bone (vertebrae) in the spine of a person from which he is resurrected in the time to come, when Hashem will resurrect the dead, and that bone is so strong and hard that fire cannot consume it. Thus, it survives and will be the initial component from which his body will be resurrected. And now, when that bone becomes a snake, he will not be resurrected because the bone that is used as the initial component of his resurrected body will not be available because it is a snake and will not live in the time to come, when the dead will be resurrected.
Tosafos rejects the second peshat as too harsh a punishment and therefore illogical. Shall we really accept that a person would lose his share in the world to come just because he did not bow in Modim? Tosafos asserts that all Jews have a share in the world to come (Sanhedrin 90a).
How can we understand the position of those who favored the second peshat? Rav Tzaddok (Tzidkat HaTzaddik 147) understands this as a metaphor. It is not literally one who does not bow in Modim, but rather one who does not humble himself and show fear before God. And in actuality, Rav Tzaddok says, no Jew is that arrogant (as they are naturally humble see Yevamos 79a) and thus indeed all Jews do have a share in the world to come.
Similarly, Malbim (Bamidbar 21:7) also understands the refusal to bow as a metaphor, but a different shortcoming. He says it is the refusal to bow in penitence. Thus, one who refuses to repent is liable to lose his share in the world to come. Whether it is arrogance or lack of repentance, the stakes are high, so we must work to overcome these human foibles.
Habits of Respect and Decency
At the end of 16b and the top of 17 Amud Aleph we learn that as a tribute to King Chizkiyahu, they set up a Yeshiva by his grave, and studied there.
Tosafos (16b) raises the question how could they have done this, since a dead person is not obligated or able to study torah, this would be a violation of “mocking a poor person.” Meaning the verse in Mishle (17:5) warns against the insensitivity of rubbing a person’s deficiencies in their face:
לֹעֵ֣ג לָ֭רָשׁ חֵרֵ֣ף עֹשֵׂ֑הוּ שָׂמֵ֥חַ לְ֝אֵ֗יד לֹ֣א יִנָּקֶֽה׃
He who mocks the poor affronts his Maker; He who rejoices over another’s misfortune will not go unpunished.
Halakhically this is expressed as being careful not to perform mitzvos in a cemetery or in front of a dead person, since they are unable to perform mitzvos. Gemara (Berachos 18a) teaches:
לֹא יְהַלֵּךְ אָדָם בְּבֵית הַקְּבָרוֹת וּתְפִילִּין בְּרֹאשׁוֹ וְסֵפֶר תּוֹרָה בִּזְרוֹעוֹ וְקוֹרֵא. וְאִם עוֹשֶׂה כֵּן — עוֹבֵר מִשּׁוּם ״לוֹעֵג לָרָשׁ חֵרֵף עוֹשֵׂהוּ״…תוך ארבע אמות.
One may not walk in a cemetery with phylacteries on his head and a Torah scroll in his arm and read from it? If one does so he commits a transgression due to the verse: “He who mocks the poor blasphemes his Creator” (Proverbs 17:5). As the deceased is incapable of fulfilling mitzvos, fulfilling a mitzvah in his presence is seen as mocking him…This provision applies within four cubits of the grave.
Tosafos answers (based on the Gemara Berachos) that they set the Yeshiva up outside of Chizkiyahu’s four cubits. There are a number of other answers offered by the commentaries:
Tosafos Rabbenu Tam v’ Rabbi Eliezer says the ban is only before the person is buried, but once the person is buried, he also has a share in the Torah (at least if it Torah), as we learned in Bechoros (31b):
כל תלמיד חכם שאומרים דבר שמועה מפיו בעולם הזה שפתותיו דובבות בקבר
As Rabbi Yoḥanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yoḥai: With regard to any Torah scholar in whose name a matter of halakha is stated in this world, his lips mouth the words in the grave, as though he were speaking.
Ri Migash says that if the Torah is studied in honor of the deceased, then it is not considered mocking. This is brought down in Shulkhan Arukh (YD 344:17) as well:
מותר לומר פסוקים ודרשה לכבוד המת בתוך ארבע אמותיו או בבית הקברות (מהרא”י בביאור מא”ח לדעת רמ”ה):
It is permissible to recite Biblical verses and [render] expositions in honor of the dead person within his four cubits, or on the cemetery.
Tosafos Rabbenu Peretz says that the entire matter is not a problem for someone of Chizkiyahu’s status who taught so much Torah in his lifetime, so it is not felt by his soul as mocking. This answer is interesting, because it speaks to the nature of the prohibition itself. It would seem according to this view, it is only mocking if the person did not accomplish enough in his lifetime. The fact that right now he no longer can do a mitzvah is in itself not a problem. It is only a problem if his soul is feeling the lacking because he did not accomplish enough, then seeing others who are still able to do the mitzvah he has missed, causes the anguish and is felt to be mocking.
Regardless of which Peshat we see an extreme degree of respect and sensitivity accorded by Torah ethics. We are even concerned for a person who is deceased and probably does not feel much or too concerned with earthly matters. This is mirrored in other halakhos. For example, we do not want to embarrass the challah when we choose to make kiddush over the wine, so we cover it (Rosh Pesachim 10:3 based on Yerushalmi). Likewise, the protocol one should observe when bathing is to wash the head first, because it is “the king of all the limbs”, and for similar reasons, one puts on his right shoe first (Mishna Berura 2:7.) These protocol requirements may seem excessive, especially to us in a more western culture, who are not used to showing such a degree of humility and deference. Nevertheless, this is the important message from our tradition. Respect is something that must be deeply ingrained through daily practice. This respect extends to inanimate objects, not because they are more important, but in order to habituate a sensitivity.