Simcha Feuerman
Psychology, Torah and the Daf Yomi

Metaphysical Transfer, Curses and Dishonesty and Listening Bava Metzia 47-49


The Clothes Make the Man 

Our Gemara on Amud Aleph quotes the scriptural source for the chalifin acquisition, whereby transfer of possession is confirmed via exchange of an object, also known as kinyan sudar. In Megillas Rus, Boaz acquires the rights to the field from Plony Almoni and also presumably secures his agreement that he will marry Elimelech’s (their relative) former daughter-in-law, Rus (Rus 4:7):

Now this was an ancient custom done in Israel in cases of redemption or exchange: to validate any matter, one man would take off his sandal and hand it to the other. Such was the practice in Israel. 

The literal word used for the sandal in the verse is na’alo which comes from the root N-A-L enclosure. It connotes an article of clothing that wraps tightly around the skin, such as a sandal though Rav Yosef Bechor Shor also says it can be a glove (see his commentary on Shemos 3:5). There are three instances in the Torah where this na’al (sandal enclosure) is mentioned. The first is what we saw above by Boaz, and the second instance is when Moshe was instructed to remove his sandals by the burning bush (Shemos 3:5). The third reference is by the chalitza ritual of the Levirate marriage (Devarim 25:10). The fact that this acquisition method uses, at least in the scriptural examples, an item of clothing that wraps around the skin, and a shoe of sorts, indicates a process that has great significance to the Zohar (Chukas 180a).

The words “ancient tradition” and “to validate any matter” used in Megillas Rus are taken literally by the Zohar. The verse by Boaz is then read as follows: “And this ancient tradition is to enact any matter; One must remove his coverings…” This process, of removing his coverings, is not just clothes. It is a transfer and change in self-manifestation, that is also a heavenly reordering that approves of the transaction. It is literally a divestment (di-vest = des vesture in Latin, removing garments.) In mysticism and Jungian psychology, clothes represent a persona, a manifestation of self. Thus, Moshe had to shed certain physical garments and shift an aspect of self in order to encounter God on a new prophetic level. So too, the man who refuses to marry his deceased and childless brother’s wife, is divesting himself of his brother’s ghost or persona. The shoe represents agency as our feet carry us places, and also represents descendants (see for example Eiruvin 70b, that “heirs are the father’s foot”.)  So the foot (descendants) are divested from the brother. 

Similarly, when an object is given to another, there needs to be a heavenly sanction to allow the possession to transfer. This mystical idea also can explain the opinion of the Amora, Levi, who holds that the chalifin acquisition is accomplished via the giving over of the original owner’s vessel. Rav holds that the one who is acquiring GIVES a vessel to the original owner, and this signifies and effectuates the owner exchanging and transferring the desired item to the buyer or possessor. This is easy to understand because it symbolically is a trade. But how do we make sense of Levi’s opinion? Why would transferring one object cause another to transfer as well? But now can explain it as a sort of prayer or acknowledgment that the transaction is sanctioned by God. This is similar to the signs of sweetness or successful year which we enacted on Rosh Hashana by eating certain foods that have symbolic positive connotations (Kerisus, 6a.) 

A person’s possession is not merely a thing, it is a means by which the world and he interact. Our possessions have an impact on us. One might wonder, do we own our possessions or do they, in fact, own us? To the person who lives a spiritual life, nothing is lacking in sacred potential. When we buy or sell, divest or acquire, we humbly pray that God guide our experiences and allow us to use them as tools and means for elevation. This is similar to the following sentiment expressed in Berachos (35a), as to why one must recite a blessing prior to benefiting from the world’s pleasures:

It is written: “The earth and all it contains is the Lord’s,” and it is written elsewhere: “The heavens are the Lord’s and the earth He has given over to mankind” (Psalms 115:16). There is clearly a contradiction with regard to whom the earth belongs. The answer is that the verse that says that the earth is the Lord’s refers to the situation before a blessing is recited, and the verse that acknowledges that God gave the earth to Man, is after the blessing. 

We recognize that there is no possession that does not belong to God, and by that recognition, we obtain permission to use HIs world. So too, the original owner humbly asks God to approve of and ratify this transfer, by enacting a symbolic transfer via the chalifin.


Flood Assurance 

Our Gemara on Amud Aleph discusses a particular curse that befalls one who reneges on a transaction after money was exchanged. We have learned that exchange of money alone does not accomplish acquisition without the physical object being moved or lifted. Therefore, even though technically no transfer was completed yet, and legally he can stop the process, it is an ethical violation by going back on his word after the giving and accepting of payment. If he reneges, it is his right, but the following curse applies:

He Who exacted payment from the people of the generation of the flood, and from the people of the generation of the Tower of Bavel, and from the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, and from the Egyptians in the Red Sea, will in the future exact payment from whoever does not stand by his word.

It is notable that this curse only applies when a significant action and commitment was demonstrated by the payment. If they merely verbally agreed without payment, and it is still dishonorable and improper to go back on one’s word, it does not incur a curse (Shulchan Aruch CM 204:7). Therefore, we have a twofold standard. One may not renege on a verbal agreement, but if he does, there is no curse. But if money was exchanged, even though a full legal transfer was not effectuated, to renege will generate a curse.

Various commentaries offer explanations for invoking the four historical sinners in the curse, with the basic idea being that all of them were notorious for being deceitful. Sodom and the generation of the flood are obvious examples, but Pharaoh was also deceitful in that he agreed to let the Jews go, and then changed his mind many times.The exception being the generation of the Tower of Bavel whose sin does not seem to be deceit. On the contrary, the Midrash says that unlike the generation of the flood, the builders of the Tower of Bavel merited to be spared from a divine death decree because they got along well (Avos DeRabbi Nasan 12:7.)  Meiri in our Gemara notes this and says they were included only because they were an ancient group of sinners that were part of the overall timeline of degenerate societies. I would suggest that the generation of the Tower acted deceitfully with God, as they violated their side of the Rainbow covenant. Instead of submitting to God’s moral authority, they tried to storm Heaven and prevent a flood by force, (so implies Sanhedrin 109a.)

Another linguistic feature of this curse is that it refers to the “Egyptians in the Red Sea.” Why the Red Sea? Pharaoh and the Egyptians surely suffered enough during the plagues for this to be a robust curse. We might answer, as midrashically interpreted in the Pesach Haggadah, the Egyptians suffered 25 times more plagues at the Sea than in Egypt, and so the curse refers to the last and the worst punishment. I am not satisfied with this answer as the curse could have more briefly stated the “Egyptians”, without adding the clause, “at the sea”, and this would include all the punishments. I therefore believe the answer is as follows and reflects the two-tiered Halacha, of going back on one’s word without money exchange and/or with the addition of payment.

It’s true that Pharaoh went back on his word many times, but those were mere verbal agreements. However, when he finally let them leave, this was now a physical act, which demonstrated more commitment and obligation, just as a payment does. Pharaoh’s backtracking now warranted a curse. We reference the Egyptians at the sea in this curse, because it was particularly deceitful that after letting the Jews leave, and action was taken to demonstrate agreement, the Egyptians then reneged and chased after the Jews at the Red Sea.

Why does one dishonesty result in a curse while the other does not? Of course we can say it is a matter of severity. But I think it is deeper. Not standing by one’s word, though is to some extent interpersonal, it is more of an internal distortion than a kind of cheating. In that case, the rabbis were less interested in enforcement and maintaining the social contract versus disciplining the person for his own moral development. However, if money was exchanged, though technically not a theft since the object was not yet acquired, it is still close enough to interpersonal treachery that it requires enforcement and punishment, and hence the necessity for a curse.


The Honest Weigh to Go

Our Gemara on Amud Aleph discusses further the importance of keeping one’s word and honoring verbal agreements:

The verse states: “You shall have an honest balance, honest weights, an honest ephah, and an honest hin.״ But wasn’t a hin included in an ephah, why is it necessary to state both measures? Rather, this is an allusion that serves to say to you that your “yes” (“hen” or “hin” means yes in Aramaic) should be true, and your “no” should be true. It is a mitzvah for one to fulfill his promises. 

Chasam Sofer (Kedoshim Ibid) extends this derash to the first part of the verse, which refers to honest weights and measurements. That is to say, there are times where honesty is a bad thing. As we have discussed many times, it is permissible to lie in order to protect a person’s feelings. However, this can also devolve into rationalizing lies out of convenience or avoidance (see Yevamos 65b and our blog post, Psychology of the Daf, Bava Metzia 23). Therefore, one’s judgment and  weighing of the matter, must also be honest so he does not rationalize.

I will add another derash. One of the Hebrew words used in the verse that enumerates the various measures is Ephah. This word is also a partial homonym to the Hebrew word, “eiphoh – where or how.” Perhaps the verse is also hinting that one’s questions and inquiries ought to be open minded, honest and respectful. People often complain that their spouse does not really listen, and most interpersonal arguments involve two people trying desperately to be heard but not trying as hard to listen. If one listens with genuine curiosity and is ready to really consider the other point of view, this tends to generate more open and empathic dialogue.

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