Mindfulness and Gratitude
Our Gemara on Amud Beis references a monetary custom in silent partner and share cropper agreements. The silent partner can take between ⅔, one half, one quarter for himself. This seemed to be a common financial arrangement that was not considered exploitative, despite the large percentages.
The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni 892) speaking for God, as if He were justifying the mitzvah to tithe: “It is customary for the owner of the field to rent it out to a sharecropper for only one half, one third or one quarter of its production. But, I (God), only ask for ten percent.”
The Alshich (Devarim 26) expands on this theme in relation to the mitzvah of Bikkurim, offering the first produce to God. He continues the sharecropper parable by saying that it also was customary for the sharecropper to bring the owner of the field its first yields. If the owner was a wealthy man, he could be overcome with gratitude and the good will of this humble farmer’s gift, that he might forgive his percentage. This is the process of the mitzvah of Bikkurim followed by maaser, first is the gift of gratitude, and then this reduces the obligation to only a tenth because God forgives the rest.
The Gemara Berachos (35a) describes a similar process in regard to all pleasures of this world.
Rabbi Levi raised a contradiction: It is written: “The earth and all it contains is the Lord’s,” and it is written elsewhere: “The heavens are the Lord’s, while the Earth, He has given over to mankind” (Psalms 115:16). There is clearly a contradiction with regard to whom the Earth belongs. He himself resolves the contradiction: This is not difficult. Here, the verse that says that the earth is the Lord’s refers to the situation before a blessing is recited.
Really everything belongs to God and we should not be permitted to take it, however when we pause to appreciate Him (the Beracha or the Bikkurim), we get to keep the rest.
These devotions and rituals are to teach perspective and gratitude. But whom does this serve? Does God need our sacrifices (Yeshaiyahu 1:11)? Rather the focus on gratitude is to increase our benefit and enjoyment in this world. This is aside from any rewards that await in the World to Come. How do tithing and blessings before eating increase enjoyment? Kuzari (III:16-17) explains it with a parable: A person went to a party and became excessively drunk. The next day, his friends regaled him about all his adventures that night – he had a great time, but sadly, cannot remember a thing. So too, it is easy to rush through life and become intoxicated by all the distractions and pleasures of this world, and in the end, experience nothing. By requiring blessings (and tithing), the Torah reminds you to pause and reflect. The appreciation leads to mindfulness, which leads to a more wholesome and deeper pleasure.
Our Gemara on Amud Beis discusses which kinds of changes to an object constitute enough transformation so that even a thief acquires it. (The thief, of course, must still compensate the owner. However since the object was so dramatically changed, it no longer has any connection to its past and he does not have to return the physical object.) The change must be irreversible in order for it to reach this threshold of becoming a new object.
Using this logic the Gemara rules:
One who robbed another of earth and fashioned it into a brick, has not acquired it due to the change. What is the reason for this? It is that he can crush and ground the brick to convert it back into earth. By contrast, if he robbed another of a brick, and by crushing it turned it into earth, he has acquired it due to the change. If you say: Perhaps he will return it and fashion it into a brick? This is a different brick, and a new entity has entered into existence.
This clever distinction is based on the idea that dirt is dirt, but a crafted object is different each time. Thus, even in regard to bricks, which are made relatively uniform, each one is seen as a new manifestation.
The Shalah (Sha’ar Haosiyos, Emes Ve Emunah) uses this idea to explain a puzzling line in the Yigdal liturgy, which poetically delineates the Rambam’s Thirteen Principles of Faith. When describing God’s incorporeality, Yigdal states:
אֵין לוֹ דְמוּת הַגּוּף וְאֵינוֹ גוּף, לֹא נַעֲרֹךְ אֵלָיו קְדֻשָּׁתוֹ:
He has no form of a body, nor a body, His holiness is beyond comparison.
How does this ordering make sense? If God has no form of a body, surely He has no body?
To understand the Shalah, we must learn a little about the physics that was predominantly held by the Ancient Greeks, Rishonim, and Acharonim until the modern scientific era. Objects in this world are composed of matter and form. The form is the abstract idea of the object, a quality or shape, such as if a formed object resembles a triangle or it has certain properties such as firmness. Those come from the abstract form, which is a universal that is perfect (unlike a real life triangle, which may only be approximately a triangle. Objects are physical matter that has a form imposed on it. Think of it as the software that controls the hardware. If you follow this reasoning, the form is a separate entity, seemingly more abstract. Thus if God’s incorporeality extends to even having no form, surely he has no physical body. (See Rambam, Hilchos Deos 4:6.)
However, from our Gemara, we see a different perspective and hierarchy of matter. The form is more transient than the matter. The dirt (matter) can be made into a brick (Form), but that is temporary and it can revert back to dirt. From this perspective, Matter comes first and is primary, and Form second. Thus, according to the Shalah, the correct philosophical understanding of this stanza in Yigdal is as follows:
God is incorporeal, to such an extent that (1) He does not have any form, and (2) He is not even composed of an enduring basic substance. Another way of putting it is, God is so not-comparable to anything physical, not only does He not have any particular form, He is not made of ANYTHING.
When preparing for a prayer mindset, it is easy to get stuck in only the anthropomorphisms of God being great and powerful. To truly experience connection, and the letting go of self necessary for deep prayer and attachment to Hashem, one must also reflect on the absolute beyondness of God, His non-quantifiable nor comprehensible nature inspires a form of awe that liberates the person from the petty concerns of self. This emotional and cognitive process is described in Deos (ibid 4:12.)
Love and Fear
Our Gemara on Amud Beis describes the coinage in the time of Avraham, on one side was an elderly man and woman, on the other side a young man and woman. (See Tosafos and other commentaries if this was an image, or a written word. By the way, archeological evidence is that not only did the Jews refrain from using images on their coins, but even when under Roman dominion in the first Century, the Romans honored the Jewish custom and used coins without images in the Jewish states, unlike their other provinces. See “The Origins of Judaism: An Archaeological-Historical Reappraisal”, New Haven, CT 2022, pp. 93-95)
The simple interpretation of this Midrash is to emphasize Avraham’s dominance as a world leader, to the extent that a coin was dedicated to him. But such an interpretation does not seem likely, do the rabbis need to give us archeology lessons? Rav Tzaddok Hacohen (Kometz Hamincha 2:23) interprets this as depicting the perfect balance that Avraham and Sarah achieved between love and fear of God. Youth is filled with passion but less restraint and balance (one side of the coin), but old age has more capacity for sober restraint, but less passion. Avraham’s “coinage” that he distributed and circulated into the world was the ability to have both qualities in proper balance.
Love seems to be the ideal, but only on paper, as human nature also must operate from a degree of fear. In a marriage, as much as passion and love are critical, without commitment and responsibility there is no vessel to contain the energy. Pure love can too easily lead to pure selfishness and gratification, which leads to dissatisfaction instead of happiness, because a selfish person can never enjoy anything for too long without developing contempt and boredom (see our blog, Psychology of the Daf, Bava Kamma 95.) However, sacrifice and duty alone is empty of deeper emotions and joy. Avraham demonstrated an ability to live in this world with the right balance. Paradoxically, Humans do best when they are living in equilibrium between their contradictory natures, we must have our feelings and our passions to be creative and driven, but must moderate them so we behave rationally and pro-socially.
Is Adolescence a Thing?
Our Gemara on Amud Beis discusses an incident when Rav Ashi burned another person’s promissory note, and Rafram required him to pay the full amount. In this instance, the destruction of this key evidence prevented the debt from being collected. Even though the loss was not direct, as a mere few pennies worth of parchment was destroyed, but since it caused an immediate and prompt consequential loss, it is treated as if he actually destroyed the value of the debt and not the paper it was written on.
Rashi adds that Rav Ashi burnt this contract in his youth. Presumably, Rashi could not imagine that Rav Ashi could possibly have been so careless as an adult, thus he was forced to assume that Rav Ashi did this when he was young.
This Rashi sparked a debate amongst poskim regarding whether a minor must make restitution as an adult for damage he perpetrated when he was a minor. Rashi seems to hold yes, but this contradicts a Mishna (87a) that declares minors as exempt from paying, even in adulthood, specifically in contradistinction to a separate case in that Mishna that discusses persons who are in a state where they have no control over personal assets (such as a slave), and therefore do not pay damages. They aren’t really exempt, they just aren’t expected to make payment. Yet once the slave is freed, and has full control over his assets, he will have to make payment, unlike the minor.
Some try to answer that Rashi was referring to an extra-legal obligation that Rafram was holding Rav Ashi accountable for, given his high moral standards and stature. However, in a responsum of the Maharam Padua (90) he suggests a more subtle answer. Rashi was not stating that Rav Ashi committed this offense as a minor, because indeed then he would be exempt, as this Mishna ruled. Instead Rashi was suggesting that Rav Ashi committed these careless acts during his youth, but past bar mitzvah age. In essence, he is saying that he can be excused due to the impulsiveness of youth. He brings linguistic proof that even a teenager can be called a “yeled”, as we see Reuven refers to Yosef as the “yeled”, when Yosef was 17, and that is what Rashi meant here.
Maharam Padua is basically saying that Rav Ashi was a teenager, and teenagers make mistakes. It is interesting that the Maharam Padua brought only linguistic proof from Yosef. There also is psychological proof, as the verse describes him as a “Na’ar” (Bereishis 37:2). Bereishis Rabbah (84:7) describes it as youthful, vain behavior; “He would style his eyes, measure his steps in a strutting fashion, and comb his hair.”
It is interesting that the Midrash makes this observation without much commentary or moralizing. It gives an impression of resigned acceptance that adolescents don’t always do what they are supposed to do, and they are still learning to control their impulses. Yosef, Rav Ashi and every other teenager needs time to learn how to manage, even though they have halachic status of adults in many ways. We even see that Bar Mitzvah age is only a demarcation for certain obligations, but the rabbis allowed certain abilities to children of much younger age, such as acquisitions of certain objects, and nullified the validity of certain sales until the age of 20 (see Bava Basra 155b.)
Social scientists and psychologists used to consider adolescence as a construct, brought about by the complexity of industrial and urban society, but not an innate developmental stage. The requirements to develop a profession and to navigate the social and legal demands of modern society automatically leads to a protracted young adulthood. To be a full adult in our culture, one needs to know how to drive a car, file taxes, and obtain credibility via education or work experience. However subsequent research has shown adolescence to be a distinct developmental stage that transcends culture and society (Chen, C. S., & Farruggia, S. (2002). Culture and Adolescent Development. Online Readings in
Psychology and Culture, 6 (1). https://doi.org/10.9707/2307-0919.1113)
As religious parents and educators, who feel the imperative of modeling and guiding children to internalize the complex beliefs and requirements of our tradition, we must keep in mind that even though a child is past Bar or Bas Mitzvah it doesn’t mean they are fully equipped to comply with all the dictates of an intricate religious and cultural system. They are at an age that they must begin to assume moral responsibility, and also need our patience and respect as they work out their identity, their choices, and how to be independent but also a cooperative member of society. Our tradition supports the idea that sometimes they still should get a free pass.