Simcha Feuerman
Psychology, Torah and the Daf Yomi

Shabbos Neurosis, The Right to Complain and More Bava Metzia 75-78


No Interest in Interest 

Our Gemara on Amud Aleph presents a surprisingly lenient ruling: Torah scholars are permitted to borrow from each other with interest. The Gemara explains: Why is this allowed? Because they are fully aware that interest is prohibited, thus they do not intend the loan as a formal business transaction. They willingly forgo additional payments from each other at the outset, considering the extra payment a gift exchanged between them.

This uncharacteristically permissive legal stance invites further commentary and qualifications. Typically, rabbinic scholars subject themselves to more stringencies rather than leniencies. One might question, even if this provision was a special exemption aimed to foster their economic capacity, given that it was only permitted among fellow sages, not regular citizens, how much economic benefit could it truly bring?  

Maharal (Gevuros Hashem 45) explains that taking interest on money is akin to draining a person’s life force. In biblical terms, a loan was usually not for investment but to meet basic needs. Paying interest would plunge the borrower further into poverty’s grasp, depriving them of their basic sustenance.

Maharal posits that life itself is imbued with a divine force. Charging interest demonstrates a lack of respect for this divine force, reducing money to a mere commodity. By refusing to extend kindness to those in need, the lender betrays an atheistic spirit, denying God’s providence. Hence, the prohibition of usury is linked to the exodus from Egypt, symbolizing the rejection of arrogant beliefs that man can control the world without divine blessings such the Egyptians’ trademark reliance on magic and technology to assert their dominion.

A Torah sage embodies a connection to the divine in everyday affairs, enabling him to view money as a tool without succumbing to the illusion of complete mastery. However, some may perceive this explanation as apologetic. Furthermore, if a sage is truly detached from money, why would they need to charge interest? The latter question is partially answered by considering that the loans were private matters conducted between two sages. Nevertheless, it is hard to understand why this allowance was made, given the chance of a negative impression.

Though a full explanation is elusive, I offer a perspective on the resolution. Maharal’s portrayal of the sage as one who perceives God’s providence and transcends attachment to money suggests more than mere adherence to the law. The sage’s deep-rooted trust in divine providence enables him to regard money as a gift from God, regardless of his effort in acquiring it. For the sage, money is not a measure of personal prowess but a manifestation of divine grace.  To him, money that is so-called earned versus money that comes as a windfall or via charging interest are all the same, they are all equally considered as a gift from God. This is why only a scholar can be trusted to engage in this legal loophole of treating the interest received as a gift, because he truly believes it. 


The Right to Complain 

Our Gemara on Amud Aleph describes a scenario where a landowner sent an agent to hire contracted workers at four dinars but the agent, unsolicited, negotiated a lower rate of three dinars. Upon discovering that they could have negotiated a higher wage, the contractors have no legal recourse, since they agreed to those terms. But the Gemara says they still have a grievance, as they can say to the one who came to terms with them: Don’t you have respect for the verse: “Do not withhold good from him to whom it is due, when it is in the power of your hand to do it” (Proverbs 3:27)?

But we must ask, what is the legal function of declaring that there is a grievance, but they have no recourse. Is the Gemara just saying they have the right to kvetch?

It seems that the rabbis are making a moral declaration. Though the actions of the householder by only paying the lower rate, the contractors have a legitimate gripe. If so, the householder should strongly consider being generous and pay the higher rate. Yet, this moral obligation is apparently distinct but less compelling than the term used in other legal rulings, “chayyav bedibenei shamayim”, literally obligated by heavenly court. This latter directive implies a real obligation, just not enforceable by the court. Here the proper approach is to be generous and pay the higher rate, but there is no obligation even so far as heavenly accounting. (See Tiferes Yisrael, Bava Metzia 6:1:3. Nesivos Ohr p. 210.) The implication might be that while there is no financial requirement, there is an obligation to try to appease the worker. Perhaps some additional payment should be offered, but not necessarily the full amount (see CM Perisha 326:1.)

The Torah legal system recognizes that not every financial matter can be enforced, but there still are moral obligations. Even within that, there are nuanced requirements. Sometimes full payment is obligated even if not enforceable, and other times some amount of consideration should be made, based on the particular and subjective dynamics of that situation.

In life as well, even when may have no obligations and should not have to capitulate, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t offer consideration and concessions. 

Bava Metzia 77

Shabbos Neuroses 

Our Gemara on Amud Aleph discusses the unique status of the workers in the city of Machoza. They were conditioned to continuous hard work, and having an unanticipated day off would be harmful to their routine. 

In the times of the Gemara, Machoza was a bustling metropolis. From various references in Shas one gets the impression that it was a real urban landscape with a scholarly class, wealthy business class, and many laborers. They have been described as constantly mobile and also prone to bacchanalia (Gittin 6a and Taanis 26a, respectively.) They also have been described as haughty, influential with the secular government and upwardly mobile (Bava Basra 9a, Rosh Hashanah 17a, Bava Metzia 59a and Shabbos 109a.) Machoza seemed to suffer from both the blights and the privileges that occur in many metropolitan cities: a busy environment of merchants, laborers, aristocrats and sages, with acts of humanity and decency mixed with depravity. 

In our Gemara we found that the workers of Machoza don’t handle a sudden day off well. The eminent psychologist and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl wrote of what he called the Existential Vacuum, when people suffer from a loss of meaning in their life. When bored and without distraction, this pain hits the hardest. Many of our religious moments which are designed to force contemplation and reflection via removal of diversions, such as davening and Shabbos, become unbearable when the person is unable to face himself. Getting high, binge watching on shabbos, and sleeping until the afternoon may all be coming from a dread of facing certain aspects of self and life. It is a call to challenge complacency and come to grips with the big and scary questions of life. A person can use this time to grow, but some may feel the urge to run away. The best and the worst psychological and emotional exchanges happen on shabbos in families. The biggest fights and extremes, but also a reconnection with spouses and children. 

The concluding words of the prophet Hoshea (14:10) makes the same point:

The wise will consider these words, The prudent will take note of them. For the paths of GOD are smooth; The righteous can walk on them, While sinners stumble on them

Bava Metzia 78

He Sees The Moment

Our Gemara on Amud Beis discusses the idea that certain funds are dedicated for one purpose and cannot be transferred to another purpose, no matter how noble. Thus, charitable funds donated for the indigent to use for the festive Purim meal cannot be used for other charitable needs. (The actual Halacha is subject to discussion and qualification, see Shulchan Aruch OC 694:2) 

Chavos Yair (responsum 232) rules that if a person gave someone food in honor of shabbos, he should not eat it during the week. (I presume, in our times with the advent of refrigerators and freezers, there is an assumption that when a person sends over food for Shabbos, there is implicit intention to enjoy the leftovers during the week.) Rav Yosef Engel in Gilyonei HaShas on this daf also compares this idea to a Gemara Yerushalmi (Nazir 5:1) that states if one pledges to bring a mincha offering for Shabbos, he is not permitted to bring that offering on a weekday. Apparently, even though it is the identical sacrifice, the dimension of bringing the sacrifice on a day which is characterized as more holy changes the performance of the mitzvah.

We see from this idea that the spiritual state of time (and possibly place) affects the mitzvah itself. How do we understand this? Intuitively it makes sense that certain times arouse human responses based on an accumulation of experiences and memories. It’s always a good time to buy a gift, but buying a gift on an anniversary is potentially more meaningful. It is not the mitzvah that changes, nor is it God, but as humans we are affected by the patterns of life. 

One of the great gifts of Judaism is in its ability to promote awareness of time. Aside from the annual cycle of holidays, rejoicing, grieving, and repenting, there are the cycles of purity and impurity that regulate marital life. As we saw in yesterday’s blog post for Bava Metzia 77, when time stops, we notice.  There is a dread that comes into our awareness when we come into contact with death, we can either deny this dread with more distractions or reach for a higher part of ourselves that knows our soul and knows that this is our connection to the eternal.  The seasons and cycles of the Torah force us to constantly face the passing of time. A woman has her period every month and is reminded of the biological clock, but even the man must pause and assess his relationship, reflect on what needs to be renewed, caused by an enforced cessation of physical intimacy.  It is notable that the Jewish nation’s introduction to the Torah begins with two mitzvos sensitive to time: Rosh Chodesh (Shemos 12:2) and the avoidance of the matzah dough fermenting and rising (Devarim 16:3).  The Torah reminds us that we have no time, life is short, and without the Torah we are a passing shadow (Tehillim 144:4). The greatest humans transcended their moments in time and lived outside of it by becoming attached to God and part of something bigger than the moment, though the moment must be seized. The great man sees the moment so he can seize the moment.

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