Simcha Feuerman
Psychology, Torah and the Daf Yomi

Torah Prerequisites, Thresholds and Unconscious Communication Bava Metzia 54-56


Torah Prerequisites 

Our Gemara on Amud Beis makes a derivation from the word, “veyassaf – he will add”, that the ⅕ penalty for redeeming a consecrated object applies even to a situation of ⅕ on ⅕. This occurs in a case where a consecrated item is redeemed with another consecrated item (now with an additional ⅕). If this item is to be redeemed, he must now add a ⅕ onto this new item, which is effectively ⅕ on ⅕.

Gilyonei Shas (Yevamos 69a, “zar’o”) explains the linguistic rationale for this derivation. In Hebrew, the word “yassaf” connotes additional onto the principal. Meaning an addition of the same kind. Thus, the ⅕ here in the verse means a new ⅕ added to the prior ⅕.

The Maharal (Gur Aryeh, end of Parashas Shelach) uses this same idea to explain a teaching in Sanhedrin (56b) about the laws that the Jews were taught in Mara (see Shemos 15:25) prior to the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. 

The Jewish people were commanded to observe ten mitzvos when they were in Mara: The Seven that the descendants of Noah accepted upon themselves, and God added to them the following mitzvos: Judgment, Shabbos, and honoring one’s father and mother.

Maharal asks, we have learned that the Jews violated their first Shabbos when they gathered the Manna against Moshe’s directions (Shabbos 118b). However, if the Jews were given the laws of Shabbos at Mara, then at least we can say they did not violate their first shabbos? Based on this idea, we see the Gemara used the word, “yassaf” which connotes adding into the original of the same kind. The Maharal then answers that the Shabbos of Mara was added to the seven Noahide laws. Therefore the Shabbos of Mara was not a Jewish convental shabbos, just an additional law that was given to them as sons of Noah, not Jews. 

What is important about these three additional mitzvos that the Jews needed them specifically prior to Mount Sinai? Logic dictates that they must be a prerequisite to the receiving of the Torah. Be’er Mayyim Chayyim (Shemos 19:1) explains that the purest soul would be able to intuitively sense the commandments of the Torah, such as Abraham who kept the entire Torah. It is only the impurities of the soul that cloud this natural instinct and ability to perceive truth. While in Egypt, God gave the Jews a miraculous boost whereby they could temporarily achieve this level of intuitive understanding of the Torah. This is why we recite at the Seder, “Kadesh Urechatz – Santify and cleanse.” Usually the order is to cleanse prior to sanctification as a preparation. However, in the Exodus, the Jews were given this sanctification without preparation and without having earned it. This was a temporary state. This is why the verse (Shemos 15:22) states that the Jews “went for three days without water”, and the Rabbis allegorically interpret this as three days without Torah (water = Torah. Bava Kamma 82a.) 

What was the Torah that they were lacking? Be’er Mayyim Chayyim says they thirsted for this intuitive understanding of Torah which they achieved Pesach night (Kadesh, Urechatz) and now lost. At Mara, while the Jews could not fully restore this state, they were able to recover it vis a vis the mitzvos of Shabbos, honoring parents and the legal system. I will add, these mitzvos in particular represent intuitive commandments. Society requires hierarchy and authority, thus the legal system and honoring parents are essential ideas to internalize. And, for society to function well according to Torah thought, the members and especially its leaders, must hold themselves accountable to a higher moral authority, beyond petty human concerns. This is represented in the Shabbos, which honors and testifies that the World has a creator, who has expectations and standards. 

By following these prerequisite commandments, the Jews could attain a sanctification necessary to accept the full Torah later at Mount Sinai.


For Morality there is no Threshold 

Our Gemara on Amud Aleph teaches that ordinarily sums of money below a perutah are not legally pursuable, such as theft of less than a perutah.  Yet, when it comes to the Temple treasury, one must pay restitution for even less than a perutah.

Yismach Moshe (Mattos 6:2) uses this idea to explain why a gentile who steals from a Jew even less than a perutah is still held liable. The reason why theft of less than a perutah is not legally liable for a Jew is because the standard assumption is he forgives such an insubstantial amount (see Rashi Eiruvin (l62a, “Ben Noach”). If so, why would the Jew not forgive the theft of less than a perutah even if perpetrated by a gentile? Yismach Moshe says that even though it is not prosecutable as theft, it is a transgression and violation of the Jewish person’s sovereignty, akin to violation of the Temple treasury, and thus subject to penalty even for less than a perutah. 

I believe there are two simpler answers to the question. We could say that Rashi holds that a Jew only forgives theft of less than a Perutah to a fellow Jew who treats him the same. This is along the lines of the verse in Mishley (29:17):

As face reflects a face in water, so does one man’s heart to another.

Perhaps the Yismach Moshe felt that an easygoing and generous attitude toward money is a character trait that comes from a certain internal disposition. Therefore if one has a tendency to forgive a certain amount, it is not contingent on anyone else’s behavior. 

Regardless, Yismach Moshe explains further, that since it is still less than a perutah it also should be below what is considered a legal threshold, and not have a status of a violation. This can be compared to one who eats less than an olive’s volume of non-kosher food, for which he is not legally liable. However, he cites the Rambam (Laws of Kings 9:10) who holds a gentile is punishable for violating the Seven Noahide laws with no minimum threshold. Therefore, theft of any amount is liable.

We might wonder why does the Torah not enforce matters below a minimum threshold for Jews and not gentiles? This is not just about monetary forgiveness as the same would ruling of the Rambam applies to eating a limb taken from a live animal. Both Jew and gentile are forbidden to eat from it, but for a Jew the minimum punishable violation would be consumption of an olive’s volume, but for a gentile there is no minimum.

I believe the answer is to this is based on distinctions in the underlying relationship. A Jew has a covenantal obligation to follow the mitzvos, thus he is subject to legal definitions and parameters. In this regard, at least as far as administration of punishment by Jewish courts, all laws by definition are subject to definitions and limits. However, the gentile must follow the Seven Noachide Laws as a matter of basic obligation and God’s decree of fundamental human morality. There is no threshold for fundamentals, and any break is a transgression. The transgression is not based on a legal stipulation but instead is regarded as deviating from basic acceptable morality.


Unconscious Communication 

Our Gemara on Amud Aleph uses a scriptural derivation and comparison between real estate and Canaanite slaves. Just as the regular laws of overcharging or undercharging do not apply to real estate, so too, in regard to slaves, they do not apply.

Rav Yonasan Eibshutz (Yaaros Devash 1:17) uses this ruling to explain a deeper idea behind Esther’s plea to Achashverosh (Esther 7:4):

Had we only been sold as slaves, I would have kept silent; for the enemy is not worthy of the king’s trouble.”

Esther was arguing though Haman had paid 10,000 silver to the king for the rights to exterminate the Jews (3:9), it was an unfair exchange. Esther said, granted if we were sold as slaves, there is no overcharging or undercharging. However, the Jewish people are not to be considered slaves, and no sum of money is equal to their worth.

I have remarked numerous times on this particular genre of rabbinic literature that inserts lomdishe arguments into the motivations of Biblical characters. It is important to consider that although it sometimes may seems absurd when the Midrash attributes Talmudic reasoning even to the likes of Pharaoh (see Sotah 11a), it is not to be taken literally in the sense that Esther presented a “Chaburah” to Achashverosh. Even if Esther possessed such Torah knowledge, why would Achashverosh follow her litigious analyses? Did he attend Yeshiva? The rabbis are in touch with a deeper idea. Torah morals and concepts are intrinsically and intuitively valid, therefore the various motives and reasoning are captured metaphorically in anachronistic lomdishe projections, but they represent the compelling underlying morality.  Esther is arguing to Achashverosh that the Jewish people are not a commodity and should have not been up for sale. Even though literally her words state that she would not even bother the king if her brethren were sold as slaves, she is still hinting at the opposite. She is subtly rebuking Achashverosh for commodifying the Jews. Since she is talking to a king, as is in any dissenter in a tyrannical regime, one must be subtle. It’s a clever and underhanded way to argue in front of Achashverosh, or even to protest in such a way that it is deniable.

I believe the Midrash often uses metaphor to capture an unvoiced double entendre, even possibly unconscious. Such as, Yehuda says to the ruler of Egypt, “You are considered as a Pharaoh.” (Bereishis 44:18) Ostensibly this is to flatter him that he is almost as great as Pharaoh, but the Midrash says (Midrash Rabbah 93:6 and Rashi ibid) that Yehudah was implying, “Just as I’m not scared to fight Pharaoh, so too I’m not scared to take you on.” Could Yehuda have really said that? Why would that be wise? This would just instigate the ruler instead of appealing to his mercy, which the rest of his message conveys. The answer is that there were subtle rebukes and maybe even unconscious expressions of Yehuda’s inner feeling.

The idea behind these Midrashim is that human communication is often laden with unexpressed and sometimes even unconscious messsges, which can be the opposite of what they are saying. An emotionally intelligent person learns to listen and notice what is expressed between the lines.

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