Simcha Feuerman
Psychology, Torah and the Daf Yomi

What is Tzedek? The Letter of the Law and other matters Bava Metzia 82-84


Where Charity Begins 

Our Gemara on Amud Beis discusses a teaching of Rav Yitschak, regarding the status of a collateral object. Is the object considered still in the possession of the borrower, or once the collateral is taken, it is fully owned by the lender until such a time as the borrower repays the loan? One halachic outcome that depends on this distinction is if the object was lost due to unforeseeable circumstances. If the object is fully possessed by the lender, then he must absorb full liability for any losses, just as any owner of an object does. However, if it is still in possession of the borrower, then effectively, the lender will be considered a watchman of sorts and have limits to liability, especially in a case of non-negligent, utterly accidental loss. 

Rav Yitschak uses the verse by the collateral to prove that, in fact, it is fully owned by the lender. It states in Devarim (24:10-13):

כִּֽי־תַשֶּׁ֥ה בְרֵֽעֲךָ֖ מַשַּׁ֣את מְא֑וּמָה לֹא־תָבֹ֥א אֶל־בֵּית֖וֹ לַעֲבֹ֥ט עֲבֹטֽוֹ׃

When you make a loan of any sort to your compatriot, you must not enter the house to seize the pledge….

וְאִם־אִ֥ישׁ עָנִ֖י ה֑וּא לֹ֥א תִשְׁכַּ֖ב בַּעֲבֹטֽוֹ׃

If that party is needy, you shall not go to sleep in that pledge; 

הָשֵׁב֩ תָּשִׁ֨יב ל֤וֹ אֶֽת־הַעֲבוֹט֙ כְּב֣וֹא הַשֶּׁ֔מֶשׁ וְשָׁכַ֥ב בְּשַׂלְמָת֖וֹ וּבֵֽרְכֶ֑ךָּ וּלְךָ֙ תִּהְיֶ֣ה צְדָקָ֔ה לִפְנֵ֖י ה אלקיך

you must return the pledge at sundown, that its owner may sleep in the cloth and bless you; and it will be to tzedakah to you before your God.

Rav Yitschok notes that the verse refers to this act as tzedakah, which can be translated as charity. Why would returning the collateral be described as charity? Kindly perhaps, but not charity. However, since the verse does refer to it as charity, this indicates that the collateral is in the lender’s possession, and indeed letting the borrower use it at night is charity, in the sense that he was giving a gift of his own object to use.

This is all the derash, but the simple meaning is that it is charitable to let the owner of the collateral to still use the object. Furthermore, the word tzedakah does not strictly translate as charity alone, and can mean other kinds of kind deeds. 

The Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim III:53) discusses the precise meaning and distinctions between three similar Hebrew words: tzedakah, chessed and mishpat. Chessed refers to an extreme (rarely as extremely immoral, such as Vayikra 20:17,) and most often refers to an extreme kindness, of which there is no obligation. Mishpat is a form of justice that is meted out in a judicial manner, to either reward or punish. However, tzedakah is about something that is proper, thus often translated to English as righteous. That is to say, while not an obligation, it is a fitting act and brings completion to the person who performs the act. The volitional action toward what is appropriate and fair in judgment, constitutes a balance of a human soul and personality. Such actions complete and perfect the personality of the giver, and this is the Rambam’s interpretation of this verse, when it states, “and it will be tzedakah to you before your God.” The emphasis is on the words, “to you”. By acting in this way voluntarily, the soul becomes elevated by behaving in sync with God’s sentiments. 

The idea that tzedakah is an act which perfects the person who performs it may help explain a cryptic Rabbenu Bechaye (Vayikra 27:8). Rabbenu Bechaye quotes a Gemara (Bava Metzia 114a) which rules that if the Temple treasury takes a collateral on a pledge, it does not return it for use at night. The Gemara deduces this also from the verse’s declaration that it “It will be tzedakah to you”, that since Hashem does not need charity, the directives in the verse do not apply. The Gemara over there notes that though God does not need charity, He does “need” blessing, as it states in Devarim (8:10): “And you will eat, be satisfied, and bless Hashem your God for the good land He gave you.”

Rabbenu Bechaye wonders how it makes any sense that God “needs” blessing, but not charity? He answers, the distinction between the two is “self-evident for an insightful person”. Here is what I believe he means. The function of chessed that we described above is a form of self-development, that God has no need for. However, the function of blessing that we “give” to God is not a completion, but rather an activation of a channel for His blessings to manifest in the physical world. This is similar to the a principle that Nefesh Hachaim (I:3) explains, based on an Eichah Rabbah:

And the sages said in Eicha Rabba (1:33, on verse 1:6): “When Israel performs God’s will, the Almighty’s power increases, as is written (Tehillim 60:14): “through God, we will make valor. ” And when Israel doesn’t perform God’s will, it is as if they weaken the great power of heaven, as is written (D’varim 32:18): “Rock, your children weaken You”  In the Zohar we find that the sins of man cause blemishes above, and similarly the opposite occurs too, as we mentioned. And this is what the Torah says (Tehillim 68:35): “Give strength to God.” 


When the Letter of the Law is to Go Above It

Our Gemara on Amud Aleph discusses an incident where Rabbah bar Chanan’s hired porters broke a barrel of wine. Though they were legally hired as watchmen and thus responsible for the mishap, his teacher (Rav) required him to not only release them of liability for the broken barrel, but to even pay them their wages! Rabbah bar Chanan asked Rav, “Is this really the required Halacha?” Rav answered, “Yes it is”, quoting a verse in Mishley (2:20):

לְמַ֗עַן תֵּ֭לֵךְ בְּדֶ֣רֶךְ טוֹבִ֑ים וְאׇרְח֖וֹת צַדִּיקִ֣ים תִּשְׁמֹֽר׃

So follow the way of the good, and keep to the paths of the just.

The implication was, for a person of your stature, it is actually the law to go beyond the letter of the law.

How do we understand this moral code? Be’er Mayyim Chaim (Bereishis 1:1) explains that different people stem from different modes of God’s manifestation that constitute different worlds. Those whose souls stem from “Yetzira”, need to restore and repair this missing connection between God and soul, as it pertains to that world. The world of Yetzira consists of beings, such as angels, that possess form but do not function in the physical world, the dimension of “Assiyah”, practical action.  Such a person must perceive the hints and suggestions in the Torah of a higher reality and morality, and if he does not act on that subtle signal, it will be tantamount to sin, technically not a sin for others. He would fail to restore his soul back to its station, in accordance with the metaphysical idea that the soul must volitionally choose to complete itself, as the very act of that choice is an expression of Godly agency which then brings it about. This relates to how we described tzedakah in yesterday’s blog post, Psychology of the Daf, Bava Metzia 82. 

In a less esoteric fashion, though no less meaningful, Shalah (Asara Maamaros, Seventh Maamar) explains that the human personality is much too variable, and the Torah had to leave certain moral issues without specific legislation. How self-sacrificing one should be, what pleasures are considered reasonable gratifications to allow for emotional regulation and what constitutes hedonism depends on each person’s personality. Despite it not being specifically delineated, if a person violates an unwritten but personal standard that is proper for his spiritual stature, it is a sin nonetheless. This is why Rav was adamant in insisting, “No. For you this is Halacha, not merely an extra piety.”

We must learn to discern what our souls require for completion, and abide by those internal expectations. 


Putting the Create Back into Procreate 

Our Gemara on Amud Aleph discusses the anatomy of various sages, in bizarre detail,:

When Rabbi Yishmael, son of Rabbi Yosei, and Rabbi Elazar, son of Rabbi Shimon, would meet each other, it was possible for a pair of oxen to enter and fit between them, under their bellies, without touching them, due to their excessive obesity.

A certain Roman noblewoman [matronisa] once said to them: Your children are not really your own, as due to your obesity it is impossible that you engaged in intercourse with your wives. They said to her: Theirs, i.e., our wives’ bellies, are larger than ours. She said to them: All the more so you could not have had intercourse. There are those who say that this is what they said to her: “For as the man is, so is his strength” (Judges 8:21), i.e., our sexual organs are proportionate to our bellies. There are those who say that this is what they said to her: Love compresses the flesh.

The Gemara asks: And why did they respond to her audacious and foolish question? After all, it is written: “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him” (Proverbs 26:4). The Gemara answers: They answered her in order not to cast aspersions on the lineage of their children.

The Gemara continues discussing the bodies of these Sages: Rabbi Yoḥanan said: The organ of Rabbi Yishmael, son of Rabbi Yosei, was the size of a jug of nine kav. Rav Pappa said: The organ of Rabbi Yoḥanan was the size of a jug of five kav, and some say it was the size of a jug of three kav. Rav Pappa himself had a belly like the baskets [dikurei] made in Harpanya.

The Maharal Be’er Hagolah (Well 5, Mishnah 4) explains that of course the Gemara is not referring to physical body parts alone. The dispute with the Roman matron was a theological one. Her point was to suggest that any physical aspects of their lives were contradictory to the spiritual. She saw procreation and its lustful aspects as inimical to what she believed was a way to achieve communion with the Gods. To her, the rabbis were obese, that is their embracing of physicality was unseemly. However, Maharal says, Jewish philosophy is not merely to concede to physical lust as a necessary evil for the furtherance of the species, but as a spiritual act itself. The physical organs and their various capacities, are only the physical manifestation of a spiritual facility for generation, which comes from love. Love itself is a physical manifestation of the greater spiritual force of creation. This is why conception occurs from this act. Maharal points out the description of size gets notably smaller with each rabbinic generation, as related in our Gemara, indicating the size is a virtue. This means their ability to utilize their physicality to its full extent and power in service of Godly aims.) 

Indeed the rabbis could not ignore the Roman Matron’s challenge because they had to defend their children and lineage. This too is a metaphor, their children and lineage are the value and product of their strivings in this world. I often quote this powerful assertion from Rav Soloveitchik (Halachic Man, p. 41);

There is nothing so physically and spiritually destructive as diverting one’s attention from this world. And, by contrast, how courageous is halakhic man who does not flee from this world, who does not seek to escape to some pure, supernal realm.

Judaism is not distinct from other religions just because we have a few more commandments and a stricter definition of monotheism. The Jewish way is not merely to give in to human nature and lust as a concession, nor does it encourage an extreme rejection of the physical pleasures and experiences of this world. We rejoice in the physical encounters as gateways to a deeper realm. (This itself has psychological similarities to monotheism in that there is no splitting of intentions.  All comes from God and therefore all is potentially good.) The Gemara resorted to extreme anatomical imagery to specifically shock and grab our attention. Acknowledging the absurd degree by which these body parts can dominate our thinking and behavior only tells us how important it must be. Something that generates such powerful feelings and reactions must contain a Godly force which is to be harnessed carefully. It is not to be rejected, underestimated, nor allowed to become our master.

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