Gittin 33 - 39
The Missing Coin
In order for a widow to collect from the orphans the money due her from her ketubah (marriage contract) she is required to verify that she did not receive any payment from her husband while he was alive. This verification was initially done by her taking an oath to this effect. When Rabban Gamliel observed that widows were losing their ability to collect payment because of their reluctance to take an oath, he decreed that it would suffice if the widow would take upon herself a vow of abstinence (from any particular kinds of food) designated by the orphans in the event that she had received payment.
The gemara cites a story to illustrate the severity of punishment for a false oath which frightened widows into refraining from taking an oath. A man once gave a widow a gold coin for safekeeping. She hid it in a container of flour and when she later took some flour for baking she failed to notice that the coin was baked into the loaf, which she gave away to a beggar. When the owner of the coin came to ask for it she was so adamant in protesting her innocence of any misappropriation that she took an oath that one of her children should die if she had any benefit from the coin. A short while later one of her children died and when the Sages heard about this they exclaimed: If this is what happens to someone who had not intended to take a false oath, how much more severe will be the punishment for one who swears falsely! It was the fear of inadvertently being guilty of a false oath that discouraged widows from collecting their ketubah money through an oath and necessitated the decree of Rabban Gamliel.
But why indeed was the widow in that story so severely punished?
Her oath was that she had received no benefit from the coin. In fact, however, had the coin not been in the batch of flour she used for baking that loaf, she would have used more of her flour supply. The amount of flour displaced by the coin thus turned out to be her benefit from that coin.
In regard to the innocence of her intention Tosefot contrasts this with the case of Rabbi Kahana and Rabbi Asa (Mesechta Shavuot 26a) who each took an oath that what they said in the name of their master, the Sage Rav, was what he had actually said. When Rav eventually vindicated one of them, the other asked whether he had been guilty of taking a false oath. Rav told him that because he was absolutely certain that he was swearing the truth he was not guilty of swearing falsely. This does not apply to the widow in our case, says Tosefot, because as guardian of the coin she was responsible for guarding it carefully and should have anticipated that an oath would be required of her if she failed to produce that coin. It was this dimension of carelessness which made her guilty of swearing falsely despite her lack of intention to do so.
Man-Made Tenth Man
There were only nine Jews in the synagogue without a tenth man in sight to complete the minyan-quorum necessary for communal prayers. Rabbi Eliezer deemed the situation an emergency and liberated his Canaanite slave to complete the minyan.
How could he do so, asks the gemara, when it is forbidden to liberate such a slave, in accordance with the Torah command "You shall enslave them forever" (Vayikra 25:46)? The answer given in our gemara is that this ban does not apply when the slave is liberated for the sake of fulfilling a mitzvah. (In Mesechta Berachot 47b this answer is challenged on the grounds that you cannot fulfill a mitzvah through the committing of a sin, and the response is that a mitzvah of communal nature has a special status.)
The question has been raised as to why it was necessary for Rabbi Eliezer to come into conflict with the ban on liberating slaves in order to complete his minyan if he could simply have created a tenth man? The Talmudic sages certainly had the power to do so as is evident from the incident described in Mesechta Sanhedrin (65b). The Sage Rava created a man by using the mystical formula in "Sefer Hayetzira" and sent his creation to his colleague Rabbi Zeira. When the latter spoke to this creature and received no response he realized that this was a man-made man with no soul and the power of speech that goes with it. He therefore ordered it to return to its dust.
If Rabbi Eliezer preferred liberating his slave to making a man, it would seem that this is proof that a man-made man is not considered a Jew who can complete a minyan. What is interesting, however, is that the question of whether such a creature (commonly referred to as a "golem") is eligible for inclusion in a minyan was actually dealt with some three centuries ago by Rabbi Tzvi Ashkenazi in his Responsa of Chacham Tzvi (93). He concludes that even though there is an argument to be made that since the creations of tzaddikim are considered as their offspring and therefore the golem should be considered a Jew, the aforementioned incident of Rabbi Zeira consigning Rava's golem to the dust bin proves that such a creature cannot be included in a minyan. His reasoning is that Rabbi Zeira decided that the speechless creature had no value and if he was capable of completing a minyan he would not have so readily disposed of him.
We invite readers of Ohrnet to suggest why Chacham Tzvi did not prove his point from Rabbi Eliezer's reluctance to make a man.