Bava Basra 86 - 92
Sages and Swindlers
Honesty in weights and measures is forcefully commanded by the Torah and was strictly enforced by the authorities in a Torah community. The Talmudic Sages were aware of all the tricks which a swindling merchant might do to deceive his customers - from using metal weights which wore out with use, to employing heavy sticks to smooth out measured flour to the disadvantage of the buyer. The great sage Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai thus expressed his dilemma in regard to making public this awareness of the sages:
"Woe to me if I speak, woe to me if I do not speak."
Should he speak and reveal these strategies there was a danger that swindlers might learn from him how to better deceive their unknowing customers. Should he not speak, his silence might be interpreted by the swindlers as an indication that the sages were unaware of their tricks.
Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai finally resolved his dilemma on the basis of a passage in the prophecy of Hoshea (14:10):
"The ways of Hashem are straight. The righteous walk safely upon them and the sinners stumble."
The ways of Hashem must be made known to all, decided the sage, and it was the free will of man to utilize the information for good or evil.
There are three different interpretations as to what danger is involved in the swindlers thinking that the sages are unaware of their tricks.
- This will encourage them to fearlessly increase their swindling. (Rashbam)
- They will say that even the sages are really dishonest but don't engage in swindling only because they are unaware of how to do so. (Maharsha)
- They will lose respect for the power of Torah to invest the scholar with every sort of cleverness. (Ahavat Eitan)
(Maharsha suggests that the reason why the sage decided to publicize was in order to protect customers from dishonest merchants and honest merchants from unwittingly swindling their customers. So even if the sinner stumbles by exploiting this information the honest merchant will be saved from making such mistakes.)
- Bava Basra 89b
Woe to the Captain-less Ship
The day Avraham Avinu passed away all the great men of the generation eulogized him thus:
"Woe to the world which has lost its leader. Woe to the ship which has lost its captain."
Avraham, explains Maharsha, taught his generation both the intellectual concepts of belief in the Creator and the character traits which are proper for man. The first part of the eulogy focused on the service performed by Avraham in making the world aware of its creator and leader, and the loss felt by this world in relating to this leader now that their great teacher was gone. The second part is based on the allegorical relationship of the ship to this world, which is often repeated in this particular perek of Bava Basra ("One Who Sells a Ship"). Just as passengers of a ship are in danger when they lose the captain who steers a proper course, so were Avraham's survivors imperiled when they lost the captain who taught them the proper way to live.
- Bava Basra 91a