Talmud Tips

For the week ending 5 December 2020 / 19 Kislev 5781

Pesachim 16 - 22 and 23 - 29

by Rabbi Moshe Newman
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Is Almost Good Enough?

We learned in a beraita: Shimon Ha’Amsoni, and others say it was Nechemia Ha’Amsoni, would explain the meaning of every appearance of the word ‘et’ in the Torah. When he reached, “Fear [et] Hashem, your G-d,” he stopped. His students asked him, “Rebbi, all appearances of the word ‘et’ in the Torah that you already explained, what is their fate?” He answered, “Just as I received reward for explaining them, likewise I receive reward for stopping to explain them.” Rabbi Akiva came and explained: In the verse “Fear [et] Hashem, your G-d,” the word ‘et’ comes to include Torah scholars.

In our Hebrew language studies nowadays we are accustomed to understand the word et as a part of speech without real meaning, but as serving the purpose of introducing a definite direct object. However, in Torah studies it is assumed that everything in the Torah has meaning. Every word, every letter and even the crowns on the letters. So what does the word et mean in the Torah? The simple answer is that the word et appears in the Torah to include something that is not explicitly mentioned in the verse, but is similar in nature to the definite direct object that follows it in the verse.

With this in mind, one of our Sages (Rabbi Shimon Ha’Amsoni or Rabbi Nechemia Ha’Amsoni) initially explained the meaning of the word et in various places in the Torah. In one place, he said, it means one thing and in another place it means something else — but each time the attributed meaning is similar to the definite direct object word that appears explicitly in the verse. However, the word et in the verse, “Fear [et] Hashem your G-d,” posed an impasse. The Sage rhetorically asked, “What can be included by the word et that should also be feared in the same way that Hashem is to be feared?” Therefore, he did not assign the word et in this verse any special meaning.

When his students asked him regarding the status of every other et in the Torah that he had already successfully explained, he told them, “Just as I received reward for initially explaining their meanings, likewise Iwill now receive reward for retracting my original teachings”, concluding that nothing new is included from any et in the entire Torah.

Rabbi Akiva, however, reasoned otherwise. He taught that every et in the Torah includes something new, including the one in the verse that teaches the mitzvah of fearing Hashem. Here, says Rabbi Akiva, the word et comes to include Torah scholars. This means that just as there is a mitzvah to fear Hashem, there is likewise a mitzvah to fear Torah scholars. Although, of course, the equation of Torah scholars to Hashem is not exact, we should be in awe of their greatness in a manner that is similar to — but not equal to — our awe and fear of Hashem. As the Mishna in Pirkei Avot (4:12) teaches, “Rabbi Eliezer the son of Shamua would say: The dignity of your student should be as precious to you as your own; the dignity of your colleague, as your awe of your Torah teacher; and your awe of your Torah teacher as your awe of Heaven.” (Rashi)

Maharsha explains the different views of the first Sage and Rabbi Akiva in the following manner. The impetus for first Sage to offer interpretations for every et in the Torah was to honor Hashem and His Torah by showing that not even one word in the Torah is superfluous. Since this Sage’s purpose was to honor Hashem in this way, he reasoned that he would achieve that same goal by avoiding any interpretation of the word et that would include anyone in the same category with Hashem.

Rabbi Akiva, explains the Maharsha, reasoned that it was indeed correct and appropriate to include Torah scholars from the word et — not in the sense of fear of retribution, but rather in the sense of awe and respect. He viewed this not as disrespect to the honor of Hashem, but rather as a tribute to Torah scholars, who learn Hashem's Torah.

  • Pesachim 22b

With All Your Might

Rabbi Eliezer says, “If the Torah says ‘[And you will love Hashem, your G-d…] and with all your life,’ why does the Torah also say, ‘And with all of your might’? And, if the Torah says, ‘And with all of your money,’ why does the Torah also say, ‘And with all your life’? Rather, the Torah is saying to you: If there is a person whose life is more dear to him than his money, therefore the Torah says, ‘And with all your life;’ and if there is a person whose money is more dear to him than his life, therefore the Torah says, ‘And with all your money’?”

The basis for this teaching is a verse in the Torah that is part of our daily prayers in the first paragraph of the Kriat Shma: “And you will love Hashem, your G-d, with all your heart, with all your soul (i.e. life) and with all your might (i.e. money). This is one way that Chazal explain the words in the verse. There is a mitzvah to love Hashem, even in certain situations — such as being faced with choosing idol worship or sacrificing his life or all of his money. Rabbi Eleizer explains why the Torah specifies this expression of love as being willing to part with both his life and his wealth, and does not just state the greater sacrifice (presumably giving up his life), from which we would logically know that he would of course need to make the lesser sacrifice in order to show his love for Hashem by not transgressing.

He explains that the Torah addresses a person of any mindset: A person who values his life more than his money must choose to forfeit his life, and a person who values his money over his life must be prepared to forgo all of his money to show his love for Hashem, if needed.

It may perhaps sound strange to some people to hear that there are people (or even one sane person) who values his money more than his life. However, the commentaries explain this value system of life versus money is not necessarily a general one, the way a person thinks throughout his life. Rather, the verse deals with only one relevant point for making the ultimate sacrifice that is required by this verse to fulfill the mitzvah of loving Hashem without a limit. This point in time is the moment if and when a person is faced with the choice of giving up all of his money (or his life, depending on the specific demand) in order not to worship the idol. What is more important to him then?

Perhaps he is very elderly and very infirm and he greatly desires to leave his wealth to his wife, children, charitable organizations, places of Torah study, and other worthy and needy causes? If, at that moment and under those circumstances in his lifetime, he is given the choice of relinquishing all his wealth or be killed, it is not unreasonable that he would find his money dearer to him than his life. At that point in time, the money might very well be his priority — perhaps by a long shot. In this case, the mitzvah to love Hashem requires him to part with his money, despite it being that which is truly what is most dear to him.

[*Note: Please skip the following paragraph if you are not a fan of renowned Jack Benny stories. One of the longest laughs in radio history occurred during the Jack Benny show. Mr. Benny, who was notoriously parsimonious, was late in arriving at the studio. His sidekick asked him why he was so late. He told him that he was mugged on the way. The questioner continued to wonder how that accounted for his extreme lateness. “Does it really take that long to be robbed?” Jack Benny answered in his deliberate manner, “The robber threatened me with the ultimatum, ‘Your money or your life’?! And, I was thinking…”]

  • Pesachim 25a

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