Kiddushin 16 - 36
Not an Earring
The ear of a person that heard My voice at Mount Sinai declare that ‘the Jewish People are My servants’ (Vayikra 25:55) — and not the servants of servants — and went and sold himself as a slave to another — deserves to be pierced.”
Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai explained that we can learn this “gem of a teaching” (“k’min chomer” — see Rashi) when we learn the verse: “But if the Hebrew indentured servant says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go free…’ his master shall bore his ear with an awl, and he shall serve him forever.” (Ex. 21:5-6)
In addition to this explanation for piercing his ear, Tosefot offers cites a Midrash that hints to the reason for using an awl — called “martzea” in the verse. The gematria of the word martzea is 400. Since the Jewish People were slaves in Egypt for 400 years and were redeemed by Hashem, this Jewish person who went and “acquired” a master for himself deserves to be pierced with a “martzea of 400”.
Miracles, Prayers and Righteousness
On the following day, Rav Acha said to them, “If not for a miracle, you have caused me to be in danger.”
What happened on the previous day that led Rav Acha to say this, and why did the people put him in a potentially dangerous situation? The gemara relates that there was a “mazik” — a type of damaging demon — that resided in the Yeshiva headed by the Sage Abayei. When Abayei heard that Rav Acha was coming to town he told the people not to put him up for the night, so that Rav Acha would be forced to stay in the Yeshiva, “and perhaps a miracle will occur”, and the danger would cease. In fact, Rav Acha stayed in the Yeshiva, and when he saw the mazik he prayed for help from Hashem. Each time Rav Acha bowed while saying “modim” — “thank you” — to Hashem, one of the seven “skulls” (Rashi) fell from the damaging force.
But how could Abayei rely on a miracle to save Rav Acha, in order to bring safety to his Yeshiva? From the words of Abayei, “perhaps a miracle will occur”, it sounds like Abayei was not certain of Rav Acha’s safety. Perhaps a miracle would occur but perhaps it would not!
The Maharsha explains that indeed Abayei was 100 percent certain that the prayer of the pious scholar would destroy the predator. And this would not be considered a miracle, since it was purely “natural,” according to Abayei, that Hashem would answer Rav Acha’s prayer and save him. Abayei was in doubt, however, that perhaps Hashem would perform a miracle to vanquish the damager before Rav Acha began to pray. And if a miracle in fact would occur for Rav Acha, this would detract from his merits in his “Heavenly accounting,” something that Rav Acha would not be happy about. Yet, since there was a mazik in the Yeshiva, Abayei felt that the certainty that Rav Acha’s presence there would kill it justified causing Rav Acha to be there. This step of ensuring safety in the Yeshiva was warranted despite Abayei’s doubt of whether the danger would be removed naturally by prayer (with no reduced merits), or “supernaturally” through a miracle (resulting in reduced merits).
Either way, Rav Acha would be safe according to Abayei’s view, and the Yeshiva would be made safe again — perhaps with a miracle, but perhaps without.
Rav Acha, on the other hand, did not view the matter in the same manner as Abayei did. In fact, his prayer was enough, without a miracle, to naturally remove the demon, one head a time. However, Rav Acha was extremely humble and modest, and did not feel that his prayer could kill the damager in a natural manner. Rather, he felt that Hashem answering his prayer to destroy the damager would be considered a great miracle, and his own “merits” would be reduced. Therefore, he was “upset” when he spoke to the people of the town the next day and said to them, “If not for the miracle, you would have caused me to be in great danger.” Meaning, since Rav Acha did not consider his prayer powerful enough that Hashem should “naturally” answer him and save him, he had certainly suffered a loss by being “cornered” into staying in the place of the damager. He felt that only a miracle could save him. And since he was put into a situation that even if a miracle occurred and he was saved, which is how he viewed what had happened, he today had fewer merits than he had yesterday according to his humble view of himself.
An Elder or a Scholar
Rabbi Yosi Hagalili said, “The word ‘zaken’ (in the verse) refers to one who has acquired Torah wisdom.”
The Torah states in Vayikra 19:32, “You shall rise before an elderly person and you shall respect the ‘zaken,’ and you shall fear your Hashem. I am the L-rd.” We see in this verse that there is a mitzvah, a positive command, to show honor by standing up for a zaken. Whom does the Torah refer to with the word zaken?
According to the explanation of the gemara, Rabbi Yosi Hagalili states that the Torah mitzvah to rise before a “zaken” applies not only to rising for an elderly Torah scholar, but even for a young Torah scholar. This is because even a young Torah scholar is called a zaken (although it is usually translated to mean “elderly”), since zaken in the verse refers to “one who has acquired Torah wisdom,” regardless of his age. Rashi explains that Rabbi Yosi’s Hagalili understands the word “zaken” in the verse as an acronym for three Hebrew words: “Zeh kana chochma,” meaning “this person acquired (Torah) wisdom.” The halacha is according to the ruling of Rabbi Yosi Hagalili and is cited in Shulchan Aruch Yoreh De’ah 240:1.
A famous question is asked on this explanation. True, I can “see” the words “zeh” and “kana” in the word “zaken”, but where is the hint to the key word for “chochma”, Torah wisdom, in the word “zaken”?
What is the one and only true possession that a person acquires? The wisdom of the Torah. A person who “acquires Torah” turns it into part of his being and owns it for eternity. All other possessions can come and go, and are not truly part of a person’s essence. Therefore, although the word “zaken” appears to contain only the words for “this person acquired”, it obviously means that he has acquired Torah wisdom. “Chochma,” Torah wisdom, is understood to be that which he acquired, since Torah is the only acquisition that is a true and lasting acquisition. (Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, zatzal — “the Steipler Rav”)