Talmud Tips

For the week ending 9 December 2023 / 26 Kislev 5784

Bava Kama 37-50

by Rabbi Moshe Newman
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In Awe of Torah Scholars

Shimon Ha’amsoni (others say it was Nechemia Ha’amsoni) was explaining the significance of each and every time the word “et” appears in the Torah. However, when he reached the verse “et Hashem Elokecha tira” (Deut. 6:13) — fear the L-rd your G-d — he stopped. His students said to him, “Our Rabbi, what will become of your explanations of the word “et” that you taught until now?” He replied, “Just as I received reward for explaining, so too I will receive reward for abstaining from explaining.” Then Rabbi Akiva came and taught that the word “et” in the verse “et Hashem Elokecha tira” teaches to include Torah scholars (i.e., just as the verse teaches the mitzvah to fear Hashem, likewise it teaches to fear Torah scholars).

This beraita on our daf is based on the idea that every word and letter in the Torah has meaning. Therefore, even the word “et”, which does not have any particular translation, must be there to include something else that is not mentioned explicitly each time it appears in the Torah. This is why these Sages sought to explain what each “et” in the Torah is meant to teach. Shimon Ha’amsoni “did not know” what to do with the “et” in this verse (Rashi).

The Maharsha on our daf refers to Rashi’s commentary in Masechet Kiddushin (57a), where Rashi writes that the Sage “feared” to equate the fear of “anything else” to the fear of Hashem, and could therefore not attribute any meaning to the word “et” in the verse that appears in the command to fear Hashem. Based on this explanation, the Maharsha explains why this Sage said that he would receive reward for ceasing to explain the meaning of each “et” in the Torah, just as he had received reward for toiling in Torah study to attempt attributing special meaning to this word in other cases. His act of “cease and desist” when encountering the word “et” in the verse commanding fear of Hashem was itself a true act of awe and fear of Hashem, and therefore deserving of the reward for fulfilling this mitzvah to fear Hashem.

Tosefot asks a question on the stance of the Sage Shimon Ha’Amsoni. “Why did he cease?” asks Tosefot, who cites a gemara (Kiddusin 30b) which in fact equates the fear of one’s parents to the fear of Hashem. Why didn’t he continue to interpret “etim” in the Torah, and include the fear of one’s parents from the “et” in this verse? Tosefot answers that the Sage did not want to include the fear of one’s parents from the “et” in this verse since he did not want to derive from here a second, additional mitzvah to fear one’s parents from the existence of this word in this verse. Which begs the question: “Why not?” I once suggested the following explanation of the answer of Tosefot to a great Rabbi in Jerusalem: If the Sage would derive from the word “et” in this context that there are actually two positive commands to fear one’s parents, as opposed to “only” one positive mitzvah to fear Hashem, doing so would be an act of “lack of fear of Hashem” — and contrary to the mitzvah stated explicitly in the verse.

As a parenthetic remark, it appears that Tosefot understands Shimon Ha’Amsoni’s reason for stopping differently than Rashi does, as explained by the Maharsha. According to Rashi he ceased since “fear of Hashem” inherently means that there is no other entity to be equated to Hashem, and therefore to be feared to the same degree. If so, even the fear of one’s parents would not “equate”, and would not be a “candidate” to learn from the word “et” in the mitzvah to fear Hashem, and Tosefot’s question would not pose any difficulty to Rashi’s explanation (and the gemara in Kiddushin 30b could be reconciled with this approach in a number of ways). But since Tosefot asks the question regarding fearing one’s parents, Tosefot appears to understand that the Sage ceased to interpret “etim” “only” because he could not find anything suitable to include, and therefore Tosefot asks, “Why not include from this “et” fear of one’s parents?”

Unlike the first Sage in our beraita, Rabbi Akiva felt it correct to explain that the word “et” in this verse teaches to include fear of Torah scholars as well as fear of Hashem, since fearing Torah scholars is also showing honor to Hashem and His Torah, because Torah scholars dedicate their lives to the study of Hashem’s Torah. (Maharsha)

Bava Kama 41b

Children of the Righteous

Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa said (rhetorically): “Something at which that righteous person toils, is it possible that his child should ‘stumble’ (i.e., die) as a result of?”

Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa stated this principle — an example of a “Divine trait” by which G-d metes out mercy or punishment in this world — in response to a specific event that was brought to his attention, as the gemara on our daf relates:

The daughter of a man named Nechuniya “the well digger” (who dug wells for the use of people who would come up to Jerusalem for the Festivals — Rashi) fell into a deep well, and there was fear for her life. People informed the great Torah scholar and righteous man Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa as to this dangerous situation. In the first hour (when it was still possible for her to be alive in the well — Rashi) he told the people, “Shalom”, i.e. she is alive and well. In the second hour he repeated his declaration. In the third hour (when it she could no longer have survived being in the well — Rashi) he said, “She has already come out of the well.”

When the people asked Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa if he knew all this because he was a prophet, he replied, “I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but this is what I ‘said’ (i.e. ‘know’): “Something at which that righteous person toils at, is it possible that his child should ‘stumble’ (i.e., die) as a result of?”

Nevertheless, said Rabbi Acha regarding righteous Nechuniya the well digger, “His son died of thirst”. Rabbi Acha cited a verse (Tehillim 50:3) as the basis for the punishment in this case, which states in part: “…and around Him it storms furiously.” Rashi explains this to mean that “the righteous” — who “cleave and are around Hashem” — are judged by a margin of transgression that is as narrow as a “strand of hair” (the word for “storm”, “sa’ara”, in the verse, is spelled with the letter “sin”, like the Hebrew word for “hair”, instead of the way storm is normally spelled, with a “samech”).

Tosefot finds the death of the righteous well digger’s son by thirst difficult to understand, based on Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa’s principle that a matter in which a righteous person suffers will not be reason for his offspring to suffer, as he pronounced in the case of the well digger’s daughter. How could his son die in this manner, since the father toiled to dig water wells for the purpose of providing water to others so they should not be thirsty?

The difference, answers Tosefot, is that “in that thing itself, it is not fit for the child to suffer.” This answer may seem vague, but Tosefot in Masechet Yevamot (121b, and as explained by the Ba’Ch there) writes that a well, which was what the righteous father toiled at, did not cause the death of the son. Rather, it was the lack of water. Therefore Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa’s principle did not apply for the son, unlike its applying for the daughter who would not die as a result of the well of water, the type of item that her father dug. It appears that Rashi on our daf agrees with this explanation since he carefully explains “the toil of her father” as “digging wells and cisterns for people travelling to Jerusalem for the Festivals,” and the son did not, in fact, die in a well.

However, another take on Rashi’s commentary is that the father dug holes in the ground which he hoped would be filled with rainwater afterwards, but he did not dig wells of water per se. This is the difference between his daughter and his son: Although his daughter could not die in a well (since he dug wells), his son could indeed die from a lack of water (since the father did not provide water for the wells). (Etz Yosef)

Another possible answer is that the principle that Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa taught is true only when the mitzvah is performed completely and perfectly “for the sake of Heaven.” The righteous father dug wells for the sake of the mitzvah of helping people fulfill the mitzvah to come up to Jerusalem for the Festivals, having sufficient water to drink along the way and arrive in good health. The father fulfilled the mitzvah exactly for the correct reason at the time of his daughter’s predicament, but he was lacking “by the breadth of a hair” in the perfection of this mitzvah at the time of his son’s fatal thirst.

One more answer I have heard is that when Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa stated that a matter in which a righteous person toils and suffers will not be reason for his child to die, it is not truly a “principle” describing Hashem’s actions. Rather, Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa was telling the people the words that he prayed to Hashem for the safety of Nechuniya’s daughter, a prayer that he was certain would be received by G-d, and the daughter would be alive and well. (Apparently, there was no such prayer in the case of the man’s son, for whatever reason.)

Bava Kama 50a

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