Talmud Tips

For the week ending 16 July 2016 / 10 Tammuz 5776

Bava Kama 44 - 50

by Rabbi Moshe Newman
The Color of Heaven Artscroll

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 G-d” — 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”).

Tosaefot 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 Tosaefot 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 G-d’s actions. Rather, Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa was telling the people the words that he prayed to G-d 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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