Talmud Tips

For the week ending 17 December 2016 / 17 Kislev 5777

Bava Metzia 82 - 88

by Rabbi Moshe Newman
The Color of Heaven Artscroll

Rabbi Elazar said, “This teaches that righteous people promise little and perform much; whereas the wicked promise much and do not perform even little.”

This teaching on our daf appears to relate the same message as the statement by the Sage Shammai in Pirkei Avot (1:15) “Say little and do much.” In fact, the Maharsha writes that Rabbi Elazar’s statement is indeed the same one as that recorded in the name of Shammai in Pirkei Avot (although it may seem unusual for the Gemara to record the teaching of an Amora that seems to repeat the teaching of a Tana in a Mishna).

Rabbi Elazar explains that he learns this “tip” from Avraham Avinu. Avraham said to the three visitors who came to him after he circumcised himself, “And I will give you some bread to eat, and afterwards you shall continue on your way.” (Gen. 18:5) However, the verses tell us what he actually did: “And he ran to the cattle, and he took a calf, tender and good… and he took cream and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and he placed it all before them…” (Gen. 18:7-8) Avraham also requested that bread be prepared for them quickly. (Gen. 18:6)

Why do righteous people promise little and perform much? The Maharsha offers a reason. Sometimes, if a host offers too much, the guest will not want to enter, or a recipient will not want to accept what is offered. This is because the guest will not want to cause excessive bother to the host, and also does not want to feel a need to stay longer than he wishes, due to gratitude for the excessive bother. Therefore, the host should offer only a minimal amount, but yet try to perform and give in the most generous way possible for him. The Maharsha states that Avraham was conveying to the guests that they were not a burden to him, nor would he impose upon them after they ate. He told them, “And I will give you some bread to eat, and afterwards you shall continue on your way.”

While the Maharsha does not explicitly explain the “flip-side” that Rabbi Elazar also teaches — “the wicked promise much and do not perform even little” — we should also be able to understand the reason for this from the reason provided by the Maharsha. A host who offers too much to a guest is, in a sense, offering nothing. It is a near certainty that the guest will refuse the offer, due to its being a great burden on the host, and also because the guest will feel overly beholden to the host. Therefore, the guest will end up refusing to accept the offer, and the wicked host is happily “off the hook”.

  • Bava Metzia 87a

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