Talmud Tips

For the week ending 20 January 2018 / 4 Shevat 5778

Shavuot 44 - 49

by Rabbi Moshe Newman
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Payment for Guarding a Lost Object?

Rabbi Yosef says, “He is like a paid guard, since he is exempt from giving charity to a poor person while he is involved in caring for the lost object.”

The Sage Rabba disagrees with Rav Yosef regarding the degree of responsibility of one who finds a lost object that needs returning — a shomer aveida. The finder must take active measures, as necessary, to take care of the lost object until the owner identifies it and it is restored to him. Rabba rules that the finder is a shomer chinam — an unpaid guard — since he is not receiving payment to guard the object. Therefore, he is obligated to pay for the lost object that he should guard only if something happens to it due to his negligence, as is the law of the “unpaid guard” — but not if it is lost or stolen from him without negligence.

Rav Yosef, however, contends that the finder of a lost object has a greater amount of responsibility than an unpaid guard, that he has the responsibility of a “paid guard” who is obligated to pay in the event of loss or theft, and is exempt only if the object cannot be returned due to circumstances beyond his control — such as its death or being struck by lightning. What is the “payment” he receives? Rabbi Yosef explains, “The money that he saves since he is exempt from giving charity to a poor person while he is involved in caring for the lost object.”

This is based on the concept that “one who is performing one mitzvah is exempt from performing a different mitzvah at that time”. While he is involved in doing something to care for the lost object, if a poor person would come to his door for charity, he would be exempt from the mitzvah of giving charity at that time.

A question is raised by Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Chayot (“Maharitz Chayot”, 1805-1855, Eastern Europe) on Rav Yosef’s line of reasoning. The principle that exempts a person from doing another mitzvah while doing one mitzvah is an exemption only from a “positive mitzvah”, a mitzvat aseh. It is not an exemption that allows transgressing a “negative” command. Giving charity is not only a positive mitzvah, but also involves a “negative” mitzvah, a mitzvat lo ta’aseh: “You shall not close your hand from your needy brother.” (Devarim 15:7) This great Acharon (from the “later” period of Rabbis) leaves his question unanswered.

Perhaps the reason for the exemption is that the mitzvah is, after all, a mitzvah to do something — in this case to give tzedaka — whether it is stated in the “positive” (open your hand and give) or the “negative (don’t close your hand and not give). Therefore, regardless of how it is stated in the Torah, the mitzvah is to do something — a mitzvat aseh — to give charity to the needy. (We invite our readers to suggest an alternative solution, with sources if possible, and send it to us ohr@ohr.edu, and we will bli neder share any insights that we feel will be of broad interest with other readers of this column.)

  • Shavuot 44b

Greatness that “Rubs Off”

The Sage Shimon ben Tarfon says, “If you touch someone who has had oil poured on his body, you will also become oily.”

The Yeshiva of Rabbi Yishmael teaches, “The servant of the king is like the king.”

These are, in fact, two “Talmudic tips” and insights that are taught on our daf, but the context for them and their message requires explanation.

The Sage Shimon ben Tarfon is quoted on a number of unrelated issues in our sugya, one of which helps explain and intriguing verse in Devarim: “Until the great river, the Euphrates.” (Dev. 1:7) This statement of this river’s greatness seems to be in conflict with another verse in Chumash that describes the four rivers that went out from Eden: “And the fourth river was the Euphrates,” indicating that it was smaller and less important than the other three rivers mentioned there (Ber. 2:14 and Rashi on our daf). Question: So why does the verse in Sefer Devarim call the Euprates “great” if it is listed only fourth and last in the first Sefer of the Chumash?

The Sage Shimon ben Tarfon answers that although it was indeed the smallest in size it held a special “claim to greatness” over the other three rivers. The Euphrates is the only river mentioned in this verse which refers to the Land of Israel, giving directions to the Jewish People on how to approach the Land of Israel as they prepare to enter it. The key to understanding its greatness is to understand it in the context of its proximity and association with the Land of Israel.

But why does the gemara record two metaphors to explain its greatness? There are two “levels” of greatness that can be attributed to one who is in the presence of true greatness. By merely being near a great person it is virtually inevitable that some degree of the greatness will “rub off” on the “neighbor,” just as a person’s finger will become oily by touching a completely oiled person. But there is a higher level of greatness. If the neighbor is not only passively there, but is also actively “connected” to the great person — such as the servant of a king to the king (or the King of kings), or the service of water provision to the Land of Israel by the bordering Euphrates — then the “student” attains an even greater degree of the greatness of the “master”. But this requires a “closeness” that is more than a geographical proximity. It must be a closeness of shared goals and values of desiring closeness to the Creator.

  • Shavuot 47b

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