Talmud Tips

For the week ending 23 July 2022 / 24 Tammuz 5782

Matot: Yevamot 115 - 122 (Siyum). Masei: Ketuvot 2 - 8

by Rabbi Moshe Newman
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“Like the reflection one sees when looking into the water, so is the heart of one person to another.” (Mishlei 27:19)

Our Sages see a number of “Torah Tips” reflected in this verse that teaches the nature of reciprocity. Some applications are clearly halachic, applying to testimony that is not acceptable due to an implicit bias based on human nature.

Rabbi Yehuda, however, teaches that the “reciprocity principle” in this verse has importance for enhancing Torah study. Rashi explains this in two possible ways. One is that a person’s success in becoming a proficient Torah scholar reflects the degree to which the person has dedicated his “blood, sweat and tears” in pursuit of this goal. Another explanation is the importance of learning Torah from a teacher who genuinely cares for the welfare of his students in this world and the next. If the Torah teacher shows sincere interest in the student’s advancement, the student will see this, appreciate it, take advantage of it — and pursue a successful path of becoming a wise Torah scholar.

  • Yevamot 117a

Personal Q-Tips®

Bar Kapara said, “If a person hears inappropriate words spoken near him, he should place his fingers in his ear lobes and block his ears from hearing negative speech.”

He explains that he can derive this teaching from the following Torah verse: “You shall have a yated (shovel) together with azenecha (your equipment). (Devarim 23:14)

What equipment? The context of this verse and its straightforward meaning is the Torah instructing the Jewish People, as a holy nation, in practices that are conducive to holiness. If the people need to go to war, they should take with them a shovel-like instrument for help in covering their waste. This is an important prerequisite for having a clean and pure camp in which Torah may be learned and blessings may be said.

Bar Kapara says to “not read” the word in the verse as azenecha, but read it as aznecha. In reading it this way, the verse “leaves” it contextual meaning and takes on the a novel meaning: “plug your ears to not hear negative speech.” The commentaries find this idea of a “close but no exact” reading to be quite intriguing, leading to a variety of explanations being offered as the basis for expounding the verse in this unique fashion.

In his sefer Moreh Hanevuchim, the Rambam addresses this teaching from Bar Kapara, particularly what is meant by his saying, “Do not read it this way (as it appears), but rather read it another way.” The Rambam states that this is not meant to be taken literally. Rather, it is a technique employed to help us remember a halacha that is know by means of mesora from rabbi to student, dating back to the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. The halacha is not actually taught in the verse, but one who reads the verse will hopefully see it and recall the appropriate halacha. The Rambam writes that this explanation is also true for what Chazal call an asmachta — a place in the Torah one can lean on to “see” and remember a halachic teaching.

This approach is accepted by numerous Torah commentaries, including the Maharal from Prague in his sefer Be’er HaGolah, towards the end of the “third well.” However, other great Rishonim and Achronim disagree with this view. While not advocating reading the word in the Torah in a different manner than written, they explain that an unusual aspect of the verse “calls out” for Chazal to interpret the verse in a (non-obvious) manner that accounts for the particularities in each specific case. The Ritva and the Maharsha are representatives of this school of thought.

Regarding the example in our sugya, many novel ideas have been created by brilliant and pious Torah scholars to explain how “digging with a shovel to cover waste in the camp” is also teaching “putting a finger in one’s earlobe to plug the ear to prevent hearing negative speech.” Or, perhaps I should call it “wasteful speech”? One explanation I have heard is that the Torah is teaching us to protect the cleanliness and purity of our thoughts in order to be as close to the source and keeper of our pure souls, Hakadosh Baruch Hu — The Holy One, Blessed is He.

  • Ketuvot 3a

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