Torah im Small Jugs

What is the role of the laws of business listed in Choshein Mishpat (the quarter of the Tur and Shulchan Aruch on financial matters)?

One approach could be that working for income is a necessary evil. It’s Hashem’s punishment to Adam for eating the forbidden fruit — “with the sweat of the brow shall you eat bread” (Bereishis 3:19). However, by following these laws these activities are kosher, they are rendered permissible.

But if all it offered were the ability to deal with a necessary evil, we would have difficulty understanding a gemara about this week’s parashah.

Yaaqov crosses his family and almost all of his belongings across the river, and has to return for some small vessels. There, on the far side of the river, he encounters and battles an angel until dawn.

“And Yaaqov was left alone.” (Bereishis 32:25) R. Eleazar said: He remained behind for the sake of some small jars. From here [we learn] that to the righteous their money is dearer than their body. Why [do they care] so greatly? Because they do not extend their hands to robbery.

– Chullin 91a

At first this is very hard to understand. Are tzaddiqim, righteous people, supposed to be that materialistic? However, as we see from the answer, it’s not the monetary value of their belongings, but their spiritual value that holds the attraction. It is their sanctity that holds the attraction. It is their sanctity of being acquired within the laws of Choshen Mishpat. The Gemara teaches that the honest business deal is not a concession to reality, but part of the ideal.

This can be understood using the approach of Rav Yechiel Ya’akov Weinberg, the author of the Seridei Eish. In a memorial volume, he explains that Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch’s motto of Torah im Derekh Eretz (TIDE)– Torah with the way of the world – is about the proper marriage between the Torah and the “real world”. The union between Torah and Derech Eretz in that tiny word “im” is not haphazard. In a collection of essays titled “HaRav Shimshon Rephael Hirsch Mishnaso veShitaso“, Rav YY Weinberg writes:

The Torah, according to Rav Hirsch, is the force that gives form. Form, to Aristotle’s thought, means a thing’s essential nature — in distinction to the substance from which it is embodied. Derech Eretz is merely the matter on which Torah works.

In Aristotelian physics, all objects are composed of two things: substance and form. Substance is the inherent matter. In Greek, the word for substance is “hyle”. The Ramban uses this term in his commentary on Bereishis 1:1. The initial beri’ah ex nihilo in v. 1 was of shapeless hyle, which was then given form during the yetzirah of the rest of the chapter. Form is the shape and other properties the substance takes on. But as the design adage goes, “Form follows function.” An object is shaped to serve an intended function. Form is not only the shape that the object assumes, but also its use and its goal.

When the Torah speaks of qedushah, it usually uses the preposition “le-“, “to”. The kohen gadol wore a tzitz that reads “Qadosh laShem“, “sanctified to G-d”. In the marriage formula, the chasan tells the kallah that she is thereby “mequdeshes li“, “consecrated to me”. We use the term “qadosh” when something is consecrated for a particular function, from something assuming a Form.

Torah defines the goal of our lives, the function for which we were created. It therefore dictates the form that we give the things we do. The resulting life has qedushah. To Yaaqov Avinu, his possessions were holy because they were the substance to which he applied the Torah’s blueprint.

It indicates that the halachic business deal is not a concession to reality, but part of the ideal. Observance of the laws of Choshein Mishpat doesn’t merely render these activities kosher, it’s maqdish, it brings sanctity, it makes even business dealings sacred.

When we look at Eisav in this light, the see that he took the exact opposite approach. The Torah (Bereishis 25:28) explains Yitzchaq’s attraction to Esav with “ki tzayid befiv” which the medrash (quoted by Rashi ac loc) understands to mean “he used his mouth to ensnare”. Esav would impress his father with shows of religiosity, asking questions like the correct way to tithe salt, knowing full well that salt isn’t tithed.

Seforno understands this pasuk not to mean that Yitzchaq loved Eisav instead of Yaaqov, but rather that “Yitzchaq also loved Eisav even though he knew he was not as whole as Yaaqov.” Yitzchak originally dreamed that his sons would live together in a partnership – Yaaqov would study Torah and Eisav would provide the means with which to do so. Eisav did commit himself to the land, but he became an ish sadeh, a person who is defined by the field, rather than learning the proper path in this world, derekh eretz. He therefore fit the Torah to his own purposes, inverting the form and the substance.

To Eisav, Torah was a tool, something you manipulate, to gain material ends.

Rashi quotes Bereishis Rabba (32:25) that the identity of the angel battled was the guardian angel of Esav’s children, the nation of Edom. The confrontation between Yaaqov and Edom’s mal’akh was a fundamental event about the relationship between the idealism of Torah and the realism of being in this world. When Yaaqov embodied the proper relationship of physical and spiritual, when he saw the holiness one can imbue even the purchasing of small jars, that was when he faced the specter of Eisav.

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  1. Neil Harris says:

    This might be the most meaningful blog posting I’ve read in the past 3 years.

    Thank you.

  2. micha says:

    Neil, BTW, a tangent about tithing salt…

    In Ezra 4:14, the servants of King Igarta (Artaxerxes) of Persia explain that they must remain loyal to the king because כָּל-קֳבֵל דִּי-מְלַח הֵיכְלָא מְלַחְנָא “anyone who has taken the salt of the palace” should not look upon the dishonor of the king. In the ancient world, extracting edible salt was so difficult, kings often had the greatest supply. It also explains why our ancestors ate melach sedomis despite the risks — healthier salts were too pricey!

    In Chazal’s day, Rome, who are considered Edom and the descendants of Eisav (whether genetic or cultural), also paid their soldiers in salt. In fact, this is the origin of the word salary, from “sal” (salt).

    So it is possible that Chazal were saying Eisav was asking about maaser kesafim, but in order to highlight Eisav’s warring nature, they had him discussing his income in salt, not silver. In the other example, they used something closer to home, something someone in an agrarian society would grow, but not for food — straw.

    This thought only works according to those who say that maser kesafim is minhag or a minhag chassidus (ie just a hanhagah, not a binding minhag). Otherwise, the medrash wouldn’t fit with those who say the avos kept the entire Torah. Eisav’s question is being held up as an example of false piety. This wouldn’t work if maaser kesafim were deOraisa or deRabbanan, and thus something Yitzchaq, or even the author of the medrash and his original audience, would do.

    IOW, nowadays someone does need to tithe straw and salt, or at least the profit he made on them. So either maaser kesafim is newer than the medrash or the medrash means something very different from its usual understanding. Which I think argues against the acharonim who say maaser kesafim is halakhah. It’s not worth dwelling on too long, as an argument against the seriousness of maaser kesafim might hinder one’s giving….

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