Monetary Law and the Quest for Wisdom

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Shiur #12a: Monetary law and the Quest for Wisdom

By Rav Yitzchak Blau

Rabbi Yishmael said: "The one who wants to become wise will study dinei mammonot (monetary law), for there is no subject of Torah greater than it, and it is like an overflowing spring." (Bava Batra 175b)

Rabbi Yishmael's statement anticipates the view frequently found in the yeshiva world that the tractates in Seder Nezikin lend themselves to the deepest form of talmudic analysis. One need only think of the justified admiration and love in learned circles for the works of the Ketzot Hachoshen and Netivot Hamishpat, classics of monetary law, to see this view. Yet we can still question why things developed in this way. Is it a historical accident that Nezikin became the most attractive area of yeshiva study, or is it something inherent in the subject matter?

R. Yisrael Lipshutz (Tiferet Yisrael, commentary on the mishna) identifies two aspects unique to this field of study. He points out that the Torah gives greater leeway to the human intellect to make decisions in monetary law than in any other area of halakha. Unlike the laws of kashrut, where the Torah specifies many minute details, the laws of plaintiffs and defendants are summed up in Torah with the verse "Judge your neighbor with righteousness (Vayikra 19:15)." This broad imperative generated a situation in which human reasoning became paramount in this particular area of learning.

Additionally, R. Lipshutz points out that monetary law prevents a kind of intellectual evasion. When it comes to kashrut, we can always deal with a doubtful situation by deciding to be stringent. In monetary law, the impulse to deal with doubt through chumra loses its meaning. What would be a stringency for the plaintiff will be a leniency for the defendant and vice versa. Therefore, there remains no choice but to reason things out to some conclusion. This pressure to decide also contributed to the intricate analysis of monetary law.

I would broaden the insight offered by R. Lipshutz to other areas of Jewish life. On the one hand, there is no denying the fact that halakha often chooses to be stringent to avoid potential transgressions. At the same time, not every situation lends itself to this solution. Many communal and personal religious questions involve the clash of opposing Jewish ideals so that no safe way out of the dilemma exists. In the clash for time between Torah and chesed, the chumra escape route does not exist. We must utilize the best of our analytic abilities to make such decisions and not attempt to avoid them as the search for safe answers reveals a profound misunderstanding of the nature of the questions.

R. Yosef Chayim, author of the Ben Ish Chai, offers a more homiletical reading of this mishna in his commentary on aggada called Ben Yehoyada. He plays with the letters of the word "miktzoa" (subject) and connects it to the word "tzo'ek," to cry out. Apparently, monetary law involves a certain amount of crying out. He tells the story of a man who loses money in a court case and proceeds to cry out in great anger. The judge asks this man what his reaction would be to a pesak regarding chametz on Pesach that would cause him a comparable loss. When the man responds that he would accept such a decision in silence, the judge asks him what the difference is between that hypothetical chametz case and the court case at hand. The man answers that he can deal with financial loss but not with the fact that someone else won the money from him.

According to the Ben Yehoyada, this mishna hints at the added tension that comes into play when two people fight over money. It behooves us to keep this in mind the next time we face such a disagreement. I would add that this homily enables the connection between monetary law and wisdom to take on new meaning. It takes great wisdom to maintain equanimity when embroiled in a monetary dispute.