Moshe Rabbeinu: A Life

R. Yitzchok Adlerstein writes:

One of the meforshim of the Hagadah comments on מתחילה עובדי ע”ז היו אבותינו, תרח Was Terach one of the avos? Well, yes! From Terach, Avraham learned that there was a higher power, even if Terach got it completely wrong.

R. Adlerstein unfortunately does not name the commentator in question, but the idea presented is strikingly similar to a remarkably provocative one of Ralbag that has long fascinated me: G-d engineered the raising of Moses in Pharaoh’s household since that was the intellectual center of Egypt, and this eventually led to his acquisition of natural philosophy and [consequently] the achievement of prophecy, “for the doctrines of the Egyptian scholars, even though they were erroneous, inspired him to find the truth”:

התועלת השני הוא בדעות, והוא להודיע עוצם השגחת השם יתעלה במושגחים ממנו, שהוא סיבב שתמצאהו בת פרעה ותחמול עליו להצילו, והיה זה סיבה אל שגדל בבית פרעה והתחכם שם עם חכמי מצרים, והיה זה כלי לו אל שהשיג חכמת הנמצאות והיה נביא; וזה כי דעות חכמי מצרים, ואם היו משובשות, הנה העירוהו למצוא האמת.1

In the same vein, Ralbag explains Moses’s curiosity about the anomaly of the burning bush (which he apparently understands to have occurred within a prophetic vision)2 as illustrative of his customary scientific curiosity – “he would yearn to know the causes of things to the extent possible” – which was the key to his achievement of his wondrous spiritual level:

התועלת הששי הוא בדעות, והוא שראוי לאדם לחקור בסיבות הדברים הנמצאים לפי מה שאפשר לו, ולא יקצר מזה. כי בזה האופן יעמוד על חכמת השם יתעלה בשומו הנמצאות על האופן שהם עליו, לפי מה שאפשר לו מזה, ויהיה זה סיבה אל שישיג השם יתעלה לפי מה שאפשר; כי אנחנו נשיג מה שנשיג מהשם יתעלה – בהשגתנו מה שנשיג מנימוס אלו הנמצאות המסובבות ממנו יתעלה, וסדרם וישרם, כמו שביארנו במאמר הראשון מספר מלחמות השם ובחלק השלישי מהמאמר החמישי ממנו. הלא תראה כי משה רבינו ע”ה, תכף שראה זה הענין הזר – והוא היות הסנה בוער באש והסנה איננו אוכל – התעורר לסור ולראות, כדי שיעמוד על סיבת זה הענין. וזה ממה שיורה שכן היה מנהגו, רוצה לומר שכבר היה משתוקק לדעת סיבות הדברים לפי מה שאפשר, ולזה הגיע אל זאת המדרגה הנפלאה אשר הגיע אליה.3

I discuss these sources, among others, several years ago in my lectures for parashas Shemos, available, along with accompanying handout, at the Internet Archive.

  1. רלב”ג על התורה, פרשת שמות (וילך איש מבית לוי) תועלת ב’ []
  2. (אמר שבזה העת הרב) שם באור דברי הפרשה []
  3. שם תועלת ו’ []

Smuggling, Swearing, and Kissing

A famous midrash:

וַיָּקָם בַּלַּיְלָה הוּא וַיִּקַּח אֶת שְׁתֵּי נָשָׁיו וְאֶת שְׁתֵּי שִׁפְחֹתָיו וְאֶת אַחַד עָשָׂר יְלָדָיו וַיַּעֲבֹר אֵת מַעֲבַר יַבֹּק. ודינה היכן היא? נתנה בתיבה ונעל בפניה. אמר: הרשע הזה עינו רמה היא, שלא יתלה עיניו ויראה אותה ויקח אותה ממני. ר’ הונא בשם ר’ אבא הכהן ברדלא אמר: אמר לו הקב”ה: לַמָּס מֵרֵעֵהוּ חָסֶד [וְיִרְאַת שַׁדַּ-י יַעֲזוֹב], מנעת מרעך חסד, מנעת חסדך מן אחוך, דאלו איתנסיבת לגברא לא זינתה. בתמיה. לא בקשת להשיאה למהול, הרי היא נשאת לערל. לא בקשת להשיאה דרך היתר, הרי נשאת דרך איסור, הה”ד: ותצא דינה בת לאה.1

At least as far back as the medieval period, commentators have been puzzled by this criticism of Jacob for withholding Dinah from Esau: do we really expect a man to give his young daughter to a villain in the hope of reforming him?!

ואם תאמר וכי מי שיש לו אח משומד וכי ישיא לו את בתו שהיא בת ו’ שנים כאשר היתה דינה, והלא משנולד יוסף עבד בצאן, ודינה נולדה עם יוסף בפרק אחד, כמו שעשה הפייט סילוף דינה ביוסף להנחות, ושמא יש לומר שקבל עליו תשובה על מנת שלא יזלזל כו’ כמו שנאמר (לקמן לג:יב) נסעה ונלכה ואלכה לנגדך בשוה ביהדות.2

Rav Ovadiah of Bertinoro gives a stunning answer to this question: whatever the objectively correct course of action may have been, Jacob acted out of malice. He did not want his brother to reform, since that would have granted Esau mastery over him:

קשה אדרבא היה ראוי שתחשב לו לצדקה שמנעה מיד הרשע. יש לומר שיעקב לרעה נתכוון שלא היה רוצה שאחיו יהיה צדיק כדי שלא יתקיים בו ברכת הוה גביר לאחיך ולפיכך נענש:3

The sheer cold-bloodedness of this is reminiscent of the thought of another Italian writer, almost exactly contemporary to the Ra’av – Niccolò Machiavelli:

I say that many will perhaps consider it an evil example that the founder of a civil society, as Romulus was, should first have killed his brother, and then have consented to the death of Titus Tatius, who had been elected to share the royal authority with him; from which it might be concluded that the citizens, according to the example of their prince, might, from ambition and the desire to rule, destroy those who attempt to oppose their authority. This opinion would be correct, if we do not take into consideration the object which Romulus had in view in committing that homicide. But we must assume, as a general rule, that it never or rarely happens that a republic or monarchy is well constituted, or its old institutions entirely reformed, unless it is done by only one individual; it is even necessary that he whose mind has conceived such a constitution should be alone in carrying it into effect. A sagacious legislator of a republic, therefore, whose object is to promote the public good, and not his private interests, and who prefers his country to his own successors, should concentrate all authority in himself; and a wise mind will never censure any one for having employed any extraordinary means for the purpose of establishing a kingdom or constituting a republic. It is well that, when the act accuses him, the result should excuse him; and when the result is good, as in the case of Romulus, it will always absolve him from blame. For he is to be reprehended who commits violence for the purpose of destroying, and not he who employs it for beneficent purposes. The lawgiver should, however, be sufficiently wise and virtuous not to leave this authority which he has assumed either to his heirs or to any one else; for mankind, being more prone to evil than to good, his successor might employ for evil purposes the power which he had used only for good ends. Besides, although one man alone should organize a government, yet it will not endure long if the administration of it remains on the shoulders of a single individual; it is well, then, to confide this to the charge of many, for thus it will be sustained by the many. Therefore, as the organization of anything cannot be made by many, because the divergence of their opinions hinders them from agreeing as to what is best, yet, when once they do understand it, they will not readily agree to abandon it. That Romulus deserves to be excused for the death of his brother and that of his associate, and that what he had done was for the general good, and not for the gratification of his own ambition, is proved by the fact that he immediately instituted a Senate with which to consult, and according to the opinions of which he might form his resolutions. And on carefully considering the authority which Romulus reserved for himself, we see that all he kept was the command of the army in case of war, and the power of convoking the Senate. This was seen when Rome became free, after the expulsion of the Tarquins, when there was no other innovation made upon the existing order of things than the substitution of two Consuls, appointed annually, in place of an hereditary king; which proves clearly that all the original institutions of that city were more in conformity with the requirements of a free and civil society than with an absolute and tyrannical government.

The above views might be corroborated by any number of examples, such as those of Moses, Lycurgus, Solon, and other founders of monarchies and republics, who were enabled to establish laws suitable for the general good only by keeping for themselves an exclusive authority; but all these are so well known that I will not further refer to them.4

I discuss the above (Jewish) sources, as well as several cases in the halachic literature involving the smuggling of people and goods, in my lectures and halachah column for this past parashas Lech-Lecha. The lectures, along with accompanying handout, are available at the Internet Archive. Here’s the column:

In parashas Lech-Lecha, when Abram is about to enter Egypt, he requests of his wife Sarai that she say that she is his sister (12:13). According to the midrash, this was merely Abram’s fallback plan; he actually attempted to smuggle Sarai into Egypt by hiding her inside a box, but was forced by customs inspectors to open the box (Bereishis Rabbah 40:5).

A famous account of an attempt to smuggle women past border officials by dissembling about their relationships to the smugglers appears in the seventeenth century work Shut. Chavos Yair (#182). Two men were traveling from Frankfurt to Worms, and two women, one married with her husband in Worms, and the other her single daughter, wished to make the same journey. The women lacked the requisite travel documents, without which they would be subject to a fine at the checkpoint in Oppenheim, so they asked the men to declare them as their wife and daughter respectively, since the mens’ documents allowed them to travel freely with their wives and family members. At the checkpoint, the customs official refused to believe the mens’ declarations, and insisted that they swear to their veracity, or else prove their kinship by kissing the women. The men replied that they could not kiss the women, since they were currently niddah, a fact that the women confirmed. After some further negotiation, the men eventually settled with the customs agent for a minimal sum, but one of them subsequently reported the episode to the author of Chavos Yair, who penned an analysis of the relevant halachic issues.

He concludes that since the men had been attempting to deceive the official, who was appropriately carrying out his duty by investigating their claims, it was prohibited for them to kiss the women or even to swear that the women were niddah based upon their representations, even if they were afraid that by failing to do so they would suffer financial harm, and it was certainly prohibited for them to falsely swear to their kinship, even to avoid a great loss.

  1. בראשית רבה עו:ט []
  2. מושב זקנים בראשית לב:כג []
  3. עמר נקא שם []
  4. Niccolò Machiavelli, Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius, First Book, Chapter IX. []

Ribbis: Reasons and Rationales

R. Yair Hoffman writes:

[L]et us try to provide some philosophical explanation for the underlying prohibition of Ribis. Imagine the following scenario:

The family lives in the old country. The eldest son has emigrated and has made it to New York and has an apartment in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Another son is about to seek his fortune in New York and needs a place to stay. He arrives at the brother’s house. The brother tells him, “Look, brother, you can stay in my apartment, no problem. And I will even charge you less than the Motel Six rates. It will only be $40 per night!” The parents would certainly be upset at their eldest son’s behavior. This is not the way one behaves with a brother.


By the same token, the Torah views all Jewish people as one family. When a brother or sister needs a loan, therefore, we do not charge them interest, just as we would not charge them rent when they stay by us. Indeed, there are six prohibitions in the Torah associated with charging interest. The prohibition is called “Ribis” interest or “Neshech.” Anyone who has ever taken out an interest bearing loan can appreciate the fact that Neshech comes from the Hebrew root word, “bite.” Interest payments certainly do feel like a serious snake bite.

I do not understand this at all: by this logic, the Torah should have prohibited the charging of rent for residential property!

My friend and colleague H.S. cites this sort of rationale in the name of R. Shimon Schwab:

In Parshas Behar, the Torah forbids us to charge another Jew interest. It is not only prohibited for a lender to assess interest, but a borrower is also forbidden to voluntarily pay it. The commentaries have grappled with the rationale for this prohibition. Is there something wrong with charging interest when both parties agree? If one is permitted to charge a rental fee for the use of that person’s car for a week, why can’t one charge a “rental fee” if someone wants to have use of that person’s money for that same amount of time?

Rav Shimon Schwab offers the following explanation: Indeed, in the world of business, interest has its place. A functional economy relies on loans, which are only likely to occur if interest may be charged. In the realm of family, however, interest does not belong. Imagine if your brother or sister needed a loan and, despite having the money readily available, you would only offer the loan with interest! Such an action would be distasteful and inappropriate. The Jewish people, explains Rav Schwab, are all one family. The Torah stresses this by describing the impoverished person as “your brother” and instructing us to let our “brother” live along with us. As long as we view our fellow Jews as family, loans will be granted willingly without the need or desire to charge interest. Our Parsha describes a number of scenarios in which a Jew may become impoverished and need assistance to resolve his situation; in each case, the Torah describes him as “your brother.” If we can successfully adopt this perspective and always view our fellow Jews as our brothers and
sisters, then – like any close-knit family – we will be there for each other in times of need and be prepared to offer assistance without desire for compensation.

But once again, this argument proves far too much:

Imagine if your brother or sister needed a place to live and, despite having a suitable residence readily available, you would only offer it to him at market rent! Such an action would be distasteful and inappropriate.

Incidentally, R. Schwab’s great predecessor, R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, while agreeing with the basic premise that charging interest is not inherently immoral, understands the rationale for the prohibition quite differently:

“I would like to close by sharing with you a thought from Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch about the reason why the Torah prohibited interest. He notes that if the Torah considered charging interest to be inherently immoral, it would have banned charging interest from non-Jews, and also would have prohibited only the lender and not the borrower. Rather, Rav Hirsch notes, the Torah’s prohibition is to demonstrate that the capital we receive from Hashem is so that we donate tzedakah and provide loans, and thereby fulfill our share in building and maintaining a Torah community. The Torah’s goal in banning the use of capital for interest-paying loans is to direct excess funds to chesed and tzedakah.”

Once again, however, this explanation fails to distinguish between loaning money at interest and other forms of investment. Why is making an equity investment in a business any more legitimate than investing in the same business by lending it money at interest?

The truth is that it is really quite difficult to offer a rationale for the prohibition of charging interest that will be completely satisfying to the modern mind, as I discuss in my weekly halachah column for this past פרשת בהר:

In parashas Behar (25:36-37), the Torah forbids usury. The prohibitions against usury, as well as reprobation of the usurer and approbation of he who avoids usury, are reiterated throughout the Bible (Shemos 22:24; Devarim 23:20-21; Yechezkel 18:13,17; Tehillim 15:5). The Torah never explains, however, why usury is prohibited. A number of rationales have been proposed, although none appear entirely satisfactory:

  • Shaarei Yosher (end of Shaar 5) explains that usury is actually a form of theft. Despite the fact that the borrower willingly accepts the interest obligation, his consent is considered to have been given erroneously, since we presume that he does not fully realize the harm that he is thereby inflicting upon himself. This would not seem to apply, however, to loans with reasonable interest rates that are clearly beneficial to the borrowers, such as prime mortgage loans taken out by homebuyers.
  • Radak (Tehillim ibid.) declares that an agreement to pay interest is tantamount to a contract entered into under economic duress, since the borrower needs the loan. It is difficult to understand, however, why such an agreement is different from any other contract. E.g., a tenant only agrees to pay rent since he needs a place to live!
  • Some suggest that since there is a mitzvah to lend money to one’s fellow Jew, the charging of interest is forbidden under the general prohibition against charging for the performance of a mitzvah (see Shut. Avnei Nezer YD 159:3). This rationale would not seem to apply, however, with regard to money that the lender would otherwise be investing for profit, since the prohibition against charging for the performance of a mitzvah contains an exception for the recouping of opportunity costs entailed by such performance (cf. Bris Yehudah Ch. 1 n. 10).
  • Some suggest that since interest is too reliable a source of income, it eliminates the need for bitachon (reliance) upon Hashem (Kli Yakar Vayikra ibid.; Introduction to Klala De’Ribisa). The idea that taking advantage of the best available opportunities to better one’s lot can be inconsistent with bitachon is, however, a controversial one (see Commentary of Rambam to the Mishnah, Pesachim 56.; Akeidas Yitzchak #26 p. 221).

My weekly parashah lectures for פרשת בהר on this topic, and accompanying handouts, are available at the Internet Archive.