פדיון, Paper and Payments

My weekly halachah column and lecture for this past פרשת בא discussed the status of paper money in halachah in general, and its use for פדיון הבן in particular. In the course of my study of the literature, it seemed to me that the vibrancy and pragmatism of the (primarily nineteenth century) פדיון הבן discussion indicates that the actual use of paper money for that ritual was being seriously considered, which struck me as interesting given the universal (at least in my admittedly limited experience) contemporary custom of using silver exclusively. The cursory investigation I made at the time did not indicate one way or another as to the existence of a halachic preference or מנהג to use silver, but I recently serendipitously came across a discussion of this question by R. Shamai Kehas Gross, who indeed concludes that the failure of the commentaries to the שלחן ערוך to mention any such preference indicates that there is no such preference, and rejects the reported position of a certain (unnamed) rabbi who was stringent about using actual silver:

נראה לענ”ד דיכול לכתחלה ליתן שוה כסף לפדיון הבן ואין הידור ליתן כסף יותר משוה כסף.

ובפרט לפי מה שהוכיח בספר דברי יחזקאל (סימן ל”ח) דמה שנתחדש בתורה דשוה כסף הוי ככסף אין הפשט דכמו שמועיל כסף הכי נמי מועיל שוה כסף, אלא דנתחדש דמה ששוה כסף מועיל הוא מטעם דהיינו כסף דהרי יכולים למוכרו ולהשיג עבורו כסף ומחמת זה חשוב כסף ממש עיין שם, (ועיין באבני נזר אה”ע חלק ב’ סימן שפ”ז).

וכיון דהוי ככסף ממש ודאי דאין עדיפות ליתן כסף לפדיון הבן משוה כסף, וכן נראה מסתימת הפוסקים על השלחן ערוך דלא כתבו דיש להדר ליתן כסף לפדיון הבן, שמע מינה דאין הידור בזה. …

ושמעתי דרב אחד החמיר לכתחלה לפדות בכסף ממש, אבל לפענ”ד כמו שכתבתי דאין שום עדיפות כסף משוה כסף.1

My column:

Parashas Bo contains the commandment of pidyon ha’ben. Elsewhere (Bemidbar 18:16), the Torah specifies that the pidyon be performed with five silver shekalim. One may utilize actual silver in the weight of five shekalim, or other property of equivalent value (Shulchan Aruch YD 305:3). There are only three classes of assets that are excluded: real estate, slaves and “shtaros” (documents).

In traditional halachic terminology, “shtaros” generally refers to loan documents. In the nineteenth century, a great debate arose over whether modern “banknotes” are considered ordinary assets, or are actually a form of shtaros, and therefore ineligible to be used for pidyon ha’ben (as well as being treated differently from normal property in a number of other halachic contexts – Shut. Beis Shlomo CM #34). A number of different rationales were advanced for distinguishing between modern “banknotes” and classic shtaros:

  • Banknotes can be universally used to make purchases (Shut. Heishiv Moshe YD #55).
  • Banknotes are traded in robust markets, resulting in clear pricing and high liquidity (She’eilas Yaavetz 1:85. The analysis there actually concerns lottery tickets, but it applies to banknotes as well – Shut. Maharsham 2:100).
  • Unlike shtaros which represent value present externally (in the underlying loan), the value of banknotes resides internally, as evinced by the fact that they will not be replaced even if their holder can prove that they have been destroyed (Shut. R. Meshulam Igra CM #16).
  • Banknotes derive their value from government fiat (refusal to honor the sovereign currency was apparently a capital offense!), and not ordinary market conditions (Shut. Chasam Sofer YD #134).

The consensus is that banknotes are not generally considered shtaros (Maharsham ibid.; Minchas Pitim CM end of #303), although some are nevertheless stringent with regard to pidyon ha’ben, since the son is redeemed from Hashem, and He is not subject to the laws of man (Chasam Sofer ibid., and cf. Chochmas Shlomo CM beginning of #292; Aruch Ha’Shulchan YD 305:18). R. Osher Weiss maintains that in contemporary times, where the value of currency has been completely decoupled from the issuing government’s precious metals reserves, and derives entirely from economic considerations, it is certainly valid even for pidyon ha’ben (Shut. Minchas Osher 1:47).

My lecture, with accompanying handout, is available at the Internet Archive.

  1. שו”ת שבט הקהתי, חלק ששי יו”ד סימן ש”פ עמוד רב []

Calves and Coins

My weekly halachah column:

During the episode of the Golden Calf, Aharon seemingly goes along with the mob’s frenzy, to the point of proclaiming that “Tomorrow is a feast to ‘Hashem’” (32:5), apparently intending an idolatrous feast. The Ibn Ezra struggles greatly to reconcile Aharon’s conduct in this episode in general, and in this proclamation in particular, with his holy and pious character, in the course of which he reports that “many say” that what Aharon actually meant by “Tomorrow is a feast to ‘Hashem’” is that the worshipers of the calf would be executed by Moshe. The Ibn Ezra vigorously rejects this solution, declaring that a blasphemer (megadeif) and one who incites others toward idolatry (meisis) are executed based solely upon their verbal utterances, irrespective of their internal intentions. He makes the following analogy: Suppose someone asks his friend in court “Are you my friend to whom I lent such and such a sum?” and the friend replies “I am.” The respondent cannot then retreat from his concession and explain that he meant merely that he is his friend, but nothing more.

The claim that a megadeif cannot defend himself with the claim that when he blasphemed against “G-d” he really meant some other deity seems to be contradicted by a Talmudic assertion that when Moshe charged the Jews to “obey what G-d (elokah) says”, it was necessary for him to expressly stipulate that the oath he was imposing upon them was to be interpreted from the perspective of Hashem and Moshe, since otherwise it could have been interpreted as referring to an idol, since the Hebrew word elokah sometimes has that meaning. Similarly, the Talmud entertains the possibility that when a debtor swears that he has repaid his creditor, without the express stipulation that the oath the court is imposing upon him is to be interpreted from its perspective, the taker of the oath could plead that he really meant that he had given him some [worthless] tokens (iskundri), which he has chosen to refer to as “coins” (zuzi) (Shevuos 29a).

We have previously discussed these passages from the Talmud and Ibn Ezra here.

Qui facit Per Alium Facit Per Se

My weekly halachah column for parashas Korah:

In parashas Korach, we are commanded to support the Cohanim (priests) and Leviim (Levites) by the donations of terumah and ma’aser respectively, and the Leviim in turn are commanded to give a tithe of their ma’aser to the Cohanim. This latter injunction is expressed by the words (Bemidbar 18:28): “So shall you, too, raise up the gift of Hashem from all your tithes that you accept from the children of Israel”. While the simple sense of the phrase “you, too” apparently refers to the parallelism between the initial ma’aser (tithe) of the Israelites and the “tithe from the tithe” of the Leviim, the Talmud (Kidushin 41b) understands it hermeneutically as an allusion to the possibility of agency: a Levi may either separate his “tithe from the tithe” himself, or he may appoint an agent to do so on his behalf. This is one of several sources for the halachic doctrine of agency.

One exception to this doctrine is where the task being delegated to the agent is sinful. A principal is not liable for the criminal consequences of his agent’s action: “There is no agent for a sinful matter”, since “the words of the master [i.e., Hashem] and the words of the disciple [i.e., the human principal], to whose words does one listen?” This seems to imply that halachah has no notion of criminal conspiracy, and indeed, the Rema (Shulchan Aruch CM 348:8 and 388:15) rules that one who merely commissions a theft or other tort but does not participate in its actual perpetration has no liability. He does, however, allow for certain exceptions, such as where the agent has an established history of engaging in the sort of tortious conduct in question, since in this case “it is widely known that he does not listen to the words of the master”. The Shach (CM siman 182 s.k. 1, siman 348 s.k. 6, siman 388 s.k. 67), however, disagrees, repeatedly insisting that as a matter of normative halachah, the inapplicability of agency to sinful conduct is absolute and without exception.

My weekly parashah lectures (with accompanying handouts), on the general topic of agency in halachah, are available at the Internet Archive.