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 []

Imitatio Dei, With Science

I recently gave a lecture on Torah perspectives on genetic engineering. One classic source commonly adduced as a potential argument against such tinkering with nature is a rationale offered by Ramban for the prohibitions of interbreeding:

והטעם בכלאים, כי השם ברא המינים בעולם, בכל בעלי הנפשות בצמחים ובבעלי נפש התנועה, ונתן בהם כוח התולדה שיתקיימו המינים בהם לעד כל זמן שירצה הוא יתברך בקיום העולם. וציוה בכוחם שיוציאו למיניהם ולא ישתנו לעד לעולם, שנאמר בכולם “למינהו” (בראשית א), והוא סיבת המשכב שנרביע בהמות זו עם זו לקיום המינין כאשר יבואו האנשים על הנשים לפריה ורבייה. והמרכיב שני מינין, משנה ומכחיש במעשה בראשית, כאילו יחשוב שלא השלים הקב”ה בעולמו כל הצורך ויחפוץ הוא לעזור בבריאתו של עולם להוסיף בו בריות. והמינים בבעלי חיים לא יולידו מין משאינו מינו, וגם הקרובים בטבע שיולדו מהם כגון הפרדים ייכרת זרעם כי הם לא יולידו. והנה מצד שני הדברים האלה, פעולת ההרכבה במינים דבר נמאס ובטל.1

As R. J. David Bleich puts it:

Ramban states that every creature and every plant is endowed by G-d with cosmically arranged distinctive features and qualities and is designed to reproduce itself as long as the universe endures. Interbreeding and cross-fertilization produce a reconfiguration of those distinctive qualities and also compromise reproductive potential. By engaging in such activities man usurps the divine prerogative in producing a new species or entity with its own novel set of attributes and, presumably, a species less than optimally suited to fulfill the divinely ordained telos associated with the original species.2

R. Bleich himself argues that the position of Ramban is not dispositive with respect to the modern bioethical dilemmas associated with genetic engineering:

Were it to be assumed that tampering with the ostensive or presumed nature of animal species is always forbidden, most forms of genetic engineering would be illicit. No bacterium is designed by nature to clean up oil spills by metabolizing petroleum or to excrete human insulin for use by diabetics. In the absence of evidence in rabbinic sources to the contrary, it must be assumed that, even accepting Ramban’s explanation of the prohibition against interbreeding … biblical strictures must be understood as limited to those matters explicitly prohibited.

There is, to be sure, a perceptible tension between the [concept] enunciated by Ramban … and the many midrashic sources indicating that man is an active partner in the process of creation, and, as such, is charged with bringing creative processes to completion. … The problem is readily resolved if it is understood that, in general, the functions and teloi of the products of creation are not immutable; that the Creator did not intend to bar man from applying his ingenuity in finding new uses and purposes for the objects of creation; and that there is no injustice to animal species or inanimate objects in doing so. Immutability of function and telos is the exception, not the rule. … The exceptions were announced by the Creator as formal prohibitions. It is precisely because human reason cannot intuit, or even comprehend, when and under what circumstances contravention of the natural order is inappropriate that these commandments are in the nature of hukkim.3

R. Bleich’s treatment of Ramban’s remarks is typical of most discussion of the topic, in that it does not cite any classic opinion directly rejecting Ramban’s position, but contents itself with limiting his strictures and distinguishing between kilayim and genetic engineering. R. Avraham-Sofer Abraham, however, notes that no less an important thinker than Maharal strongly rejects as theologically incorrect Ramban’s basic idea that artificial improvement of the natural biological order is blasphemous:

אלא שקשה לי על טעם זה שנתן הרמב”ן כי המרביעים כאלו אומרים שהקב”ה לא השלים עולמו דמה בכך דהא אמרו חכמים כל דבר שהקב”ה ברא בששת ימי בראשית צריך תיקון כמו החטין לטחון ולאפות ולא אמרינן בזה שהקב”ה לא השלים עולמו וכמו שאמרו על המילה שלא נברא עם האדם והושלם על ידי בשר ודם ואם כן מה שייך בזה שנראה כאלו אומר שהקב”ה לא השלים עולמו4

R. Abraham does not understand Maharal’s objection:

ולא הבינותי, כי הרמב”ן ז”ל מדבר על בריאת מין חדש ולא על תיקון והשלמת הקיים בלבד וצל”ע בדברי הגור אריה.5

Maharal might counter that this is difference without a distinction: if artificial improvement of the natural biological order is legitimate, and indeed an essential aspect of G-d’s plan for the universe, why should we assume that this legitimacy does not extend to the creation of new species? But the truth is that Maharal does, in fact, accept Ramban’s other point of the basic wrongness of the commingling of distinct species:

אבל בודאי בהמתך לא תרביע כלאים יש טעם דהוא משנה תקות העולם להדביק המינים הנבדלים זה מזה כי כל מין ומין נבדל בפני עצמו והוא מחבר לאחד הדברים הנפרדים והנבדלים אבל בשעטנז דאין כאן שני מינים מובדלים דאין הצמר מין בפני עצמו כי הצמר לאו מין בפני עצמו כמו כל עשב שיקרא בריאה עצמו שהרי כל אחד ואחד בפני עצמו נברא ובוודאי בזה יפה פירש הרמב”ן …

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

  1. רמב”ן ויקרא יט:יט []
  2. R. J. David Bleich, Survey of Recent Halakhic Periodical Literature, Tradition 37:2 – 2003, p. 67. []
  3. Ibid. pp. 68-69. []
  4. גור אריה שם []
  5. נשמת אברהם (מהדורה שנייה מורחבת), כרך ד’ חו”מ עמוד קפד אות ג’‏ []

Wives, Work and Wages

Over the past couple of years, I gave several lectures, and published a couple of my weekly halachah columns, revolving around the right of a wife to make charitable donations without her husband’s consent:

Vayakhel: Wives, Work and Wages

In the course of its narration of the donations to the Tabernacle, the Torah relates (35:22): “The men came with the women; everyone whose heart motivated him brought bracelets, nose-rings, rings, body ornaments – all sorts of gold ornaments – every man who raised up an offering of gold to HASHEM.” The Sforno explains that the men needed to accompany the women in order for the officers to accept the latter’s donations, since the halachah prohibits accepting donations larger than a de minimis amount from (married) women (without verifying their husbands’ consent) (cf. Meshech Chochmah beginning of parashas Terumah and Or Ha’Chaim 25:2).

The Panim Yafos, on the other hand, while also understanding the Biblical text to imply the necessity of the husbands’ consent, nevertheless limits this to the donations of jewelry that are the subject of this verse, since a wife cannot sell her jewelry without her husband’s consent. When the Torah subsequently relates (35:25): “Every wise-hearted woman spun with her hands; and they brought the spun yarn of turquoise, purple, and scarlet wool, and the linen”, no mention is made of the husbands, since although a wife’s earnings belong to her husband, this is a rabbinic institution, and had not yet been established.

The Talmud explains that a husband is granted his wife’s earnings in exchange for the obligation to maintain her (Kesubos 47b). The halachah follows the view that this arrangement is for the wife’s benefit, and she therefore has the right to opt out and declare: “I decline to be supported [by my husband] and I will not work [for him]” (ibid. 58b). Some maintain that a wife who makes this declaration is merely exempt from the duty to earn money for her husband, but is still obligated in the housework duties enumerated in the halachah (such as cooking and laundering – see ibid. 59b), while others rule that she is exempt from all labor on behalf of her husband. Since the question remains unresolved, a wife who has declined support cannot be compelled to perform any work for her husband (see Rema EH 80:15; Chelkas Mechokek s.k. 27; Beis Shmuel s.k. 21; Piskei Din shel Batei Ha’Din Ha’Rabaniim Be’Yisrael, Vol. 2. p. 3).

Terumah: Charitable Contributions From Married Women

Parshas Terumah begins with Hashem instructing Moshe to accept donations “of every man that giveth it willingly with his heart”. The Meshech Chochmah explains that donations could only be accepted from men, but not from [married] women, as reflected in the Talmudic prohibition against accepting large charitable contributions from married women (Bava Kama 119a). Classic halachah assumes that husbands and wives retain individual ownership of their respective assets, so a wife may not on her own authority donate her husband’s assets to charity (nor, presumably, may a husband donate his wife’s). Nevertheless, some halachic authorities have argued that in contemporary times, donations may be accepted from married women, for a variety of reasons, including the following:

  • The Raavan (end of Bava Kama) declares that “contemporary” (twelfth century German) women have the status of “guardians” (apotroposos) over their husbands’ assets (i.e., they are generally so entrusted by their husbands, but cf. Yam Shel Shlomo ibid. Ch. 10 #59).
  • The standard text of the traditional engagement contract (tenaim) includes the phrase “[the spouses] shall rule over their assets coequally”. R. Yechiel Michel Hibner (Mishkenos Ha’Ro’im, Kuntres Eis Dodim p. 13) argues that this constitutes an explicit contractual stipulation that the spouses shall have equal control over all their assets. R. Shlomo Kluger (Shut. Tuv Ta’am Va’Da’as 3:181) strongly disagrees, arguing that the phrase in question is not legal language, but merely a blessing for marital harmony, to the extent that the spouses shall willingly share control over their assets.
  • R. Yehuda Leib Graubart (Shut. Chavalim Ba’Ne’imim 5:34) argues that since modern secular law treats wives as partners in their husbands’ assets, this becomes the prevailing custom, and husbands therefore tacitly accept this arrangement when marrying (but see the sharp dissent in Shut. Va’Yevarech David, Even Ha’Ezer #127, and cf. R. Chaim Jachter’s “Bittul Chametz and Contemporary Financial Arrangements”).

My lectures on this topic are available at the Internet Archive: