Bava Metzia 61: Let's Eat Some Rodents

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

Teaching in a community school, I often hear from many of my students that they are “not religious.” After all, they don’t observe the laws of Shabbat, nor do they keep kosher strictly (or maybe even at all). They rarely go to shul and, with the exception of Yom Kippur, do not observe the fast days.

This may all be true – and there is, as befits a community school, a wide range of observance – but I tell them that they are very likely more religious than they claim. I ask them if they are honest and they (generally) respond in the affirmative. I tell them that if they say good morning to others in the hallway, help a friend with missed school work, honour their parents, don’t gossip (well, maybe that is asking a bit much), don’t bear grudges or cheat others then they are quite religious.

We discuss how the most important part of being a religious Jew is being honest in our monetary dealings. This, our Sages teach, is the first question G-d will ask us when our sojourn on this earth ends; nassata v'natta b'emunah, were your business dealings conducted faithfully (Shabbat 31a)? There are more mitzvoth relating to our money – some 130 of them – than any other area of the Torah. And it is no accident that the Rambam asserts that “one must be more careful about the mitzva of tzedakah, more than any other positive command, for tzedakah is the sign of the righteous, the children of Avaraham Avinu” (Matanot Aniim 10:1). Even the standard yeshiva curriculum focuses on seder nezikin, the laws of commerce, thereby emphasizing the primacy of ethical behaviour with our money. The study of Talmud is traditionally begun with Eilu Metziot, the laws of lost objects, stressing our obligations to others. How we earn and spend our money is the ultimate barometer of one’s religiosity.

And perhaps most striking, honesty in our monetary dealings is the reason G-d took us out of Egypt. “Just balances, just weights, a just ephah, and a just hin, shall you have: I am the Lord your G-d, who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Vayikra 19:36). Rashi, bothered by the strange linkage between honest weights and the Exodus, adds three most powerful words, “al menat ken”, for this purpose. G-d took the Jewish people out of Egypt so that we would have honest weights and measures! We did not leave Egypt to daven, or to keep Shabbat, or observe the laws of family purity, or so that we could learn Torah. The purpose of the Exodus is honesty in our business dealings. 

Rashi then quotes a related teaching of the Talmudic Sage Rava, part of which we discussed in our last post. “Rava said: ‘Why did the Merciful One mention the Exodus from Egypt in connection with the prohibition of interest, tzizit and honest weights?’ The Holy One, blessed be He, declared, 'It is I who distinguished in Egypt between the first-born and one who was not a first-born; I am the one who will exact vengeance from him who ascribes his money to a gentile and lends it to an Israelite on interest or who steeps his weights in salt, or who [attaches to his garment threads dyed with] vegetable blue and maintains that it is, techelet, real blue'” (Bava Metzia 61b).

Lending money to a friend as an act of kindness, and being meticulously honest in our weights and measures or, in more modern terms, our financial statements and tax returns are key messages of the Exodus. The linkage of tzizit with the Exodus apparently adds the notion of mitzvoth between man and G-d to the mix. Our Sages extol this mitzva almost beyond belief, going so far as to declare “that it is equal to all other mitzvoth [combined].[1]

Yet one would be mistaken in thinking that developing our relationship with G-d is the reason tzizit are linked to the Exodus. Rather, as Rashi explains, the techelet dye used in tzizit is very expensive. A tzizit merchant can make a lot of money using indigo and passing it off as techelet and very few, if any, would ever know the difference. The Exodus teaches that even if we can fool others, we can’t fool G-d. How many of us discuss this at the Pesach seder? 

But these are not the only three places where the Exodus is mentioned “Rav Chanina of Sura on the Euphrates said to Ravina: ‘Why did Scripture mention the Exodus from Egypt in connection with [forbidden] reptiles?’”

“You shall not eat, among all things that swarm upon the earth, anything that crawls on its belly, or anything that walks on all fours, or anything that has many legs; for they are an abomination…For I the Lord am He who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your G-d: you shall be holy, for I am holy” (Vayikra 11:43,45).

Here, too, the answer given is the same: to highlight the severity of cheating. But here it is not only in regard to money, but also encompasses kashrut. “He replied: The Holy One, blessed be He, said, I who distinguished between the first-born and one who was not a first-born, [even] I will mete out punishment to him who mingles the entrails of unclean fish with those of clean fish and sells them to an Israelite.”

But Rav Chanina was asking a different question (he apparently already knew this answer). Why, he wondered, does the Torah use the phrase hama’aleh, "He who lifted us out of Egypt," as opposed to hamotzei, "who took us out of Egypt," which is the phrase used by forbidden interest, tzizit and honest weights?

“The Holy One, blessed be He, declared, 'Had I, heleeti, brought up, Israel from Egypt for no other purpose but this, that they should not defile themselves with reptiles, it would be sufficient for me.'”

While many otherwise observant Jews are tempted to cut corners or worse in their business dealings, very few yearn to eat swarmy things. And even if we did, what harm would it do to others? Does our not eating rodents justify all that G-d did to take us from Egypt? If all we do is refrain from eating reptiles, does G-d really say dayeinu?

While I would not dare say so, the Gemara has no problem asserting such. Eating rodents, Ravina explains, is detestable, something unfit for humans. Cheating, a more severe transgression, is terrible thing to do but very understandable. It is all too human.

G-d took us out of Egypt so we could be dignified human beings. A slave can easily lose all dignity and thus, his humanity. First and foremost we are bidden to be decent human beings, not to act in unseemly ways. Basic human manners, what we might call derech eretz, must precede and are the prerequisite for religious observance[2].

 

[1] In addition to tzizit our Sages also equate the mitzva of living in Israel to all other mitzvoth. Not coincidentally, it is these two mitzvoth which have been “revived” in our time with the creation of the State of Israel and the rediscovery of techelet. And yes, techelet dye is very expensive, making a pair of these tzizit a good 10 times more expensive than “regular” tzizit, though in the greater scheme of things, not very expensive at all.

 

[2] I recall Rav Schachter telling us that if a couple is divorcing and one parent is “normal” but not “religious” and the other “religious” but not “normal,” it is the former who should be granted child custody.