Chulin 105: Time for a Field Trip

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

It is an often-cited truism that the Orthodox community, most ironically, tends to place much greater emphasis on kosher food than on kosher money. Of course, it is much easier to keep kosher than to ensure our monetary dealings are kosher[1].

This misplaced emphasis is most unfortunate. Unlike kashrut, which involves a mitzvah between man and G-d only, the laws relating to our business dealings has the added component of being a mitzvah between man and man. Violating ethical norms in business has the potential of creating a chilul Hashem, which transforms it into a sin that is beyond the reach of teshuva (Rambam, Hilchot Teshuva 1:4). 

These thoughts come to mind as I ponder the Talmudic juxtaposition of two sons—distinguished scholars in their own right—comparing themselves, rather negatively, to their rabbinic fathers. 

In our last post, we discussed Mar Ukva’s comment that he “is like vinegar, the son of wine”, in that his father was much stricter regarding the waiting time between meat and milk. That the Talmud follows up on that discussion with Shmuel stating that he, too, is like vinegar to wine compared to his father is not at all surprising, and is a common literary technique often used by the Gemara. 

What I find most interesting is the topic of Shmuel’s musings. “Shmuel said: In this matter I am as vinegar is to wine compared with my father. For my father used to inspect his property twice a day, but I do so only once a day” (Chulin 105a). 

That Shmuel’s business acumen left something to be desired is understandable. His mind was focused on Torah and he had little interest in spending time in monetary pursuits. His outside interests were in the scientific sphere, with his scientific observations scattered throughout the Talmud. He had a great interest in astronomy, going so far as to declare, “The paths of the sky are as clear to me as the paths of [my hometown] Nehardea—except for comets, that I do not know what they are[2]” (Brachot 58b). It is the rare scientist who is a good businessperson; their thoughts being focused on the latest research instead.

But Shmuel is not just noting his lack of interest in business pursuits. He is noting that his deficiency in this area is a religious flaw—one that demonstrates the lowering of religious standards from one generation to the next. 

Being lax regarding one’s money is, plain and simple, a dereliction of one’s religious obligations[3]. “The Torah has mercy on the money of the Jewish people” (Chulin 49b). And if G-d cares about our money, how much more must we take care not to waste that money?

Shmuel himself understood the pitfall of his approach, noting that, “He who inspects his property daily will find a coin”.

The Talmud follows this by noting that the great sage Abaye would spend time every day inspecting his fields. One day, he saw his worker carrying a bundle of wood. Presumably noticing something unusual, he asked him what he was doing. When the worker responded that he was taking it to his master’s home, Abaye wryly noted, “our Sages have anticipated [people like] you”, admonishing us to carefully supervise our employees. 

“It is not the mouse that steals but the hole” (Kiddushin 56b). Take away the opportunity to conceal one’s ill-gotten gains and one prevents theft in the first place. Even if we need not worry about theft, there is always something that can go wrong that may warrant our attention.

In something that could easily have been written today, the Talmud follows the Abaye incident with Rav Assi noting how he used to inspect his field daily, seemingly with little benefit. Exasperated, he exclaimed, “Where are all those coins of Shmuel?” It may be that the vast majority of the time, one’s inspection of one’s field yields no tangible results. Yet it still remains a religious mandate, one we should be thankful that results in little that needs to be done. Thankfully, Rav Assi understood he was not wasting his time and continued his daily routine. “One day, he saw that a pipe had burst on his land. He took off his coat, rolled it up, and stuffed it into the hole. He then raised his voice, and people came and stopped it up. He exclaimed: Now I have found all those coins of the Master Samuel”.

Such concern is rooted in the Torah itself. “’And Yaakov was left alone’…from here [we learn] that the possessions [that Yaakov went back to retrieve] of the righteous are dearer to them than their bodies. And why so much? Because they do not stretch out their hands to stolen property” (Chulin 91a).   

One of the tragedies of modern religious life is the fact that many see monetary matters as divorced from religious life. There is shul, the home, the beit midrash, community service and the like, where Torah is put into practice. And then there is one’s professional career, which allows one to live a religious Jewish life, but in itself has—except for those who work in avodat hakodesh—little, if anything, to do with Torah. How can a meeting to discuss corn futures have any religious meaning as compared to an analysis of a Tosafot? Did King David yearn to merit dwelling all his days in a banking house?  

It is this bifurcation of one’s life that allows otherwise observant Jews to act in ways that are anything but in their business pursuits. While we all understand that laws regulating and limiting eating are part of a religious way of life, we have much greater difficulty applying the same idea to our monetary dealings. The notion that behaviour accepted in the marketplace may not be good enough for a religious Jew (and we are not discussing illegal behaviour) is something we often have difficulty accepting. That is a pity. It means that on which we spend close to half our waking hours has no religious significance. Our working hours run the risk of becoming a black hole devoid of spiritual meaning. That is tragic. Even more tragic, otherwise observant Jews at times act in ways that are just plain wrong, morally corrupting themselves and others as they pay little attention to the chilul Hashem they may be causing. 

Our Sages viewed an honest day's work in the most glowing of terms, and as the ticket to the World to Come (see Brachot 8a). They (Avot 2:1) assert that Torah study unaccompanied by work leads to sin—and hence, we know of so many of the professions of our Talmudic Sages and medieval scholars. Work is where we can and must grow religiously, demonstrating honesty, integrity and discipline. It affords a daily, perhaps even hourly opportunity for sanctifying G-d’s name. 

 

[1] When I recently surveyed one of my high school classes—this in a community school, where most kids are not traditionally observant—asking them to name the mitzvot they might find the most difficult to keep, kashrut and Shabbat topped the list. I think for your typical Orthodox Jew, these are amongst the easiest mitzvot to keep. I don’t think this is at all surprising, though I do think it presents ritually observant Jews with a wonderful challenge to demonstrate the beauty and (after some practice) the ease and joy it is to keep Shabbat. Ironically, the most effective way to demonstrate the beauty of Torah life is by being impeccably honest in one’s business dealings, even going beyond what is legally required. 

 

[2] It is most instructive that his assessment of knowledge is juxtaposed with that which he did not know. 

 

[3] If one who does not take care of their money is religiously wanting, how much more so is one who attains money in illicit ways?