Some Opening Thoughts on Seder Nezikin

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |
"One who wants to sharpen his mind should involve himself in monetary law as there is no section of the Torah larger than them; they are like an ever flowing spring." (Bava Batra 10:8)
 
The daf yomi cycle has arrived at seder nezikin, the fourth of the six orders of the Mishna. It is with seder nezikin dealing with monetary law in all its manifestations where students have traditionally been introduced to Talmud study. Its study serves as the bread and butter of virtually all yeshiva curriculums[1].
 
It is the proper observance of these laws that is the bedrock of being an observant Jew. This is not only because there are more mitzvoth relating to our monetary dealings than any other area of Torah. Nor is it only because our monetary dealings create so many opportunities for sanctifying G-d's name or G-d forbid desecrating it. Our Sages understood that monetary mitzvot are the barometer of our belief in G-d. As it is G-d who ultimately determines if our efforts will be met with success those who cheat are, consciously or not, demonstrating that they believe they can outsmart G-d. How we act when dealing with money tells us much more about a person's emunah, belief in G-d, than what we eat, how we pray or what we do on Shabbat. It is why our Sages teach (Shabbat 31a) that the first question we will be asked by the Almighty when we leave this earth is nasata venatata bemunah. While this question is generally translated along the lines of "were your business dealings conducted honestly" it actually means much more. We are being asked whether our business dealings demonstrate belief in G-d or did we segregate our business life from our religious one? The question is no more and no less than a rephrasing of the first of the aseret hadibrot which proclaims our belief in a G-d who intervenes in world affairs. 
 
Even the words used for the give and take of business reflect their ultimate goal. Nasata means to lift up. A Nassi, who is in biblical lexicon means a tribal leader and in modern Hebrew a president, is one who rises above others to a position of leadership. Our business dealings should elevate us to greater heights materially and spirituality. Natata means to give. It is by giving to others that we elevate ourselves, a notion which serves as the basis of capitalism albeit the latter is focused primarily, possibly exclusively, on the material aspect.   
 
With this background we can understand why Pirkei Avot, the masechet that focuses on piety and how to achieve it, is found in seder nezikin. True piety is demonstrated in our commercial dealings and it is in our commercial dealings where moral exhortations are most needed.
  
This is especially so as one must be in "great ethical shape" to properly learn seder nezikin[2]. So much of the material deals with liars, cheats and other assorted non-righteous people. The overarching theme of the seder is resolving monetary disputes between people. Long discussions are found on how to assess who is more likely telling the truth, what is the best lie a person can tell and other insights into the mind of cheaters. Learning and debating these intricacies can serve to dull our sensitivity to the absolute integrity we must have and which is often lacking in the material before us. 
 
Initially the first 30 chapters of Nezikin formed one masechet by that name. Realizing that such massive material might scare some away it was divided into the "three bavas", Bava Kamma, Bava Metzia and Bava Batra, the first, middle and last gate. It is by entering these gates that we are best exposed to Talmudic debate and logic. 
 
Let us very briefly summarize the various masechtot. Bava Kamma focuses on the laws of damages, Bava Metzia on commercial dealings and Bava Batra on property rights. We then move to Sanhedrin and Makkot, (which originally were one masechet)[3]
which detail the proceedings of the courts, its administration of punitive measures and the laws regarding plotting witnesses.
 
The seder continues with masechet Shevuot detailing the various types of oaths a court may administer - or one may take on their own. Masechet Avodah Zara, discussing our interaction with idolaters focuses less on theology than on the monetary actions that may or may not ensue between Jew and idolater. The seder concludes with masechet Horayot [4] which discusses what to do when the Sanhedrin errs leading people, for example, to mistakenly eat forbidden foods. That such a tractate is included in the Talmudic corpus speaks volumes.
 
Of course there is so much more and I look forward to learning and please G-d sharing with you some of my thoughts on seder nezikinover the next two plus years. 
 
[1] While such may have been appropriate in societies past where Talmud was studied only by the intellectual elite, it is not at all certain that such is the appropriate starting place today, where all are expected to at least be introduced to  the study of Talmud. The proper approach to the teaching of Talmud is a most important one and if basic fluency in Talmud is a goal of Jewish education we have failed miserably. The success of Art Scroll is to a large measure a result of the failure of yeshivot to successfully teach basic Talmudic skills. This is not the place to debate if such a goal is attainable or even desirable.
  
[2] Truth be told the Rabbis forbade teaching students who were not of upstanding character (see Rambam, Laws of Talmud Torah 4:1) fearful of the negative repercussions of such. Today it is well understood that such an approach would be counter-productive and it is only through the study of Torah that we can hope to influence those far from Torah to embrace it. That being said not all material is appropriate for everyone. It is thus imperative in this writer's eyes that when studying nezikin we take time and effort to reflect on the ideals that the Torah demands of us. If we were to all live up to those ideals much of the seder would become obsolete.  
 
[3] By combining the 3 Bavas and Makkot and Sanhedrin the Talmud would consist of 60 tractates, which corresponds to the numerical value of Gaon. The term Gaon in its original context referred to one who had mastered the entire Talmudic corpus. 
 
[4] Along with masechet Avot, masechet Eduyot, testimonies, consists of Mishna with no Gemara. Eduyot, which scholars note was the first tractate composed, is the most wide-ranging of the entire Talmud recording the teaching of many sages on a wide variety of topics.