The Wisdom of the Common Man: Bava Kamma 92

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

One of the revolutions of Judaism was its democratization. No person is inherently superior to another--all are created in the same Divine image. One may not sacrifice the life of the criminal in order to save the life of the leading rabbi of the generation[1]. It was to the entire nation, from the prophet to the maidservant, that G-d revealed himself at Sinai; and it was with “all the people of Israel…from the hewer of wood to the carrier of water” (Devarim 29:9-10) that the covenant was established as we prepared to enter the land of Israel.

That the common, even unlearned, man can help shape the contours of Jewish law can be seen by the fact that as long as the litigants agree, anyone--even those who hang out on “street corners"--can adjudicate a dispute.

That the practices of the simple Jew are to be treasured can be seen in the Talmudic adage that in cases where the proper legal ruling is in doubt, we should “go out and see what the people are doing” (see for example Brachot 45a). It is the practice of the common man that, in cases of doubt, shapes the halacha.

The concept of minhag, almost by definition, is an acknowledgment of the importance of the practices of the commoner[2]. Minhagim reflect the mitzvoth of the Torah in new and often deeper ways, expressing--knowingly or not--the deepest of religious sensitivity. Thus, the waving of the lulav in all six directions is a way to be cognizant of G-d’s presence and power, which is a fulfillment of the first of the aseret hadibrot. Breaking a glass at a wedding demonstrates our yearning for Jerusalem, fulfilling the mitzvah to “seek out Zion.”

Similarly, much can be learned from the speech of the simple Jew who, in many an aphorism, reflects the essence of Torah teachings. The Gemara has a series of some twelve sayings of the people for which Rava asked Rabba bar Meri for the Torah source. Knowingly or not, the common man in his everyday speech was speaking words of Torah couched in modern parlance. Many of these expressions of speech are no less popular or relevant today than they were some 1,700 years ago.

“Rava said to Rabba bar Meri, from where can we derive that which the people say, ‘poverty follows those who are poor?’” Rav Meri answers from a Mishna in Bikkurim that notes, “the rich used to bring the first fruits in baskets of gold and silver, but the poor brought it in wicker baskets made out of the bark of willow, and thus gave the baskets as well as the first-fruits to the priest” (Bava Kamma 92a). The wealthy always seem to know how to save a dollar. This is all the more ironic as the gift of the wealthy looks much nicer and surely makes a nicer impression, though bringing the bikkurim actually cost the poor more. Somehow, the wealthy manage to get tickets to a big game through connections, whereas the “average” person has to pay for his.                                                                                                                                                                                                   

Marketing experts note that when one has messed up, it’s best to face the problem head on, admit one’s mistake and try to rebuild the trust of others. Hiding a problem may be good business (though bad morals), but only if one will not get caught. Best to 'fess up. Such an idea--in a much different context--dates back as far as Abraham. “Rava said to Rabba bar Meri, from where can we derive that which the people say, 'a blemish that one has; be the first to tell of it?' He replied: As it was written: And he [Eliezer] said, I am Abraham's servant.” Admitting something painful is not easy, but is the first step in the teshuva process, the first step towards doing better in the future.

At the same time, common expressions reflect people as they are, noting the foibles of man. “Rava said to Rabba bar Meri, from where can we derive that which the people say, ‘though the wine belongs to the owner, the thanks are given to the butler?’” Such is human nature that we tend to look only at proximate causes, often ignoring those behind the scenes. How many think of the farmer when eating some delicious fruit? How much more so do we forget about G-d’s role in our success? While we occasionally meet a farmer, G-d is constantly in hiding, waiting for man to seek him. “He replied: As it is written, And you [Moshe] shalt put your hands upon him [Yehoshua] so that all the congregation of the children of Israel may listen and see’; and it is also written, 'And Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands upon him; and the children of Israel hearkened unto him.’” The people were happy to attribute the special spirit given to Yehoshua to Moshe, neglecting to acknowledge that such comes from G-d. 

“Rava said to Rabba bar Meri, from where can we derive that which the people say 'When we were young we were treated as men, whereas now that we have grown old we are looked upon as babies'?"

The infatuation with being young is not a new phenomenon. We all admire babies, even cuddle them, but no baby can be tasked with responsibility or can give advice. This, too, has a biblical source. “He replied: It is first written: And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, but subsequently it is written: Behold, I send an angel before thee to keep thee by the way.'”

This is the way of the world--dor holech vedor ba--one generation replaces another. As we age, our life experience give us greater wisdom. The young may be the wave of the future, but it is the elderly who can be the greatest of teachers.

Perhaps one the reasons we must give specail honour to the elderly, vehadarta pnei zaken, is precisely because they no longer have the influence they once had.    

[1] It is this ethos that underlies the law in Israel that demands that injured victims and perpetrators of terrorism be treated equally. Such may grate on us, but ultimate justice is administered only by G-d above.
 

[2] While many minhagim were instituted by our Sages, many others were introduced by the people. Perhaps the most impactful of these is the waiting of “seven clean days” before a woman may immerse in a mikvah