A Journey Through a Talmudic Tractate - משפטים

Friday, 9 February, 2024 - 11:00 am


A Journey Through a Talmudic Tractate 

A majority of the Torah's civil law, based on the principles laid out in this week's Parsha, appears in the Talmud in three tractates: Baba Kamma, "the first gate", describes the laws of torts; Baba Metziah, "the middle gate" discourses laws of ownership, and Baba Batra "the final gate", which discusses laws of neighbors, and real estate.  

The Torah contains both "body", the practical law, and "soul", the deeper spiritual meaning within the teaching. Therefore, every aspect of the Torah, including the order of the laws, contains a lesson for each of us. 

The final section of the Baba Batra, the final gate, discusses a dispute between Rabbi Yishmael and Ben Nanas regarding the legal obligation of a guarantor who committed to secure the loan for his friend, not at the issuing of the loan but after the loan is due. Ben Nanas argues that the guarantor is not liable since the creditor did not rely on the guarantor when he made the loan. Rabbi Yishamel argues that, under certain circumstances, the guarantor's commitment is binding since the guarantor benefits from making his commitment. The benefit he receives is that - due to his commitment - the creditor stops the collection process against the borrower. In the words of the Mishnah: 

In the case of a guarantor whose commitment emerged after the signing of the promissory note…

An incident occurred where such a case came before Rabbi Yishmael, and he said: The creditor can collect the sum from unsold property of the guarantor, but not from liened property that he has sold to others.  Ben Nannas said to Rabbi Yishmael: The creditor cannot collect the sum from the guarantor at all, not from liened property that has been sold, nor from unsold property.

Rabbi Yishmael said to him: Why not? Ben Nannas said to him: If one was strangling someone in the marketplace, demanding repayment of a loan, and another person found him doing so and said to the attacker: Leave him alone and I will give you the money he owes, the person who intervened is exempt from paying, as the creditor did not loan the money in the first place based on his trust of the one who intervened. 

The significance of the conclusion of all the laws of torts with the discussion about the guarantor can be appreciated when comparing the end of the tractate Baba Batra to its beginning. The first Mishnah in the tractate discusses the laws of how partners may dissolve a partnership and divide the land they once shared.

Partners who wished to make a partition [meḥitza] in a jointly owned courtyard build the wall for the partition in the middle of the courtyard. What is this wall fashioned from? In a place where it is customary to build such a wall with non-chiseled stone [gevil], or chiseled stone [gazit], or small bricks [kefisin], or large bricks [leveinim], they must build the wall with that material. Everything is in accordance with the regional custom.

In the figurative sense, partners dissolving a partnership represents the beginning of all torts, when people see themselves as separate from others and, therefore, are not concerned with the wellbeing of the other. After studying the entire tractate, we develop spiritually to the point where we recognize that our souls are all part of the same essence and are interconnected. This recognition motivates us to be concerned for the well-being of others to the extent that we commit to be their "guarantor", to take personal responsibility for their well-being. 

Spiritual development and redemption occur when we move from "Partners who wished to make a partition" to a "guarantor" who sees his friend being "strangled" by the creditor and he intervenes and says, "Leave him alone and I will give you {the money he owes}". 

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Likutei Sichos 26 Mishpatim 1

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