Ethics of the Fathers


Rabbi Israel Chait

Written by student


            We last explained that the mishna which says to ‘be patient when coming to a verdict’ is teaching us how one must relate to the process of knowledge. There is a tendency in man to have a false sense of assurance and confidence when searching for knowledge and it is this attitude that is responsible for people coming to a quick, hasty decision. The source for this feeling is the mindset that the knowledge comes from within the person, as if it resides somewhere within the personality, so that all they have to do is think for a short time and the knowledge will ‘come to him.’ The mishna thus teaches that we must relate to the process of knowledge as a process of seeking and discovering a reality ‘outside’ the self. This demands an attitude of patience and thinking things over to make sure that we have gone through the process correctly. We were left, however, with the question: why would the mishna refer specifically to the process of ‘din’, coming to a court decision, when the idea truly applies to all areas of knowledge?

The Rabbeinu Yonah on our mishna addresses the question. He says that monetary law is essential- ‘a great root’- to Torah, quoting the midrash that before the Ten Commandments, the verse says ‘And you will judge the nation at all times’ and after the Ten Commandments the verse says ‘And these are the judgments’, showing how Torah must be centered around a proper court system. To understand the import of this commentary, we need to understand why the court system, and justice in general, is so important. Why is the court system and monetary law central to Torah?

When it comes to performing commandments of God, there can be different internal, personal motivations that a particular individual may have. Though one person may have the motivation of ‘lishma’, doing it for the right reason only, another may have a materialistic motivation - fulfilling God’s word so that God will reward him with the worldly goods which he desires. A way in which one’s attitude and motivation can be discerned is through his attitude towards the system of monetary laws. It is in this area where his materialism is at risk, so he is put to the test to see how he behaves. There are a few examples of this found in the Talmud. The Talmud says that the first question one is asked when they reach the world to come is “were you honest in business?” Also, the Talmud says that the prime example of Fear of God is seen in the story of one of the Tanaim who was in the middle of reciting the Shima prayer. A buyer, unaware of his involvement in Shima, kept on raising his price for an item, thinking that his previous offer wasn’t high enough. Yet, when he was done reciting the Shima, the Tana said that he accepted the original price. This Tana’s Fear of God was seen in his attitude towards his money.

When we look at monetary laws, we see that they play a greater role than just maintaining and promoting the welfare of society - there is individual perfection involved. Our Sages pointed out that when it comes to laws of returning lost possessions, the Torah specifically gives the case of finding the lost animal of your enemy to show how a person must be ‘kovesh hayetzer’, be able to control one’s emotions in order to do what is correct. Why did the Torah give us this ethical perfection in this commandment? There are many other opportunities to instruct a person to control himself! Here too, we see that how one relates to material goods is part of the perfection of the individual: the Torah tells us that embedded within the monetary law of returning lost possessions is the responsibility to control, and thus, perfect oneself so that we must treat our enemies’ possessions like anyone else. Built into our legal system dealing with financial matters is the need for perfection of the individual.

With this idea, we can now understand the commentary of Rabbeinu Yonah on our mishna. Central to Torah, is the perfection of a person, and that is specifically expressed in the realm of material goods. This is the idea of the midrash that the Ten Commandments have the idea of justice mentioned both before and after: teaching that in order to uphold these commandments correctly, one must have the correct appreciation for justice. It is for this reason that the mishna specifically highlights the realm of ‘din’, a court decree, emphasizing the value of the correct attitude when dealing with a decision of the courts in the monetary realm.