Rabbi Bernard Fox
“And it will be that on the day that he wills his property to his sons, he may not give preference to the son of his beloved wife over the firstborn son of his unloved wife.” (Devarim 21:16)
This pasuk discusses the rights of a firstborn son. This son inherits a double portion of his father’s property. In other words, when the father’s estate is divided, the firstborn son receives a portion that is double the value of the portions received by the other sons. A simple illustration will clarify this law. A man dies. Four sons survive him. His estate is divided into five portions. The firstborn son receives two of the portions – two fifths of the estate. Each of the other sons receives one fifth of the estate.
Our pasuk deals with a special case. In this case the husband has two wives. One wife is beloved to the husband. The second wife does not have the same relationship with her husband. The firstborn son is the child of the less preferred wife. This son should receive the double portion. The other sons should receive a single portion. However, the husband wishes to interfere with the rule of inheritance. He wishes to award the double portion to the son of the more beloved wife. He will provide the other sons with a single portion. As a result, the firstborn son will receive a single portion. The Torah prohibits this manipulation. The firstborn son must receive his double portion. His right to this double portion cannot be transferred to the son of the more beloved wife.
Sforno asks a question. According to our pasuk the father must respect the rights of the firstborn son. Yet, we see that the Avot – our forefathers – seemed to have disregarded this rule. The most obvious example of this disregard involves Yaakov. Reuven was Yaakov’s firstborn son. His mother was Leyah. Reuven did not receive a double portion in the land of Israel. Yaakov gave this double portion to Yosef. Yosef was the son of Rachel. Rachel was Yaakov’s more beloved wife. It seems that Yaakov transferred the double portion of the true first born to another son. He violated the injunction in our pasuk! Furthermore, the Torah condones this decision!
There are various answers to this question. Sforno’s answer deserved special attention. He maintains that Yaakov’s behavior and the Torah’s endorsement of his decision provide a fundamental insight in to our pasuk. According to Seforno, the passage does not prohibit the father from interfering with the normal pattern of inheritance. The father may show preference to a younger son at the expense of the firstborn son. However, our pasuk does restrict this interference. It cannot be motivated by the father’s preference of one wife over the other. In other words, the father cannot discriminate against his firstborn because of his relationship with the child’s mother.
Based on this interpretation of the injunction, Sforno answers his question. Yaakov did not discriminate against Reuven because of the son’s mother. Yaakov made his decision based upon his insight into his sons. He concluded that Yosef was more deserving of the special treatment normally accorded the firstborn. This dictated that Yosef inherit a double portion in the land of Israel. This same analysis dictated the Reuven should be deprived of this right.
Sforno explains that his interpretation of our pasuk is supported by another passage. In Sefer Divrai HaYamim it is stated the Yosef received the portion of the firstborn because Reuven desecrated his father’s bed. This passage clearly states that the transfer of the firstborn’s privileges from Reuven to Yosef was occasioned by Reuven’s behavior. This supports Sforno’s reasoning. The right can be transferred. However, this interference in the pattern of inheritance cannot be occasioned by a preference of one wife over another.
“You must first send away the mother and then you may take the young. This is order that you have it good and will live long.” (Devarim 22:7)
This pasuk discusses the law of removing chicks or eggs from a nest. When the mother bird is present, the eggs or chicks cannot be removed. First, the mother must be chased away. Then, the chicks or eggs can be removed. Furthermore, it is prohibited to simultaneously capture the mother and also collect the eggs or chicks.
The Torah indicates the reward for observing this mitzvah. Through observing this commandment we will be rewarded with long life. There is another commandment in the Torah that is associated with this same reward. The Torah assures us that respecting one’s parents is rewarded with long life. This raises an interesting question. These two commandments share a common reward. Is this merely a coincidence? Is some relationship between these commandments?
Rav Meshulam David Soloveitchik explains that there is a fundamental relationship between these mitzvot. Birds and many other creatures have a natural fear of human beings. Typically, when a person approaches a bird and attempts to seize it, the bird flies away. Our pasuk discusses a case in which the bird does not flee. The mother bird, in our passage, allows herself to be captured. This is because she is protecting her young. Her instinctual reaction, when confronted with danger, is to remain with her young.
A human parent has the same instinctual compassion for his or her children. In other words, we observe, in the mother bird, the same instinct that exists in human parents. We, as children of our parents, are the beneficiaries of this emotion of loving-kindness. We are obligated to respect and demonstrate our appreciation for this self-sacrificing love. We show our appreciation through observing the commandment to respect our parents.
Rav Soloveitchik explains that the compassion that we demonstrate to the mother bird is an extension of our obligation to respect our own parents. We encounter, in the mother bird, the same loving-kindness that we received from our parents. We must show our appreciation of this love even when encountered among birds. Therefore, we cannot disregard this love and use it to our advantage. We cannot capture the mother bird. If we fail to appreciate the mother bird’s compassion, we may not acknowledge our own parent's compassion.
It is reasonable that these two mitzvot should share a common reward. Sending away the mother bird is rewarded with long life. This is because this commandment is an extension of the mitzvah to respect our parents. Our respect for our parents is rewarded with long life. Therefore, this related mitzvah is associated with the same reward.
“You shall charge the non-Jew interest. And your brother you shall not charge interest, so that Hashem your G-d will bless you in all of your endeavors in the land to which you come to possess.” (Devarim 23:21)
Our pasuk prohibits charging a Jew interest. The pasuk also stipulates that this prohibition does not apply to a non-Jew. Maimonides maintains that it is obligatory to charge interest on loans to non-Jews.
Why are we required to charge interest on loans to non-Jews? Sefer HaChinuch explains that the Torah is not suggesting that it is appropriate to take economic advantage of the non-Jew. In fact, the Torah does not stipulate any minimum interest rate. Even a nominal interest charge satisfies the requirement to charge the non-Jew interest.
The intent of the mitzvah is to emphasize our obligation to our co-religionists. We are required to acknowledge the special bond of a shared outlook and set of convictions. This bond should result in a unique relationship. The relationship is evidenced through the obligation to lend to our fellow Jews interest-free. Such loans demonstrate an extra level of compassion and responsibility for the welfare of our co-religionists. The Torah commands us to restrict interest-free loans. This restriction demonstrates that the interest-free loan is a result of our relationship with our fellow Jews.
Sforno asks a question on the end of our passage. The Torah tells us that through following the laws regarding interest we will be blessed by the Almighty in all of our endeavors. We can understand that Hashem will reward us for lending to our fellow Jews interest free. However, the passage implies that we will also be rewarded for charging interest to the non-Jew. Why does the Torah promise a reward for charging interest?
According to Sefer HaChinuch, we can easily answer this question. The obligation to charge the non-Jew interest is an extension of the restriction against charging interest to a Jew. Together, these two laws emphasize our relationship with our fellow Jews. It is the acknowledgement of this relationship that the Almighty promises to reward.
Sforno suggest that the passage has another meaning. He contends that a literal rendering of the pasuk provides an alternative message. Translated literally, the passage is not discussing the charging of interest. It is dealing with paying interest. The passage teaches two laws. We may pay the non-Jew interest. We may not pay interest to our fellow Jews. Sforno explains that the passage is dealing with two specific cases. In the first case, a Jew accepts a loan from a non-Jew. The loan requires payment of interest. The Jew is required to pay the interest to the non-Jew. In the second case, a Jew accepts a loan from a fellow Jew. He may not pay interest. The agreement between lender and borrower is irrelevant. Sforno is not suggesting that the pasuk has no other meaning. Our Sages interpret the pasuk to prohibit charging a fellow Jew interest and legislating interest in lending to the non-Jew. Seforno does not dispute this interpretation. Instead, he is suggesting that, in addition to the meaning provided by the Sages, the passage has a literal meaning and message.
Based on this interpretation Sforno explains the promise of blessings. The pasuk has dual meaning. One message is provided by the literal interpretation of a pasuk. The Sages offer an alternative meaning. Sforno explains that the blessing is related to the literal meaning of the pasuk. In other words the blessing is a result of respecting our obligation to non-Jews and honoring our debts. It also results from our kindness to our co-religionists. Through upholding the loan agreement with the non-Jew, Hashem is sanctified. We demonstrate honesty and business ethics. This sanctification of the Almighty is rewarded with a blessing.
 Sefer Divrai HaYamim I 5:1.
 Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Devarim 21:16.
 Sefer Shemot 20:12.
 Rav Shimon Yosef Miller, Shai LaTorah (Jerusalem 5755), volume 3, p 296.
 Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Malve Ve'Loveh 5:1.
 Rav Ahron HaLeyve, Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 573.
 Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Devarim 23:21.