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ABOVE THE LAW

by Yosef Rodbell    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

Large sections of Jewish law are devoted to the Torah way of settling monetary disputes. In fabulous detail, the halacha (Jewish law) specifies the exact legal obligations of two parties toward each other in almost every scenario imaginable.

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Large sections of Jewish law are devoted to the Torah way of settling monetary disputes. In fabulous detail, the halacha (Jewish law) specifies the exact legal obligations of two parties toward each other in almost every scenario imaginable.

The Talmud discusses what happens if someone hires a worker to move his possessions, and the worker breaks the object while transporting it. (Does this bring back memories of your last move?) The worker must pay at least part of the cost to replace the broken object. Some authorities even maintain that the person whose property was damaged is totally exempted from paying the wages of such a careless worker.

However, the Talmud (Tractate Baba Metzia 83a) records an exceptional halachic precedent: Rabba hired two workers to transport some vats of wine. They dropped one of the barrels and it shattered, leaving the wine to spill all over the ground, lost irreplaceably. Rabba seized two garments of value from the workers; until they would reimburse him for the damage, he essentially had a lien on their property, and if no other compensation was possible, he would be able to sell the garments to provide for part of the payment which they owed him. Rabba did not want to take any chances.

Their case was brought before Rav, one of the most prominent and well-respected halachic decisors of the time, to be adjudicated. He promptly instructed Rabba to return the confiscated garments to the workers. Rabba, aware of the normal procedure in a case such as his, asked Rav, "Is this the true law?" Rav responded that it indeed was. In keeping with the ruling, Rabba returned the garments. Just then, the workers turned to the judge and pleaded, "We are poor and we toil all day at our job. We are hungry and have nothing to eat!" Upon hearing their unfortunate story, Rav instructed Rabba, "Pay them their wages." Again Rabba inquired, "Is that truly the law in this case?" Rav once again answered in the affirmative, insisting that his rulings were in accordance with the halacha.

But we know, based upon the law described before, that this ruling was incorrect. Not only didn't Rabba owe the workers any money for their wages, they owed him money for the lost wine! It seems that Rav ruled incorrectly!

However, the truth is that Rav was well aware that normative halacha did not support his rulings. The conversation, however, was actually a sophisticated manner of presenting a fundamental principle of Jewish law. Rav was demanding that Rabba, also a talmudic figure of great renown, exercise something called "midat chasidut" -- the trait of pious people who show sensitivity to the spirit of the Torah, above and beyond the letter of the law. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a great Torah scholar and leader of the past generation, explains that certain individuals of great moral character are expected to surpass the minimal obligations of the 613 mitzvot and consistently maintain even higher standards. Their actions receive greater scrutiny -- the extra actually becomes the minimum -- and because of their greater level of understanding and piety, they cannot retreat to the "normal", more lenient halacha.

Midat chasidut (the trait of the pious) is deeply rooted in Torah Judaism. At the end of this week's portion, the Torah introduces the obligation to build the Temple in an odd way. Upon detailing the command to construct the altar - "When you make for me an altar of stones" (Exodus 20:22) -- the Torah uses the Hebrew word "im -- if" which would suggest a level of uncertainty, instead of using the regular Hebrew word for "when". Were we to understand the verse literally, it would imply that the construction of the Temple is nothing more than a nice thing to do, rather than an obligation of utmost importance. Rabbi Feinstein explains that this implication is deliberate and actually quite poignant. The Torah is telling us that some actions which appear to be only "extra" and beyond the bare minimum, are in fact mitzvot that are fully obligatory.

The Torah goes on to list other details of the Temple construction. These details, as nit-picky and insignificant as they might seem, must obviously be treated with the greatest seriousness, for they constitute a mitzvah which is no less binding than any other. Similarly, when a person recognizes that a course of action which is not actually required by the halacha is nevertheless the right thing to do, as did Rav in the scenario with the wine, he must view it as an absolute obligation. Halacha is relatively encompassing, but Hashem expects us to exercise our own common sense with some of the details, taking upon ourselves even more than the bare minimum. Midat chasidut, showing a sensitivity beyond the letter of the law, is really a law unto itself.

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Yosef Rodbell, a native Atlantan and graduate of Yeshiva Atlanta, is currently a junior at Yeshiva University in New York.

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