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Beginner’s Guide to Hassidut

For Parashat Mishpatim

Immediately following the momentous event of Mount Sinai, the Israelites are handed a long list of laws and regulations, detailed in Parashat Mishpatim. Surprisingly, these laws have very little to do with rituals, sacrifices, or spirituality. Rather, they deal with financial and physical damages, and with the responsibilities of borrowers and renters. To understand this interesting choice of the Torah, let us turn to the Mussar literature.

In his introduction to Mesilat Yesharim (The Path of the Righteous), R. Moshe Haim Luzzato, aka Ramhal, writes about the failure of many observant people to learn how to be pious:

…רוב בני האדם יודעים אותם ולא מסתפקים בהם כלל, אלא שכפי רוב פרסומם וכנגד מה שאמתתם גלויה לכל, כך ההעלם מהם מצוי מאד והשכחה רבה

Most people know [these rules] and do not doubt them at all, but [ironically] because they are well-known and accepted by all as true, people either ignore or forget them…

Ramhal goes on to speak about the false concept of piety:

…ידמו רוב בני האדם שהחסידות תלוי באמירת מזמורים הרבה ווידויים ארוכים מאד, צומות קשים, וטבילות קרח ושלג, כולם דברים אשר אין השכל נח בהם

Most people [falsely] believe that piety depends on reading many psalms, saying very long confessions, conducting harsh fasts, dipping in ice-cold water and [rolling in the] snow, all of which are concepts which cannot calm one’s mind.

Since those words were written, harsh fasts and ice-dipping have lost their charm for most observant Jews, but psalms and confessions are still there, joined by many new practices which, in the eyes of the public, elevate their performer to the status of Hassid – a pious man. Among these we can count a long beard, a certain dress-code, not relying on others’ kashrut, buying an exorbitantly expensive etrog, not relying on the eruv, not talking to or looking at women when they talk to you, never missing a prayer with the Tzibbur etc. However, according to Rav Yehuda in the Talmud (Bava Kama 30:1), this is not what makes you a Hassid.

The Talmud there discusses household hazards in the public domain:

השופך מים ברשות הרבים והוזק בהן אחר, חייב בנזקו… ת”ר: חסידים הראשונים היו מצניעים קוצותיהם וזכוכיותיהם בתוך שדותיהן… אמר רב יהודה: האי מאן דבעי למהוי חסידא, לקיים מילי דנזיקין

If one spilled water into the public domain and it caused damage, he is liable… The ancient pious men would bury thorns and broken glass in their fields [to prevent damage] Rav Yehuda said: One who wants to be pious should observe the laws of damages.

חסידים הראשונים – the ancient pious men, is a nostalgic term the Mishna and Talmud use to refer to a past long gone and of people who are no longer with us. Those people were so concerned about not damaging others that they would dig pits in their fields, deep enough so they could still plow later, and bury their hazardous materials there. Rav Yehuda comments that for one to become pious he must observe the laws of damages. According to Rav Yehuda, being aware of the damage I might cause another and taking care not to cause it is piety. How many of us can claim that we are pious?

Here is what R. Haim Yosef David Azoulay, aka the Hida, says about Rav Yehuda’s statement (Petah Enayim, Bava Kama): 

יש מי שעולה על לבו דהעיקר הוא במצוות שבין אדם למקום, אבל בינו לבין חבירו אינו מקפיד, וטעות הוא בידו. על דרך מה שפירש הרב מהר”י די שיגוביא… גלתה יהודה מעוני עניות תורה ומצוות בכמה מילי ומרוב עבודה עבודת ה’ שהיו נוהגים חסידות וחומרות יתירות באיזה פרטים והוו תרתי דסתרן ומשום הכי גלו… וכתיב ואהבת לרעך כמוך אני ה’ – כי אהבת ה’ הוא לאהוב חבירו, ונמצא שאם אינו מקיים מילי דנזיקין אינו חסיד. והיינו דקאמר האי מאן דבעי למיהוי חסידא, לא סוף דבר שיתחסד עם קונו לבד, אלא לקיים מילי דנזיקין. דצריך ליזהר נמי בדברים שבינו לבין חבירו ואז יהיה חסיד באמת בין בינו למקום ובין בינו לבין חבירו

Some people think that the main thing is to observe the laws which govern our behavior with God, and that the laws regarding our behavior towards others are not so important… As R. Yosef di Segovia wrote on the verse “Yehuda was exiled because of poverty and extreme work” – poverty is the lack of observance of laws [between one person and another] and extreme work is the exaggerated attention to [false] piety and stringencies, this is why they were exiled… It is written “love others as you love yourself, I am God” so our love for God is demonstrated through our love for others, and if one does not observe the laws of damages [or causes financial damage to another] he is not pious. This is the intention of Rav Yehuda: if you want to be a Hassid, focusing on your relationships with God is not enough! You must observe the laws of damages.

R. Yom Tov Heller, in his commentary on the Mishnah (Tosfot Yom Tov, Avot 3:17) expands the scope of piety to business ethics. The Mishna says that working for a living has a priority over the study of Torah, and R. Heller explains:

אם אינו לומד אף על פי שנושא ונותן לא יהיה יפה עם הבריות, כי לא ידע כדת מה לעשות, כענין… האי מאן דבעי למיהוי חסידא לעיין במילי דנזקין וכן אם אין דרך ארץ כלומר שאינו נושא ונותן יפה, סוף שתורתו משתכחת ממנו על העון אשר חטא, שהוא מחלל שם שמים שאומרים אדם זה שלמד תורה כמה מקולקלין מעשיו

If one does not study Torah, even though he works for a living, his business would not be kosher because he will not be aware of the Halakha, as the rabbis said “in order to be pious you should learn the laws of damages”… also, if his business is not conducted ethically, the Torah will abandon him as a punishment for the sin of desecrating God’s name, because people look at him as an example for one who studies Torah but follows evil ways.

I will conclude with the words of R. Yehiel Michel Epstein in Arokh HaShulhan (Hoshen Mishpat 378:1):

האי מאן דבעי למיהוי חסידא לקיים מילי דנזיקין, הן בנזקין והן בחשש גזל וריבית ואונאה וכיוצא בזה, דכשם שאדם מתרחק עצמו מספק איסור כמו כן ירחיק עצמו מספק ממון שאינו שלו. ואדרבא זה גרוע יותר, דבאיסור תשובה ויוה”כ מכפר, ואלו בדברים שבין אדם לחבירו אין יוה”כ מכפר, וגם תשובה אינו מועיל עד שישיב את הגזילה, וירצהו מה שציערו, וכן בכל מין צער שאדם מצער לחבירו עונשו מרובה ומחוייב לפייסו עד שימחול לו 

To be pious you should learn the laws of damages – not only damages but also any concern of money which is not rightfully yours, interest, or embezzlement. Just as one is very careful not to touch something which might not be kosher, so he should keep away from money which might not be his. The latter is worse, because with issurim (things forbidden within the context of our obligation towards God), repentance and Yom Kippur can provide atonement, but Yom Kippur cannot remedy damages or harm inflicted upon another person. Even repentance does not help unless one returns the stolen object and appeases his friend. Also, any harm [physical or emotional] which one causes to another, carries grave penalty and one must seek forgiveness.

I believe we can start to understand now why Parashat Mishpatim follows Parashat Yitro.

If my sprinklers include the sidewalk, I should revisit Sinai.

If I double park, I should think of the Ten commandments.

If I am tempted not to return extra change, the booming voice inside my head, a remnant of Sinai’s prophetic moment, should startle me.

If we truly want to feel that we are connected to our forefathers whose feet stood by Mount Sinai and whose minds absorbed the Divine message, we should come down to earth and look around us. We should monitor all our actions and interactions, because one cannot claim to be an observant Jew without fully respecting the boundaries, ownership, and dignity of one’s fellow human beings.

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