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Gittin 57 – The story of the rooster and the hen


The Jews of a place called Har HaMelech used to take out a rooster and a hen for the wedding, implying that the newlywed should have many children, just like the rooster and the hen. Once a band of Romans saw it and took the rooster away. Jews fell upon them and killed them, and Caesar came with his army to take revenge.

There was one of the Jews from the south who could jump a mile. He was so swift that he alone could kill all of the Roman army. The Caesar put his crown on the ground and prayed, “Master of the entire world, do not let me be shamed through a single man.” The southerner, however, said differently: “God, you have forsaken us,” implying that he will defeat the Romans alone anyway. That was the cause of his downfall, since when he went into the toilet, and snake bit him and he died. Caesar retreated, in gratitude that God answered his prayer.  The Jews misunderstood and celebrated their victory. On seeing that, Caesar came back and destroyed Har HaMelech.

The Talmud described another place where righteous Jews were killed and asks, why? It answers – because they did not mourn the destruction of Jerusalem – while one should be in joy when Jerusalem is being rebuild and mourn when it is destroyed.

Art: Grief by Charles Emile Hippolyte Lecomte-Vernet
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Gittin 56 – The story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza

Now start the sad episodes, such that even though the Torah brings joy, and therefore one is forbidden to study it during the day of Tisha B'Av, the next two pages are permitted.

At the time of destruction, the Roman law was that anyone who can kill a Jew should do so – or else he is killed. Later, he was fined four zuz. Yet later, he was killed himself. During the first of these periods, there were no oppressors in Israel – that is, they were completely free to rob Jewish land, and there was no law for them. When law was restored, if a Jew wanted to buy land his land back from an oppressor, he had the first right to do so. If someone else wanted to redeem this land, he had to pay a quarter to the original owner, and then redeem it from the oppressor.

But how did the destruction happen? One rich person in Jerusalem was making a feast, and he invited his friend by the name of Kamtza. By mistake, the servant invited his worst enemy, Bar Kamtza. Bar Kamtza came but was requested to leave. He pleaded to stay and offered to pay, even for the whole feast – to preserve his dignity – but it did not help. He figured out that since the Sages were there and nobody stood up for him, they were all to blame. He then incited the Roman ruler to destroy Jerusalem.

The dispatched general used divination and saw, by bird's flight and by arrow's flight, that Jerusalem would indeed fall. He then asked a child what he was learning, and the child said, “I will take revenge on Edom.” The general understood that God wanted to destroy Jerusalem, but that he would later take revenge on him, so he ran away, converted, and Rabbi Meir was on of his descendants. Then came Titus and destroyed the Temple.

Art: Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem by Francesco Hayez
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Gittin 55 – More decrees to help society

After the destruction of the Temple and a big national defeat, the Sages were given a chance to formulate the new way of life, that would last for the next two millenniums, in Yavneh. Rabbi Yochanan ben Gudgeda testified there about some laws that he remembered. Some of them dealt with the benefit of society.

For example, a deaf-mute girl, whom her father gave in marriage, can be divorced with a Get – even though she is not legally competent to accept it. This is true because a woman could be divorced against her will (until the Sages decreed otherwise).

Rava derived from here that if a man prepares a Get, tells a witness in secret that he is going to divorce his wife - but then tells his wife that it is a loan document that he wants her to accept – she is nevertheless divorced. But this is obvious!? – Rava had to tell this to us, because otherwise we could think that the man annuls the Get by calling it a “loan document” – so Rava tells us that he is doing this out of embarrassment.

Another enactment: if someone stole a beam and made it part of his house, then by right he should disassemble the house and return the beam. Yet the Sages decreed that he can just return the cost. Why did they do it? – To make it easier for those who want to repent of their previous theft.

Art: The secret by Edmund Blair Leighton
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Gittin 54 – To punish or not to punish


Earlier we saw that the Sages sometimes added and at other times removed penalties. However, the logic depended on a particular situation. For example, if one plants a tree on Shabbat, then if he did it on purpose, he should uproot this tree, but if he did it by mistake, he can keep it. Compare this to planting on a Shmita year, when planting in Israel is generally forbidden: whether he does it on purpose or by mistake, if he plants a tree on Shmita, he has to uproot it.

Why the difference? – Jews were not suspected of violating Shabbat, so he who did it was probably a brazen violator, who would not try to claim that he did it by mistake. Thus, there was no reason to penalize those who did it by mistake. Shmita was different: too many people regarded it lightly and violated it, and would then claim that they did it by mistake; therefore the Sages decreed that even he who plants a tree on Shmita by mistake must still uproot it.

Continuing with invisible damage, a Kohen who brings a sacrifice can easily ruin it with his thought: if he thinks, while doing the slaughter (shechitah), or while accepting blood, that he plans to eat it at the wrong time, the sacrifice is immediately invalid. This is similar to the cases discussed just above, and the rule is that if he did it on purpose, he is liable to repay the cost of the sacrifice. The Talmud then discusses why we believe the Kohen who says that he ruined the sacrifice.

Art: Rabbi by Rembrandt Van Rijn
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Gittin 53 – Invisible damage

If one has made his fellow's wine ritually impure, it cannot be used for previous purpose, and he has caused a loss. Likewise, he may cause loss by adding the Kohen's portion to his fellows wine – so that now only Kohanim can drink it. Finally, he can pour of this wine to the idols.

The three cases are all similar in that the damage is not perceptible. In this case, does the perpetrator have to pay? – The answer is that if he did it by mistake, he is free, but if he did not on purpose, then he is liable. Why such a distinction?

In truth, he did real damage and should be liable in both cases, However, the Sages decreed, for the benefit of the society, that one who does it by mistake is not penalized. This will encourage him to tell of this deed to the owner, and the owner will not transgress by using this wine. However, if he did it on purpose, there is not point in encouraging him to confess – he will not tell in any case.

Others say that just the opposite, invisible damage is not real, and one is not liable in either case. Now, why is the one who does it on purpose still have to pay? – The Sages decreed so, for otherwise everyone can inflict damage on his fellow's property by these actions that leave no visible trace.

The Talmud discusses why each case had to be mentioned specifically, and how it cannot be derived from the other two.

Art: A Woman Offering a Glass of Wine to a Man by Gabriël Metsu
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Gittin 52 – Caretaker for the orphans

If the father dies, someone may have to care of the children. The owner of the house in which they live may take it on himself, or the father may appoint him or her. This administrator has rules of what he can and cannot do. He is required to take tithes on their foods. Once they grow up and can take care of themselves, the administrator will have to formally take an oath that he did not misappropriate anything of theirs.

How can he take the tithe when the produce does not belong to him, if the Torah said, “You will tithe your grain” – and not someone else? – Indeed he is only allowed to tithe what is needed for food, but anything that is stored for later – they will tithe when they grow up.

There was an administrator in the neighborhood of Rabbi Meir, who was trying to sell land of the orphans, but the rule is that administrators should not impoverish the orphans – so Rabbi Meir was not letting him. Rabbi Meir was then told in his dream, “I (God) am trying to destroy them, and you are trying to save?!” – But Rabbi Meir still did not allow it, because “one does not take actions based on dreams.”

The administrator takes an oath that he did not steal – this was decreed by Sages to protect the orphans. Since the administrator is most likely returning a favor, he will not refrain from being administrator just because he will have to swear. Abba Shaul gives the opposite reason: administrator is just being nice, and if you put an oath on him, he will eschew the obligation; if a court appoints him – then he gets a benefit of people trusting him, and therefore will not refuse – and the logic of Abba Shaul was accepted.

Art: Приезд гувернантки в купеческий дом, Василий Перов (Caretaker's coming to a rich house)
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Gittin 51 – Limit people's desires

Imagine that someone (Shimon) bought land, worked it, has crop coming, and now it is found out that the land was stolen. The one from whom the land was originally stolen comes and reclaims the land, together with the crop, and Shimon is left with nothing. So he goes to the seller of the land (who is, as it turned out, a thief) and wants to collect his money from him. But the seller has no cash; and his fields have meanwhile been sold as well. Shimon then goes and collects from the purchasers of the thief's land. By right, he should be able to collect the price of the field and the crops.

However, the Sages limited his collection rights, for the benefit of the world. For if someone can always come and collect not only a field, but also unexpected and unlimited amounts for the crops, people would be so nervous to buy fields that commerce would stop.

An oath is a serious thing, and there is only one money-related oath in the Torah. It happens when someone in court admits to a part of the claim. Say the lender claims that someone owes him 200 coins, and the borrower admits that yes, indeed, he owes money, but only a 100 coins. In that case, the Torah says that the court can require an oath from the borrower. Why is that? The borrower can rationalize and say, “I will return the money, but later, so now, to avoid being a bad guy, I will just say that I only owe a part.” With the oath, he won't say it.

By right, the same oath would apply if someone returns a wallet with a 100 coins, and the owner claims that there were really 200. However, the Sages canceled the oath in that case, or else people would never return lost objects.

Art: Harvest in Provence by Vincent Van Gogh
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Gittin 50 – Credit obligations


When someone guarantees the payment of the Ketubah, he incurs no obligation. If the husband later defaults and does not pay the Ketubah to his wife, our guarantor is off the hook. Why is that? The guarantor relies primarily on the husband to pay the Ketubah and reasons that most likely he will never have to pay. Moreover, in encouraging the pair to marry, he is simply doing a mitzvah! That is why we can assume that he does not seriously obligate himself.

We mentioned earlier that a debt, if one cannot pay it, is collected from his lands of medium quality. Why is that? In truth, he could even give his worst land. The Torah said that the lender “Cannot come into the house to take a deposit, but must wait outside till the debtor will bring him something.” What will the debtor bring? – Of course, the worst. However, the Sages raised the obligations of the borrower, for otherwise nobody would want to loan money to his fellow.

However, when a man dies and a creditor comes to collect the debt, now he can collect only from the worst. This is so because he collects not from the borrower but from the orphans that he left. If they are minors, they surely need protection, and even if they are adults, they likely did not pay attention to their father's loans, and can be easily fooled. Here the Sages left the Torah law intact, because lenders seldom consider the possibility of death of the borrower and would give out loans anyway.

Art: La Mariée - The Bride - by Marc Chagall
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Gittin 49 – Why does land quality matter?


If one's animal damage his fellow's field, he must pay with the best of his field” tells us that there damage payments. However, we started discussing that it is not clear what “his field” means.

Rabbi Ishmael says, “His field was damaged, and his field is now used to measure the quality.” That is, the damaged party's best field determines the quality of the land to be collected. Rabbi Akiva says, “He must pay with the best of his field” clearly tells that the one who pays is the one whose field we are talking about.

But why all this talk about best land, medium or bad one? Rabbi Shimon, who was the only one who explained reasons behind Torah laws, said: why does the damager pay from his best land? – So that people would think thus: “What's the point of robbing or stealing? Tomorrow the courts will take it all away from me, and moreover, they will do it by taking my best land!”

Now, why is a debt repaid with a medium quality land? So that a rich person would not think thus: “I will advance a loan to this fellow of mine, and then, when he cannot repay, I will collect his best vineyard!” But according to this logic, he should collect the worst land!? – If you do this, people will refrain from giving loans altogether?

Finally, the Ketubah of a woman (after all, we are studying divorces) is paid from the worst land of the husband, why is that? – Because the various advantages that a woman derives from marriage are significant, and women will not refrain from getting married just because they know that their Ketubah payment will be paid from bad quality land.

Art: Le prêteur et sa femme (The moneylender and his wife) by Quentin METSYS
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Gittin 48 – When to give the best land

In discussing the sale of the land in Israel, the Talmud asks: if one sells just the trees, for their crops, is it considered as if the land is sold with them, or not? Rabbi Yochanan says that the land is considered as sold with the trees, and Rabbi Asi comments that he better say this, or else “Rabbi Yochanan will not find his hands and feet in the study hall.”

Why is this? Because in another place the same Rabbi Yochanan said that brothers who inherit land from their father are considered as buyers of land from each other. In those times when the Jubilee year was observed, the land would return to the owners every fifty years. Unless the land went with the fruit, nobody would ever own land in the true sense of the word, and nobody would ever bring first fruit!

Continuing with the laws promulgated “for the benefit of the world,” the next one is this: if one harms his neighbor, he pays for it, “with the best of his land.” We are talking about material damagers here, and if the tortfeasor (let's call him “damager”) has cash, he should simply pay cash. However, if he does not, then he may have land, and the courts collect from his land. The amount they collect is equal to the damage. But the quality of the land is up to the court, and the rule is “take the best.”

But why is it called a “decree of the Sages?” It is Torah law that everyone already knows?!  – Actually, yes. However, it would be only according to Rabbi Ishmael, who understands the "best field "differently. The best field, but of whom? – Of the damaged party! A rich damager would just give some bad land, because it would be like the best of the poor damaged party. The Sages prevented this by requiring that the damager gives of his best.

Art: Still Life with a Basket of Fruit by Balthasar Van Der Ast