The 2015 Summer Beit Midrash is underway! This year’s theme is Halakha and economics and this week’s summary of what the 2015 Summer Beit Midrash has been up to in shiur is by Joshua Skootsky
In the first week of the 2015 Summer Beit Midrash, where we are tackling the theme of Halakha and economics, we viewed sources that grapple with the moral-legal interplay of values within Rabbinic literature.
The phrase “descend into the craft of one’s fellow” comes up in two sections of the Babylonian Talmud – Sanhedrin 81a, and Makkot 24a. Are these instances morally exemplary behavior, or legally binding requirements? What would be the punishment for going against these moral or legal teachings?
A Talmudic discussion beginning on Kiddushin 58b offers the possibility that persons engaging in certain kinds of behaviors are “called wicked.” For our investigation into what halakha can say about monetary law, the most relevant category is that of “the poor person going after a morsel of bread,” which is not literal, but appears to refer to someone engaging in the preliminary stages of preparing to buy an item or tract of land. However, there are many other kinds of behaviors, some wholly religious in nature (such as Berakhot 6b, which refers to praying in a synagogue while facing backwards) and others are of a wholly interpersonal nature (such as Kiddushin 59a, which talks about someone raising their hand as if they are about to strike a fellow Jew).
What are the results, practical or legal, of being “called wicked”? We have seen sources that seem to break into two tracks. In the first, wicked acts, or even calling someone wicked needlessly, takes the parties involved into an extra-legal “field of honor,” where it is permitted to the wronged party to avenge themselves by engaging in competitive business practices, and seeking to undermine his or her foe by all means necessary. Some sources question why the Sages permitted being so mean, especially since not holding a grudge is a Torah value. Other sources permit going farther, and punching the wicked person in the face, or burning one-third of the produce in their field (Tosafot Bava Metzia 71a). Wanton property damage as part of a personal feud is viewed by other Rabbinic voices with great skepticism.
Another school of thought focuses on being “called wicked” in terms of one’s legal status. Perhaps Rabbinically or on a Torah level (Pitchei Teshuva to Choshen Mishpat 237:1) one acquires the halakhic status of a wicked person or “Rasha,” and loses the ability to give legal testimony, which almost completely destroys their ability to win a lawsuit brought to a Jewish Court (Beit Din). Hagahot Maimoni (Chovel u’Mazik 5:2) quote the Ra’avan as taking this position about one who merely raises his or her hand against a fellow Jew, and then the Maharam M’Rutenberg as expanding this to “the poor person going after a morsel of bread.” Putting all of these together, taking a supercompetitive stance in business dealings could result in very real moral and legal opprobrium.