Parashat B’har Sinai: The Repetition of the Command to Not Wrong Others
A Shabbat Torah Study led by Rabbi Sacks on Saturday, May 21, 2022
Last night I spoke about the command to not wrong one another, we read twice this morning. I spoke of its implications for building and maintaining peaceful relations, with in our personal lives, in a global context, or anywhere in between. Today, I’d like us to look more closely at the command, see how two major commentators understand it, what lessons they point to, and how this might help us to frame our understanding of G!d. So, please look at your handout, where the command appears in Leviticus 25.
וְכִֽי־תִמְכְּר֤וּ מִמְכָּר֙ לַעֲמִיתֶ֔ךָ א֥וֹ קָנֹ֖ה מִיַּ֣ד עֲמִיתֶ֑ךָ אַל־תּוֹנ֖וּ אִ֥ישׁ אֶת־אָחִֽיו׃
בְּמִסְפַּ֤ר שָׁנִים֙ אַחַ֣ר הַיּוֹבֵ֔ל תִּקְנֶ֖ה מֵאֵ֣ת עֲמִיתֶ֑ךָ בְּמִסְפַּ֥ר שְׁנֵֽי־תְבוּאֹ֖ת יִמְכׇּר־לָֽךְ׃
לְפִ֣י ׀ רֹ֣ב הַשָּׁנִ֗ים תַּרְבֶּה֙ מִקְנָת֔וֹ וּלְפִי֙ מְעֹ֣ט הַשָּׁנִ֔ים תַּמְעִ֖יט מִקְנָת֑וֹ
כִּ֚י מִסְפַּ֣ר תְּבוּאֹ֔ת ה֥וּא מֹכֵ֖ר לָֽךְ׃
וְלֹ֤א תוֹנוּ֙ אִ֣ישׁ אֶת־עֲמִית֔וֹ וְיָרֵ֖אתָ מֵֽאֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ כִּ֛י אֲנִ֥י יְהֹוָ֖ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃
14 When you sell property to your fellow, or purchase from the hand of your fellow, אל תונו each other 15 By the number of years after the jubilee you shall buy from your fellow, and by the number of years that one shall sell to you.
16 The larger the number of years, the more you shall pay for its purchase, while the smaller the number of years, the less you shall pay for its purchase, since that one is selling to you the number of yields. 17 לֹ֤א תוֹנוּ֙ each other, and you shall fear/revere your G!d, for I am HaShem your God.
A Question of Translation:
Our first question to consider is what does the command of אל תונו actually mean? Our Etz Hayim chumash uses the term “wrong,” and hence I have presented the command as “to not wrong” one another.
Other translations differ:
- ArtScroll uses “victimize” in v. 14 and “harass” in v. 17. It is not quite clear to me why a translator would translate the word in two different ways just a few sentences apart.
- The eminent Dr. Everett Fox, Director of Jewish Studies at Clark University, uses “maltreat.”
- The distinguished Richard Elliott Friedman, of the University of Georgia, uses “persecute.”
Questions for Consideration:
- Are these terms all synonyms or are they rather different from one another?
- If different, what might the differences be?
- How might the use of one term or another suggest something different in a translator’s understanding of the command to not wrong one another?
Some present suggested that some of these terms (such as “victimize” or “persecute”) suggest intentionality in wronging, while other terms (“such as maltreat”) may not necessarily bear that connotation. If so, perhaps the translation in our chumash in using “wrong” may be suggesting that the command “to not wrong one another” applies whether it is intentional or unintentional. If so, the burden on one who speaks or acts is greater, because we not only have to ensure that we are not intentionally wronging someone, but have to take the extra step to be thoughtful to ensure that we are not unintentionally wronging someone either.
Let’s look at how two of the most important commentators understand this command. Let’s read again in our handout.
Rashi (Rabbi Sh’lomo Yitzhaqi, France, 1040–1105)
- On 25:14
אל תונו. זוֹ אוֹנָאַת מָמוֹן
This refers to wronging in money matters
ולא תונו איש את עמיתו. כָּאן הִזְהִיר עַל אוֹנָאַת דְּבָרִים
Here Scripture warns against vexing by words
It’s very interesting that Rashi asserts that the command means two separate things in two places. In verse 14, Rashi suggests that “do not wrong” applies to financial situations, while in verse 17, Rashi claims that the command applies to verbally wronging.
Question for Consideration:
- Is there a basis in the text to understand the command differently at each place?
- What do we learn or gain in interpreting the text in these two ways?
In our discussion, someone pointed out that the wording of the command is slightly different. While in both cases the meaning is “do not wrong another,” in v. 14, the command uses the word “אל,” while in v. 17, the command uses the word “לא.” Both mean “don’t,” but perhaps the use of a different word is what gives Rashi the idea to suggest that different types of wronging are meant. This is a fantastic suggestion, and one I had not considered! Thank you!
By interpreting the command differently in each verse, Rashi offers us two important ways in which we often do wrong one another–in monetary or financial matters, and through words. Monetary misconduct, whether it is at an actual business, or even sometimes in borrowing money from a friend or relative. Of course, misconduct in words happens by virtually all of us.
Finally, someone pointed out that by giving two ways, Rashi is hinting that perhaps there are other ways as well in which we wrong others. By bringing the command out of the realm of generality and giving us something closer to specifics, Rashi helps us to understand how relevant and basic Torah remains.
Let’s go back to our handouts to see how Ibn Ezra understands the command:
Abraham Ibn Ezra (Spain, 1089–1164)
וטעם אל תונו איש את עמיתו. אזהרה למוכר כי הראשון לקונה:
This is to be understood as a warning to the seller,
for the first injunction is directed to the buyer.
So Ibn Ezra does not see the command as hinting at two very broad areas of wronging others that we, unfortunately, all too often commit. Rather, he maintains a close reading, because v. 14 specifically states that the command is in the context of selling or purchasing property. Ibn Ezra quite logically spells out that both the seller and the buyer could do something very wrong.
We often think about how a seller might do something wrong to increase profits. For example, the price of kosher food often seems to rise dramatically about 3-4 weeks before Passover, even though the food had been on the shelf and was already bought at a low price so that the profit margin was already sufficient. In the context of selling a home, one might try to cover up or not disclose damage. While most states have good laws to try to protect the homebuyer, no laws really cover every situation.
Question for Consideration:
But let’s consider the buyer. How might a buyer wrong a seller?
In our discussion we discussed how one could damage the product or its packaging and then claim they found it that way and ask for a lower price. Another way one could wrong the seller is to remove a price that is on a small sticky piece of paper, and put it over the sticky of some larger-priced item. Thus one might try to get an item that costs $9.99 for only $4.99.
Thank you. So just as a seller might wrong a buyer, a buyer might wrong a seller. In the sixteenth century, Rabbi Ovadiah S’forno noted this as well. Let’s look at his words.
Ovadiah S’forno (Italy, 1475–1550)
“There shall be no kind of deceit in any transaction. The seller can mislead the buyer by covering up the true condition of the object offered for sale….The buyer, on the other hand should not deceive the seller: when the seller is not aware of the value of the article, even though it was in his possession…and he had time to show it to an [expert] merchant or a relative.”
The Torah does not regularly provide a motive clause or a motivational clause. Here, however, we have one in verse 17. It states “וְיָרֵ֖אתָ, you shall fear, or revere, your G!d.” I spoke last night about the different connotations that “fear” and “revere” suggest. Today, I’d like us to see how our two commentators understand this.
Rashi on Leviticus 25:17
“…one should not annoy their fellow nor give them advice that is not appropriate for them…And if you will say ‘Who will know if I had bad intentions [when I gave the advice],’—For this reason the Torah text states, ‘You shall fear/revere your G!d,’—the One Who knows thoughts knows your intentions.”
Ibn Ezra on Leviticus 25:17
“…’you shall fear/revere your G!d” to warn both the seller and the buyer that G!d will punish whoever maltreats [or takes advantage of] their fellow.”
Question for Consideration:
- How do Rashi and Ibn Ezra differ?
We don’t have time to share our thoughts on this question, but I’d like to offer one possible way of understanding these two giants of Torah interpretation. They might be seen as understanding G!d differently. Rashi’s G!d, so to speak, is internal—one’s conscience—which will hopefully motivate one to refrain from behaving inappropriately. Ibn Ezra’s G!d, on the other hand, is external—and the fear of some looming punishment will hopefully deter one from behaving inappropriately.
Both of these approaches to G!d are important. Some times, some of us will be motivated by Rashi’s G!d, our inner conscience, to refrain from wronging others. While hopefully this works for all of us most of the time, there are at least a few instances when we made excuses to override the voice of our conscience to justify doing the wrong thing. For those other times, perhaps Ibn Ezra’s G!d will yet be effective, so that the fear of discovery, the fear that we will face consequences, will deter us when our consciences do not.
So when taken together, Rashi and Ibn Ezra supplement each other. A seemingly simple command “to not wrong another” is actually quite complex. Rashi has given us a variety of contexts for us to think about when we might be apt to wrong someone, while Ibn Ezra reminds us that while some might be in a position of power that could impel them to do wrong, in any specific case, we must be aware that either of two parties can wrong each other, whether the seller or the buyer, the parent or the children, the instructor or the students, the landlord or the renter. Because any occasion might tempt us no matter where we are located on the power spectrum, the Torah enjoins not to wrong another, and we are to use all the various ways we can to muster the wherewithal to do the right thing, including our understanding of G!d.
As we get near to the Shavuot holy day and thus to Mount Sinai, I pray that our Omer period will give us plenty of opportunity to reflect on how we can right others, not wrong them, and so be worthy once again to receive Torah, so that we become better bearers of Torah after Shavuot and throughout our lives. Amen.