Touring the Talmud: Shebu’ot 30-38 (Shabbat Shemot) – Amen to That!
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Touring the Talmud (Shabbat Shemot)
The fourth chapter of our discussions regarding oaths, deals with those taken by witnesses to verify loans or debts claimed by the plaintiff. If one takes an oath falsely, saying that he does not know of a debt when in actuality he does, he is liable. However, in order for the person who made the false oath to be culpable, several conditions must be met. One, is that he must invoke a specific name for God in the oath.
An additional law discussed is that oaths made in court can be administered to the one taking it by another person. In such a case, the witness hearing the oath administered can simply answer ‘amen’ and he is then considered to be under oath. In this essay we look at the word amen, the lessons learned from how we relate to it in Jewish law, and how a little word can carry so much weight.
Amen to That!
‘Then you should say what you mean,’ the March Hare went on.
‘I do,’ Alice hastily replied; ‘at least–at least I mean what I say
–that’s the same thing, you know.’
‘Not the same thing a bit!’ said the Hatter.
‘You might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!’
— Lewis Carroll
‘I meant what I said and I said what I meant’
— Dr Seuss
Although Amen is a Hebrew word, the Western world has adopted it. We use it to seal and endorse the authenticity of our prayers, to verify statements that we deem to be true and to establish the veracity of an idea or to confirm a blessing. In Judaism, we also use it to express an intent to act or behave in a certain way.
The root א,מ,ן – a,m,n is a formidable one. It brims with strength, support, trust, faithfulness, conviction and reliability and it imbues every word that is built from it with the same. When one’s life is woven into a fabric of integrity and consistency, faithful to a system of beliefs she has אמונה – emuna. The faithful individual upon whom one can rely and depend, whose words are true and whose speech is genuine is נאמן – ne’eman. The artisan who dedicates himself to perfecting his craft is called אומן – oman. The ones who support and take care of someone — upon whom one can depend — are called אמנים – omnim. When I put my faith into you and believe in you and your potential I am מאמין – ma’amin in you.And when I wish to express my deep and faithful commitment to anything I say, אמן –amen.
Rabbi Yosei, son of Rabbi Hanina, says with [regard to the term] amen: There is an element of oath within it, an element of acceptance of the statement and agreement withinit, and there is an element of confirmation of the statement (i.e., that he is has faith that the statement will be fulfilled) within it.
Amen does not waver, we can build upon it like bedrock. We can therefore understand the tremendous caution we are told to have when invoking it and the great power it wields when we do.
Amen, different from the similar word, אמת – emet meaning truth, is connected to truth, but it means more. It is one’s commitment to the truth — one’s living by it. It is one thing to state the truth, another to affirm our faithfulness to it.
Rabbi Yosei says: The one who answers amen is greater than the one who recites the blessing. And Rabbi Nehorai said to him: By Heavens, it is so! Know, as the military assistants descend to initiate the war (on the battlefield) and the mightyfollow them and prevail. (Nazir 66b)
The amen that follows a blessing is compared to the mighty who join the war after the assistants, illustrating that answering amen is more significant than reciting the initial blessing. (Rashi)
We are cautioned in Torah not to pledge our endorsement, commitment and faith lightly or haphazardly.
If we are unsure as to whether we should say amen, we do not risk it.
One who answers amen to a blessing said in vain or to a blessing that was doubtful as to whether it was required, will eventually give judgment (before God) for having done so. (Rambam, Responsa)
In our readings this week we find amen to be so powerful an utterance that it has the capacity to bring someone legally under oath.
Whether one takes one of these four oaths [falsely] on his own initiative or he is placed under oath by another person and answers Amen to his statements, he is liable. [This applies] even if he is placed under oath by a gentile or a minor and responds Amen.
(Rambam, Shebu’ot, 2:1)
How does one little word hold such great weight? There is nothing as precious, scary, and weighty to us as truth. We yearn for it, yet fear it, we hide from it, yet despair at not finding it. Truth is what is real. It exists and always prevails. If the elements to which we commit ourselves and the items in which we believe are not true, they do not really exist and we thus build our lives upon nothingness.
This matters because we cannot say that we value our lives or ourselves if we are willing to build upon and commit ourselves to falsehood. It is like building foundations in quick sand. Our faithfulness to truth is more than a moral matter, it is an existential one — of life and death, of being or non-being. The Hakhamim echo the Torah’s command to choose Life (Deut. 30:19)by cautioning us to avoid putting the full weight of our being upon emptiness.
Perhaps now we can begin to understand then, why they spoke so severely about speaking a misplaced or even a mispronounced amen.
Ben Azzai says: Anyone who recites an orphaned amen (one disconnected from any statement), his children will be orphaned; one who recites an abbreviated amen, his days will be abbreviated and incomplete; one who recites a truncated amen, his days will be truncated.
We are not to make light of our own existence by staking it on folly or void. It is apropos, that just before the discussion of using amen to enter into oath, a short discussion on curses is entertained in the Gemara (Daf 35-36). To curse in Hebrew, is קלל, literally, to make light of someone — to disregard the weight of their existence.
The word of God…: ‘Those who honour Me (lit., מכבדי – give me weightiness), I shall honour, and those who scorn Me will be cursed (lit. יקלו – made light of).
(I Samuel 2:30)
One cannot take an oath if he does not first believe in the weight of his own being and recognise that it draws from God Himself.
For God the Lord is Truth. (Jer. 10:10)
For this reason when one is obligated to swear, he must do so in God’s name.
Just as there is a negative commandment forbidding an oath taken in vain and a false oath, so too, there is a positive commandment for a person who is obligated to take an oath in court to take that oath in God’s name, as it states: ‘And you shall swear in His name.’ (Deut. 6:13) This is a positive commandment. For taking an oath in His great and holy name is one of the ways of His service. It is a great measure of beautification and sanctification to take an oath in God’s name.
(Rambam, Shebu’ot, 11:1)
Indeed, quite a bit of dialogue is dedicated this week to the very name of God and how we refer to Him (Daf 35).
The elements in life to which we commit ourselves directly affect the nature of our being. If we invest and involve ourselves in searching for, upholding and teaching truth, we build our lives upon what exists. We cannot connect to God or build real, substantive lives, if truth is not our ultimate goal.
For the Jewish people, this comes down even to the very affirmation of statements, blessings, ideas, wishes and vows. We do not simply say things because we feel we should. We say them because we know or believe them to be true. To do otherwise has always been seen by us as taking our lives into our hands.
Death and life are in the power of the tongue (Proverbs, 18:21)
We live in an age where commitment to reality is perhaps the most difficult it has ever been for us. We are deeply knowledgeable about how the physical world works yet it develops with such rapidity that we are at a loss to understand how it may impact us and our lives. We live in a world where who we are and what we believe to be true is more relative and dependent on our own personal view than ever before. There was a time, not long ago, that my penmanship — the predominate mode in which I put down my thoughts and communications — could convey more about my identity than my entire Facebook profile. The penmanship was simply an expression of my person, the Facebook profile a highly edited and selective presentation of a tailored, digital persona that I could always simply delete.
But the human being does fundamentally desire truth. We need not dig deep in order to feel the betrayal, anger and disappointment that lies invoke within us. We all know, even without always understanding why, that that which is not real and does not exist, cannot help, save us or be trusted. We sense the emptiness of that which is dishonest and false and while we may flirt with it for a time, indeed, we may even convince ourselves that it is all we need, it never lasts and either it or our connection to it wanes. Truth always prevails one way or another because in the end, it is all that is.
One who serves [God] out of love occupies himself in the Torah and the commandments and walks in the paths of wisdom for no ulterior motive: not because of fear that evil will occur, nor in order to acquire benefit. Rather, he does what is true because it is true…. (Rambam, Teshuba, 10:2)
To hold one’s soul intact and nourish it in strength, is to always question one’s thinking, perception and interpretation of reality. It is to be careful about putting our full faith in our volatile, versatile and vacillating selves.
Do not have faith (תאמין – ta’amin) in yourself until the day of your death. (Pirke Abot, 2:4)
But it is more. The life-blood of the human soul is not in knowing truth, but in living it and speaking it. It is a challenge for all of us because it is not easily known or perceived, and requires vigilant testing and scrutiny. But above all, it requires the desire to seek it. Spiritual health lies not in having all the answers and knowing all the facts, but in caring about and pursuing them. And when we know something to be untrue, unworthy and non-valuable or meaningful, we must take care not to affirm it, even with a little amen, as though it exists.
Amen may well be the most important and powerful word in Israel’s language. Unlike other words, we have set laws as to when and how we may use it and say it. In keeping these laws, we uphold a safeguard that helps us to achieve the divine virtue and sanctity that lies half asleep within our souls.
Rabbi Joseph Dweck
Touring the Talmud (30-38)
SHEVUOT CHAPTER 4
Chapter four of our tractate deals with ‘The Oath of Testimony’, where a witness falsely swears that he does not know of any testimony. It is one of four main types of oaths, the first two – an oath taken in vain and a false oath – were dealt with in chapter three, and the final one is to be dealt with in chapter five.
When the term ‘guilty’ is used in this chapter for taking an oath, it refers to falsely swearing not to know of any testimony.
• A person can only violate an oath of testimony if they can be a valid witness.
• All agree that if the oath is administered by the plaintiff, (in which case the witness answers ‘Amen’ to assume the oath), it must be done at a court of law.
• If the witness himself utters the oath there is disagreement:
– R”Meir says that his oath is binding even outside of court.
– Hakhamim maintain that to be binding the oath must still be taken in court
• Unlike other prohibited oaths, if someone transgresses an oath of testimony intentionally, they do not get lashes, rather bring an OLeh VeYored, as learned from a verse (while the rules of taking this oath ‘unintentionally’ and ‘completely unintentionally’ remain the same as other oaths).
Women are counted among those deemed invalid for testimony, the Gemara provides a source for this assertion.
The Gemara states that while there is dispute over whether the witnesses sit or stand during testimony, all agree that when the verdict is passed, the judges are seated while the witnesses stand.
When acting as judge for a case that involved the wife of Rav Huna, Rav Nahman stood up when she entered the courtroom, recognising her as the wife of a haber (lit. ‘friend’ – term used for fellow Torah scholars) is considered a haber as well and demands the same level of respect.
• The Gemara discusses how to provide the proper respect for a scholar who comes to court while not intimidating his adversary and maintain an unbiased setting for trial.
The Gemara states that the positive commandment to respect a scholar’s Torah is more powerful than other positive commandments.
The Gemara illustrates many different situations where a person might transgress the verse, “Distance yourself from falsehood” (Exodus: 23, 7):
• Four situations involving a judge.
• Three situations involving the student of a judge.
• Three situations involving someone who comes to collect payment for a loan.
• And three additional court procedures:
1) Both disputants must dress similarly (the wealthier disputant either dresses like the poorer person, or buys him a new suit) so as not to intimidate those less fortunate.
2) The judge must wait to hear testimony until both parties are present.
3) Neither party should speak, unless both parties are present.
The different ways that each R”Meir and Hakhamim understand the verses are presented as the source of their argument in the Mishna.
The circumstance of an oath of testimony is outlined.
Not only does the witness need to be fit to testify, the testimony he withholds must be able to grant financial gain to the plaintiff that wishes for him to testify on his behalf.
Someone who swore multiple times outside of court and confirmed all of them in court (and then is found to have lied), is considered to have transgressed multiple times, while someone who swore multiple times in court is considered to have only transgressed once as his first false swear disqualifies him from further testimony, rendering the remaining four to have been sworn by someone unfit to testify.
If both witnesses make an oath within a few seconds of each other, they are both guilty. If there were more than a few seconds between them, the second witness is not guilty since he is a single witness (as the first one was disqualified by his oath) and his testimony cannot obligate the defendant to pay. Additionally, if a witness retracts his (false) testimony within a few seconds of testifying, he is absolved.
If two pairs of witnesses make an oath of testimony, both pairs can be guilty.
The Gemara discusses and maintains that in order for the witness to be guilty he must be asked to swear by the plaintiff, or by a representative of the plaintiff.
Abaye brings the biblical source that the oath of testimony must be made (or at least confirmed) in court.
When a single witness testifies for the plaintiff in a basic monetary dispute, his testimony does not obligate the defendant to pay, rather it forces the defendant to either swear to verify his honesty or pay.
Since a single witness’s testimony can, indirectly, cause the defendant to pay (instead of swear) there is a Tana’aic dispute as to whether or not he would be guilty for withholding his testimony.
The Gemara considers further permutations of the testimonies of both single witnesses and pairs of witnesses that directly and indirectly obligate payment, and whether or not withholding them would be incriminatory.
If two pairs of witnesses make an oath, the first pair to swear is not guilty, since there is a second pair of witnesses remaining who can grant the plaintiff his money. The second pair is guilty, as they directly restrict the plaintiff from getting his money.
The Gemara explains the extenuating circumstance mentioned in the Mishna where both pairs would be guilty.
If the plaintiff requests that the witnesses testify for many claims, and the witnesses reply in general terms that they know no testimony, they may be guilty just once. If when the witnesses swear they specify each claim, they can be liable for each claim.
There are certain interpersonal prohibitions for which the Torah applies a fixed fine in addition to the basic monetary obligation (how much he stole, to what extent he inflicted pain or damages etc.). A major difference between these two types of monetary obligation is that if someone confesses to owing a fine, he is exempt, while if he confesses that he is required to pay a regular monetary obligation, he is not exempt.
The Mishna here states that if witnesses are requested to testify for a case regarding money as well as a fine, and the witness swear that they that they do not know testimony, they can be guilty.
The Gemara asks about a case where the witnesses are requested to testify solely about a fine (as the offender has the option to confess and be absolved).
– Three attempts are made to answer, none are upheld.
The Mishna brings a list of things that can be testified for that do not have monetary strings attached, and states that withholding this (non-monetary) testimony cannot incriminate the witnesses.
It is proven from the wording of the mishna that when dealing with a monetary case (where the witnesses would bu guilty for withholding testimony), the plaintiff may appoint someone else to administer the oath.
The Gemara brings four Tana’im, each with a different biblical source that the information being withheld (by swearing not to know), must be adequate to entitle money to the plaintiff.
The Gemara explores the implications of the four sources as well as the differences between them.
The Mishna states that the testimony must be about monetary obligation, and that withholding non-obligatory monetary testimony (i.e a present) cannot incriminate (as there is no legal obligation for the defendant to give the present he promised to the plaintiff).
An oath of testimony can only incriminate the witnesses if they swear while knowing of testimony, it cannot incriminate if made about a future situation (‘I swear that should I know of any testimony for you…’)
The plaintiff must specify to whom he wishes to administer an oath; he cannot say ‘I administer an oath upon all those who know’, rather ‘upon all the people standing here’.
If someone unfit to testify falsely takes an oat of testimony, he is exempt.
The oath must be administered by the plaintiff or his appointed representative.
Sources are brought for each of the the Mishna’s assertions.
The Mishna outlines proper phrasing for administering an oath.
The oath must be taken in the name of God; the Mishna presents a (condensed) list of formal and informal names of God that can be used for an oath.
The Mishna presents a dispute regarding cursing God and cursing one’s parents (both curses must be done using a name of God in order to be liable):
– R”Meir holds that using both formal and informal names can indict a person.
– Hakhamim hold that it is only a full transgression if a formal name of God is used.
A person who curses himself or another person violates a prohibition.
If someone uses the inverse of a blessing – ‘God should not bless ‘said person’’ – R”Meir says he is liable while Hakhamim say he is not.
The language for phrasing an oath is further clarified.
The Gemara discusses the prohibition against erasing God’s name.
The Gemara identifies – based upon the context of the verses – the few places throughout the Bible where ‘god’ does not have sanctity. It also mentions certain unassuming names that refer to God, such as the name Shelomo throughout King Solomon’s ‘Song of Songs’ (save for one place).
While the author of our Mishna holds that both formal and informal names of God can be used for a swear, the Gemara brings an opposing Tana’aic opinion not mentioned in our Mishna.
The biblical sources for both opinions are cited.
The multifaceted meanings of the words Arur – cursed, and Amen are presented.
The Gemara records that a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ can be seen as an oath, so long as it is repeated twice.
The sources for prohibitions of cursing God/parents/oneself/a friend are brought.
The Gemara challenges the Mishna’s presentation of the argument between R”Meir and Hakhamim regarding an inverted blessing. The Gemara concludes that the opinion’s of R”Meir and Hakhamim should be reversed.
When someone entrusts any of his belongings to another person, and that person claims to have never received those belongings, he must swear that he never received them. When this specific oath is administered, the defendant does not even need to answer, ‘Amen’, his denial alone is binding.
Hakhamim do not require that this swear be taken in a court of law, and therefore if someone swears multiple times, whether in court or outside of court, he is liable for each swear.
This swear has the same rules as the oath of testimony regarding the intention of the person who swears:
• If a person denies the claim completely intentionally, or if the denial was intentional but he was unaware of the atonement sacrifice that must be brought for transgressing – he must bring an Asham, ‘guilt’, offering and return that he was entrusted with, along with 20% increase of its worth.
• If a person takes this oath and is unaware that he is indeed in possession of the plaintiffs belongings, he is exempt.
If multiple people all claim to have entrusted possessions to the same person, and this person swears a single swear for all of them, he may be liable just once for his single swear or multiple times for each plaintiff, depending on the language of his oath.
• The Mishna presents three opinions as to how explicitly the oath must refer to each litigant be in order to be liable for each of them.
If the plaintiff claims he entrusted the defendant with multiple possessions (and he specifies them) and the defendant swears in general terms that he was not entrusted with the plaintiff’s possessions, he can be liable just once. If the defendant specified the multiple possessions in his oath, he is liable for each one.
If the plaintiff claims that the defendant owes him money as well as a fine and the defendant swears that he does not:
• Hahakamim – he is liable.
• R”Shimon – He is exempt.
If the entirety of the claim is a fine and the defendant swears not to owe it, all agree that since someone confesses to owing a fine they are exempt, he too is exempt.
The Gemara poses a question:
If a person intentionally lies when taking this oath, and is warned before that it is prohibited and he may be punished, does he still bring a sacrificial atonement (normally only brought for unintentional transgression), or is he instead flogged (the standard negative transgression punishment), or both?
• Multiple possible answers are bought, none are sustained.
Rabba claims that if the defendant denies that he owes the plaintiff, and there are witnesses present to testify that does owe plaintiff, he is exempt, as his denial is meaningless in contrast to the testimony of the witnesses. Rabba explains that is because his detail is not seen as a monetary denial, rathe a detail of the facts of the account.
• Six sources are brought to test Rabba’s claim, and he is disproven.
R”Yohanan’s opinion of the case presented by Rabba is brought forth, he holds that the defendant is liable.
The Gemara attempts to clarify the sort of ‘possessions’ a person can be culpable for denying that they were given to him by someone else:
The Mishna brought a case where multiple people claim to have entrusted possessions by the same person, three opinions were brought as to how many transgressions he may be charged for (based on his phrasing). Here the Gemara records two scholars who debate on exactly how to understand the argument in the Mishna.
There is further discussion about the multiple charges that a person can be liable for from a single oath, as well as discussion about the phrasing of a single oath used to deny multiple plaintiffs, each making multiple claims.
In the Mishna Hakhamim and R”Shimon argue about a mixed claim of a fine and a regular monetary obligation. The Gemara elaborates:
• R”S states that the plaintiff’s main claim is the fine, as it is fixed (the regular monetary claim can be dependent on the situation).
• Hakhamim state that he is obligated since they see the regular claim as the main one. This is because if the defendant confesses to the fine he is exempt.
 Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayim, 215.
 Mishne Torah, 1:14.