12 Jan 2018

Touring the Talmud: Shebu’ot 38-44 (Shabbat Va’era) – “Relatively Speaking”

Please click HERE to read a printable version.

Touring the Talmud: Shebu’ot 38-44 (Shabbat Va’era)

 “Relatively Speaking”

The Talmud’s discussions of oaths continues to examine the oaths administered by judges in a Jewish court of law for those who require validating the truth of their statements. The particulars of when this type of oath is administered is detailed in the summary. As an introduction however, to the Talmud’s treatment of these laws a baraita is brought that discusses the sin of swearing in God’s name falsely or in vain. The Talmud asserts that as retribution for this transgression not only is the individual who transgressed punished, but his family is also seen as equally transgressing and they incur retribution. This week’s essay examines the underlying reasons for focusing on one’s family when they show irreverence or disrespect to God’s name. We look at the place and influence of family in humanity and its influence on its individual members. We also examine the place of names in relationships and why, above all things, we look at family in relation to how one treats God’s name and what it means to know His name.     


‘The family members move in precise planetary orbits around one another. They are a world, a solar system, a small universe of experience.’

— Augustus Y. Napier, The Family Crucible



The fight for one’s independence is one that is generally seen as a great and noble endeavour. We tend to believe that people want to be distinctive and different from other individuals. We believe that personal success as well as assurances that we have positive qualities are important to our sense of well-being. That is, in the West. What Western people believe to be fundamental human values turns out not to translate quite so universally the further East that we travel. Richard E. Nisbett studies and documents the key differences between the Western and Eastern psyche in his bookThe Geography of Thought[1]Whereas Western values promote independence and individuality, Eastern values put more emphasis on interdependence and collective responsibility.

Although these varying systems of society are not binary, and are expressed mutually and with varied emphasis across the East-West spectrum, ‘The further to the West a given country lies, the greater in general, that country’s endorsement of independent values.’


This, of course manifests as well in the differences in how families function and how adults emerge from them to live in these societies. As we have discovered more about the nature of our world we have come to understand the profound interdependence of living systems, among them the human social system. At the nucleus of this system is the human family. With the development of psychological therapy we have discovered that many of the problems that people seek to heal in psychotherapy are rooted not in the person with the issue alone but in the relationships and interactions with family members: parents, children and siblings. We find that the one who is ‘sick’ is symptomatic of a family-wide issue. As family therapist Augustus Napier writes in his book The Family Crucible[2], the foundations of our identities and psychological and emotional structure is wrought in the family:

 Every family is a miniature society, a social order with its own rules, structure, leadership, language, style of living, zeitgeist. The hidden rules, the subtle nuances of language, the private rituals and dances that define every family as a unique micro-culture may not be easy for an outsider to perceive at first glance, but  they are there…The family has established their world through years of living together, and the roots of their present experience go deep into their unique link with history.

Whenever we look at the social dynamics of a society, examining the family unit is paramount. It is the first and seminal social group that a human being knows; we draw our foundational notions and thinking regarding  relationship and social consciousness from our families — whomever its members and whatever form or structure that family may take.


As much as we in the West hope to see an individual on his or her own merit and see ourselves as coming into life as an essential tabula rasa (blank slate) with all possibilities open to us, the reality is that we simply do not come into this world innocent of influence. We arrive with quite a bit of pre-packed baggage. It starts with the genes we inherit.

Genes can generate a limbic scaffold slanted toward shyness or a short temper as assuredly as they do long bones or a fair complexion. Dogs can be bred for their emotionality and usually are…certain strains of mice are thirty times more anxious than others; so are some human families. 
(T. Lewis, F. Amini & R. Lannon – A General Theory of Love)[3]

But there is much more than just genetic programming involved. So much is learned after we are born as our brains are developing neural connections. The lion’s share of our personality, attributes, demeanour, psychology, social and emotional scaffolding and physical gestures come from our familial connections and interactions.

Abaye said:…As people say, ‘the speech of a child in the marketplace is learned either from that of his father or from that of his mother’. Miriam would never have said such things (of apostasy) had she not heard talk of that kind in her parents’ home. The Gemara asks: And due to Miriam’s father and mother, do we penalise an entire family? Abaye said: [Yes], woe unto the wicked, woe unto his neighbour.

(Succa 56b)

 Our skill in reading and navigating our emotional world is something we learn just as much as we learn our perception of depth and develop our hand-eye coordination. The primary teachers of our emotional intelligence are our parents. When a toddler falls down while playing in the park her first lesson on the meaning of the fall, and how she might respond is learned from checking her parent’s face. If mother’s face shows alarm or concern she cries, if she smiles and laughs she might even laugh back with her. She trusts her mother’s assessment of the situation. She might feel pain from the fall and even fright but she does not automatically gauge their meaning.

Emotional experience begins as a derivative; a child gets his first taste of feelings second hand. Only through limbic resonance with another can he begin to apprehend his inner world.[4]


This manifests with the deeper aspects of our emotions and psychology as well. How we feel and act in love is also learned from our interactions with our primary carers.

In the first years of life…a child extracts patterns from his relationships. Before any glimmerings of event memory appear, he stores an impression of what love feels like…If a parent loves him in the healthiest way, wherein his needs are paramount, mistakes are forgiven, patience is plentiful, and hurts are soothed as best they can be, then that is how he will relate to himself and others. Anomalous love — one where his needs don’t matter, or where love is suffocating or autonomy is intolerable — makes its ineradicable limbic stamp. Healthy loving then becomes incomprehensible.[5]

Of course, it is not only love that we learn from our parents and families. We also learn our notions of reverence, respect and honour from them. It is intriguing that in Torah we are not commanded to love our parents (as we are with God[6]) but we are commanded to respect and revere them.

Honour your father and your mother…. (Ex. 20:12)

 A man is to hold his mother and father in awe….(Lev. 19:3)


Our approach to brazenness, cynicism, mockery and contempt are learned most from one’s family. How we see our parents and family treat people and situations is how welearn to treat them. This week the Talmud emphasises the family’s influence on our psyche and actions to the point that even retribution is enacted on the basis that the family plays a major role in our thought and behaviours. Based on the above evidence it is quite understandable that the Talmud recognises one’s lack of reverence for God as a family issue.

The entire world trembled when the Holy One, Blessed be He, said at Mount Sinai: “You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain…Why?… Be aware that with regard to all of the other transgressions in the Torah, punishment is exacted only from the transgressor, whereas here, punishment is exacted from him and from his family, as it is stated: “Do not allow your mouth to bring your flesh into guilt” (Ecclesiastes 5:5) and one’s flesh is nothing other than his relative, as it is stated: ‘Do not disregard [the needs] of your own flesh’ (Isaiah 58:7). (Daf 39a)

 It is the parents’ responsibility to ensure that they raise children while not acting in ways that sabotage the child’s ability to respect and revere them. When a parent acts in ways that are unworthy of respect (although a child must maintain it[7]) the failure of the child to do so includes the fault and blame of the parent.

The maidservant in Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s house saw a certain man who was striking his mature son. She said: Let that man be excommunicated, due to the fact that he has transgressed the prohibition: “You shall not place a stumbling block before the blind” (Leviticus 19:14), as it is taught in a baraita…the verse speaks here of one who strikes his mature son, as the son is likely to become angry and lose respect and reverence for his father. (Mo’ed Katan, 17a)


Why is this the transgression for which the Torah assigns retribution to one’s family? Why specifically the taking of God’s name in vain? For it is a display of irreverence which is first learned, cultivated and reinforced by one’s family.

But there is more here. It is not God per se that one is devaluing, but His name. The fact that we are dealing with names is significant. After all, in Torah the entire concept of family — of mother and father — begins with names.

Naming is presented to us in Genesis as an intimate act[8]. The human names the animals by knowing them well and through his interaction with them realises that he is at a loss — there is no one to whom he can genuinely relate.

Now God the Lord said: ‘It is not good for the human to be alone, I will make him a companion corresponding to him’.

 So God the Lord formed from the soil every living-thing of the field and every fowl of the heavens and brought each to the human, to see what he would call it…The human called out names for every herd-animal and for the fowl of the heavens and for every living thing of the field.

 But for the human, there could be found no companion corresponding to him…

And God built the side of the human into a woman and brought her to the human…Therefore, a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife….(Gen. 2:18-20,22,24)

 Our names are shorthand for how we make ourselves known to others. They are for the express purpose of relating, both to other people and to those forebears to whom we are related.

The closer we are with someone the more likely we are to use their name. Using one’s name shows an intimacy, a connection, a knowledge of that person. For this reason when reverence is required, proper, personal, individual names are avoided.

What is reverence [of parents]?…

Do not call [them] by name, neither during their lifetime nor their death….
(Shulhan Arukh, Yore De’ah 240:2)

It is prohibited for a student to call his Rabbi by his name, neither during his lifetime nor after his death….(ibid., 242:15)


When we say that someone has a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ name we are not speaking of the quality of the word used to identify them. We are referring to how that person is known to others — how he is perceived or how his interaction with others manifests. A name is a means for interface. Names not only express our uniqueness they express our histories, our stories and our place within the human family.

Now God spoke to Moshe…saying: ‘Take up the head-count of the entire community of the Children of Israel, by their Fathers’ Houses, according to the number of names.(Num.1:1-2)

 This aspect of names is beautifully depicted in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The Ents, half men, half trees, were fourteen feet tall and they were ancient. The eldest among them had lived for ‘nine ages of stars and sun’. The many races of the Earth ‘thrived and declined around them without troubling their greatness’.

One felt as if there was an enormous well behind them, filled up with ages of memory and long, slow, steady thinking; but their surface was sparkling with the present…

 …For I am not going to tell you my name…for one thing it would take a long while: my name is growing all the time, and I’ve lived a very long, long time; so my name is like a story. Real names tell you the story of the things they belong to….[9]


It is in this sense that we can gain a better understanding of what it means to swear falsely in God’s name or to take His name in vain. God, after all, should not have a name. He is in all ways ineffable[10].

For You God, silence is praise. (Psalms, 65:2)

God cannot have a name. A name always denotes a thing, or a person, something finite. How can God have a name, if he is not a person, not a thing?…Following the maturing idea of monotheism in its further consequences can lead only to one conclusion: not to mention God’s name at all, not to speak about God. Then God becomes what he potentially is in monotheistic theology, the nameless One, an inexpressible stammer, referring to the unity underlying the phenomenal universe, the ground of all existence; God becomes truth. 
(Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving)[11]


Any name or attribute that we give to Him is always borrowed as a means for us torelate to Him. Calling God by a name connects us to Him and brings Him towards us. As Jewish tradition has it, He was part of our human family from the very beginning.

The human called out names for every herd-animal and for the fowl of the heavens and for every living thing of the field. (Gen. 2:20)

 And the Holy One said to him, and Me, what is My name? He said to Him Adonai, for you are the Master (Adon) over all creations. As it is written: I am Adonai, that is My name!(Isaiah, 42:8) [Meaning:] that is my name that the first human gave Me, that is my name through which I relate between Me and My creations. (Bereshit Rabba, 19:3)

That same act of naming that was so personal to the primal human included the naming of God Himself. In that act, God was no longer just the very Being and soul of the universe, He became a companion of mankind.

The description of God as a person is indispensable for everyone who like myself means by ‘God’ not a principle, and like myself means by ‘God’ not an idea, but rather means by ‘God’, as I do, Him who — whatever else He may be — enters into direct relation with us men in creative, revealing, and redeeming acts, and thus makes it possible for us to enter into a direct relationship with Him. 
(Martin Buber, Way of Response)[12]

 At the core of Judaism is faith in God not as a concept but as a person. This is an idea impossible to translate into philosophical categories, ancient or modern…For Judaism God is more than the cause of causes or necessary being, concepts explorable by science or metaphysics. God is a person, for only if God is a person does the universe hold objective meaning for human beings as persons. 
(Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Crisis and Covenant)[13]

For this reason it is not enough for Moshe to simply tell the people that God had sent him. He needed a name.

Moshe said to God: Here, I will come to the Children of Israel and I will say to them: The God of your fathers has sent me to you, and they will say to me: What is His name? — What shall I say to them?

 It is in knowing and revering the name of God that we find connection with Him.

Because he is devoted to Me I will deliver him; I will keep him safe, for he knows Myname. (Psalms, 91)

 Just as when we talk about a good or bad name it refers to how we are known in the world, God’s name refers to how He is known in the world. The specific, actual name used, expresses that or an aspect of that to us.

Knowing God’s name, therefore, means knowing His ways in the world.
Moshe said to God:…Now, if I have truly gained Your favour, pray let me know Your ways, that I may know You. (Ex. 33:13)

God responds to this in the affirmative…because he too knows Moshe ‘by name’.

And God said to Moshe, “I will also do this thing that you have asked; for you have foundfavour in my eyes and I have known you by name.” (ibid., 17)

 And He responds with His own:

God came down in a cloud, He stationed himself beside him there and called out thename of God(ibid. 34:5)

When people are scornful or cynical regarding the uniqueness of individuals, relationships, names, and belonging, they learn these traits first from parents and family. When God’s name is used in vain, it is a symptom rooted in a familial teaching and therefore, when it is expressed directly to God it rightfully incurs not only a rebuke to the individual as agent, but to the family as collective transgressor.

Ribbi Zera said: One should not say to a child that he will give him something and then not do so, for the [child] will learn to lie from him. (Succa, 46b)

One must be exceedingly careful with the little ones and to teach them to speak words of truth without swearing so that they do not become accustomed to swearing all the time… This is an obligation on their forebears and their teachers.  
(Rambam, Shebu’ot, 12:8)
Still, while our learning from parents and family as children is deeply wired in our brains, and our approach to love, hate, respect and scorn is generated by what we see our families modelling, there is one cardinal value upon which the whole of Torah stands[14]. We as individuals have the capacity — albeit often times a formidable challenge — to shed the ill that we incurred from our familial signals. In the end, when we must and when we emphatically choose to, we can step out of our familial confines and achieve freedom, truth and righteousness.

 License is given to every human…there is nothing that forces him nor decrees upon him. Rather, he of his own mind and self turns to whichever path he wishes.
(Rambam, Teshuba, 5:1,2)

 What does one do who is sickly of spirit? He goes to the wise ones who heal the soul, and they will heal him with the knowledge and relationships that they teach him until he returns to health.  (Rambam, De’ot, 2:1)

 Despite the longevity of Attractors and the waning of neural flexibility, the emotional mind can change in adulthood. The old patterns can undergo revision…Can the neglected or abused child hope for a healthy life? Will his adulthood replicate his past and prove again the principles he knows too well? Considering the neural impediment to progress how does this healing happen?…The first part of emotional healing is being limbicly known — having someone with a keen ear catch your melodic essence…For adults, a precise seer’s light can still split the night, illuminate treasures long thought lost, and dissolve many fearsome figures into shadows and dust. (A General Theory of Love)

 In working to rectify and heal all that we incur from the crucible of family, we not only shine in our own right, we shine upon our families, friends and communities as this too is an act that draws from our origins. And just as we learn the negatives from parents and family we learn the positives as well. We pass them on to our children and we share it with those around us. It is never too late to ignite the flame that can illuminate our own souls and the lives of those around us.


Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Joseph Dweck


[1] https://www.amazon.com/Geography-Thought-Asians-Westerners-Differently/dp/0743255356/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1515689695&sr=8-1&keywords=The+Geography+of+Thought

[2] https://www.amazon.com/Family-Crucible-Intense-Experience-Perennial/dp/0060914890/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1515689993&sr=1-1&keywords=The+Family+Crucible

[3] https://www.amazon.com/General-Theory-Love-Thomas-Lewis/dp/0375709223/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1515690254&sr=1-1&keywords=a+general+theory+of+love

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid.

[6] Deut. 6:5

[7] RambamMamerim, 6:11. However, cf. Tur, Yore De’a, 240, ‘Arukh HaShulhan, 240:39.

[8] Cf. Rashi, 2:23 s.v. zot hapa’am.

[9] https://www.amazon.com/Two-Towers-J-R-Tolkien/dp/B007CK5LBO/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1515691408&sr=1-2&keywords=the+two+towers+tolkien

[10] See also Berakhot, 33b.

[11] https://www.amazon.com/Art-Loving-Erich-Fromm/dp/0061129739/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1515691352&sr=1-1&keywords=The+Art+of+Loving

[12] https://www.amazon.com/Way-Response-Selected-Martin-Buber/dp/080523280X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1515700788&sr=8-1&keywords=martin+buber+way+of+response

[13] https://www.amazon.com/Crisis-Covenant-Thought-Holocaust-Sherman/dp/0719042038/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1515700849&sr=1-1&keywords=Crisis+and+covenant+jonathan+sacks

[14] Rambam, Teshuba, 5:3.



Touring the Talmud

Shebu’ot 38-44

Chapter 6



Until now, we have been dealing with the prohibited elements of swearing. The oaths being made were at the discretion of those making them, and the Talmud was dealing with the potential transgressions that may be incurred as well as their subsequent punishments or atonements. In chapter six we are introduced with an obligation to swear in certain situations, as stated in the Torah “And with His name you shall swear(Devarim 6,13). These obligated oaths (called ‘Judges’ Oaths’ – administered by the judges) are all made in specific situations within a monetary dispute, rendering the oath an ‘entrusted’s oath’ (chapter 5). If they are taken falsely they are dealt with accordingly.


Three of the Judges’ Oaths are biblically commanded, the rest are rabbinic:

  • If the defendant claims that he owes just a portion of the money that he is charged, he must swear.
  • A single witness who testifies on behalf of the plaintiff obligates the defendant to swear.
  • A person who has been entrusted with possession of one’s property claims it was lost or stolen.


Daf 38


  • The minimum claim (to be made without witnesses) is stated in an ambiguous form. The minimum amount of the claim that the defendant can deny/acknowledge that would obligate him to swear is also stated in ambiguous form. (Both are to be dealt with in the Gemara).


  • To obligate a swear, Hakhamim require that what the defendant acknowledges be of the same sort as the claim: If the claim is a pound of wheat and defendant acknowledges that he owes a pound of barely – he does not need to swear.

R”Shimon does not require the ‘acknowledgement’ to be of the same sort.

Case: The defendant agrees he owe’s money, outside of court and in the presence of witnesses. If when they go to court the defendant claims not to owe money, he is obligated to pay, if he claims to have already paid, he is exempt.

Case: The borrower agrees he owe’s money, outside of court and in the presence of witnesses, the lender adds (in front of the witnesses) that the borrower must repay him in the presence of witnesses. If when they go to court, the lender claims to have already paid, he is still obligated to pay, as he should be able to produce the witnesses that were necessary to pay of the debt.

A child, a deaf-mute and a mentally disabled person cannot obligate a person to (a biblical) swear, and we do not administer an oath to a child.

We do however swear ‘for a child’ and ‘for possessions donated to the Temple’ (‘for’ is explained in the Gemara).


Some details of the swearing procedure are outlined.

Daf 39

The Gemara brings a Barayta that details the severity of taking God’s name in vain. In court, the judges would relay the content of this Berayta to intimidate a person before swearing. The Berayta is explained and sources are brought for its assertions.

Rab and Shemuel argue on how exactly to understand the opening lines of the mishna regarding the minimum claim and minimum denial/acknowledgement.

  • The ways they each understand various cases in the Mishna are presented.
  • Proofs for each opinion are brought.


Daf 40

The Gemara explains that the concept of a minimum claim exists only if there are no witnesses: If there is a single witness even for a lesser amount, the defendant must either swear that he doesn’t owe money, or pay. If there are two witnesses then the defendant has no choice but to pay.

The following question is raised (according to the opinion of Hakhamim who obligate a swear only if the acknowledgement is of the same ‘type’):

If a person’s claim contains two ‘types’ of things (wheat and barely), and the defendant acknowledges that he owes just one ‘type’ (wheat), is he obligated to swear?

One scholar says he is obligated, another scholar says he is not, and attempted validations are brought for each opinion.


Shebuat Heset:

Although biblically, if a borrower denies that he owes any portion of a claim made against him, and there is no evidence at all (no witnesses no document…) he is completely exempt, the rabbinic authorities at the time of the Talmud instituted that he must swear that he does not owe. This rabbinic swear is called Shebu’at Heset (a swear enticing someone to admit— Rashi). 

Daf 41

While the procedures and severity of Biblical and Rabbinic oaths are seen as equal, three possible practical differences between them are brought (all regarding a person who cannot or will not swear).

The Gemara deals with the following question:

If money was lent in the presence of witnesses, does it by default, obligate the borrower to return the money in the presence of witnesses (in which case, if he does not produce the witnesses in court he is obligated to pay)?

All agree, however, that if the lender specifies at the time of a loan that is lent in the presence if witnesses: ‘it is to be returned in the presence of witnesses’, his condition stands.

The borrower on the other hand can claim that he has indeed returned the money with witnesses, however they have gone away or died (and he makes a Shebu’at Hesetto excuse himself).

The Gemara brings a string of specific cases illustrating the functions of certain conditions made at the time of the loan, as well as the validity/invalidity of certain claims.

Daf 42

The Gemara turns its attention to the last lines of the Mishna:

The Mishna first states that the claim of a child cannot obligate a defendant to swear, it continues to say that we do swear ‘for a child’. Two approaches on how to deal with this contradiction are presented:

  • Rab Babba – The case where a child can obligate a defendant to swear is when an orphan claims that money was owed to his father.
  • Shemuel – The case where we swear ‘for a child’ is when someone wishes to collect money from an orphan (whose father owed the plaintiff money), the plaintiff must swear in order in to collect.


1. The Mishna lists four items that cannot obligate a person to swear and lists other                           situations in which these four things are also not considered ‘possessions’:

  • Land
  • Items donated to the Temple
  • Documents of ownership/lease/loan etc. (as they have no inherent monetary value and serve only as proof)
  • Slaves

2.   Produce:

  • R”Meir states that although produce is connected to the ground, it is not considered ‘Land’ and it can obligate a defendant to swear.
  • Hakhamim claim that it maintains the status of ‘Land’.

3.  Only measured claims can obligate a swear, whether weight size or quantity.



1.   Sources are brought for why the four ‘possessions’ mentioned in the Mishna are excluded from each of the places that they are excluded.


Daf 43

2.   The argument between R”M and Hakhamim in the Mishna is specifically regarding produce that is ripe and ready to be harvested. If it is not ripe, even R”M agrees that it is considered ‘Land’.

3.   There is an argument between Raba and Abaye as to whether or not the defendant must acknowledge/deny in terms of that which is quantifiable.


This Mishna deals with a lender who loses the collateral that he has taken for a loan. The lender must first swear that the collateral is not in his possession, and then, either the lender or the borrower will swear depending on the worth of the collateral and the claims of the disputants.


Shmuel claims that the premise of the Mishna is that the lender specifies that he accepts the collateral specifically for its value and not as a replacement of the loan, and therefore, the Mishna sets out different terms based on the value of the collateral. However, if the collateral  was given in unspecified terms, it takes the place if the entire loan (even if it is worth significantly less ) and if it is lost, the lender loses his money.

The Gemara tries to apply Shmuel’s opinion to two Baryatot and is unsuccessful.