19 Jan 2018

Touring the Talmud: Shebu’ot 44-49 (Shabbat Bo) – Associative Properties

Please click HERE to read a printable version.

Touring the Talmud: Shebu’ot 44-49 (Shabbat Bo)

 In our discussions on the concepts raised in the tractate of Shebu’ot we have addressed several aspects of social interaction and communication. Indeed as a broad theme throughout the order of Nezikin  – ‘Damages’ (including the previous tractates of Sanhedrin and Makkot), we’ve studied the nature of our involvements with each other and how those interactions affect us for better or worse. 

 We have looked at the criteria that allow us to be included in a particular group, how groups take on collective thought and action, how groups affect our individuality and how family profoundly moulds us. We have looked at the function of our words and language as a means of commitment and communication.

 As we close our study of the tractate this week, there is one more aspect of social interaction similar to the themes we have already discussed, but in its subtle difference, it is nonetheless worth highlighting. Our focus is drawn to how our relationships and associations define us.



Associative Properties

 ‘Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that,but the really great make you feel that you too can become great.’ 
— Mark Twain

 You must constantly ask yourself these questions: Who am I around? What are they doing to me? What have they got me reading? What have they got me saying? Where do they have me going? What do they have me thinking? And most important, what do they have me becoming? Then ask yourself the big question: Is that okay? Your life does not get better by chance, it gets better by change.
— Jim Rohn


In the course of our legal discussions regarding oaths we address oaths administered by a court of law to ascertain the veracity of a creditor’s claims for payment. The debtor is responsible for taking an oath to verify his words if he acknowledges responsibility for a partial (but not total) amount of the sum claimed by the creditor. Although only one of the litigants makes the oath, an important principle is pointed out byRibbi Shimon ben Tarfon:

Shimon ben Tarfon says: From the fact that the verse states ‘The oath of God shall be between them’ (Ex., 22:10), it teaches us that the oath rests upon both of them.

 Rests upon both of them – Both are punished for it if it is false. For the creditor was not scrupulous in his dealings with the debtor and did not leave his money in the hands of a faithful person. And thus came to desecrating God’s name [by the unfaithful debtor swearing falsely]. — Rashi, ibid. (Daf 47b)

Being that they have engaged with each other in this dealing, the oath, and through it God’s name, rests upon them both. Here R Shimon ben Tarfon is bringing out an important principle regarding human interactions: When you are involved with others you are connected to them and you as an individual represent the connection. We are not seen as isolated individuals, but as a system of parts that are interconnected. We affect each other and our circumstances mutually impact upon us.


It seems that this idea is a precious theme to R Shimon ben Tarfon, as the Gemara lists three more points he makes regarding various issues. All of these express the same idea — that we are judged by our associations.

•   Shimon ben Tarfon says: How do we know that one who is involved in facilitating another person’s adultery that he is like the adulterer? As it says: ‘Do not commit adultery’ (Lo tin’af). [Read it] Lo tan’if – (Do not cause adultery).

•  Shimon ben Tarfon says: ‘You muttered in your tents, you said: Because of God’s hatred for us he took us out of the land of Egypt’. (Deut., 1:27) (This is regarding the ill report of the twelve spies regarding the Land of Israel. The people accepted their report and complained based on their negative message. Although the people had not actually spied out the land along with the twelve spies, they nonetheless were considered to have spied and disparaged God regarding his ‘holy tent’ (the Land of Israel) by muttering against Him. 

•        Shimon ben Tarfon says: [On that day God made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your offspring I assign this land, from the river of Egypt] to the great river, the Euphrates’  (Gen., 15:18) (Because it is associated with the land of Israel, Scripture calls it ‘great’ although it is the last mentioned of the four rivers that went out of Eden — as it is said (Genesis 2:14), And the fourth river is the Euphrates”. — Rashi) As it says, ‘Come close to the oil of the anointed one, and be as if you were anointed’.
‘The servant of a king, is a king’. (Daf 47b)


There are no two ways about it. We take on the associations of those with whom we associate.The fact that R Shimon includes in his four points the Euphrates river as opposed to a human being suggests that the associative phenomenon is not psychological or emotional, but existential. The connections are what they are. One cannot be held accountable for recognising the king’s servant as representing the king himself and the king’s servant is not at liberty to behave as though he were not the monarch’s representative.

The servant of the king is a king. (Daf  47b)

The utter reality of these situations is presented in Torah in various episodes. Associations and representations are taken with the utmost severity and truth.


There are times when we momentarily forget those whom we represent and act out of personal motives. Moshe the prophet of God, who speaks with Him face to face, faithful in all of God’s house, is God’s representative to the people. When Moshe is happy with the people, they should safely assume that God is happy with them. When Moshe is cross, so should they believe is God. According to Maimonides, it was this very failure of representation in Moshe’s connection with God that caused Moshe to be denied entry into the Land of Israel and found him accused of not properly sanctifying God’s name. When God asks him to speak to a rock and bring forth water for the people who were complaining of thirst, Moshe becomes angry with the people and calls them ‘rebels’ when God had not indicated any such anger:

You know that the chief of all early and late prophets, Moshe our master, sinned in that he became angry [with the people] saying ‘Listen you rebels!’ God was meticulous with him, for a man like him should not have become angry with the congregation of Israel in a situation in which it was inappropriate to be angry. When they saw that he was angry, they said that his anger could not have been because he had poor attributes, but rather [they assumed] that he wouldn’t be angry if God was not angry as well. Yet, we did not find that God was angry….(Rambam, Introduction to Pirke Abot)

There are times that we suffer guilt by association simply because there is an unscrupulous person in our midst. We find this with Korah and his rebellion against Moshe and Aharon, where he accuses them of taking power and leadership for themselves. Here God’s response is harsh, however it is not only against Korah but against everyone who associated with him.

Now Korah son of Yizhar son of Kehat son of Levi, betook himself and Datan and Abiram the sons of Eliav and On son of Pelet, the sons of Re’uben to rise up before Moshe with men of stature from the Children of Israel, fifty and two hundred….God said to Moshe and to Aharon, saying: Separate yourselves from the midst of this community, that I may finish them off in an instant!…Moshe spoke to the community, saying: ‘Pray turn away from the tents of these wicked men, do not touch anything that is theirs, lest you be swept away for all their sins!’ (Num., 16:1-2, 20, 25-26)

 There are times as well, when we abuse the connections that we have with great and honourable people. Gehazi, the attendant of the great prophet Elisha knew well his representation of the Man of God whom he served and used his relationship with the prophet for personal and selfish gain. He ran to accept a monetary gift for himself that was originally offered to the prophet by the commander of Aram’s armed forces, Na’aman, for having been healed of leprosy by Elisha.

“So he went down and dipped in the Jordan seven times, in accordance with the word of the man of God,and his flesh was returned-to-health like a young lad’s flesh, and he was purified. Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his camp, and he came and stood before him and said: Now here, I know that there is no god in all the earth except in Israel! So-now, pray accept a blessing-gift from your servant! He said: “As God lives, before whom I stand, if I should accept [anything]…! Now he pressed him to take [it], but he refused.” “And Gehazi, the servant of Elisha the man of God, said [to himself]: Here, my lord spared this Naaman the Aramean by [not] accepting what he brought from his hand; by the life of God, I will surely run after him and accept something from him! (2 Kings, 5:21)

Indeed, it is not surprising, then, that when one swears in court, and takes God’s name, all who are present and involved are connected to it and will either be exalted for taking the great name of God in solemnity and truth or condemned for being involved in having it said in vain.

It is understandable then, that the otherwise enigmatic quote invoked by the judges prior to any oath taken in court comes from the story of Korah.

If one says ‘I will swear’ [in order to verify his claim] the judges and people in court say to each other ‘Pray turn away from the tents of these wicked men do not touch anything that is theirs, lest you be swept away for all their sins!’ (Num., 16:26) (Daf 39a)


Understanding that our identity is governed by our associations and that we represent those with whom we associate by default, there is no shortage of guidance in Torah as to which people and groups we should strive to connect to.

Yose ben Yo’ezer of Tsereda says: ‘Let your house be a place of meeting for the Sages, cling to the dust of their feet and drink with thirst their words. (Abot, 1:4)

 Nitai of Arbel says: ‘Keep away from a bad neighbour, do not befriend an evildoer.’
(ibid. 7)

 It is a positive commandment to cleave unto the wise and their disciples in order to learn from their deeds as it states:

‘And you will cling to Him’. (Deut. 10:22) Our Sages [questioned the nature of this command for] is it possible for man to cling to the Divine Presence? They [resolved the difficulty,] explaining this commandment to mean: Cleave unto the wise and their disciples.

Therefore, one should try to marry the daughter of a Torah Sage and marry his daughter to a Torah Sage, eat and drink with Sages, do business on behalf of Sages, and connect with them in all manner of connection as it states: ‘To cling to Him’ (Deut. 11:22) (Rambam, De’ot, 6:2)


As social animals we must choose our social circles. We must recognise that there are connections that are spiritually, emotionally and psychologically toxic for us, just as there are connections that are spiritually, emotionally and psychologically nourish us. When they are toxic, we are to sever them for our own good.

So serious and paramount is this issue in our lives that contrary to the Catholic Church, Torah insists that one have the ability to remove oneself from an undesirable and counter-productive link with another person, even if it means divorce from marriage. We tend to forget that divorce too, is a mitzvah[1] — when the situation calls for it.

There are connections of course which one cannot choose, like biological family. But even with those we have the ability to regulate our interactions and involvement. The majority of our connections in life however, lie in our hands to maintain or sever.

The questions we need to consider are surrounding the criteria for our choices of connecting with others? Do we consider the responsibility that we will inevitably incur by being associated with someone? Do we wish to bear it? Are we prepared to? Is it right for us to be aligned with those whom we find ourselves currently aligned?


These are among the most difficult questions of our lives. And they direct us to examine the kinds of situations that, although we might know that we should either connect or disengage from for our own good, we will not, even for our entire lives, because of the power, pleasure and pain that connection and belonging gives us. We will forgo reason for connection.

People invested in not knowing, not thinking about, certain things in order to have ‘the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approved’ will be ecstatic when their instinct for consensus is gratified — and wrathful if it is thwarted. 
(Alan Jacobs,How to Think[2])

We will choose connections with others who fulfil a more familiar aspect of our psyche even if it is to our detriment and they treat us poorly.

Loneliness outweighs most pain. [This fact] produces one of love’s common and initially baffling quirks: most people will choose misery with a partner their limbic brain recognises over the stagnant pleasure of a ‘nice’ relationship with someone theirattachment mechanisms cannot detect…A young man wrestling with the present-day reenactment of the long-ago love of his fiery, critical mother…[will find that] a supportive woman leaves him exasperatingly empty of feeling — no spark, no chemistry, no fireworks. 
(T. Lewis, F. Amini, R. Lannon,A General Theory of Love)

We firstly look to familiar social connection before we look to healthy interaction. Yet, we cannot pretend that our connections with others do not have direct implications on us and our identity. Our involvement with great people rubs off on us, as does our involvement with impious ones. We also become extensions of the people with whom we associate.

We rarely ever stand entirely on our own. We are seen as representatives of our family, friends,  Alma mater, social class, synagogue, sports team and yoga class. We must know those representations to be true and while we may be proud of them or deeply disturbed by them they exist and our actions are judged within the associative context.

This is a lesson of maturity and acceptance. We do not always choose how we are seen by others, but two options are always in our hands: make or break the connections that we wish to be part of, or own the connections as they are and act in the best way we can given their truth.


We fear disconnect and so we keep from severing relationships with others that darken our own light. We dim our own being so that we might not be alone. Those of us who were fortunate enough to be raised with parents who were emotionally balanced, tend to navigate life’s waves and shocks with greater resilience. For those of us, however, who missed out on such emotional stability and reassurance in our youth, we may find these challenges of healthy connection particularly difficult. For many of us in this group, the end of a connection is not just poignant, it is incapacitating. Yet, the fight for our selves involves the people with whom we align ourselves. The people whom, we befriend and love are central to the health and strength of our own identity. It is this point that the Book of Psalms opens with:

Happy is the man who has not followed the counsel of the wicked, or taken the path of sinners, or joined the company of the insolent. (Psalms, 1:1)


The Hakhamim tell us: ‘O Habruta ‘O Mituta[3] —  ‘camaraderie or death’. There are no alternatives. One does not live this life alone. The colour, tenacity, strength and virtue of our bonds with others define us. When we choose people who love, who are upright, who care, who are wise, responsible, compassionate, sensitive and knowing, we in turn, draw from their light and we give back to them.

Students increase their teacher’s wisdom and broaden his horizons. Our Sages declared: “I learned much wisdom from my teachers and even more from my colleagues. However, from my students [I learned] most of all. “Just as a small branch is used to light a large bough, so a small student sharpens his teacher, until, through his questions, he brings forth brilliant wisdom. 
(Rambam, Talmud Torah, 5:9)

We become one of them and they become of us. Our health and strength depends on our connections. Touch the oil of the anointed one and become yourself, anointed.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Joseph Dweck


Touring the Talmud: Outline/Summary

In the previous chapter we began to discuss the oaths that are obligated to be taken in court. However, the main focus of that chapter are the oaths that are Biblically obligated. This chapter deals mainly with the oaths taken in court which are rabbinically obligated.


The Mishna states that in all Biblically obligated oaths, the oath is prescribed in order to exempt one from payment (as learned from a verse). However there are some monetary disputes that the plaintiff can collect without an oath, yet rabbinically, an oath was nonetheless instituted in order for him to collect:


  • An employee who claims to have not been paid can swear and collect.
  • Witnesses claim that a person was by his friend and was ‘whole’ and left his friend injured, the injured person can swear he was injured by his friend and collect (to treat the injury, loss of salary, embarrassment…).
  • Witnesses claim that a lender entered a person’s house and forcefully took collateral (considered theft), the house owner can swear that he was robbed and collect.

On these first three situations R”Yehuda states that the defendant must acknowledge that he owes a portion of the claim, while Hakhamim hold that even if the defendant denies the entirety of the claim, the plaintiff may swear and collect.


  • The debtor of a person who is biblically obligated to swear (to exempt himself form paying) but legally cannot because he is not trustworthy, swears and collects.
  • If neither side is trustworthy, the oath reverts back to its origins (clarified in the Gemara).
  • If a person tells his creditor ‘put it on my tab at the grocery store’, and the creditor claims he did not yet use the debtor’s tab while the grocer claims that he has, both the creditor and the grocer swear and collect from the debtor.



Daf 45

The Gemara asks why the case of an employee (who is a plaintiff and swears) is different than any other claim (where if the defendant denies the entire claim, the defendant takes a rabbinic oath to exempt himself, and if he denies part of it he takes a biblical oath).

  • After some discussion, the Gemara concludes that it is because the ‘boss’ is busy and does not remember who he paid (before the end of a payment cycle), so even if he thinks he already paid, he must pay his employee, but the employee must take an oath to appease the boss.

The Gemara clarifies a bit further and says that the employee can only collect by swearing if he was hired with witnesses. If he was not hired with witnesses, since the boss can claim that this person never worked for him, he is trusted to say that he has already paid him. This statement is upheld.

Daf 46

R”Yehuda stated in the Mishna that in order for the plaintiff to swear and collect, the defendant must admit to some of the claim. Here the Gemara puts forth that Hakhamim hold in such a case that the defendant can swear to exempt himself from payment. The difference in reasoning between Hakhamim and R”Y is made clear.

The exact circumstance that would allow for someone “robbed” and for someone “injured” to take an oath and collect is outlined.

A person who swears falsely (which is Biblically prohibited), even if it has no financial repercussions to other people (i.e swearing that he won’t eat, and transgresses his oath), is not trusted to swear, nor is someone who transgresses even rabbinic monetary prohibitions.


Daf 47

In regard to the case mentioned in the Mishna where neither litigant is trusted to swear, the scholars of Israel and the scholars of Babylon debate the meaning of the statement “the oath reverts back to its origin”:

  • The scholars of Babylon hold that this means – since we have no way of knowing with whom the truth lies, and neither party is trusted to swear, the court cannot charge either side to pay or swear and we revert back to the swear God administered to us at Sinai “Do not steal”, and that it is in God’s hand to punish the dishonest.
  • The scholars of Israel hold that it means that the oath originally intended for the defendant to take, comes back around to him as the plaintiff is not trusted to swear either, and since he cannot swear, the plaintiff collects his money.

The scholars of Israel and Babylon are identified; Raba makes an effort to bring proof for the scholars of Israel.

The Gemara adds that in the last case of the Mishna where both the creditor and the grocer take an oath and collect from the debtor, they must swear in front of each other, as an attempt to make the person swearing falsely feel guilty and confess.

The Gemara deals with some laws regarding a courtroom’s trust of conflicting witnesses (as one of them is clearly untrustworthy).


Daf 48


If in a transaction the buyer claims that he has paid and the merchant claims that he did not receive payment (and the goods are in a public domain), the buyer can swear and collect the goods (since the seller admitted that there was a transaction).

If the seller denies the transaction (of the specific merchandise in question, that are in public domain) and claims that the money he has been given by the buyer is from a previous transaction, the seller can swear and keep his merchandise.

1) The Mishna states that just as a debtor who admits that a portion of his claim has been paid, and a debtor who has a single witness testifying against him and one who wishes to collect from orphans must all take an oath in order to collect, so to, orphans who wish to collect from other orphans must take an oath (explained in the Gemara).

2) The Mishna provides a list of people who can be forced to swear even if the claim against them is not a definite claim (‘maybe you owe me money’). This list comprises of business partners and people who manage assets that are not their own.

3) The concept of ‘rolling’ an oath is introduced: if a person is obligated to swear to his fellow for one thing, his fellow may subject him to include other things (‘roll other oaths upon him’) that would not obligate him to swear on their own.

It is learned from a verse that all swears and loans are nullified by the Sabbatical year.


1) The Gemara reveals that the order in which debtor and creditor pass away can affect the ruling:

If the debtor passes away first, all agree that his children inherit his claim to the creditor, and when the creditor passes away, the debtor’s orphans can swear (as is necessary to collect from orphans) and collect.

However, since if the creditor passes away first, the debtor must take an oath to the creditor’s orphans and the debtor cannot pass on his obligation to swear to his kids, there is an opinion that since they cannot swear they cannot collect and an opinion that they may collect without swearing.

Both opinions are discussed, and both are deemed appropriate to be practiced in court.

2) The reasoning behind this oath is identified: Since these people work in very hard, and in such close proximity to assets that are not their own, we are afraid that they may allow themselves to take some.

3) The Gemara proves that one can ‘roll’ oaths upon a person even with a rabbinically obligated oath.


There is a Biblical obligation (one of three Biblically obligated oaths) for a person who has been entrusted with possessions of another to swear to the person who entrusted him with the items should a problem arise. Chapter eight deals entirely with different types of trustees and their respective levels of responsibility. The central discussion on the particulars and nuance of the different types of trustees is brought in Baba Metzia, whose central theme is monetary law. In this tractate only what little that pertains to oaths is brought, and the Talmud adds very little to the Mishna.


There are four types of trustees:

  1. Someone who watches the possessions for free – This kind is not liable for anything that happens to the possessions whether negligent or not.
  2. Someone who borrows the possessions – This kind is responsible for anything that happens (even if it wasn’t negligent) and therefore is always liable to pay.
  3. Someone who is paid to watch over the possessions – This kind is responsible for negligent damage or loss, and is not responsible for damage or loss that is not negligent.
  4. Someone who rents the possessions – Same as #3.


The Mishna illustrates many cases within each type of trustee that all adhere to the same rule:

If a trustee swears falsely, but there is no financial incentive, he is not liable for his oath. For example: a borrower who falsely swears that the damage done was not negligent, when it really was negligent, is not liable for his swear as he must pay for the damages regardless.


The Gemara tries to understand the Mishna’s intentions when it stated that ‘if a trustee swears falsely with no monetary incentive he is not liable for his swear’. While he is not liable for his ‘trustee’s oath’ – as there were no monetary strings attached, is he liable for a generic ‘false swear’ (since he did swear falsely)?


[1] Deut. 24:1.

[2] https://www.amazon.com/How-Think-Survival-Guide-World/dp/0451499603

[3] Ta’anit, 23