“When a man or woman commits any wrong toward a fellow man, thus breaking faith with the Lord, and that person realizes his guilt, he shall confess the wrong that he has done. He shall make restitution in the principal amount and add one-fifth to it, giving it to him whom he has wronged. If the man has no redeemer (go’el) to whom restitution can be made, the amount repaid shall go to the Lord for the priest — in addition to the ram of expiation with which expiation is made on his behalf” (Numbers 5:6-8).
These verses reflect several interesting aspects of the Jewish socio-legal view. In modern legal theory, when one person harms another, not only is the person harmed deemed the victim, but society as a whole has an interest in the conduct that infringed fundamental social values necessary to ensure communal life. When a victim dies without heirs, society’s interest remains, and the state inherits. It would appear that the verses quoted above express similar ideas, but derive from a somewhat different worldview. In Jewish law, a person who harms another sins against God. Criminality is not just anti-social: “Any breach of faith toward another is an offence against God, who commands justice and whose image is found in every human being” (Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary, 784). This idea is also expressed by the rule: “If the man has no redeemer to whom restitution can be made, the amount repaid shall go to the Lord”. Here, too, we see that “to cheat a fellow Jew is not just a crime, but it is a breach of faith with God, profaning God’s name and robbing someone of the ability to believe in the goodness of God’s world and the decency of one’s fellow Jews” (id., 785).
However, the situation described by the words “If the man has no redeemer” troubled the sages. The Talmud asks: “Now is there any man in Israel who has no redeemer?” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 68b). The Talmud responds: “Therefore the Scripture must refer to a proselyte.” In other words, the only situation in which a person might conceivably die without an heir is in the case of childless convert to Judaism. This response is surprising. Was it not possible to imagine a more common scenario? Were the sages not familiar with orphans and widows who were alone in the world? Moreover, in the book of Ruth, which we read on Shavuot, we find: “But while it is true that I am a redeemer (go’el), there is another redeemer closer than I” (Ruth 3:12). In other words, in the only biblical example in which we encounter the situation described in the Talmud – a childless convert – not only is there a redeemer, but there are two redeemers vying for the privilege!
1. Is there any practical or moral difference between the view that sees criminal behavior as an offense against society and the view that criminal behavior is an offense against God? Would it be correct to say that, according to the Jewish view, criminal behavior not only offends society’s values but also damages society?
2. Why were the sages unwilling to accept the possibility of the lack of a redeemer? What does this reticence tell us about their conception of Jewish society? What did the sages seek to gain or teach by interpreting the situation described in the Bible as referring to a proselyte? Why is the beneficiary referred to here as a “redeemer” (go’el) rather than simply as an “heir” (yoresh – a word found in elsewhere in the Bible)?
3. From the words “a man or woman” the sages deduce: “Scripture has thus made woman and man equal regarding all the penalties of the Torah” (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Kama 15a; Kidushin 35a). Why is it important that men and women enjoy an equal “right” to punishment? In Oliver Twist, Mr Bumble famously says: “If the law supposes that, the law is a ass – a idiot.” What the law “supposed” (until 1925) was that “your wife acts under your direction”. What does the Torah “suppose”?
Iyunei Shabbat is published weekly by the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary, The Masorti Movement and The Rabbinical Assembly of Israel in conjunction with the Masorti Movement in Israel and Masorti Olami-World Council of Conservative Synagogues.
Chief Editor: Rabbi Avinoam Sharon