Bava Kamma 41

Power and restraint.

In her award-winning book The Obligated Self,Dr. Mara Benjamin describes the complex dynamics of power between mother and child, and between God and Israel. She notes that notions of power are bound up with notions of restraint, a choice to limit one’s actions in “recognition of the potentially catastrophic consequences of exercising unconstrained power.” Or, as Uncle Ben tells Peter Parker, “with great power comes great responsibility,” which sometimes manifests as a responsibility to practice restraint. I couldn’t help but think of both Benjamins as I read the beraita on today’s daf: 

As it is taught: Shimon HaAmasoni, and some say Nehemya HaAmasoni, would interpret every et in the Torah

The Hebrew word etis used in the Hebrew Bible as both a preposition meaning with, to, toward, and near and — for the grammar geeks — as a mark of the accusative case. With all these uses, the word etshows up all over biblical texts. And apparently, every time it appeared, this sage saw it as pointing to a new insight, a new halakhah, not immediately obvious in the text itself.

Once he reached: “You shall fear (et) the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 6:13) he withdrew. 

Apparently, this sage made it all the way through the first four books of the Bible interpreting every etas adding something with no problem. But Deuteronomy 6 makes him stop in his tracks. A commitment to reading every etas adding something might lead one to read this verse as saying that we should fear two beings — God and … something else? In light of this theologically unacceptable option, the sage steps back from his chosen mode of interpretation. 

His students said to him: Our teacher, what will be with all the occurrences of the word et that you interpreted until now? He said to them: Just as I received reward for the exposition, so I received reward for my withdrawal.

In many ways, interpretation is an act of power — power over the text, power over how the text is applied to our daily lives and (as we will see in the next tractate when we read the famous story of the Oven of Akhnai), perhaps even power over the text’s ultimate author, God.

We might think that someone stepping back from a choice, choosing not to use their power of interpretation, is a sign of weakness. But as the sage explains to his students, that’s the wrong way to think about it. True power manifests as both action and restraint, the ability to make choices knowing that, as Dr. Benjamin notes, some choices can lead to potentially catastrophic consequences. In fact, both acting (in this case, interpreting) and practicing restraint (here, not interpreting) are worthy of reward.

Speaking of multiplicity and interpretation: This is a favorite story of the Talmud and if you’ve been with us for a while now you may remember that we have already read it several times. We saw it at the very beginning of our Daf Yomi journey on Berakhot 6b. It’s also popular with Daily Dose authors, who have interpreted it in various ways for us. If you have the time, take a look back at Rabbi Rachel Greengrass’s interpretation that we shared when we encountered the story on Pesachim 22b, and Rabbi Elliot Goldberg’s read of the story on Kiddushin 57a.

Read all of Bava Kamma 41 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on December 13th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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