Bava Metzia 86

What Abraham taught God.

As the mishnah on Bava Metzia 83 explained, the halakhah requires an employer to provide a basic meal for hired workers according to whatever locals customarily provide. However, as Rabbi Yohanan ben Matya somewhat floridly reminds his son, that minimal meal is not a true reflection of a worker’s worth as a person: 

My son, even if you were to prepare a feast for the laborers like that of King Solomon in his time, you would not have fulfilled your obligation to them, as they are the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

This statement leads the Talmud to compare the table of King Solomon to that of Abraham. King Solomon famously had hundreds of wives and, the Talmud imagines, each might have cooked a daily feast, hoping Solomon would pay her a visit and spend the night. Undoubtedly, Solomon’s table was filled with rich, decadent meals. On the other hand, reasons the Talmud, when Abraham was unexpectedly visited by three strangers, he personally prepared the meal (though his wife Sarah made the bread). So while Solomon was waited on, Abraham appointed himself cook and waiter for others. This had an enormous payoff: 

Rav Yehuda says that Rav says: Every action that Abraham performed himself for the ministering angels, the Holy One, Blessed be He, performed for Abraham’s descendants. And every action that Abraham performed through a messenger, the Holy One, Blessed be He, likewise performed for his descendants through a messenger.

Abraham and Sarah’s preparation of this meal for unexpected guests, whom they might not have realized were angels, is often quoted as the paradigm for welcoming guests, a much lauded Jewish value. Rav says that Abraham’s generosity is matched by God’s generosity later on in biblical history and the Gemara proceeds to pair verses about Abraham with verses from elsewhere in the Bible in which God does something on behalf of Israel. For example: 

“And Abraham ran to the herd” (Genesis 18:7) — “And there went forth a wind from the Lord, and brought across quails from the sea” (Numbers 11:31).

Just as Abraham prepared animals from his herd for the strangers who visited his tent, so too did God provide meat for the Israelites while they wandered in the wilderness. Similarly:

“He said: Let now a little water be fetched” (Genesis 18:4) — “And you shall strike the rock, and there shall come water out of it, that the people may drink” (Exodus 17:6).

Just as Abraham gave water to his guests, God provided water in the desert for the Isralites to drink. And so on.

This midrash imbues our responsibility to feed employees with great significance. Food is an essential human need, but also a way that people communicate respect and affection. Ultimately, it is human beings, not God, who understand this best. According to the rabbis, God learns how to properly care for the Jewish people from Abraham. Moreover, it is the effort of preparing the food, serving and being present that is emphasized in Abraham’s meal — in contrast to the decadence of the food which characterizes the feasts of Solomon. The message conveyed is it is less important whether the meal is fit for a king and more important that we are available and respectful in the way we provide for those who are currently in our employ.

Read all of Bava Metzia 86 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 24th, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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