Kiddushin 17

Grasping too much.

The Torah stipulates that when a slave is freed after completing their six-year term of service, they are entitled to severance. A beraita (early rabbinic teaching) on today’s daf offers some opinions as to how big that gift should be. Here’s one:

Rabbi Yehuda says: Thirty sela, like the thirty (shekels) for a slave (see Exodus 21:32). 

Rabbi Yehuda makes a midrashic connection between Deuteronomy 15:14, which describes the requirement to give severance, and Exodus 21:32, which stipulates that when a Canaanite slave is gored by an ox, the animal’s owner must give the slave owner thirty silver shekels as compensation. Because both verses use the verb “to give,” Rabbi Yehuda concludes that the same amount should be given in both cases. The Gemara objects: 

But let him derive “giving” (of the severance gift from the) “giving” from valuations (see Leviticus 27:23): Just as there, it is 50, so too here, it should be 50.

The Gemara points out that the verse in Exodus isn’t the only place in the Torah where a form of the verb “to give” is attached to a monetary amount. In Leviticus, which discusses a situation in which someone vows to donate the equivalent of a person’s life to the Temple, an adult male is valued at 50 shekels. So why not use the amount in Leviticus as the basis of comparison and establish the amount of severance at 50? To which the Gemara responds:

If you grasped too much, you did not grasp anything; if you grasped a bit, you grasped.

What does this mean? 

This principle — tafasta meruba lo tafasta, or “If you grasped too much, you did not grasp anything” — is found throughout rabbinic literature. It means that in cases where there are two equally valid interpretations of a verse, and one leads to a larger quantity and one to a smaller quantity, we choose the smaller one. (See here for a classic example.) Since by using Rabbi Yehuda’s methodology we can derive that a slave owner must give the departing servant either thirty or 50 shekels, but we aren’t sure which, we go with the lower amount: 30 shekels. 

In modern Hebrew, this aphorism has come to mean that if you try to do too much, you’ll end up accomplishing very little. It’s a version of the English saying “Don’t bite off more than you can chew,” and is typically directed at people trying to do too much at once. It’s a reasonable guideline for those of us who write these daily Talmud essays, where we attempt to identify one thing on the daf to share in an easily digestible way. Tafasta mu’at, tafasta — if you grasp on to the right sized bit, you grasp something. And that’s what we aim to do every day.

Read all of Kiddushin 17 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on August 30th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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