Moed Katan 15

Selling water in the desert.

Yesterday, we discussed the difference between ostracism (niddui) and the more severe form of rabbinic social isolation, excommunication (herem). Used sparingly, herem was a means of enforcing rabbinic authority and isolating those who challenged it. And unlike the person in niddui, who can teach and learn Torah, the person in herem is restricted from these activities, as we learn in a beraita (early rabbinic teaching)

One who has been excommunicated, may not teach Torah to others and others may not teach him. He may not be hired by others, and others may not be hired by him. However, he may study by himself, so that he will not interrupt his study entirely and forget everything he knows. And he may build a small store for his livelihood.

So if you’re excommunicated, you are mostly, but not entirely cut off from the Jewish people. You can’t study Torah with others, presumably because your teachings are considered subversive, but you can study on your own. You can’t contract to do business with others, but you can open a small shop.

As the Gemara further elaborates, being an excommunicated shopkeeper is no picnic. Rav explains that a person who is excommunicated and becomes a shopkeeper is like someone who is selling water in the valley of Aravot.

To understand what Rav is saying, it helps to know a bit of what he might have known about the valley of Aravot. Elsewhere in the Talmud, we learn that the valley of Aravot is parched (Berakhot 54a). In fact, it is so dry that the rabbis allow Jewish residents to forgo washing their hands before eating if they have taken care to protect themselves from impurity as they have gone about their business (Chullin 107a). All of this makes the valley of Aravot a dangerously isolated place. If you go there, you should do what you can to avoid the bandits who might separate you from your head (Nazir 43b).

So what might it be like to be a water seller there? In a place with no water, a water merchant may be poised to make a killing. Yet, while demand might drive prices up, the cost of transportation would reduce margins and, as Rabbi Adin Steinzaltz suggests, a water seller could eke out only a small income, enough to sustain themselves as an excommunicado. 

The translators of the Soncino edition of the Talmud have a different take. They note that one who is excommunicated would have trouble setting up shop in the civilized world, and so the “Wild West” (in this case, the wild south of Babylonia) might be the best place for an excommunicated person to find a clientele — the outlaws in the region would have no problem doing business with an outcast.

While both of these interpretations are probable, there is another option. What if Rav is challenging, rather than interpreting the beraita? Yes, a person who has been excommunicated can open up a small shop — but what good would that do? Would anybody frequent their shop? You might as well send them to the valley of Aravot to sell water which, given the supply and security issues, is no way to earn a living at all. We can do better than this!

The Gemara focuses its discussion on the permissibility of Torah study for the excommunicated, which the beraita cited above permits. It’s not as interested in thinking about how such a person could sustain themselves in exile. And it’s possible that Rav wasn’t either. Yet it’s worth considering the possibility that he is seeking to remind us that we have a responsibility to care for all of our neighbors — even those who have been sent to live outside of the community.

Read all of Moed Katan 15 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 27th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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