Talmud pages

Yoma 11

Better living through mitzvot?

Some days the Talmud delights in discussing the most abstract, stylized and seemingly irrelevant concerns and some days we find ourselves, with no warning at all, thrust into a shockingly frank conversation about the most exquisitely painful realities of human existence. Today it’s the latter. But at least I warned you.

There’s a famous Talmudic story (Chullin 142) of a father who sends his son to collect eggs from a bird’s nest in a tree. Being obedient and righteous, the boy climbs the tree immediately but sends away the mother bird before collecting her eggs. The child thus fulfills the mitzvot of honoring one’s parents and of shooing away the mother bird (shiluach ha-ken). On his way down the tree, the boy falls to his death. 

This story is a tragedy, all the more so because the biblical verses which command both of these mitzvot, Exodus 20:12 and Deuteronomy 22:7, promise a long life to those who observe them. According to some, the great Torah sage Elisha ben Abuya saw this tragedy and his faith was so shaken that he rejected the Torah entirely. Shouldn’t God protect one who is actively engaged in the performance of mitzvot? Especially those mitzvot which the Torah connects to longevity?

Today’s daf offers a different perspective.

Rabbi Yehuda said: There was an incident involving an examiner, who was examining mezuzot in the upper marketplace of Tzippori. A Roman official found him and collected a fine of one thousand zuz from him.

Tzippori was a mixed Jewish-non-Jewish city; the story appears to be set in a period when the public performance of Judaism was either outlawed or strictly regulated. While the man doesn’t lose his life for his work ensuring that mezuzot are kosher, he is forced to pay an enormous fine. The Gemara asks:

But didn’t Rabbi Elazar say that those on the path to perform a mitzvah are not susceptible to harm?!

Shouldn’t those actively involved in performing a mitzvah, in this case facilitating the mitzvah of mezuzah, be protected from physical and financial harm? The Gemara answers:

Where danger is permanent it is different.

When the risks are ever-present and known, even those engaged in a mitzvah must take precautions. 

The Gemara’s proof for this idea comes from 1 Samuel 16. In this text, Israel’s first king, Saul, is currently on the throne, but God has rejected his kingship and commands God’s prophet, Samuel, to go and anoint one of Jesse the Bethlehemite’s sons as king in Saul’s place (spoiler alert: it’s going to be David). If he finds out, Saul is not going to be happy to hear that Samuel is anointing a rival for the throne. “And Samuel said: How will I go, and Saul will hear and kill me? God said: Take in your hand a calf and say: I have come to offer a sacrifice to God.” (I Samuel 16:2) Even though Samuel the prophet will be engaged in actively obeying the direct words of God, God warns him to take precautions and come up with a cover story to protect himself from Saul’s wrath. When the risks are ever-present and known, even those engaged in a mitzvah must take precautions.

Today’s daf acknowledges that the world is a dangerous place. Doing mitzvot isn’t magically protective. But today’s daf also insists that even though doing mitzvot won’t always literally save your life, you are still obligated to do them because fulfilling the mitzvot is the only way to live in harmony with God’s will. After all, for the rabbis, life isn’t just about living but about living well. 

Read all of Yoma 11 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 22nd, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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