February 14, 2023

Nedarim 33

As part of our Gemara’s discussion about the making of oaths, reference is made in today’s daf (Nedarim 33b) to Mishna Ketubot 13:2 which informs us that ‘if someone went overseas and left his wife [and family] without providing financial support, and someone then provided that woman [and family] with funds during the husband’s absence, Chanan says that the individual (i.e. benefactor) who provided that support has lost their money (אִבֵּד אֶת מְעוֹתָיו).
Disagreeing with this position, the sons of the Kohanim Gedolim assert that the benefactor should make an oath stating the amount of money they gave to the family and then, on the return of the husband, they should collect that amount from him. Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinas concurs with this opinion. However, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai then states that “Chanan is correct and the benefactor has placed their money on the horn of a gazelle (הִנִּיחַ מְעוֹתָיו עַל קֶרֶן הַצְּבִי)”’.
In order to better explain this Mishna and the distinction I wish to draw, I’d like to tell a story involving Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev as recorded by Rabbi Paysach Krohn (in his ‘The Maggid Speaks’ p. 99) who once told his shammash (assistant) that if and when a man in his community called Naftali Hertz dies, he personally wants to be informed to help with the funeral arrangements.
Admittedly, the shammash was surprised because Naftali Hertz had a reputation as being both rich and a miser – apparently never giving charity or showing concern for others. Still, when Naftali Hertz died, the shammash did as requested, and seeing their Rebbe getting involved, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s followers then followed suit. It was at this point that one of R’ Levi Yitzchak’s followers asked him: “Naftali Hertz’s reputation is not a secret. Why would the rebbe give him the honour of participating in his funeral?”. To this, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak explained that he was involved in three dinei Torah with Naftali Hertz, and that they – more than anything else – revealed his true character.
On one occasion a businessman lost a bag with an enormous amount of money whose loss would have led him to bankruptcy. Naftali Hertz told the man him that he’d found the money and then gave him a bag with the money. Soon after, the businessman remembered where he’d originally lost his bag, he then recovered the money, and then went to find Naftali Hertz to give back the money he’d given him. Naftali Hertz refused, saying “I gave it to you with no thought of getting it back”. As a result, they came to Rabbi Levi Yitzchak for a din Torah.
On another occasion, a very poor man sought to borrow money from Naftali Hertz. He asked the man, “who will be your guarantor?” to which the poor man replied, “Hashem will be my guarantor”. Naftali Hertz lent the man money for many months, but when the time for repayment came, the poor man still had no money. Two years later, his circumstances improved and he came to give back money to Naftali Hertz. “That won’t be necessary; your guarantor has already paid back the loan. The day you were supposed to pay me back, my business became more profitable. That was Hashem’s payment for your loan.” The poor man insisted in giving back the money, but Naftali Hertz refused. As a result, they came to Rabbi Levi Yitzchak for a din Torah.
Lastly – and this being the link to today’s daf – Rabbi Levi Yitzchak recalled when a husband and wife were having financial problems, at which time the husband went overseas to earn some money for his wife and children. When the wife was distraught that her husband was going to leave her with no means of support, the husband told her that he’d agreed with “the rich Naftali Hertz” to provide her with a weekly amount of money during his absence. However, no such arrangement had been made. The first Thursday after her husband left, the woman went to Naftali Hertz’s place of business and informed him “I am here to collect my money”. At first, Naftali Hertz didn’t understand what was going on. But once she explained, he responded, “Yes! Excuse me! I’d forgotten all about it”, and he then gave her a good sum of money, week after week, until the husband returned almost two years later. When the husband eventually returned, he was surprised to find that his home was in better condition than when he’d left, and that there was ample food and new clothes for his wife and children. Surprised, he asked his wife how things had been during his absence, to which she replied, “maybe you forgot, but the arrangement you made with Naftali Hertz was wonderful. He gave me money every Thursday, just as you had agreed with him.” The husband then went to Naftali Hertz to ask forgiveness and to arrange to pay back the money he owed. However, Naftali Hertz refused, saying “I gave it to a family that was in need, and I never dreamt of getting the money back.” As a result, they came to Rabbi Levi Yitzchak for a din Torah.
Having explained all this, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s followers, and subsequently the rest of the town, quickly realised that they had grossly misjudged Naftali Hertz, and they therefore buried him with the honour that this hidden righteous person deserved.
Returning back to our daf, Chanan says – about a situation almost identical to the third case involving Naftali Hertz – that the benefactor has lost their money (אִבֵּד אֶת מְעוֹתָיו). Then, while seemingly agreeing with Chanan, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai states that the benefactor has placed their money on the horn of a gazelle (הִנִּיחַ מְעוֹתָיו עַל קֶרֶן הַצְּבִי). The question to consider is why didn’t Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai use the same phraseology as Chanan?
One may argue that the latter is just a more poetic expression of the former because anything placed on the horn of a gazelle will quickly fly away. However, the horn of a gazelle is long, it is strong, and it is permanent. Given this, I think (and this idea is partially informed by the opinion of Rabbi Baruch Kasiver cited in the ‘Yesod HaEmuna’ and referenced in ‘Mishnat Tzaddikim’ on Ketubot 13:2) that Chanan and Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai are agreeing in terms of the halacha, but disagreeing in terms of how they view such an action.
For Chanan, he is looking purely monetarily, and in terms of money, such a gesture will not be repaid and the money is therefore ‘lost’. But for Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai, though it is true that the money will fly away, still – like the horn of a gazelle – the deed will last forever.
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