December 17, 2020

Pesachim 26

As part of the Gemara’s ongoing discussion about הנאה (deriving benefit) from a forbidden object or substance even when this benefit is unintended, a Beraita is cited in today’s daf (Pesachim 26b) which is initially understood to teach that while a person must look after a lost item that they have found, they may still not benefit from it while doing so. For example, if a person finds a beautiful shawl, tablecloth or bedsheet, they are required to maintain it and look after it which means that – once in a while – they must open it out to air it out. Yet even here, the Beraita rules that this should not be done in public which is interpreted to mean that, even here, deriving an unintended benefit – which would occur if friends or visitors saw this beautiful shawl, tablecloth or bedsheet and thereby concluded that it is owned by the person in whose possession it currently is – is forbidden.

However, the Gemara then challenges this conclusion by explaining that the Beraita need not be understood as referring to deriving an unintended benefit from an object. Instead, by having this beautiful shawl, tablecloth or bedsheet visible to other people, they may well direct their evil eye towards it (i.e. they will want it), and this might even prompt someone to steal it. Given this, we learn from the Beraita that even while performing an action with the intention of looking after an object (eg. by airing it out), care should be shown that this object is not put at risk.

Reflecting on this discussion, it is clear that along with a duty that we have to ‘care for’ a lost item, comes a duty of ‘care from’ putting it at risk of harm, and that the dedication we show for the former, does not excuse us from the responsibility of protecting it from the latter.

Yet this dual responsibility of ‘care for’ and ‘care from’ is not exclusive to the realm of looking after lost objects, and it is – in fact – good advice for each of us in terms of our health, as well as in terms of all that we possess, and this reminds me of the advice that Judah Ibn Tibbon (1120-1190) gave to his son in his will which makes reference to his large library which his son was soon to inherit:

‘Make your books your companions, [and] let your bookshelves be your pleasure-grounds and gardens….examine your Hebrew books at every new moon… never refuse to lend books to anyone who has not the means to purchase books for themselves, but only act thus to those who can be trusted to return the volumes…cover the bookcases with rugs of fine quality, and preserve them from damp and mice, and from all manner of injury, for your books are your great treasure. If you lend a volume make a memorandum of it before it leaves your house, and when it is returned, draw your pen over the entry. Every Passover and Tabernacles call in all your books that are out on loan.’ In short, Judah Ibn Tibbon understood the importance of both ‘caring for’ and ‘caring from’.

What we learn from all this is that good intentions need to be coupled with considered reflections about the possibility of bad outcomes, and what we do as part of our (positive) duty of care for ourselves and for the objects in our possession must be counterbalanced with a duty to consider the (negative) outcomes that may occur from doing so.

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