Peri Megadim’s Insights Into the Long Magen Avraham

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

This week’s entry is relatively long, so I will restrict myself to two points about our current et tzarah. First, I have been thinking a lot about shifting baseline syndrome, where we come to accept what life has become as if it is what life should be. Especially during the Three Weeks, I hope we continue to remember to long for the best, even as we live with what we have. Even as HKBH releases some of us from direct fears of the coronavirus– and we pray Hashem will release all of us from it– as long as we have restrictions of life, such as the need to wear face masks, we should remember Hashem is not allowing us to live the fullest lives.

Second, I want to share a worry. For the area where I live, a lockdown with slow easing of restrictions has worked to keep the coronavirus at tolerable levels, and we pray it continues. Some of us might therefore assume this is all a physical malady, as long as we respond physically, we will be fine. For now, that seems to be true– accepting the realities of the plague and responding to it works. But what if, now or in the future, HKBH keeps a plague in place until we–some, most, or all of us– recognize Hashem’s involvement in it? Because to me, that’s certainly plausible, if daunting or frightening. I fear too many of us would go to our graves rather than admit truths we find uncomfortable (as, sadly, is happening right now to people for whom the need to wear a mask and stay 6 feet away from people was too much). Hashem yerahem, and Hashem should send us the wisdom to respond to this as will be best and safest for us, starting with articulating, over and over, our recognition of Hashem’s involvement.

All right, back to halakhah.

Peri Megadim’s Insights Into the Long Magen Avraham

Last time, we saw a list of ideas Magen Avraham appended to Shulhan Arukh’s call to act well in a Jew’s non-shul, non-Beit Midrash life. Peri Megadim adds to Magen Avraham, at too great length to fully cover here. First, we will look only at what he actually said; he also notes sources that would expand our understanding of a topic, and I will not track any of those here. I want to know what interested him enough to discuss.

He starts with Rema’s idea non-Jews might not be prohibited in shittuf, where Rema sounds like he thought non-Jews did not violate their prohibition against avodah zarah by belief in and worship of powers joined in a single entity (like the Trinity); he denies Rema held such a view, says Rema thought only non-Jews might not be specifically prohibited from taking an oath referring to such a version. The actual belief in such a god he was sure was prohibited to non-Jews as well. Peri Megadim took great pleasure (he tells us) to see Shu”t Me’il Tzedakah agreed.

Loving Your Fellow Jew

He then notes Maharsh”a to Shabbat 31a, where Hillel gave a convert one principle to encapsulate the whole Torah. Despite how the story is often told, Hillel actually articulated a negative, what is hateful to you do not do to another. Maharsh”a thought Hillel tells us Vayikra 19;18, love your fellow Jew as yourself, means we must not mistreat fellow Jews, not that we had to do good for each other (as part of that mitzvah).

Peri Megadim thinks there is a positive element to it, and thinks the idea of what would do for oneself is not the absolute standard. Where a Jew would not care about a certain good, there might be room to say s/he need not provide it for other Jews (as a matter of this mitzvah), but where the Jew could not provide it for himself (labor and delivery services for a Jewish man, let’s say), Peri Megadim was sure s/he would need to provide it for those Jews to whom it is relevant, as a matter of loving fellow Jews as oneself.

He takes a digression to discuss hating certain Jews; for flow, I’m going to leave that for below, skip here to where he returns to questions of loving Jews. He notes the prohibition to puff up one’s own honor by denigrating someone else; Rambam’s phrasing of it sounds like Rambam did not accept Maharsh”a’s idea, thought the obligation to love a fellow Jew does include actively doing good to or for that Jew.

Loving the Convert

A convert is a special case of love, leading to an halakhic priority to help a covert before an ordinary Jew in situations where both need assistance, even where the born Jew’s need usually would take precedence (the example is unloading the born Jew’s struggling animal or loading the convert’s, but it’s the principle of the thing).

Peri Megadim includes the born-Jewich child of two converts in the special love to be accorded to converts, as the child has no Jewish relatives; similarly, the child of a non-Jewish woman or slave counts as a convert even if s/he has a Jewish father because that child, too, will have no relatives (the child of a slave is not halakhically related to his/her parents). Peri Megadim expresses a lack of certainty about whether an eved kena’ani, a non-Jew who has partially converted to be a slave to a Jewish master, already counts as a convert for these purposes. Since the Gemara takes the rei’akha the Torah tells us to love as rei’akha be-mitzvot, your fellow in mitzvah observance, this slave qualifies, since s/he observes much of halakhah. Rambam assumes a Jew who killed such a slave without intent would go to an ir miklat, a city of refuge, and Peri Megadim wonders whether one could fulfill mishloah manot, sending food to a fellow Jew on Purim, by sending it to an eved kena’ani.

Whom to Hate

Magen Avraham had pointed out the obligation to hate people who violate the Torah. Peri Megadim notes the Gemara requires Jews to help load or unload an animal whose owner is such a sinner as a way of training ourselves not to indulge in hatred other than where a matter of opposing sin. Peri Megadim therefore thought it possible we would not be required to do that for sinners whose sins are purely bein adam la-Makom, sins against Gd. Since there is no human element to our hatred, he thought we might not be required to try to overcome ourselves.

Based on that, he also distinguishes between where the sinner acted badly to us, in directly personal ways, or violated interpersonal sins, such as stealing, without the same directly personal element. He also wonders about the need to hate someone who violates the Torah passively, by failing to fulfill certain obligations rather than by sinning actively. All sadly questions that still confront us today.

Some sinners are so far gone, we despair and do not help them. (Today we assume members of the groups I am about to name count as tinnokot she-nishbu, as people raised in an environment where they did not receive a Torah education). Peri Megadim was sure those who left the religion fully enough to worship powers other than Gd, violate Shabbat, or violate any sin le-hakh’is, to demonstrate his/her lack of concern with Gd’s commandments, are to be hated with no mitigating factor. The Torah required helping even hated fellow Jews as long as they still count as Jews. Jews in the groups just named have left the religion (Peri Megadim says ikkarei ha-dat, the basic principles of the religion) so fully, they’re no longer part of us to be included in any such sense of connection. The only reason to help them would be the obligation to care about the pain and suffering of the animal.

 Bringing About Death

Halakhah also speaks of moridin ve-lo ma’alin, Jews whose deaths we seek to engineer (in a world where local government also allows it). As a monetary matter, Peri Megadim sees a possible difference between born Jews who reject faith and converts who later took this unfortunate step.

One reason halakhah prohibited destroying or taking such people’s possessions (as hefker, belonging to no one, because the current owner has been consigned to death) was Iyyov 27;17, yakhin rasha ve-tzaddik yilbash, the evildoer will prepare it and the righteous person wear it. An evildoer’s possessions must usually be left intact, in case his/her descendants find their way to righteousness.

A childless convert has no heirs who might be righteous, leading Peri Megadim to suggest it might be permitted to take and/or destroy his/her possessions (with halakhic ramifications that would take us too far afield). Suffice it to say, Peri Megadim thinks there are practical halakhic issues depending on the status of a convert who then becomes a nonbeliever.

Embarrassing Another

Magen Avraham read Rambam to recommend public shaming for any recalcitrant sinner who repudiated gentle and private remonstration, where Peri Megadim thought Rambam limited such a strategy to those who sinned bein adam la-Makom, towards Gd. For interpersonal sins, he thought Rambam never allowed taking it public. At the same time, he tells us embarrassing a fellow Jew even in private—with only the two people there—violates the Biblical prohibition, as Rambam introduced the mitzvah in Laws of Character Traits, not to embarrass another.

Public embarrassment is worse, and calls for greater care to avoid, because it can cost one’s share in the World to Come. He says Rashi writes public embarrassment in his commentary on the Torah because the prohibition appears in the context of remonstrating with someone else; Rashi wants us to know, according to Peri Megadim, remonstrating publicly will always embarrass the person, regardless of how gentle or well-intentioned the words. He also assumes Yosef’s brothers must have spoken with him in private several times before they receded to hating him, unable to bear speaking with him peaceably.

Punching Up the Attribution

Magen Avraham had said there was room to present an idea in a greater Torah scholar’s name when the person is sure it is true. Peri Megadim notes contradictory sources on the idea, and three resolutions from Eliyah Rabbah: 1) It is only allowed where people would not accept it otherwise, 2) It is allowed where the idea came with no name attached; we may not switch the attribution from one scholar to another, or 3) one may never credit one’s own ideas to a greater Torah scholar.

None of the answers clinch the issue to Peri Megadim’s satisfaction, and he leaves it as an open question, to my mind evidence of how slippery a strategy this is, how prone to abuse and unintended consequences.

A Few Scattered Points To Conclude

The idea praising another carries the risk of leading to eventual criticism or slander convinced Peri Megadim the series of statements in Avot 2;8, where R. Yohanan b. Zakkai praises his five students, were ideas R. Yohanan b. Zakkai said to himself (and somehow got known for posterity), because he would not have praised them to others.

He wonders whether the prohibition to give a person an item prohibited to that person (a part of lifnei iver, putting a stumbling block before the blind) applies only when it is also prohibited to the person handing it over. (It’s a remarkable question because, as he notes, a classic example of this idea is giving a cup of wine to a nazir, a Jew who has taken a special vow. Peri Megadim does not blink, suggests that indeed perhaps the Gemara each time it referred to it meant only where the person giving the wine was also a nazir).

He cites Levush to permit taking an oath to enhance one’s own likelihood of fulfilling a mitzvah, Eliyah Rabbah on the necessity of being true to one’s word, and Eliyah Rabbah’s quoting his grandfather’s explanation of why nasata ve-natata be-emunah, did you conduct business honestly, was the first question the heavenly court asks the deceased. A Torah scholar’s dishonesty desecrates Gd’s Name, so they are not interested in the person’s Torah study until and unless they know the person was honest.

Having Fun

The last of his comments expands on Magen Avraham’s warning against genai ve-kalut rosh, inappropriate talk and action as well as excessive levity. Peri Megadim points us to Yoma 19b, where Rashi calls it sihat ha-yeladim, children’s talk, also discouraged in Avot 3;10, where Rashi calls it leitzanut ve-kalut rosh, cynical scoffing and excessive levity.

He closes with a tantalizing line, the Torah was not given to angels (a Talmudic expression), but Rav restrained himself from such talk. I think he is trying to point out halakhah understood people’s humanity, and allowed some indulging of fun and jocularity, while encouraging us to strive for better, as did Rav.

Regardless, Peri Megadim’s presentation seems to me to show his differences of focus from Magen Avraham. For Peri Megadim, tracking further halakhic analyses of issues mattered; he sought halakhic ramifications and contexts for what might be seen as fluffier ideas.

Beyond that, he seems to me to have focused on loving and hating, whom we welcome and are obligated to treat well, who has excluded themselves to the point we distance ourselves. To me, a very different set of concerns than came across from Magen Avraham. Next week, for our last discussion, Arukh HaShulkhan and (if we have space) Mishnah Berurah. 

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