17.02.2016 Tour of Bevis Marks Synagogue with Rabbi Shalom Morris. (C) Blake Ezra Photography 2016.

The Long Magen Avraham of Siman 156

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

We’re looking at the long Magen Avraham, which I suspect more of us know by reputation than content (certainly true of me; my writing about it is an elaborate excuse to force myself to read all the way through it). I note he does not relate this comment to a specific part of the text of the Shulhan Arukh, he just launches a reminder of issues absent from the Shulhan Arukh. I think he means to say, here are more ideas to bring with you as you go from the Beit Midrash, the study hall of Torah, to the world at large.

I promised my host, R. Gil Student, I would not take more than four essays for this siman, and I’m interested in what Peri Megadim and Arukh HaShulhan did as well, so I will simply list the halakhic topics Magen Avraham raises, leaving most of the details he includes for some other pass through these halakhot. I here ask mostly, what did Magen Avraham bring up? It’s a long list, but I think it’s only by reading it all that we can get a sense of his goal, the why of his writing here.

He starts with Rambam’s ideas, Hilkhot De’ot, Laws of Character 6, we should forge connections with Torah scholars and their students, to learn from them. He adds (I’ll give each idea a paragraph of its own, just to avoid large chunks of text):

The obligation to love our fellow Jews as ourselves, with the source-verse, but only re’akha, our fellow in observance, as opposed to an evildoer who rejects remonstration, towards whom we have an obligation of hatred (an idea many of us resist, but there it is).

Someone who builds his/her own honor by denigrating another has no share in the World to Come.

The Torah has two commandments about loving the convert.

Hating a fellow Jew (notice how he waited to mention this, when he earlier already told us of the obligation to love our fellow Jews) violates the Torah; hitting or yelling at a fellow Jew does not violate the prohibition, although it is not allowed.

One wronged by a fellow Jew must bring it up with him/her rather than let it fester and cause hatred. Gently at first, more forcefully and harshly as the other refuses to repair wrongs committed.

One who suspects others falsely will suffer bodily punishment.

We may not count the Jewish people directly, even for a matter of mitzvah.

An appointed leader of a community must know he will face consequences for breaching his fiduciary responsibilities (my loose translation of ela im ken kupah shel sheratzim teluyah me-ahorav, there is a box of creeping creatures hung behind him).

Jews may lie to keep the peace only about the past, and certain restricted other occasions. Where people overestimate a Jew’s knowledge of Torah, s/he must correct the misimpression.

A guest should not praise his/her host to the general public, lest the hosts be inundated.

Leaders may say a certain great Torah scholar espoused an idea, falsely, to ensure people will accept it (as long as it is a well-established idea; without questioning Magen Avraham’s claim, because he has impeccable sources for it, it seems to me a ery delicate idea, especially as Magen Avraham himself questions it based on another Talmudic passage’s view that fabricating a Torah scholar’s quotes causes the Divine Presence to leave the Jewish people.

We must quote those who told us an idea we are sharing; if we do not, we violate a prohibition.

The obligation to treat orphans and widows with care applies regardless of their wealth or social position. A teacher is allowed to be harsh with orphans (or widows, I suppose) to teach them Torah, a trade, or to guide them on the proper path in life, although even he must be more careful with them than ordinary students, must be sensitive to their sensitivity.

Spreading true gossip (not negative) violates the prohibition of rekhilutlashon ha-ra consists of derogatory true information, and false slander is motzi shem ra, bringing out a bad name. Magen Avraham defines (I’m skipping the specifics) when a Jew may believe such talk, what Hazal prohibited as avak lashon ha-ra, the dust of lashon hara, and the limits on praising other people, for fear the praise might end up in negative talk.

Jews may not take vengeance or hold grudges against each other, although a Torah scholar is required to care about his honor—since it is also the honor of the Torah–must allow others to stand up for him and punish those who mistreat him. On the other hand, the Torah scholar must forgive any miscreant who apologizes.

Rambam thinks there’s a requirement to admit all one’s sins, a prohibition against excessive eating and drinking (alcohol), and an obligation to avoid misleading others into wrong acts.

A Jew should avoid flattery, levity, and anger.

Jews should love their fellow Jews as themselves, judge others meritoriously, not use foul language, and not kill lice in front of people who find it disgusting.

When bringing a guest home, the homeowner enters the house first, the guest leaves first.

People of alacrity perform mitzvot early (although German Jews remind us early is also not punctual).

One who attends a wedding must be sure to be part of making the bride and groom happy.

Genai and kalut rosh, talk of inappropriate matters and excessive levity, violates a obligation.

A Jew should not say I have more than I deserve, because it portrays Gd as a vatran, as foregoing or ignoring sin for no reason; the person should say, the merit of my forefathers must be helping me, or, Magen Avraham suggests, the person could be clear Gd rewards more than deserved, even as sins will also be fully punished (unless repented, I assume he means).

The Heavenly Court asks those being judged at the end of their lives whether they conducted their business honestly, set fixed times for Torah study (for those who must work, Magen Avraham infers from Rashi’s reading of the Talmudic passage; those who do not need to work should study day and night), sought to have children, waited for salvation, built wisdom, and scaffolded one’s wisdom to greater insight.

Jews may not support those who are acting wrongly, as we learn from the Talmud’s negative reaction to the Jews of King Agrippas’ time. A largely good kin, he cried when he learned he was unfit for the throne as a matter of Torah law. The Jews comforted him, an example of prohibited flattery. They might have been allowed to refrain from calling him out for holding the position wrongly, because of his power, but had no right to reassure him he was worthy of the throne.

Jews seem to be allowed to flee danger despite their absence causing greater distress to another Jew. A Jew must must bear distress and pain to avoid a fellow Jew being killed for no good reason.

Eating a meal with a Torah scholar is like being in the presence of Gd.

A Jew must rebut a fool on issues of Torah, to be sure the person not think him/herself wise, but in non-Torah matters, just ignore the fool.

One may not put oneself in a place of danger, including (he singles out for mention) engaging in possibly dangerous activities with a Jew who has left the religion, or is an evildoer.

Is there an overall theme? I can’t see one that covers all the points he makes, but he seems to me to be focused on halakhot related to building a Jewish life, particularly in terms of how we relate to others, the kind of societies we build and enjoy, the proper use of our time.

Because as a Jew leaves shul and eve studies some Torah,, I think Magen Avraham wanted us to be sure to remember, these are messages to take along, to always inform his/her choices in life.

About Gidon Rothstein

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