Weights and Measures, Interest, Gifts to the Poor, and Bugs: A Grab-Bag of Egypt-Related Mitzvot
As we near the end of our time together, we will take up the mitzvot least connected to Egypt where the Torah nonetheless links them. We’ll start with financial ones.
Weights of Judgment, Judgment of Weights
Vayikra 19;35 warns against perverting justice in weights and measures, to have accurate scales, and reminds us that it is Hashem commanding this, Who took us out of Egypt. The smaller problem is that the Torah had warned us about perverting justice,using much the same phrasing, eighteen verses earlier. Rashi articulates the implication, that the Torah repeats the terminology to make clear that weighing or measuring accurately, in a private transaction, is akin to judging a court case properly.
Judges are punished for failing at their job, we would be were we to fail at our job. Just as Sifra Kedoshim 2;4 tells us that perversions of justice cause social catastrophes—defile the Land, sacrilege the Name, banish the Divine Presence, lead to losses in war and to exile—improper weights and measures do, too. Rashi adds that those who cheat with measurements, like corrupt judges, make themselves disgusting and an abomination, cut off from closeness with Hashem.
All that stands on its own, and all societies have laws about keeping accurate weights and measures. Why connect it to the Exodus?
Ya’akov Tzvi Mecklenburg in HaKetavve-ha-Kabbalah points out that we can make the mistake of thinking that we follow rational obligations because of their underlying rationale. For Jews, that would be worshipping our rationality instead of Hashem. To emphasize that Hashem’s command must be the bottom line of all observance, Hashem mentions the Exodus.
Rashi captures much of that with three words, על מנת כן, on this condition. Hashem took us out of Egypt and thus obligated us to observe each commandment. Weights and measures is almost a coincidental example; each time we keep the Torah, regardless of whether the Torah expressly related it to Egypt, we fulfill an agreement we made in Egypt. Weights and measures is one occasion the Torah paused to remind us of that.
A More Specific Link
Rashi also references Baba Metzia 61b, where Rava asks why the Torah mentions Egypt specifically regarding tzitzit, bugs, interest (both of which we’ll see), and weights and measures? Rava’s answer, each time, is a variant of the idea that Hashem Who differentiated the first-born from not (Egyptian women’s promiscuity made it unknowable to people) would differentiate those who think they can hide their transgressions of these commandments.
People would dip their weights in salt, making them heavier (Rashba) or lighter (Rashi), defrauding the other person without the victim realizing it; the verse reminds us that Hashem sees and knows all (Meiri expands this to any area where we can cheat with impunity).
Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 231 says this kind of cheating constitutes a denial of the Exodus. The Exodus demonstrated Hashem’s awareness of all that happens, even in our most private places and moments. Hidden cheating repudiates what we were supposed to know ever since we left Egypt, that we are never truly alone, truly private, or truly hidden.
Vayikra 25;38 similarly closes the prohibition against taking interest from fellow Jews by reminding us of Hashem’s having taken us out of Egypt. Rava explains that just as Hashem differentiated first born and not, Hashem will differentiate those who are actually lending a non-Jew’s money and those who pretend they are to cover up their interest-taking.
The technicalities of when a loan is considered a non-Jew’s, such that interest-taking is allowed, and when it is not aren’t our topic—there is a voluminous literature about the ins and outs of interest-taking—but it stresses the same message as weights and measures, that we have to be aware of Hashem especially at those moments when no one else will catch us, and that the experience in Egypt is what should ensure that we maintain that awareness.
Hirsch reads both of the seas Hashem warning us that our right to a society depends on submitting ourselves to Hashem’s discipline. Refraining from prohibited interest announces our recognition that our money and our society comes from Hashem.
Along those lines, R. Yose in Baba Metzia 71a notes that people who write out loan agreements incorporating impermissible interest summon witnesses, a scribe, quill, and ink to announce their denial of Hashem. They would physically fight someone who called them an evildoer, but here make a public spectacle of their evil actions.
Rambam records R. Yose’s statement in Laws of Lenders and Borrowers 4;7, although he phrases it as their having denied the Exodus, not Hashem in general. Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 160;2 includes both, that it is as if the person has denied the Exodus and the God of Israel.
Harvest Gifts for the Poor
Moving to another mitzvah with a large financial component, the Torah closes the list of obligations we bear to the poor during the harvest, Devarim 24;22, by saying that we have to remember that we were slaves in Egypt, which is why Hashem is commanding us to leave part of our crops unharvested, as well as leaving behind any parts of those fields, orchards, or vineyards that we forgot to harvest.
Once again, there is value in these obligations independent of the Exodus. They set up a social safety net and, perhaps, help include the poor and dispossessed in the national excitement over the harvest. Yet the Torah wants us to know that these gifts are part of remembering our slavery in Egypt. The connection seems less clear even than our previous two examples.
Kli Yakar reads this as aimed at all those who claim they cannot give charity because they have to build an inheritance for their children. Financial prudence, these people said, prevented them from giving to the poor. To say that shows a failure to absorb central lessons of the Exodus, such as that all wealth is from Hashem. We should know that since we were once slaves in Egypt and are now trying to figure out our estate planning.
Allowing the poor to glean and giving them money we might have stashed for our heirs are, for Kli Yakar, two ways to affirm our belief that Hashem controls and confers wealth. Money isn’t only money, it’s a sign of our awareness of Hashem’s involvement in our financial lives. An awareness we were taught on our way out of Egypt.
Not Eating Bugs and the Exodus
Vayikra 11;44 tells us to make ourselves קדוש, kadosh, for Hashem is kadosh, and we shouldn’t make our souls טמא, tamei, with any crawling insects. The next verse has Hashem declaring Himself as the One Who took you (us) out of Egypt to be your (our) Hashem, and you (we) should therefore be kadosh.
Kadosh and tamei are commonly translated along the lines of “sanctified” or “holy” and “ritually impure.” That those terms are used about eating bugs will expand our definition. As a first step, the Torah seems to be saying that they sully our souls in some way, negating or impeding our sanctity. We are required to avoid that because it hinders our striving to be as קדוש as Hashem, Who took us out of Egypt precisely to be our God.
Three commentators shed light on the ambiguities in that statement.
Sforno—Eating the Wrong Foods Distances Us From Hashem
Sforno understands Hashem to be saying that one goal of the Exodus was for us to need fewer or no intermediaries in our contact with Hashem. Refining our characters and intellects is the way to do that, making a problem of eating bugs. In saying that, he assumes that our moral and intellectual level determines how directly we connect with Hashem. The more developed we are in those realms, the more sanctified we are, and therefore the closer to Hashem. Secondly, of course, he is saying that eating bugs gets in the way of that.
In that reading, we call Hashem kadosh only in the sense that improving ourselves in these ways are the ways we get closer to Hashem. The reference to Egypt and the Exodus is to remind us that that closeness was a central purpose of the Exodus, so we should do all we can to foster that. Bugs are a good example(like weights and measures for Rashi), but just an example.
Hirsch—Careful Eating as a Path to One Kind of Sanctity
Samson Raphael Hirsch sees קדושה as a ladder; by sanctifying our physical senses, suppressing our baser desires, we ascend to truer freedom and ethics. The call for kedushah here (and with prohibited foods generally) remind us that checking our physical appetites is a first and continuing step of that process.
Even should we achieve full (or some level of ) such sanctity, R. Hirsch says, we’ll need to keep watching our physical selves, such that we not backslide and re-defile our souls, negating the hard work we had put in to achieve that kedushah.
The Torah says it in regards to insects, for R. Hirsch, because eating them is emblematic of yielding to our senses; controlling that is the first necessary step to growth.
Being Brought Up Versus Out
To understand how R. Moshe Feinstein understood the case of bugs, we have to review a conversation between R. Chanina of Sura of the Euphrates and Ravina reported in Baba Metzia 61b, where the former asks why the Torah mentioned leaving Egypt when it comes to bugs.
For Ravina, it was to tell us that just as Hashem differentiated first-born from not first-born in Egypt (Egyptian women were promiscuous, many men had first-born they didn’t know about, and misidentified other sons as their first-born), Hashem will know and punish those who mix unacceptable fish with acceptable.
Chanina persists. His question was more specific, wondering why the Torah here said “Who brought you up out of(המעלה אתכם) Egypt,” whereas in the similar cases of tzitzit and usury, the phrase was, “Who took you out of (המוציא אתכם) Egypt.” Why up?
In Iggerot Moshe Orach Chayyim 1;15, R. Moshe Feinstein reads that Gemara as telling us that not only were we taken out in the merit of our performing all the mitzvot, but that any one of them would have been sufficient to justify our leaving. He bases that on the Torah’s seeing the avoidance of bugs as sufficient to justify the Exodus, despite their being disgusting. Other mitzvot, which we obey solely because of Hashem’s command, all the more so.
How Proper Memory of the Exodus Would Shape Us Differently Than Now
With only one more mitzvah to review, today’s mitzvot showed how broadly the Torah included remembrances of the Exodus. Our finances, charitable giving, and diet are all linked back to Egypt.
Granting commentarial differences, we saw, several times, the suggestion that the Torah was reminding us that all the commandments we observe are grounded in Egypt, that the entirety of our Jewish lives is a function and extension of Hashem having taken us out of Egypt.