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Parasha Mishpatim 5763

What is the subject?

(The ‘subject’ is that part of the sentence, which denotes the generator of the action indicated by the verb, e.g. Captain Phillip founded Sydney. ‘Captain Phillip’ is the subject of this sentence.)

ki yav’er ish sadeh … veshilach et be’iro uvi’er bisdeh acher, metav sadehu … yeshalem (Exod. 22:4) (‘If a man lights a fire (0r 'animal') in a field … and propelled his fire ('animal') and it burnt another’s field, [according to] the best of his field … he must pay.’ – Much of the ambiguity of the Hebrew is lost in translation.)

In the Hebrew there is an ambiguity. Does the suffix u (‘his’) in the word sadehu (‘of his field’) refer to the perpetrator of the damage or to the victim? This question was a matter of dispute by Tanna’im (‘teachers of the Mishna’). R’ Yishma’el holds: of the victim; R’ Akiva holds: of the perpetrator (Bava Kama 6b). The Gemara discusses their reasoning and what differences may result; here our concern is ‘How did each of them read the verse?’

The early commentators on the Torah also disagree to whom the reference refers. Rashi writes ‘of the best that he has’ - the reference is to the perpetrator. Rashbam quotes the same explanation as being that of Rabbotenu (‘our Rabbis’), and adds ‘but according to the plain meaning it means “of the victim”.’ Did Rashbam not know that this question is a matter of debate in the Talmud and that both the explanations he has mentioned are to be found there? Hizekuni also refers to Rashi’s explanation and then gives the second explanation without providing its source!

To help clarify the problem I will quote the explanation of a reader, R’ Ezriel Sternbuch, who clarified Rashi’s explanation of ambiguities in references.

vayetze moshe likrat choteno … (Exod. 18:7) (‘and Moshe went out to meet his father-in-law and he bowed and he kissed him’ – Again, the ambiguity is lost in translation.) Rashi comments ‘I would not know who bowed down to whom.’ R’ E. Sternbuch asks why should the subject of the sentence, which is ‘Moshe,’ change to ‘his father-in-law?’ (see Mizrachi, Gur Arye, and Maskil LeDavid) and answers that according to the havva amina (‘the initial interpretation’) it would have been sufficient to have written vayetze moshe likrato (‘and Moshe went out to meet him …’) and we would have known that Moshe went out to meet his father-in-law (who is mentioned in the previous verse). However because the Torah repeated the word choteno (‘his father-in-law’) close to the word vayishtachu (‘and he bowed’) it is possible to think that choteno is the subject of vayishtachu so Rashi felt the need to say that it is not so, Moshe remains the subject of vayishtachu - it is Moshe who bowed.

On the basis of the above R’ E. Sternbuch says we can also explain R’ A. ibn Ezra’s comment to ‘and if he leaves his father he will die’ (Gen. 44:22), and perhaps also Rashi’s comment to ‘and he appeared to him’ (ibid. 46:29).

Similarly we can say that ish is the subject of the entire verse (all three clauses), and accordingly sadehu (‘his field’) means the field of the perpetrator of the damage. This is the opinion of R’ Akiva in the Gemara, Rashi, Rabbotenu in the Rashbam, and the first explanation in Chizekuni. However proximate to sadehu we find acher (‘another’) [man] therefore it is possible to argue that we have a new subject. The word sadehu relates to acher. According to this reading sadehu (‘his field’) is the field of the victim. This is the opinion of R’ Yishma’el in the Gemara, the ‘plain meaning’ in the Rashbam, and the second interpretration in the Chizekuni.

* * * *

Mishnaic Hebrew and English

kollar yehe taluy betzavar harabim (Rashi Exod. 23:2) (‘and the responsibility will rest on the neck of the many’) kollar is Mishnaic Hebrew and can be found in the Mishna (Shabbat 8:1; Gittin 6:5; Kelim 12:1; Tevul Yom 4:5), Gemara (Berachot 57a, etc), Midrashim (Rabbah Bereshit 86; Sifre Behaalotecha piska 96, etc.), and in the concluding passage of Selichot. Its literal meaning is ‘halter’ or ‘chain’ around the neck of a prisoner, and here as a borrowed term – responsibility. In English ‘collar’ is that part of a shirt or blouse which fits round the neck. Generally when one finds words which are both similar in sound and in meaning in Mishnaic Hebrew and in English they have a common source in Greek or Latin. Not surprisingly the Even Shoshan dictionary gives both Greek and Latin sources for this Hebrew word, while the Oxford English Dictionary provides a Latin root for the word.

I will be pleased to have comments on these notes on the Parasha.
Good Shabbos, Meshullam Klarberg, 35/4 Meshech Chochma, Kiryat Sefer, Israel 71919
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