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Ki yav-er ish sadeh o kerem, ve-shilach et be-iro u-vee-ayr bisdeh acher - he shall pay with the best of the field and the best of his vineyard (22:4)
If fire escapes… and consumes a haystack, standing corn, or a field, the fire-maker shall pay for the damage (22:5)
This part of the Torah deals with the laws of damages. The translation of the first verse seems obscure. On face of it, it would be:
'If a man makes a fire in a field or vineyard, and willfully incites that fire to burn the field belonging to another, he shall pay with the best of the field and the best of his vineyard'.
Thus the text decrees the payment of damages for combustion done on purpose. The next verse imposes the same penalty for damages resulting from inadequate care taken to ensure that the fire does not escape in the first place. Thus willful damage on one hand, and an act of omission in duty of care on the other are treated the same way in the laws of compensation.
However, with the possible exception of Onkelos, none of the traditional commentaries interpret the text that way. Following the Talmud (c.f. Baba Kama 2b - 3a), the word yav-er is not translated 'set on fire', but 'allows to graze' - with the Talmud bringing sources supporting that translation from elsewhere in Tenach. They render the verse very differently:
'If a man lets his cattle graze in a field or vineyard, and sends his cattle to graze in the field belonging to another, he shall pay with the best of the field and the best of his vineyard'.
Thus the Torah imposes maximum penalties for those who let their animals graze in other people's fields. Why does the Talmud, and traditional commentators, give this second (and linguistically less obvious meaning) to the text?
In response, it may be argued that the Talmud's selecting the second translation does not exclude the simple first meaning, but adds to it - there are many instances where there is more than one explanation to a phrase in the text. However, the Talmud gives special weight to this second, less obvious explanation for the following reason.
The Talmud elsewhere (Baba Metzia 5b) brings the maxim: 'It is an established rule that a person does not sin unless he stands to gain.' So a normal person will not set his neighbor's property on fire for the fun of it. An act of arson to his neighbor's field will not advance his fortunes.
But imagine a person possesses real estate with fields and vineyards, and also owns cattle. He understandably does not wish to set them loose, crunching his wheat and munching his prize grapes. Far more tempting to 'let' them graze 'in the field belong to another' - where the whole thing may be 'passed off as an accident'. He not only protects his grapes and produce, but he increases the value of his cattle, and at the same time saves himself the time and effort to lead the cattle away from civilization to un-owned, inferior, pastureland (c.f. 3:1 and Rashi ad loc), where they may safely and legally graze.
The Torah addresses human nature rather the wild excesses of pyromaniacs. It is human nature to start out with the best intentions, but as time goes by, to protect his own property - even at the illegitimate expense of others… The Torah thus decrees: 'he shall pay with the best of the field and the best of his vineyard' - the maximum financial penalties for offenders.
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site: http://www.shemayisrael.co.il/parsha/solomon/archives/archives.htm
Also by Jacob Solomon:
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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