Beyond the letter of the law
By Rabbi Tina Sobo, Temple Israel
Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach was a very poor but well-respected Torah scholar who worked diligently in the flax trade — notable for its difficult labor.
His students, concerned at how strenuous the work was for ben Shetach, and wishing to learn the most from their teacher, encouraged him to retire.
They decided to jointly purchase a donkey for their teacher, so that he would not need to work so hard to make a living. They happened to purchase this donkey from a gentile merchant, with the understanding that all that was with the donkey (saddle, reins, etc.) was purchased with the donkey.
The students returned to their teacher and proudly presented him with the donkey. As Shimon ben Shetach removed the saddle from the donkey, he noticed a gem caught in its ear.
The students rejoiced, but ben Shetach instructed them to return the gem.
They responded with the halachic (Jewish legal) ruling that they had purchased the donkey “as-is” and just because the seller didn’t realize that meant with the gem, they were in their right to keep it.
Still, Shimon instructed them to return it, thus exemplifying that one should act beyond the letter of the law (embellished from Yerushalmi 8a).
Throughout the Covid pandemic, our religious institutions have largely gone beyond the letter of the law of the CDC and governmental requirements, especially where legal restrictions could not apply to a religious institution.
I’ve heard people say that they are vaccinated, so they can do essentially whatever they want now. As the world begins to reopen, the importance of going beyond the letter of the law is ringing more important to me now.
We have vulnerable people in our communities who cannot, due to health or age, be vaccinated (or the vaccine will not take full effect).
I am feeling particularly protective of the youngest in our community who are not eligible for the vaccine.
As we shift our thinking of this pandemic from a public health problem to an individual’s responsibility for their own health in decision making, I urge you to weigh the risk of your behavior to others beyond the letter of the law.
Shimon ben Shetach’s students, who wanted to keep the gem, were well within Jewish law for their time regarding purchasing items and lost articles.
One might be well within the law now to enter a grocery store without a mask, to have a birthday party with multiple households, or do any number of other things.
Yet we also see examples of people and places going beyond the letter of the law: continuing to wear a mask despite being fully vaccinated to protect the more vulnerable around them.
I have been particularly surprised at how many stores are still waiving delivery or curbside pickup fees to encourage contactless purchases.
We are antsy to get back to normal or our new normal (I’m not sure the former exists anymore), but the virus is still among us. The mutations leave a lot unknown.
And we, as a Jewish people, know what it is like to be a vulnerable population, and use that shared history as the justification for the obligation to protect the vulnerable in our midst.
What does it look like to act like Shimon ben Shetach today?