R’ Yochanan ben Zakkai faced a dilemma. The Mishnah discusses a number of utensils that ordinarily would not be susceptible to tumah (17:16). However due to their unconventional and illegal use, they were converted into a receptacle whose container was hidden, thereby defining it as a utensil. R’ Yochanan ben Zakkai therefore exclaimed, “Woe to me if I state [these laws], Woe to me if I do not state [them]”. What exactly was his concern and how was the matter resolved.
We find that R’ Yochanan ben Zakkai made this exclamation in another context as well. The Gemara (Bava Batra 89b) records the laws of a machak – a utensil used to level off the excess of dry goods in a measure. It lists its material attributes and the manner in which it should be used to ensure that the purchaser is not cheated. The Gemara explains that R’ Yochanan ben Zakkai was concerned that if he taught these laws then it may be providing swindlers with new tools. However if he did not teach these laws, he was concerned these cheaters would say that “the Talmidei Chachamim are not experts in these matters.”21
What was the nature of the second concern? Was he simply concerned for the honour of Talmidei Chachamim albeit an important one? Did he feel it was important to break any false stereotype that “the Rabbis just do not know the ways of the world”?
The Rashbam explain that there was an even deeper concern. If they had this false perception that the sages were easy bait, then it might encourage them to widen the operations. Interestingly, we find that keeping quiet could also increase corruption.
The Maharsha provides a different explanation. If these laws were not taught, the cheater would assume that the Chachamim do not know about these forms of theft. They might think then that the only reason why they do not engage in them is because they do not know about them. Had they known, they would be no different.
Indeed we find from the Maharsha the common form of self justification: “You are no better. If you could do it, you would too.” Consequently it was important for the criminals to know that despite the knowledge and availability of committing such crime, the Chachamim remain answerable to the higher ethical standard set out by the Torah.
How was the matter resolved? The Gemara explains that R’ Yochanan ben Zakkai decided to teach the laws, based on the pasuk: “The paths of Hashem are just, the righteous walk on them, the evil stumble open them.” (Hoshea 14:10) The Rashbam explains that R’ Yochanan ben Zakkai understood that the words of the Torah are straight. The righteous will be cautious with them ensuring that they do not swindle others. In the context of the Gemara they will choose an appropriate machak and use it in the correct manner. Making these laws known will keep the righteous honest. The criminals will just stumble in the path and learn to cheat in any event.22
Another explanation might be given based on the commentaries on the above quoted pasuk. The Radak explain that the Navi is explaining that indeed all the ways of Hashem are just. This is difficult for Man to perceive when the good appear to suffer and the evil appear to prosper. Nevertheless one’s standing is difficult to assess. Furthermore there are a plethora of potential reasons for one particular human experience even before taking into account that this world is merely an “antechamber” for the next. The righteous recognise the limits in their perception in these matters. The evil, in their short-sightedness prefer to turn to quick returns instant gratification even if the means run counter to the Torah, Heaven forbid. Unfortunately, they will stumble.
Perhaps then this is where R’ Yochanan ben Zakkai found counsel. With all the considerations at hand what should he do? The answer: teach these laws – teach the Torah. And those of corrupt hearts? Well, no one will lose on their account, for the ways of Hashem are just – He’ll take care of it.
21 Why was R’ Yochanan ben Zakkai’s main concern not that this is Torah and it should be taught? See Mishnah Achrona that indeed this law could be derived from a previous Mishnah and the halachic aspect is therefore not a concern.
22 For our Mishnah as well it was important that these laws are known not only so the righteous will not unwillingly cheat others if they mistakenly purchase such modified items, but also so that the laws of tumah and tahara are maintained. See also Midrash on Kohelet (6:1)
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