June 14, 2024
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Indigeneity: Bava Metzia, Daf 16

How are we to respond when anti-Israel activists accuse the Jewish people of stealing the land from the Palestinians? It’s simple. We invite them to a shiur in Chumash-Rashi. Here’s the classic opener:

“In the beginning”—”Rabbi Yitzchak said: The Torah should have commenced with the verse, ‘This month shall be unto you the first of the months’ which is the first commandment given to Israel. Why does it commence with Creation? For should the nations of the world say to Israel, ‘You are robbers because you conquered the lands of the seven nations of Canaan’ Israel may reply to them, ‘All the Earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He; He created it and gave it to whom He pleased. By His will, He gave it to them, and by His will, He took it from them and gave it to us.’

Basically, Rashi is saying that when the nations of the world accuse us of stealing Israel from its indigenous inhabitants, we should point them to the first verse in the Torah. And there you have it in black and white. Case closed. God created the world, and He decided that Israel belongs to the Jewish people. End of story. Well, I probably needn’t tell you that this Rashi might not be the most compelling piece of evidence we have in the fight for the Jewish state. So, what exactly is Rashi’s message in the grand opening statement to his commentary on the Torah?

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Today’s daf discusses a thief who stole property and then sold it. Since he sold something that did not belong to him, the property owner can legally repossess it. But what if after he “sold” it, he went and legally purchased it from the rightful owner? Could he then repossess it?

בעא מיניה שמואל מרב חזר ולקחה מבעלים הראשונים מהו אמר ליה מה מכר לו ראשון לשני כל זכות שתבא לידו מאי טעמא מר זוטרא אמר ניחא ליה דלא נקרייה גזלנא רב אשי אמר ניחא ליה דליקו בהמנותיה מאי בינייהו איכא בינייהו דמית לוקח מאן דאמר ניחא ליה דלא לקרייה גזלנא

הא מית ליה ומאן דאמר ניחא ליה דליקום בהמנותיה בהדי בני נמי ניחא ליה דליקום בהמנותיה סוף סוף קרו ליה בני לוקח גזלנא אלא איכא בינייהו דמית גזלן מאן דאמר ניחא ליה לאיניש דלא לקריוהו גזלן הא מית ליה למ”ד ניחא ליה דליקום בהמנותיה ה”נ אע”ג דמית ניחא ליה דליקום בהמנותיה סוף סוף קרו לבניה בני גזלנא

Shmuel asked Rav: If he subsequently purchased it from the original owner, what then? He said to him: What did the first one (the thief) sell the second (the purchaser)? Any rights that will come into his possession; (thus, the rights that the thief has now acquired are transferred to the purchaser). Why then (would the thief legally purchase the property)? Mar Zutra said: It is preferable for him not to be called a thief (by the purchaser,should the original owner repossess). Rav Ashi said: It is preferable for him to maintain his reputation. What is the difference between these two opinions? The difference between them is in a case where the purchaser died.

According to the one who says it is preferable for him not to be called a thief, in this case, since the purchaser already died (he cannot call him a thief, and so as the new owner, he will repossess the property that he sold under false pretenses). And, according to the one who says that he bought the land because it is preferable for him to maintain his reputation, it is preferable for him to maintain his reputation with the children, too. But ultimately, the purchaser’s children will also call the seller a thief (if the field is repossessed from them)! Rather, the difference between them is in a case where the thief died (and his children subsequently bought the field from its owner).

According to the one who says that the motivation is that it is preferable for a person not to be called a thief, he already died (and this motive is not applicable). While according to the one who says that his motivation is that it is preferable for him to maintain his reputation, even after the thief died, he would still want to maintain his reputation. (But what difference should that make?) Ultimately, people will call his children the children of a thief (and nobody likes that appellation either)!

***

Let’s talk about the “indigenous” population of Israel. The Palestinians claim “our parents stole” the land from them. But who was there first? While it’s true that Israel contained an Arab majority through several centuries of Mamluk and Ottoman rule, there was always an enduring Jewish presence. Undoubtedly, Rashi’s motivation was that in his pre-Mamluk era, Pope Urban called on Christian Crusaders to reclaim the land from the Muslim infidels who had occupied it. His comments highlight the fact that the Jewish presence wasn’t even acknowledged by either group. But, of course, throughout every occupation, from the Assyrians to the Babylonians to the Persians to the Greeks and Romans, there were always Jewish communities scattered throughout Israel.

Nevertheless, going back a little further in history, doesn’t the Tanach detail the Israelite conquest of the Canaanite territory? Undeniably. However, nobody asks who was there before the Canaanites arrived! Our Sages explain that our forefather Shem (from whom the term anti-Semitism derives) was the original inhabitant of the land. He lived there until the Canaanite nations drove his family out, cornering him into the Salem enclave (which would later become Israel’s capital, Jerusalem). Thus, when Avraham and Sarah were led to the Promised Land, you can imagine their pleasant surprise to learn that they were being brought home to their ancestral land. In other words, our people were always the indigenous inhabitants of the land. We may have been called different names at various historical stages—Semites, Hebrews, Israelites, Jews—but we never relinquished the claim to our homeland.

What evidence do we have of our indigenous claim to Israel? Well, that’s where it gets complicated. Because even Shem wasn’t from the region. His father allocated the area to him, but he wasn’t born there. Actually, as we know from the story of the Tower of Babel, which culminates in God scattering people across the globe and confounding their language, no nation is truly indigenous to any territory.

And that, in essence, is the message of the inaugural Rashi. It all begins with God. Human beings are not indigenous. The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. Belief is the acceptance that “the Earth and everything within it belongs to God.” May we see the day very soon when the entire Earth acknowledges Hashem’s dominion!


Daniel Friedman is the author of The Transformative Daf book series. He teaches at Touro University’s Lander colleges and his Center for Torah Values combats Christian anti-Zionism.

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