June 21, 2024
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Semblance of Ownership: Bava Metzia Daf 96

Despite his abundant wealth, Jake Blumen was known for his stinginess, never contributing to synagogue causes or fundraisers for the needy. One morning after Shacharis, Dr. Martin, a fellow congregant, decides to discuss Blumen’s financial habits with him.

Dr. Martin begins by sharing the story of Bernie Sender, whose family’s unity collapsed due to disputes over inherited wealth. Advising Blumen to avoid a similar fate, Dr. Martin suggests making a will. Blumen, acknowledging the wisdom of this advice, promises to consult his lawyer soon.

A month later, Blumen returns, proudly presenting his will to Dr. Martin. However, the doctor notes a crucial omission—Blumen had neglected to consider his own charitable legacy. Dr. Martin emphasizes the importance of leaving behind acts of kindness, not just financial assets, as notably demonstrated by a certain deceased fellow congregant who had established a charity fund for orphans and widows.

Touched by this idea, Blumen decides to incorporate a provision for a charity fund in his will. He envisions a legacy of compassion, expressing gratitude for Dr. Martin’s wise counsel.

A few weeks later, Blumen returns to shul and shows Martin his new will. The doctor shakes his head and tells him it still won’t work. “Imagine what will happen after you die,” he says. “Your children will see two wills and decide that the second one was made under duress. They’ll take the charity to court to demand they receive everything. Meanwhile, you’ll be stuck up there at the gates of heaven, waiting for your money to be distributed to the needy.”

“What then, pray tell, do you suggest?” asks Jack Blumen, with palpable consternation.

“The only solution, my friend,” the doctor replies, “is to open the charitable endowment immediately. Once your children see that you’ve dedicated your money during your lifetime to helping the poor, they’ll have no doubt that it was indeed your true intent!”

***

A farmer has a special mitzvah called bikkurim. He takes his first fruits to Jerusalem and declares his thanks to Hashem, for “the land which You, Hashem, have given me.” Today’s daf discusses a scenario where Reuven sold Shimon the rights to the produce of his field. Since he does not own the actual land, is he entitled to partake in the mitzvah of bikkurim?

הַמּוֹכֵר שָׂדֵהוּ לַחֲבֵירוֹ לְפֵירוֹת רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן אוֹמֵר מֵבִיא וְקוֹרֵא רֵישׁ לָקִישׁ אוֹמֵר מֵבִיא וְאֵינוֹ קוֹרֵא רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן אוֹמֵר מֵבִיא וְקוֹרֵא קִנְיַן פֵּירוֹת כְּקִנְיַן הַגּוּף דָּמֵי וְרֵישׁ לָקִישׁ אוֹמֵר מֵבִיא וְאֵינוֹ קוֹרֵא קִנְיַן פֵּירוֹת לָאו כְּקִנְיַן הַגּוּף דָּמֵי

One who sells only the produce of his field to his fellow, Rabbi Yochanan says: He offers (the first fruits) and recites the declaration. Reish Lakish says: He offers but does not recite the declaration. Rabbi Yochanan says that he offers and recites, since acquisition of the produce rights is tantamount to ownership of the property (for that is the entire purpose of the land). But Reish Lakish says he offers but does not recite, for acquisition of the produce is not equal to ownership of the property itself.

***

The Chovos Halevavos teaches that the only true ownership in this world is the acquisition of Torah and mitzvos, as one learns and fulfills the words of Hashem. All earthly possessions are merely temporary and therefore do not truly belong to a person. If so, how can one ever recite the declaration over the first fruits? You are not the true owner of the land or the fruits!

Rabbi Chaim Zvi Teitelbaum addresses the question based on a similar quandary concerning charitable contributions. How can one ever receive reward for giving tzedaka if everything in the universe belongs to Hashem? You aren’t giving away your personal possessions to Heaven. They already belong to Heaven! The answer to this conundrum lies in the Talmudic conception of certain transgressions, such as digging a pit in the middle of the street. If someone falls in and suffers an injury, you are liable to pay damages. Now, technically, the pit doesn’t belong to you because it’s not your property! Nevertheless, the Torah considers the pit yours for liability purposes.

Now, if the Torah can impose ownership upon you in the realm of liability, writes the Noam Megadim, then certainly it can bestow ownership upon you in the realm of merit! Thus, even though the money does not belong to you, the Torah bestows that semblance of ownership, and you are rewarded for the charitable allocation. Similarly, Rabbi Teitelbaum opines, the merit of offering the first fruits empowers the farmer with the simulated rights to the field. By performing the mitzvah, one is granted the semblance of ownership!

So, we see that there are really three categories of asset acquisition in this world: First, we have Torah and mitzvos, which are the only true possessions. Learning Torah and doing mitzvos accrue eternal ownership. Second, we have the purchase of earthly items, which is a futile endeavor, for they do not really belong to you. At best, you should think of them as long-term rentals, and calculate the cost-benefit analysis of the purchase on that score.

But then, we have a third category: Since the performance of certain mitzvos necessitates physical belongings, the Torah grants you a semblance of ownership. Heaven bestows upon you the rights to all those worldly items you plan to utilize in the performance of Hashem’s service. And it will not randomly deprive you of those items by way of theft, accidents or mishaps, for they “belong” to you.

Do you own your car? That depends on its purpose. Many tax return forms ask you what percentage of your car is used for professional purposes. At the same time, Heaven asks what percentage of your car is used for spiritual purposes and determines whether you should be granted the semblance of ownership. Do you offer people rides? Do you lend your car out to those who don’t have ready access to a vehicle? Do you use it to get to minyan and daily shiurim?

How about your home? Is it yours? Do you need a big home to host several Shabbos guests on a weekly basis? To host Torah classes? To host out-of-town visitors looking to spend Shabbos in your hotel-free community? All these purposes “force” the Hand of Heaven to grant you the merit of that ownership semblance, strengthening your hand over your beloved assets.

You can enjoy Heaven’s bounty in this world and in the next. How much you own in this world all depends on how mission-driven you lead your life. May you dedicate all your efforts and assets to a higher purpose!


Rabbi Dr. Daniel Friedman is the author of The Transformative Daf book series. He battles Christian antisemitism and teaches International Relations at Landers.

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