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Kee Teitzei 5764-2004

“The Torah’s ‘Secret’ for Longevity”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

As we have noted in our previous studies of parashat Kee Teitzei, this coming week’s parasha contains more mitzvot that any other parasha in the Torah. With 27 positive and the 47 negative commandments, the total of 74 mitzvot represents more than 10% of the 613 mitzvot that are contained in the Torah.

Even casual students of the bible are aware that the Torah speaks of the lengthening of one’s days as a reward for the proper performance of mitzvot. The most famous instance, of course, is that by honoring and revering parents one’s days are lengthened. Hence, the promise of extended years is affirmed in both versions of the Ten Commandments that are found in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5.

Our parasha, Kee Teitzei, however, contains two other references to the lengthening of days. While one is generally known, the other is a bit obscure.

In Deuteronomy 22:6 we read: “Kee yee’ka’ray kahn tzee’por l’fah’neh’chah bah’deh’rech,” If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs, and the mother is sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs–do not take the mother together with her young. The following verse (verse 7) instructs Jews to let the mother go, and to take only the young, “l’mah’ahn yee’tahv lach, v’ha’ah’rach’tah yah’mim,” in order that you may fare well, and have a long life.

There is, as we have noted, a third instance that is also found in our parasha where the lengthening of one’s days is cited as a reward. In Deuteronomy 25:13 we read a series of laws concerning honesty in business. “Lo yee’hee’yeh l’chah b’kiss’chah ev’en vah’ah’ven, g’do’lah ooh’k’tah’nah.” You shall not have in your pocket alternate weights, larger and smaller. (Verse 14) You shall not have in your home alternate measures, a larger and a smaller. (Verse 15) You must have completely honest weights, and completely honest measures if you are to endure long on the soil that the Lord, your G-d, is giving you. (Verse 16) For everyone who does those things, and everyone who deals dishonestly, is abhorrent to the Lord, your G-d. The expression used in verse 15, “L’ma’ahn yah’ah’ree’choo yah’meh’chah ahl ha’ah’dah’mah ah’sher Hashem Eh’lo’keh’chah no’tayn lach,” is virtually identical to the expression concerning the lengthening of days that is found in the instructions regarding honoring and revering parents.

The Talmud (Shabbat 31a) cites Rava (the leading Talmudic authority in 4th century Babylon) as saying that on Judgment Day the very first question that the Heavenly tribunal will ask the recently deceased human being is, “Na’sah’tah v’nah’tah’tah beh’emunah?” Did you conduct your business honestly? Amazingly, the question about business is asked even before the question concerning establishing fixed times for learning Torah, believing in redemption, or perpetuating the Jewish people through procreation.

The British scholar, Louis Jacobs, points out in his essay on Jewish business ethics that this statement was made by Rava, who was the spiritual leader of the Babylonian town of Ma’chozen (aka Mechuza), where he had moved the Talmudic academy from Pumpedita. Adjacent to the Tigris River and to the capital of a Persian empire, Ctesiphin, Ma’chozen was one of the most renowned ancient commercial centers. This emphasis on honesty in business was Rava’s way of reminding the numerous successful local Jewish merchants to be scrupulously honest in their business dealings.

The Mishnah in Baba Metziah 4:2 cites a formula known as “Me Sheh’para” that served as a formal and solemn warning from the courts for anyone who tried to avail himself of loopholes in business laws. The formula stated: “He [G-d] who exacted punishment from the generation of the flood (Genesis 6:13) and the generation of the dispersion (Genesis 11:9), will exact punishment from he who does not abide by His spoken word.”

Louis Jacobs shares examples from the life of the legendary Rabbi Israel Meir HaCohen (1838-1933, known as the Chofetz Chaim). He relates that when the Chofetz Chaim was a young man, he opened a general store together with his wife. The Chofetz Chaim was extremely concerned about not keeping any goods that were not perfectly fresh, and in order to guarantee that he was giving the proper value to the customer, he would also always make sure to add a little extra to whatever was bought.

Afraid that the many customers were patronizing his store because of his renown as a Torah scholar, and possibly depriving other shopkeepers of their revenue, he would close his store daily at midday. Once, a non-Jewish customer left behind a herring that he had bought from the Chofetz Chaim. Try as he may, the rabbi was unable to discover the identity of that gentile. To make certain that he was not guilty of theft, on the next market day, the Chofetz Chaim distributed a fresh herring to each one of his non-Jewish customers.

In our own day, when one of the partners of a major real estate syndicate that was controlled by a punctilious observant Jew, went bankrupt, the observant Jew took pains to pay back every penny to all investors of his bankrupt partner, despite the fact that there was no legal obligation.

In truth, many of the examples cited above represent behavior generally regarded as lif’nim mee’shurat ha’din, beyond the letter of the law. But the fact that the Torah rewards the honest shopkeeper with length of days, indicates how dearly the Al-mighty cherishes honesty and integrity in business, and that proper conduct in business must not be compromised.

Indeed, it is often the Torah’s way to set the standards extremely high, and to expect all to make the utmost efforts to meet those standards. Let’s hope we do!

May you be blessed.