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Monday, September 25, 2017

Editor’s Note: The following is the text of a speech given at the Beth Aaron siyum for the completion of Masechet Beitza as part of Daf Hashovua on July 15.

Sometimes, learning Gemara can seem quite esoteric. To give some examples from Beitza, I don’t own doves, don’t have to worry about moving a ladder from one dovecote to another on Yom Tov and I never owned a mother and child animal that fell into a pit on Yom Tov. So, at times, the Gemara seems a bit distant.

What I want to talk about is two ways that learning Beitza became relevant to me. One is very personal and the other is a strategy anyone can employ.

First, a little background about me: I’ve had eye trouble for most of my life. There’s no one in this room who knew me before my eyes were messed up. I had cornea transplants in both eyes in my 20s. Since then, things have been mostly OK, using my left eye only. Then in December, my left eye rejected the transplant. Since then, I’ve been unable to drive or read printed material. Thank God, I’ve been able to read a screen and have been able to use Sefaria as my siddur and learn Gemara on a tablet.

I had a replacement cornea transplant in April. The night after the transplant we learned Daf Chaf Tet—29a. There’s a story about Abba Shaul ben Botnit, a merchant whose store was (appropriately) open on Yom Tov. He would measure out wine, and customers would pour the wine into their own vessels and settle up with him later. Over time, he wound up with 300 jugs of wine that he saved from the dregs that the customers didn’t take. He felt that this wine didn’t belong to him since he sold it to the customer. As we look at the situation, it seems clear that this is a case of someone who abandoned his property, which gives the finder the right to it. But I posit that didn’t feel right to Abba Shaul Ben Botnit. He wasn’t comfortable getting benefit at someone else’s expense. Their (tiny) tragedy shouldn’t be to his advantage.

So he brought the wine to the Beit Hamikdash to give as tzedakah. The treasurers told him there was no need to give it away—it wasn’t stolen. But if he was going to treat it strictly as stolen, they couldn’t take it. They said he should follow the baraita about how to deal with stolen goods when one doesn’t know or can’t find the person he stole from:

אמרו להם הואיל והחמרתם על עצמכם עשו מהם צרכי רבים דתניא גזל ואינו יודע למי גזל יעשה בהם צרכי רבים מאי נינהו אמר רב חסדא בורות שיחין ומערות

The treasurers said to them: Since you are so stringent with yourselves, use the wine and oil for communal needs. As it is taught in a baraita: If one stole and does not know from whom he stole, he should use the stolen items for communal needs, thereby repaying all of the Jewish people. The Gemara asks: What are communal needs? Rav Chisda said: He should finance the digging of cisterns, ditches and caves for storing water for travelers.

Rashi comments that even if he can’t repay the people he stole from, who may not even be alive, he may benefit their children, grandchildren or other family. This will be as close as he can come to repaying his debt.

This seemed relevant to me and my corneas.

In my case, the tragedy wasn’t tiny for the donor and his or her family, and the benefit to me is much greater than even a large amount of wine.

My mother taught me that when someone does something for you, and especially if they give you something of value, you say “thank you.” Yet, I’m unable to thank the donor or even their family. The donor is dead, and privacy laws and policies make it virtually impossible for me to find the family. So, how have I dealt with this? While I certainly didn’t steal the corneas, I think the advice given to Abba Shaul ben Botnit (who didn’t steal the wine) is relevant.

I have arranged to donate my organs through HODS—the Halachic Organ Donor Society (https://hods.org/)—and have given platelets routinely over the past 35 years—probably about 150 times. My sincerest hope is that someone who is related to the cornea donors has been or will be a recipient. So here was a circumstance where the learning spoke very personally to me—in a way very few other people would similarly appreciate.

But you can’t count on finding personal relevance from every story or ruling in the Gemara. How exactly do we act and fulfill something that doesn’t have clear relevance for our lives? There are many answers that I’ve heard over the years.

My answer is to take a test. An actual written test. The Daf Hashovua organization publishes a test each week on the daf. I print it out, and it takes anywhere from 30-70 minutes to complete. I email it back; they grade it and send it back with corrections. It’s not really hard—almost all the answers are readily copied out of any English or Hebrew Gemara.

But it has a magical effect. When I listen to a shiur, not everything sinks in. Even after my own review and the Sunday Chazara shiur the logic is not always clear in my mind. I think that’s because all I’ve done is passively listen.

But give me a table with Rav and Shmuel down the side, and chavit and behema across the top, and I use a totally different part of my brain to fill in the opinions on which techum is where. The tests are designed not to trick or confuse the student, or even to separate the stronger and weaker students, but to help the test-taker follow the logic of the Gemara.

So what’s the result?

If you’re like me, there are times—often many times—when you’re learning, that things just don’t make sense, and you say to your chavruta or to yourself, “Let’s just move on.”

However, in Masechet Beitza, because of the skill and dedication of Rabbis Rothwachs, Hindin, Goldberg and Schnaidman and the anonymous test maker, I’ve never had to settle for just moving on.

This process has moved me from passively hearing the Gemara to something much more active and valuable.

So, for those of you who are going to learn Masechet Rosh Hashana, whether with the group or some other way, I strongly encourage you to include the bechinot in your plans. And if you’d like to work on them together, I’d be thrilled to work with you.

The speech concluded with thanking Rabbi Rothwachs, Rabbi Hindin, Rabbi Goldberg and David Schnaidman for their efforts in teaching.

By Rich Feldman

 Rich Feldman lives in Teaneck and runs a market research company. He can be reached at [email protected]