Thursday, January 29, 2009

A Dead Moneylender, Collective Punishment... and Zombies

I’m still on a funeral kick this week (see previous posts here and here), so here’s a morbid item from the introduction to Rabbi Yisroel Reisman’s excellent book, “Laws of Ribbis.” [Note: ריבית, Ribbis, or Ribbit, refers to interest charged on a loan. It is defined in Jewish law as אגר נטר ליה, charging someone a fee for the right to hold your money.]

A moneylender passed away. He had made his fortune by collecting interest from the poor of the town. In vengeance, the Chevra Kadisha (burial society) demanded a large sum of money for the grave, angering the heirs.

The matter came to R' Akiva Eiger. "How appropriate," he responded. "The normal price of a grave assumes that the purchaser will use it for a limited time, until the resurrection of the dead. We are taught that one who takes interest, though, does not get resurrected. As such, he will remain in the grave for eternity, and he should therefore pay a higher price for use of the grave!"

I love that story, both for R’ Akiva Eiger’s characteristically sharp humor and for the community’s vengeance against the money-hungry lender. But after some thought, you realize that there is an impropriety here: The revenge is actually against the moneylender's heirs! Certainly, his greedy soul will be aggrieved by the price of the grave, but how did his heirs deserve to lose that money?

In truth, though, the heirs won’t lose anything; they'll probably just take the fee out of the money they would have used to build a monument for him.

But, beyond that, Judaism does believe in collective responsibility, and particularly within a family.

Remember the story of Lemech and his wives? (Nah, I knew you didn’t – no one pays any attention to that blip in Bereishit, thanks to all of the other events overshadowing it, and thanks to Rashi’s difficult midrashic explanation. It’s in Bereishit 4:19-24. Go look it up, I’ll wait.)

As Ibn Ezra deciphers Lemech’s odd poetry there, Lemech’s wives separate from him because he is the 6th generation after Kayin, and Gd had sort of indicated (4:15, per Ibn Ezra’s read there) that Kayin would be punished for murdering Hevel after 7 generations. Lemech’s wives did not want to produce children who would suffer that punishment.

And so Lemech complains to his wives, “Kayin was a murderer, and so he deserves to be punished – but I have not killed anyone! Why should I suffer?”

To which the Torah’s unwritten answer is that when a person is punished, his family does suffer with him. Kayin’s family suffers with his punishment – and so the moneylender’s heirs suffer when his estate is reduced.

We see this throughout the Torah, and throughout life. A family suffers when its wage-earner goes to prison. Children learn bad traits from their parents, children grow up in poverty because of their parents’ spending habits, children acquire diseases because of their parents’ behavior.

It’s not a pleasant thing – it’s just the result of a world which is designed with אחריות and ערבות, with interlocking relationships and responsibilities. We just rely on Gd to balance out a person’s just desserts in the end.

I hate to end on a sad note, though, so here’s a story which qualifies as both morbid and funny (at least, I think it’s funny):

Construction signs warn of zombies
Hackers change public safety message

AUSTIN (KXAN) - Austin drivers making their morning commute were in for a surprise when two road signs on a busy stretch of road were taken over by hackers. The signs near the intersection of Lamar and Martin Luther King boulevards usually warn drivers about upcoming construction, but Monday morning they warned of "zombies ahead."

Anyone know Ex-President Bush’s whereabouts when this happened? This seems like his sense of humor, and he was in Texas...

[Oh, and speaking of zombies returning from the dead - RenReb has decided to add a post to her long-dormant blog. Check it out here. I miss that blog.]


  1. YAY, renreb! Thanks for the alert.

  2. former allentownerJanuary 29, 2009 at 8:25 PM

    when i first moved to allentown, a number of years ago, i got an aliyah on mon/thurs -- "ki yikach ish shtei nashim".

    the first shabat i was in allentown, i got an aliyah -- "vayikach lemech shtei nashim"

    true story!

  3. Tzipporah-
    Now, if only she would post a second time, get some momentum going...

    No kidding!