Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

As summer rolls on, Jewish parents everywhere are getting ready for the annual tradition of writing tuition checks for Hebrew school or Jewish day school and the accompanying tradition of complaining about the high cost of Jewish education. But is it, in fact, permitted under Jewish law to charge for the teaching of Torah? This week’s Daf Yomi reading raised that interesting question, in connection with the core subject of Tractate Nedarim, the taking of vows. The most common form of vow-taking, the Talmud has shown over the last few weeks, is vowing to forbid a certain individual from “deriving benefit” from oneself—or vice versa, to refuse to derive benefit from a given person. This kind of one-on-one excommunication is frowned upon by the rabbis, since it involves God in what is usually just a personal dispute. But once such a vow is taken, the Talmud asks, what is its scope? What sorts of actions are defined as “benefits” in a legal sense?

In chapter 4 of Nedarim, the rabbis wonder whether the performance of mitzvot can be considered a benefit. For instance, is it permitted to bring a Temple sacrifice on behalf of a person you have vowed not to benefit? For the rabbis of the Talmud, this was an academic question, since the Temple had been destroyed centuries earlier; but sacrifices and priestly perquisites are a very common Talmudic subject nonetheless. According to the mishna in Nedarim 35b, it is permitted for a priest to offer certain kinds of sacrifices on behalf of someone he has forsworn, including sin-offerings, guilt-offerings, and the bird-offerings owed by new mothers after they give birth. As the Gemara points out, this raises a dilemma: “Are these priests our agents or agents of Heaven?” That is, if a priest performs a sacrifice on your behalf, is he benefiting you or benefiting God? The mishna seems to suggest that the latter is the case, for if the human being were the beneficiary of a sacrifice, a priest could not perform one for a person he had sworn not to benefit.

The Gemara goes into the matter in more detail, explaining that everything depends on what kind of sacrifice we are talking about. In general, the rabbis say, a priest may not offer a sacrifice on a person’s behalf without that person’s knowledge and consent. But there are certain kinds of offerings that pertain to “those lacking atonement,” which may be offered on a person’s behalf without his knowledge. These are the specific offerings mentioned in the mishna—sacrifices having to do with sin, guilt, and childbirth, among others. Evidently, the reason it is permitted for a priest to offer these sacrifices even for a person he has forsworn is that he can do so without asking that person’s permission. By the same principle, a father can bring a sin-offering on behalf of his child, because the child doesn’t have legal standing to make his own sacrifice.

The mishna then moves on to a different kind of religious act. If you have sworn not to benefit someone, are you allowed to teach that person Jewish law? Again, the question seems to be whether teaching Torah is considered to benefit the student personally or whether it is considered a mitzvah that benefits or honors God. The mishna offers an interesting answer: “He teaches him midrash, halakhot, and aggadot, but he may not teach him Bible.” Evidently, teaching someone advanced Jewish subjects like Talmud is not considered a personal benefit, but teaching him the Bible is a benefit. What is the basis for this distinction?

The Gemara takes up this question in Nedarim 36b and explains that the difference has to do with payment. Evidently, it was customary for teachers of Bible to be paid for their lessons, but not teachers of Talmud. This suggests that teaching someone Bible means benefiting him in a financially measurable way, and so it would be forbidden by a vow. But why, the Gemara wonders, is it permitted to charge for teaching Bible but not for teaching Talmud? After all, Moses didn’t charge the Israelites for teaching them either the Written Torah or the Oral Torah; he taught them for free, just as God taught had taught it to him. Based on this precedent, the rabbis reason, “Bible too should be taught for free.”

Here the rabbis are faced with the need to justify on scriptural or legal grounds what was obviously the common practice of charging for Bible lessons. Then as now, it seems, charging fees was pragmatically indispensable; if a teacher couldn’t charge his pupils, he couldn’t afford to teach, and the system of Jewish education would collapse. The rabbis are usually careful not to make laws that would inflict such obvious harm, knowing perhaps that such laws would inevitably be disobeyed; and so it is here. It is permitted to pay Bible teachers, they explain, because students of Bible are generally young children, and what the teacher is really being paid for is not the content of the lesson but “watching the children.” Alternatively, the fee is for teaching the biblical punctuation and cantillation—the notes used in chanting Torah aloud—but not for the actual words themselves. This ingenious distinction preserves the basis for charging fees for young students, while suggesting that advanced study of the kind that took place in the beit midrash would be free. (Later, the Koren Talmud’s notes explain, rabbinic authorities modified this ruling so that under certain conditions one can pay for Talmud lessons as well.)

The next mishna, in Nedarim 38b, asks about a different kind of religiously meritorious act. Visiting the sick is a major mitzvah: But if someone you have sworn not to benefit gets sick, are you allowed to visit him? Should the visit be considered as a tribute to God or as a favor to the patient? Splitting the difference, the mishna rules that it is permitted to visit the sick person as long as you remain standing, but not to sit down with him. The Gemara puzzles over this distinction: “With what are we dealing?” Once again, the answer turns out to have to do with money: “For sitting, one ought to take payment, but for standing, one ought not to take payment.” Evidently, it was customary to receive payment for visiting the sick for an extended period; in this case, the visitor was acting more like what we would now consider a nurse or home health-care aide. If you stayed with the patient long enough to need to sit, you would therefore be owed money, and so you were clearly performing a measurable service, which the vow would forbid. A short visit, however, where you remained standing, would not be considered a benefit for the patient.

This topic calls forth a long passage of aggadah, in which the sages discuss various matters related to sickness and death. Visiting a sick person, Rav Dimi says, helps to preserve his life: “Anyone who visits the ill causes that he will live, and anyone who does not visit the ill causes that he will die.” The rabbis give a spiritual reason for this—if you a visit a sick person you will pray for him to recover, and if you don’t he won’t benefit from your prayers. But it seems equally sound on merely psychological grounds: Isolation is surely bad for a sick person, while devoted care is an aid to recovery. But the rabbis suggest that this is not true of every kind of illness. A person suffering from buredam, or dysentery, should not be visited, because his symptoms—“he is like a flowing spring,” the Talmud says euphemistically—are embarrassing and he doesn’t want anyone to see them. Also, people suffering from eye or head ailments should not be made to talk, since it could worsen their pain. This delicacy is characteristic of the Talmud, which always takes care to respect human dignity, in sickness as in health.

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