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Unexpected Civil Law Reveals the Spirit of Torah Law

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

Chaim, a field owner sells his field to Moshe. The contract is concluded and signed and Moshe pays Chaim in cash. David, who owns the field next to Chaim’s field protests the sale. He claims that he wants to buy the field and will match the purchase price. He explains that if he buys a field elsewhere he has to buy new farm equipment and hire new workers, whereas if he buys the field next to his currently owned field, he can pool his resources. Moshe claims that he purchased the field legally and that he does not want to bother looking for another field to purchase. How would you judge this case?

Most of us would say that it is unfortunate that Chaim did not offer the field to David first, but now the new legal owner is Moshe and the field remains his. The Talmud in tractate Baba Metzia (106a) cites the following verse in Deuteronomy as a source that allows David to take possession of Moshe’s field against Moshe’s will. “And you shall surely guard the commandments of Hashem your God, and the laws and statutes He commands you. And you shall do what is upright and good in the eyes of God.” Naturally David would have to pay Moshe the purchase price. In other words the upright and good thing would have been for David to have been given the opportunity to buy the field initially, since it benefits him more than it does an outsider like Moshe. Therefore Torah law states that it is the right thing to allow David to take possession of the field and reimburse Moshe.

Commenting upon the verse quoted above, the great 13th century scholar, the Ramban explains that it would not be impossible for the Torah to detail every civil law that may arise amongst individuals or every law with regards to state governance etc. The Torah therefore lists many laws and summarizes for us ‘the spirit of all the laws’ that have been explicitly mentioned. The spirit of all Torah Law is doing ‘what is upright and good in the eyes of God.’ This broad concept must be applied when adjudicating Torah law. We learn from this an astounding insight, that in Torah law, the spirit of the law is not just a nice philosophical idea but actually has profound legal ramifications.

Observing Torah law is of course extremely important, however this must be done keeping in mind the spirit and purpose of the law, which is ‘doing what is upright and good’. As the profit Micha states ‘and now man what does Hashem ask you, except to do justice, love loving kindness and to walk modestly with your God.’