י״ב באייר ה׳תשע״ט (May 17, 2019)

Bekhorot 30a-b: Suspected of Ignoring Religious Law

Beginning with the Mishna on today’s daf we turn our attention to questions of whether someone who is suspect with regard to one area of law is considered to be suspect with regard to other areas of law. The Mishna teaches:

One who is suspected of ignoring the Sabbatical year is not suspected of also ignoring the tithes.  One who is suspected of ignoring tithes is not suspected of also ignoring the Sabbatical year. One who is suspected of ignoring both is suspected of ignoring the rules of ritual purity. And it is possible for one to be suspected of ignoring the rules of ritual purity and yet not suspected of ignoring the two laws cited above. This is the general rule: one who is suspected of ignoring a religious law may not give judgment on it or testify concerning it.

An example of the Gemara’s concern is whether someone who commits certain transgressions can be considered a ḥaver – someone who is trustworthy with regard to tithes and issues of ritual purity. A baraita quoted by the Gemara teaches that “the wife former of a ḥaver who married an am ha’aretz (one who is unreliable with regard to ritual purity and tithes), need not first accept the obligations of a ḥaver.”  Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar says that she must, for he reported in the name of Rabbi Meir: It happened with a certain woman who was married to a ḥaver that in that marriage she fastened the straps of the tefillin on his hand and when afterwards she married an am ha’aretz tax collector, she knotted the kishrei mokhes – the customs seals – for him.

The situation of a mokhes – a tax collector – was different in Talmudic times than it is today. In those days (and in some places this was true until fairly recently) the right to collect taxes was leased by the government to individuals who would then collect taxes in the name of the government. The individual who purchased this right from the government would then assign others to collect the taxes and pay him a percentage of the receipts. There was a lot of room for cheating and dishonesty given the situation that tax collection was a business, and the more that was collected, the more profit was made. Thus, the mokhes could choose to forgive the debts of his friends and relatives entirely, choosing to collect more than was appropriate from those people with whom he did not have a relationship. It is for this reason that the Talmud often presents the mokhes as equivalent to a robber.