Early Rabbis Approach Proverbs 14:34 (Some Initial Thoughts)

In reading the first chapter of the “Regular People Book” (ספר של בינונים) as part of my Tanya-reading-and-blogging project, I, of course, am going through all of the Talmudic references (which are interesting).
Talmud Tuesdays - DrewsViews
One that I found worth exploring in this space (for my first “Talmud Tuesday” post on this blog (see last week’s post for Talmud posts on my original blog)) is a beraita on Bava Batra 10b.  While I just came across it last night, I thought I would share some initial thoughts on it.

The text is an early rabbinic examination of Proverbs 14:34, which states:

צְדָקָה תְרוֹמֵם-גּוֹי
וְחֶסֶד לְאֻמִּים חַטָּאת

The first line reads “Righteousness/Charity exalts a nation”, although the second line is somewhat ambiguous.  Of course, just like many other verse in the book of Proverbs, this verse has two parts, which are parallel to each other. So, one would expect that the second line would be similar, which would yield “and kindness for the nations is a sin” or “sin is a kindness for nations”.

Mishley14-34

The two halves of Proverbs 14.34 are roughly parallel

But that sounds strange: why would a kindness/compassion be a bad thing?  However, sometimes, the word חסד can mean “shame”; thus, “sin is a shame for nations.”  This actually yields not a restatement in the second line, but a contrasting juxtaposition.

Now, another strange word is the final one: חטאת, although it could mean “sin”, it would be straightforward to say חטא, since חטאת usually means “sin-offering”.  In fact, a medieval Biblical commentator, Rabbi Abraham Ben Meir Ibn Ezra, comments on this verse: נחשב כקרבן חטאת – that it is considered like a sin-offering; which yields the second line to be “a sin-offering is a kindness for nations.”

In any event, let’s turn to how the early rabbis (tannaim) deal with this verse (translation from the “Soncino translation” (with minor changes)):

It was taught:
Rabban Yohanan, son of Zakkai, said to his disciples: “My sons, what is the meaning of the verse, ‘Righteousness exalts a nation, but the kindness of the nations is sin’?”
Rabbi Eliezer answered and said: “‘Righteousness exalts a nation’ – this refers to Israel, of whom it is written, ‘Who is like your people Israel, one nation in the earth?’ ‘But the kindness of the peoples is sin’ – all the charity and kindness done by the nations of the world is counted to them as sin, because they only do it to magnify themselves, as it says, ‘That they may offer sacrifices of sweet savour unto the God of heaven, and pray for the life of the king and of his sons’.”
Rabbi Yehoshua answered and said: “‘Righteousness exalts a nation’ – this refers to Israel, of whom it is written, ‘Who is like your people Israel, one nation on the earth?’ ‘The kindness of peoples is sin’ – all the charity and kindness that the nations of the world do is counted sin to them, because they only do it in order that their dominion may be prolonged, as it says, ‘Wherefore O king, let my counsel be acceptable to You, and break off your sins by righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the poor, if there may be a lengthening of thy tranquility’.”
Rabban Gamaliel answered, saying: “‘Righteousness exalts a nation’ – this refers to Israel, of whom it is written, ‘Who is like your people Israel etc.?’  ‘And the kindness of the peoples is sin’ – all the charity and kindness that the nations of the world do is counted as sin to them, because they only do it to display haughtiness, and whoever displays haughtiness is cast into Gehinnom, as it says, ‘The proud and haughty man, scorner is his name, he works in the wrath of pride’, and wrath connotes Gehinnom, as it is written, ‘A day of wrath is that day’.”
Said Rabban Gamaliel: “We have still to hear the opinion of the Modi’ite.”
Rabbi Eliezer the Modi’ite says: “‘Righteousness exalts a nation’ – this refers to Israel, of whom it is written, ‘Who is like thy people Israel, one nation in the earth.’ ‘The kindness of the peoples is sin’ – all the charity and kindness of the nations of the world is counted to them as sin, since they do it only to reproach us, as it says, ‘The Lord has brought it and done according as he spoke, because you have sinned against the Lord and have not obeyed his voice, therefore this thing is come upon you’.”
Rabbi Nehuniah, son of ha-Kanah, answered saying: “Righteousness exalts a nation, and there is kindness for Israel and a sin-offering for the peoples.”
Said Rabban Yohanan, son of Zakkai, to his disciples: “The answer of Rabbi Nehuniah, son of ha-Kanah, is superior to my answer and to yours, because he assigns charity and kindness to Israel and sin to the nations of the world.”

:תניא
אמר להן רבן יוחנן בן זכאי לתלמידיו: בני מהו      שאמר הכתוב צדקה תרומם גוי וחסד לאומים חטאת
נענה רבי אליעזר ואמר צדקה תרומם גוי – אלו ישראל, דכתיב ומי כעמך ישראל גוי אחד בארץ וחסד לאומים חטאת – כל צדקה וחסד שאומות העולם עושין חטא הוא להן שאינם עושין אלא להתגדל בו, כמו שנאמר די להוון מהקרבין ניחוחין לאלהה שמיא ומצליין לחיי מלכא ובנוהי
נענה רבי יהושע ואמר צדקה תרומם גוי אלו ישראל דכתיב ומי כעמך ישראל גוי אחד וחסד לאומים חטאת כל צדקה וחסד שאומות העולם עושין חטא הוא להן שאין עושין אלא כדי שתמשך מלכותן שנאמר להן מלכא מלכי ישפר עליך וחטיך בצדקה פרוק ועויתך במיחן עניין הן תהוי ארכא לשלותיך וגו’
נענה רבן גמליאל ואמר צדקה תרומם גוי אלו ישראל דכתיב ומי כעמך ישראל [וגו’] וחסד לאומים חטאת כל צדקה וחסד שאומות העולם עושין חטא הוא להן שאין עושין אלא להתיהר בו וכל המתיהר נופל בגיהנם שנאמר זד יהיר לץ שמו עושה בעברת זדון ואין עברה אלא גיהנם שנאמר יום עברה היום ההוא
אמר רבן גמליאל עדיין אנו צריכין למודעי
רבי אליעזר המודעי אומר צדקה תרומם גוי אלו ישראל דכתיב ומי כעמך ישראל גוי אחד וחסד לאומים חטאת כל צדקה וחסד שאומות העולם עושין חטא הוא להן שאין עושין אלא לחרף אותנו בו שנאמר ויבא ויעש ה’ כאשר דבר כי חטאתם לה’ ולא שמעתם בקולו והיה לכם הדבר הזה
נענה רבי נחוניא בן הקנה ואמר צדקה תרומם גוי וחסד לישראל ולאומים חטאת
אמר להם רבן יוחנן בן זכאי לתלמידיו נראין דברי רבי נחוניא בן הקנה מדברי ומדבריכם לפי שהוא נותן צדקה וחסד לישראל ולאומות העולם חטאת

 

 

In reading this text, one thing that is immediately evident is the utter antagonism regarding the nations of the world. This is shocking to the reader until one realizes that Rabban Yohanan, son of Zakkai, and his disciples were living in a time of great oppression by the Romans, most notably that the Romans destroyed the Temple, thus, we can understand why they would not have such a fond sense of the nations of the world….

Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabban Gamaliel, and Rabbi Eliezer, the Modi’ite all say that “nation” in the first half of the verse refers to the nation of Israel, referring to II Samuel 7:23 in a similarity of language.  The aforementioned all assign negative motivations to the other nations of the world when doing charity, etc.  While I certainly can understand their tremendously negatively cynical attitudes in a time of persecution towards gentile righteous actions, it doesn’t resonate at all at a time when there is not persecution, such as in the American context (although I can imagine some people will point to certain nations out there that might fit into these descriptions).

The answer of Rabbi Nehunia, son of HaKaneh, and the response by Rabban Yohanan, son of Zakkai, are a bit unclear, though.  In this translation, Rabbi Nehunia, son of HaKaneh, offers an explanation that yields something good for the nations of the world – חטאת as a sin-offering (not a sin).  He also attributes the first word of the second line to be a continuation of the first line and leaves the last two words as a separate clause (לאמים חטאת).  However, in this translation, Rabban Yohanan, son of Zakkai, says he likes it, although he attributes sin to the nations of the world.  It could be that Rabban Yohanan, son of Zakkai, agrees with him, although it could either be that he has a positive view or he has a negative view.  It could be that he has a positive view towards the nations of the world, which would set this view apart versus the four previous views; or it could be that he has a negative view, which would make sense, considering their historical setting.

Anyways, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi uses an excerpt from this text and, surprise, does not take a positive view of gentiles…(look for more on Thursday, when I share my notes on the first chapter of ספר של בינונים of the Tanya).

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