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Tuesday, 26 January 2016

How much is a mitzvah worth?

Daf Yomi Gittin 44


Yankel was a poor tailor who lived in Pinsk.  He sewed day and night but could never seem to make enough money to feed his family of ten.  One day, he learns of an island far away, where instead of sand, the seashore was full of diamonds.  And so he sets off to find his El Dorado.

After months at sea, he finally arrives.  Sure enough, the place is full of diamonds.  He fills his pockets, his knapsack, his hat.  He can’t believe how rich he has become.  He then sets off to the nearest restaurant and orders the finest cuisine.  At the end of the meal, he pulls a huge diamond out of his pocket, and tells the waiter to keep the change.
‘Are you kidding me?’ says the waiter.  ‘Diamonds are worth nothing on this island!  The currency here is fish!’

Crestfallen, he empties his pockets and sets out to learn how to fish.   He’s a quick learner and in no time manages to become quite wealthy as a fisherman.  After amassing a small fortune, he sends word home to his wife to put a down payment on a mansion, because he is on his way home with money galore.

He arrives home with three boatloads of fish.  By now, they’re pretty smelly, having been in the hold for months.  Undeterred, he goes to the bank and offers to complete payment on the house with his spoiled fish.
‘Seriously?!’ the bank manager screams at him incredulously.  ‘Why would I want your smelly fish?’ 

The poor tailor walks away downtrodden.  He gets home, takes off his clothing; is getting ready to go to bed, when he hears a clunk.  Out of his pocket has fallen one lone diamond that remained from his original gathering!  His wife has never seen anything so beautiful.  She picks it up, runs to the bank; and with that single diamond, she pays off the entire new house!

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi taught: If one sold his servant to a gentile, we penalize him and make him buy the person back for even up to one hundred times the amount.
The Gemara asks: Is one hundred a precise figure or an exaggeration?
Listen to the following proof: Reish Lakish taught: If one sold a large animal to a gentile, we penalize him and make him buy it back for even up to ten times the amount.
The Gemara responds: Perhaps a servant is different though.  For every day he is in the hands of the gentile, he is removed from mitzvos.
Rashi explains: In the gentile home, he cannot observe Shabbat and other commandments.

In days of yore, human beings were sometimes sold as servants.  How did that happen?  One example provided by the Torah regarding Jewish servants occurred when someone lacked the means to feed his family.  He would sell himself and use the funds to provide for his loved ones.   Jewish servants, of course, continued to be bound by all 613 commandments of the Torah.

Sometimes, Jews also purchased the services of gentiles.  Gentile servants loved joining Jewish families, because they were treated as human beings, with the utmost respect and honour.  In fact, they were such an accepted part of the family that the Torah expected them to take part in mitzvah observance, such as Shabbos and kosher.   Not all 613 mitzvos, but most of them.

Our Gemara discusses a Jewish family that sold their servant to a gentile family.  The Sages decreed that if that ever happened, we would force the Jewish family to buy him back.  Why?  Because he would no longer be able to observe the mitzvos.  In fact, they went so far as to say that one is obligated to pay literally a hundred times the original sale price to get him back!

Let’s give that scenario some perspective.  Today, if I would want to hire domestic help, it would cost me about twenty thousand dollars a year, at least.  Now, back in the day, you didn’t just purchase for a year; the sale was forever.  And so it would have cost substantially more.  But for argument’s sake, let’s stick with the figure of twenty thousand.   Listen to what our Sages demanded of a person who sold his gentile servant: you would have to pay a hundred times the amount to get him back.  That’s two million dollars! 

Why would you have to pay so much?  You could get a new servant for a hundredth of the price!  The reason you have to pay that exorbitant amount is that you have now deprived him of the ability to perform mitzvos.  A gentile no less, and yet our Sages are concerned to the tune of two million dollars!  If that’s how much non-Jewish mitzvah performance is worth, can you imagine how much the Jewish performance of a mitzvah must be worth?  Millions!!  After all, Hashem gave Torah and mitzvos to the People of Israel to observe! 

So if mitzvos are so valuable, why are people negligent in their performance?  The problem is that we live on an island full of diamonds.  Mitzvos are so easy to come by that we don’t appreciate their true value.   When we get home – after 120 years on this Earth – our loved ones will ask to see the diamonds we’ve brought with us.  And we’ll begin to cry, realizing that we could have been Heavenly multi-billionaires, if only we had appreciated the value of a mitzvah.

Next time you’re lying in bed, hitting that snooze button and debating whether or not to get up for minyan, ask yourself if you would go for a million bucks.   And next time you’re debating whether to eat a product that’s probably not kosher, ask yourself if it’s worth the risk for a million dollars.  Once you’ve had that conversation with yourself, the results will speak for themselves!


Mitzvos are priceless.   We don’t realize their value simply because they are found in such abundance here.  May you merit filling up your pockets, bags and U-Hauls with mitzvos in preparation for your journey to the Real World!