Mutual responsibility

The concept of areivut is not just a nebulous ideal; areivut has tangible legal implications.

helping lend a hand 88 (photo credit: )
helping lend a hand 88
(photo credit: )
The Jewish people have a strong sense of mutual responsibility. We have a long and proud tradition of helping others and we rightly feel a duty to look after our brothers and sisters. Our sages have termed this sense of shared responsibility areivut, often repeating the adage that each Jew is responsible for every other Jew (for example B. Shavuot 39b). The concept of areivut is not just a nebulous ideal; areivut has tangible legal implications (B. Rosh Hashana 29a). Even people who have discharged their own obligation to fulfill a divine commandment - for instance, to say kiddush on Shabbat - still have a broader duty to facilitate others in discharging their obligation. Thus they are permitted to recite kiddush a second time to assist others in fulfilling their kiddush requirement. One commentator describes the situation in lucid terms: Since your peer has not discharged the incumbent obligation, it is as if you yourself have not discharged your obligation (Ran, 14th century, Spain). There appears at first blush to be an exception to this rule - blessings recited over food, drink and scent. In this case, the law requires that the recitor of the blessing partake of the substance. Recitors who have not eaten, drunk or smelled, cannot say the blessing for others. This rule, which appears to run contrary to the theme of areivut is actually rooted in the areivut principle - since you have no obligation to smell a rose, therefore I have no duty to facilitate that act by reciting the appropriate blessing for you (Rashi, 11th century, France). There is a limitation to the areivut principle (M. Rosh Hashana 3:8). The source of the obligation of the facilitator needs to be of equal or weightier value than that of the one being assisted. Thus a minor, fool or deaf-mute who is essentially not obligated to fulfill the precepts, cannot blow the shofar for others on Rosh Hashana. This restriction is expressed in the words of the Talmud: One who is not obligated cannot discharge the obligation of others. This limitation is at the root of a question asked in the Talmud (B. Berachot 20b): Is a woman's obligation to recite grace after meals a Torah obligation or a rabbinic enactment? Without answering the question, the Talmud pounces, asking, What difference does it make? Regardless of the source of the law a woman must recite grace. The Talmud answers that we need to categorize the requirement so that we can determine whose obligation she can discharge. If her obligation is of Torah standing, then she can discharge another person who has a similar level of obligation. If however her obligation is the product of rabbinic decree, she cannot discharge someone else's Torah level obligation. This limitation is colorfully illustrated in a fantastic tale (B. Berachot 48a). Yannai, king from the Hasmonean dynasty and High Priest in the Temple, and his queen were dining together with members of the court. When the end of the meal came there was no one to be found who could recite grace after meals. Indeed, Yannai had previously massacred the rabbis after one of them had suggested that he was not halachically fit to serve in the Temple (B. Kiddushin 66a). Turning to his wife, Yannai pined, "Who can bring someone who is able to recite grace?" The queen responded, "Swear to me that if I bring you someone you will not persecute him." The king gave his word and his wife presently brought her brother, Shimon ben Shetah, who had been in hiding. Yannai offered Shimon ben Shetah the seat between the two monarchs. "Do you see how much honor I am according you?" he pointedly asked the sage. Shimon ben Shetah swiftly responded, "It is not you who accords me honor, rather it is the Torah!" The ruler turned to his wife, "You see that he does not accept authority!" intimating that massacring the rabbis was justified (Rashash, 19th century, Vilna). A cup was brought over which Shimon ben Shetah was to recite grace, the assumption being that the sage could discharge the obligation of those who had dined. Yet Shimon ben Shetah had not partaken of any food: "How should I recite the blessing," he enquired, "Shall I say - 'Blessed is He of whose bounty Yannai and his friends have eaten'?" The sage promptly drank that cup of wine and another was brought for him to recite grace. The Talmud qualifies Shimon ben Shetah's conduct stating that normative opinion does not follow the sage's course. To recite grace, drinking wine is insufficient; the recitor must have eaten bread. The principle, however, holds true for all opinions: we have a shared responsibility to discharge each other's obligations. Where entering this obligation is of a voluntary nature, only one who has similarly benefited can assist others. Until now we have explored the legal implications of the areivut principle. Areivut, however, demands far more than the mere discharging of obligations for others. The forerunner of the Hasidic movement, Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), is often quoted as offering an explanation with a deeper quality for the rule that one who is not obligated cannot discharge the obligation of others. Leaders who are not obligated, meaning they have no common ground with the masses, cannot liberate their constituents from their quagmire. Leaders cannot hope to help their people unless they are truly committed to them. They must be bound to the people and obligated by their every action. Only then can they hope to fulfill their duty as leaders and more importantly provide for their constituents. Mutual responsibility is not just about discharging the obligations of others. As a sole expression of areivut this is mere cosmetic Judaism. Areivut involves much more; in words attributed to the Besht - You cannot pull someone from a muddy bog by standing at a safe distance intent on not getting dirty. A deep concern for our brothers and sisters may at times require us to descend into their morass. This is sincere areivut. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.