Who Pays? - Then and Now?

This sheet on Deuteronomy 10 was written by Marc Bregman for 929 and can also be found here

In the beginning of our Chapter, Moses recalls how he replaced the first set of Tablets he had smashed in anger (Deuteronomy 10:1-5): “The Lord said to me, ‘Carve out two tablets of stone like the first…” (verse 1).

The Midrash (Deuteronomy Rabbah 3:12) relates the writing of the Tablets of the Covenant to a halakhic ruling that continues to be relevant in our day: When a Jew betroths a woman, it is the bridegroom who pays the scribe for writing the betrothal document (see Talmud Yerushalmi, Sotah 7:22 and Sheqalim 6, 49d). Our Midrash continues by describing the Giving of the Torah as God’s betrothal of Israel at Sinai (see Exodus 19:10). If God was the bridegroom and Israel the bride, it must have been Moses who actually inscribed the “betrothal document” (i.e. the Tablets of the Covenant) (see Deuteronomy 31:9 and 33:4, Exodus Rabbah 33:7). In payment, God gave Moses a lustrous countenance (see Exodus 34:29).

How did this come about? Resh Lakish said that what was given to Moses was made of white fire written with black fire. While Moses was writing, he wiped his pen in his hair and as a result he acquired a lustrous appearance. Rabbi Samuel bar Nahman said that Moses acquired his lustrous appearance directly from the Tablets. While they were being passed to him from God's hands to Moses’ hands, he acquired a lustrous appearance by direct contact with the radiance of the Shekhinah.

But when the Israelites made the Golden Calf, Moses broke the Tablets. God said to him: ‘When you made the Tablets for Israel, I gave you as your reward a lustrous face, and now you have broken them! This relates to the halakhic ruling that if a cask is broken in transit before it is delivered to the buyer, it is the transferring agent (sarsur) who bears the loss (see Talmud Bavli, Baba Batra’ 27a). God said to Moses: 'You were the transferring agent (sarsur) between Me and My children. You broke the Tablets, so now you must replace them.’ As it is written: “And the Lord said unto Moses: ‘Carve out two tablets of stone like the first…” (Deuteronomy 10:1 and Exodus 34:1).

This Aggadic depiction echos the opening halakhic ruling that it is the bridegroom who pays the scribe. The further halakhic ruling, that a transferring agent is liable for loss in transit, reflects an international convention that has been practiced to this day. According to legal practice, a “carrier” is absolutely responsible for the safety of the goods entrusted to it and is liable for their loss, except in exceptional circumstances (see, for example, the British Carriers and Innkeepers Act 1958 2.12). So is seems, that according to Rabbinic legend, God already applied what has developed as international law in force to this day.

Marc Bregman is the Herman and Zelda Bernard Distinguished Professor of Jewish Studies emeritus, at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro.

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