Why Are Bribes So Powerful?

V’lo tikach shochad ki hashochad ye’aver einei chachamim viy’saleif divrei tzaddikim (Shoftim 16:19)

In Parashas Shoftim, the Torah admonishes judges against accepting bribes, warning that bribes blind the eyes of the wise and twist the words of the righteous. Similarly, in the beginning of Parashas Devarim (1:16-17), Moshe Rabbeinu mentions that he warned the judges to mete out justice fairly and not to show any favoritism to either of the litigants. The Gemara (Kesubos 105b) teaches that bribes do not always come in the form of money, and it gives several examples of Amora’im who recused themselves from being involved in cases in which they had received relatively minor favors from one of the litigants, which they worried might distort their judgment.

For example, when Shmuel was struggling to cross a river on a rickety footbridge, someone extended his hand to help him across. Shmuel asked him what he was doing in the area, to which he responded that he had an upcoming court case. When Shmuel heard this, he remarked that he could not take part in adjudicating the case because he was afraid that the benefit he received would warp his evaluation of the case.

Similarly, Ameimar was once sitting in his beis din when a feather fell onto his head, and somebody walked over and removed it. When Ameimar heard that the man had a case scheduled before him, he disqualified himself from participating in the proceedings. Lastly, Rav Yishmael bar Yossi’s sharecropper normally delivered his share of the crops on Friday. One week he needed to come to town on Thursday to appear in beis din, so he brought the produce with him. Rav Yishmael bar Yossi was afraid that receiving his crops one day early would cloud his ability to remain impartial, so he recused himself from the case.

Harav Avrohom Yaakov Pam, zt”l, notes that one might find this Gemara difficult to understand. Were these Amora’im really so fickle that such trivial favors could corrupt their reasoning and preclude them from rendering unbiased rulings? Why didn’t they give themselves more credit than to assume that they would pervert justice as a result of such inconsequential interactions?

Rav Pam explains that the underlying issue in this Gemara is not the power of bribes, but rather the strength of feelings of hakaras hatov (gratitude) that we should feel toward those who help us out. These Rabbis were certainly not impulsive and capricious, but they took favors much more seriously than we do.

We have difficulty comprehending these incidents because the benefits being discussed seem so minor that they wouldn’t even register on our mental radar screens. However, to the Amora’im who had worked to develop a proper sense of hakaras hatov, they viewed these trivial acts as deserving of so much gratitude that they feared that their judgment would be skewed as a result.

Rav Pam adds that our lack of appropriate feelings of hakaras hatov is responsible for a great many of the interpersonal problems we face today. For example, many spouses regularly take each other for granted, and the chores and errands that one spouse does for the other are dismissed as undeserving of gratitude because “he (or she) is only doing his job.”

If we would instead work to appreciate these favors and take them as seriously as the Amora’im did, our marriages would be far more peaceful and fulfilling. Similarly, in our interactions with friends, neighbors and coworkers, if we view their actions with an eye toward feeling gratitude, we will get along much better.

As we begin the month of Elul and the process of self-improvement, let us resolve to strive to emulate the Amora’im by inculcating within ourselves genuine feelings of appreciation toward all those who help us out in any way, no matter the magnitude or motivation, which will serve to improve all our relationships and make us happier people.

Q: It is forbidden to plant a tree anywhere on the Temple Mount (Rashi 16:21). Is it permitted to plant a tree next to a synagogue?

A: Harav Akiva Eiger rules that while the Biblical prohibition only applies to planting a tree on the Temple Mount, it is Rabbinically forbidden to plant a tree next to any synagogue. The Rav of a synagogue where trees were planted without his knowledge or consent asked the Maharam Schick for guidance on what to do. The Maharam Schick responded by quoting the opinion of Rav Akiva Eiger, and he added that the presence of the trees will encourage people to gather and idly waste time near the synagogue, and he therefore advised the Rav to attempt to have the trees uprooted.

The Binyan Tzion, however, argues and notes that no such prohibition is mentioned in legal sources. He adds that this apparent stringency can result in an unintended transgression, as fruit-bearing trees planted next to a synagogue could be destroyed, which is Biblically forbidden. Additionally, he maintains that even on the Temple Mount itself, any trees that may have been there prior to the building of the Beis Hamikdash or that subsequently grew on their own, need not be removed.

The Netziv also writes that we cannot create prohibitions based on our own reasoning, although he respectfully notes the opinion of Rav Akiva Eiger and is therefore unsure about the matter.

The Maharam also permits planting trees next to a synagogue, and he maintains that even according to the stringent opinion, trees that were already planted need not be removed. However, he adds that in a place where the practice of non-Jews is to plant trees next to their houses of worship, it would be forbidden to do so at a synagogue due to the separate prohibition against following the customs of the non-Jews, unless they are planted in a manner different from the practice of the non-Jews.

Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email oalport@Hamodia.com.