Sefer ha-She'iltot

The first halakhic code.

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"It is forbidden for Jews to rob or steal from one another; indeed the punishment for these transgressions is more severe than for [violations of] all [other] prohibitions. Thus we find in the case of the generation of the Flood that their doom was sealed only on account of robbery. As R. Eleazar said: "Come and see how severe is the effect of lawlessness (hamas), for the generation of the Flood was guilty of every transgression, but their doom was sealed only on account of hamas, as it is said, 'For the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them; I am about to destroy them with the earth.'"

After some aggadic reflections, the she'ilta goes on to discuss the substance of the laws of robbery and theft.

Similarly, an extensive discussion of the law of betrothal and marriage, particularly betrothal through an agent, is presented in she'iltot 16 and 17 in connection with Genesis 24, which tells of the marriage of Isaac and the appointment of Abraham's servant, Eliezer, as agent to betroth a wife for Isaac.

Likewise, the laws of bailees, for which the source is Exodus 22:6, are discussed in she'ilta 20 on Genesis 29: 15, which tells of the entrustment of Laban's flocks to Jacob. The laws of suretyship are presented in she'ilta 33 in connection with the story of Judah's undertaking to Jacob to be surety for Benjamin's safety, in which Judah said: "I myself will be surety for him; you may hold me responsible." The beginning of this she'ilta has an ethical-aggadic flavor:

"The House of Israel are duty bound to have compassion one for another. Whoever needs sustenance should be sustained, and whoever needs a loan should be granted it. If one grants a loan guaranteed by a surety, he should claim in the first instance not against the surety but against the debtor; only if the debtor does not repay should he proceed against the surety."

Unique Structure

The structure of the she'iltot is also unique. A complete she'ilta consists of four parts. The first is a kind of general introduction to the central halakhic subject to be discussed. This part reviews the ethical-religious value involved, together with pertinent halakhic material. The second part sets forth a pertinent halakhic problem opening (in Aramaic) with "But you must learn."

The third part is the discourse, opening with "Blessed be the Name of the Holy One, blessed be He, who has bestowed upon us Torah and commandments through Moses, our teacher, in order to teach His people, the House of Israel." In this part, the subject is discussed at length in full detail, heavily spiced with halakhic and aggadic sources. The fourth part gives the answer to the specific halakhic problem initially posed, and opens: "And as to the query we posed to you" (a convention of humility -- the accurate introductory formula would be "as to the question that you asked me").

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Menachem Elon

Justice Menachem Elon has had a long and distinguished career as a legal scholar. He is a retired professor of Jewish Law at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and a prolific author on Jewish Law. In 1977 Justice Elon was appointed to the Supreme Court of Israel and served as its Deputy President from 1988 until 1993. He lives in Jerusalem.