Water in the Desert and Pillows for Servants

Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow

HaRav Meir ben Jacob HaKohen Schiff (1608–1644) wrote a commentary on a number of mesechtos that are commonly studied in yeshiva. The commentary, commonly referred to as the “Maharam Schiff,” is cryptic and often challenging to understand. One prevalent theory is that his manuscript was not ready for publishing. Perhaps he never had the chance to finalize it due to his short life. Others suggest that HaRav Meir Schiff intentionally wrote his commentary in a concise fashion, choosing to maximize his available time for communal endeavors. He was already serving as a rav at the tender age of seventeen! HaRav Yaakov Kamenetzky, zt”l, was invited to speak at a yahrtzeit gathering. His lecture followed an intricate Talmudic discourse. HaRav Kamenetzky noticed that one of the sources used for the discourse was from the Maharam Schiff. He lamented that, sadly, his students did not even know where to find the Maharam Schiff in the Gemara, “Is it (printed) before the Maharsha or after?” He further noted that the state of intensity in Torah learning has diminished in our generation. HaRav Kamenetzky noted that students stopped learning the Maharam Schiff “because you have to count words.” Students nowadays tend to use commentaries that are easier to read. (These remarks were recorded for prosperity by Rav Nosson Kamenetzky, zt”l, who transcribed hundreds of his father’s lectures.) The Maharam Schiff notes that there seems to be a contradiction between our Gemara in Kiddushin and a Gemara in Bava Metzia (62a). The Gemara in Bava Metzia states: “Two people were traveling, and [only] one of them had a canteen of water. [There was only enough water so that] if both of them drank they would both die, but if one of them drank [only] he would make it back to an inhabited area [and live]….” It had been assumed that they should both share the water and perish. However, Rebbe Akiva taught otherwise.

“Rebbi Akiva came and taught: ‘Your brother should live imach, with you’ (Vayikra 25:36)—your life takes precedence over the life of your friend.’” Therefore, the owner of the water keeps it for himself and saves his own life. This would appear to be at odds with our Gemara in Kiddushin (20a). The Gemara expounds the following verse: “For it is good for him imach, with you” (Devarim 15:16). An eved Ivri (Jewish slave) must be “with you,” i.e., equal to you in terms of eating and drinking. The Gemara tells us that if the master eats fine bread, he must provide his eved Ivri with bread of similar quality, and the same applies in other aspects. In conclusion, the Gemara relates the well-known saying, “From here Chazal derived that buying an eved Ivri is like buying a master for oneself.” Tosefos ask, why does the Gemara say that the eved has become his master, when, in fact, they are now on equal standing? Tosefos answer that if the master has only one pillow, the eved Ivri has priority, and the master must give the pillow to his slave, resting his own head on the ground. The Gemara therefore says that when one buys an eved, it is as if he is buying a master for himself. If possible, they are treated as equals; if not, the eved Ivri is treated better. The Maraham Shif (B.M. 62) notes that the verse quoted related to the two people traveling in the desert says “imach.” We take that to mean that you, the reader of the Torah, are more important. You keep the water that you have; you need not yield it to the other party. However, the verse regarding the eved Ivri also says “imach.” We take that to mean that you, the reader, must surrender your pillow to the other person. In the absence of equality, the eved Ivri takes precedence. This is inconsistent.

The same word should be expounded similarly in both places; either both the master of the eved Ivri and the owner of the water should keep what they have (the pillow and water, respectively) or they both should be required to surrender it. The Maharam Schiff offers three answers. The first is that really imach, with you, means that you are secondary: you must surrender what you have. However, the two Jews traveling in the desert with limited water are equal. If one would surrender his water, the recipient would be commanded to give it right back. It would be a vicious game of catch. The Torah must mean, therefore, that the owner of the water keeps it. Because understanding the word imach in the traditional way (meaning the reader is secondary) would lead to an impossible situation, we are forced to interpret the word differently. On the other hand, the verse relating to an eved Ivri is directed at the master. The owner of an eved Ivri has specific laws on how he must treat his slave. The eved Ivri, on the other hand, does not need to reciprocate, because he has no such commandments. We are therefore left with the traditional explanation of the word imach. The slave owner is treated as being secondary, and he must give the lone pillow to the eved Ivri, and that is where it stays! The Maharam Schiff asked about the contradiction between the two Gemaras cited above in five words. His answer took a whopping 32 words!  

Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow is a rebbe at Yeshiva Ateres Shimon in Far Rockaway. In addition, Rabbi Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead, NY. He can be contacted at ASebrow@gmail.com.

Share this article: