This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Reading Palms*

A statement in the Talmud advises against accepting deposits from minor children, since you cannot always be certain that the deposit was acquired legally, and you might inadvertently find yourself trafficking in stolen goods.

What, then, should people do if they have already accepted such articles from a minor? The rabbis proposed that they be kept in a trust fund, so that their value will be safeguarded until child reaches adulthood.

This naturally invites the question: What is considered a safe investment for this purpose? The Talmud records two different answers to the question: Rav Hisda advises that a Torah scroll be purchased with the sum, while Rabbah bar Rav Huna suggests that it be invested in a date palm.

Our initial reaction to this disagreement is to marvel at the extreme contrast between the two approaches.

While it is to be expected that a rabbi would promote the spiritual benefits of Torah study, does this suggestion really serve the practical objective of protecting the monetary value of the deposit?

On the other hand, doesn't the date palm seem like an overly narrow and arbitrary choice for a financial portfolio?

On further reflection, however, it appears that the two interpretations might not be as dissimilar as they appeared at the outset.

A Torah scroll, in addition to its infinite spiritual worth, is after all a marketable commodity with a tangible monetary value.

In our days, the prices of kosher scrolls fall in the five-digit range--which makes it difficult to visualize how such a sum would have come into the hands of a minor child. We must keep in mind, however, that scrolls must have been far more common in those pre-Gutenberg days, when the ability to produce presentable handwritten Hebrew was a requirement of basic literacy, and not an esoteric skill limited to a narrow caste of professional scribes, as is the case today. Accordingly, the necessary inks, pens and parchment could be obtained at the ancient Judean equivalent of the corner stationery shop.

Nevertheless, Rav Hisda's explanation amounts to a sensible recommendation to invest in education. As Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam) stated in his commentary to the talmudic passage, the scroll can be used repeatedly for purposes of study, without causing significant depreciation of the principle.

In this straightforward way, the purchase of a Torah scroll can be considered a sound investment for the present world, apart from the benefits it promises for the World to Come.

This is the same kind of reasoning that recommends the date-palm as a most desirable way to protect the value of a deposit.

Here too, it is helpful to understand the situation in its original historical context. In an economy devoid of stock markets or mutual funds, the range of possibilities for potential investors was limited. It might have been possible to purchase shares in trade ventures, which could produce high yields; however, these were very precarious enterprises, subject to the vagaries of storms, pirates and price fluctuations. Investment in conventional agricultural land might be safer, but still vulnerable to natural disasters; it was, at any rate, highly labour-intensive.

Compared to the alternatives, the date palm emerges as a solid, conservative investment, with reasonably high yields, low maintenance and labour requirements, and minimal depreciation. As Rashbam put it, "the tree remains intact while the fruits can be eaten."

The cultivation of dates was especially widespread in ancient Babylonia, as it continues to be in present-day Iraq. The economic advantages remain the same: In the well-irrigated network of canals between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the date palms require a small capital outlay and little upkeep.

The yields of the date palms could reach proportions that were proverbial, if not legendary. The Talmud reports for example that Rabbah and Rav Joseph once sat beneath a single date palm whose annual crop was sufficient to pay the owner's poll tax for an entire year.

As the sacred scroll of the Torah can have a monetary value, so the date palm can have spiritual significance, at least in a metaphoric sense. The Bible employs the image of the palm tree to symbolize various spiritual virtues, and the rabbis of the Midrash expanded on the precise implications of these comparisons.

For example, the Psalmist (92:13) declared that "the righteous shall flourish like the palm-tree." The rabbis noted that the comparison is apt for a number of reasons: The palm tree stands straight and smooth without superfluous protrusions, just as the path of righteousness is direct, without deviousness.

So too, the tall palm-tree casts its shade to great distances, even as the righteous perform their good works with the realization that they can expect no reward in this life, but only in the next world.

Our sages were impressed how every part of the date-palm has its use. Some can be employed for practical benefits, such as the nourishing fruit, or the leaves that can be fashioned into brooms; other parts of the tree are utilized for the fulfillment of religious precepts, such as for lulavs, or the s'khakh that covers the sukkah. In a similar manner, the virtuous person should strive to lead a life in which no deed or moment is ever wasted.

In the preceding analogy, no single part of the tree could be given exclusive credit for achieving complete efficiency; this feat was only accomplished through the combined contributions of the diverse parts.

From this fact the rabbis derived a profound insight into the religious vocation of the Jewish people. Each and every individual contributes his or her share in proportion to their distinctive skills. The organic collective has an integrity that is greater than the sum of its parts.

In their allegorical expositions, the midrashic preachers pointed out that, unlike most other trees, the palm does not branch out into multiple limbs, but rather consists of a single stalk ascending heavenward. In various ways, this feature was taken to represent the single-minded devotion of the pious, or of the idealized people of Israel: As the palm directs itself upward, so the hearts of the righteous incline constantly toward the their Creator.

The Talmud used this idea to explain why the prophetess Deborah used to hold court under "the palm tree of Deborah" (Judges 4:4): By doing so, she exemplified the lesson that, just as a palm tree has only one heart, so did Israel in her generation have only one heart, devoted to their heavenly father.

For all the benefits that are associated with the date palm, it also presents some hazards. The normal procedure for harvesting dates requires scaling the tall tree, and therefore carries with it the danger of plummeting to one's death. The ascent itself can be risky, since the tree is protected by sharp, spiked foliage.

The Jewish sages discovered in this fact an allegorical lesson about the dire fate that awaits anyone who would dare do violence to the righteous. "Just as the date-palm produces both dates and thorns, and anyone who wishes to gather the dates must deal with the thorns--so it is with those who do not treat the righteous with the appropriate deference."

In a similar adaptation of the metaphor, they inferred that any heathen nations who might attempt to assault Israel would be punished for their arrogance by being hurled ignominiously to the earth.

The relationship between the Torah scroll and the date-palm emerges as far more intricate than was evident at first. Both can be viewed as sound investment opportunities by conventional economic criteria; but each of them can also have a deep spiritual significance.

An additional perspective on the matter is provided by the Talmud's tale of the itinerant sage Ulla, who once paid a visit to the Babylonian town of Pumbedita. When he discovered how cheaply dates were being sold there, he exclaimed sardonically "A basketful of honey can be acquired for a zuz here, and yet the Babylonians do not spend more time studying Torah!"

Ulla's perspective changed that night, when his immoderate consumption of the fruit transformed itself into an excruciating stomach ache.

Now he groaned "A basketful of lethal poison can be acquired for a zuz here, and yet the Babylonians still manage to study Torah!"


This article and many others are now included in the book

Sanctified Seasons
Sanctified Seasons

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My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

 

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