Parshat Mishpatim: “You shall surely return it to him”

Parshat Mishpatim: “You shall surely return it to him”

Rabbanit Billy Rabenstein is the Rosh Beit Midrash for the Israeli programs at Midreshet Lindenbaum

“You shall surely return it to him” (Exodus 23:3)

Parashat Mishpatim is packed with commandments tied to the finer details of our everyday lives. Some of those commandments concern our interaction with others, while others involve our relationship with Hashem. Some establish a basic ethical requirement, while others set a much higher and loftier level of morality for us to achieve.

It is in this framework that I’ll relate  to the commandment to return another person’s lost belongings: “When you encounter your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering, you must take it back to him”[1]. These words form the biblical underpinning for the commandments concerning returning lost items to their owners, which are listed in the second chapter of Tractate Baba Metziah, in the chapter entitled “These are the Found Objects”. Among the cases discussed in this tractate of this chapter of the Jerusalem Talmud is the legend of the King of Katzia. This story appears in the Jerusalem Talmud after a description of a series of cases in which Jews returned lost items to their gentile owners[2].  All the stories end with the gentiles’ fascination with the ways of the people of Israel, exclaiming brich elaha deyehuda’ei – Blessed may He be, the God of the Jews. After the Gemara describes how amazed the gentiles were with the Jewish people’s high morality, it tells us that far away, beyond the horizon, another gentile culture, morally superior to our own, is thriving. On the face of it, Katziah is a utopian kingdom, somewhere at the edge of the world, and its culture is uniquely different[3]:

Alexander the Great approached the King of Katziah.
The king showed him a hoard of gold and silver.
Alexander the Great said to him: “I have no need for your gold, or your money,
No, I have only come here to learn of your ways,
How do you engage in negotiation? How do you adjudicate matters?”
While they were conversing, another man came with his fellow man to have their case tried,
[The man] had bought a junkyard from his friend, containing a trash heap, and had found a clutch of dinars in the heap.
The buyer said: I bought the junkyard! I did not buy the treasure.
The seller said: You bought the junkyard, and all it contains!
While they were deliberating,
The king said to one of them: “Have you a son?”
“Yes”, replied the man.
“Have you a daughter?” he asked the other.
“Yes”, replied the man.
He said to them: “Marry them, and you shall both share the treasure!”
He saw that Alexander was chuckling.
[The king] asked him: “Why do you chuckle? Haven’t I adjudicated the case well?
Had this case been presented in your court, how would you have adjudicated it?”, he asked.
Alexander replied: “We would have killed them both and taken the treasure to the king’s treasury!”
[The king] said: “Do you love gold that much?”
He made him a feast and served him beef and hens made of gold.
Alexander asked him: “Am I to eat gold, then?”
[The king] replied: “May you be cursed! For you do not eat gold, so why do you love it so much?”
“Does the sun shine down on you?”
“Yes”, replied Alexander.
“Does the rain fall?”
“Do you have small cattle?”, asked the king.
“Yes”, replied Alexander.
[The king] replied: “May you be cursed!
Your life depends on those small animals, as it is written: “God shall bring salvation to man and beast”.

The chapter of “These are the lost objects” sets out the rights and obligations of one who has found a lost object. On the one hand, we are duty-bound to return a lost object to its owner. On the other hand, our sages teach us that if the object can’t be returned, the finder may keep the object. It is at this point that the notions of signs and the “owner’s desperation” come into play. The story recounted in the Jerusalem Talmud fundamentally rejects both these options. On the one hand, the behavior of someone who has found a lost item and wishes to keep it strikes us as rather odd. Why? You didn’t buy this item, did you? If not, why would you want to keep something that doesn’t belong to you? On the other hand, the one who lost the item and decides to comb the area to recover it is also harshly criticized. “Why don’t you ease up? Why is this property so important to do?”

The view taken by the inhabitants of Katziah implies an intense dedication to Hashem. They believe that Hashem will fulfill their every need, and that they have no need for anything other than what Hashem provides them. Furthermore, if something is taken from them, they probably didn’t need it to begin with. These things tie into what the king said at the end of the story, regarding the rainfall. The King of Katziah is awestruck that rain falls in Alexander’s kingdom. Something about Alexander’s behavior jars with how he perceives the possibility of blessings of rain. According to the King of Katziah, rain only falls on those who raise their gaze to God, who brings rainfall to those who need it, to those who place their hopes in Hashem, and are confident that Hashem will open His hands and fulfill their every need. The animals place their hopes in Hashem, and accordingly, they get everything they need from Him. Humans, according to the King of Katziah, are sinning in two ways by hounding their possessions. First, they state that what they truly need is gold, and if so, they have no need for rain. Second, they indicate that because of their greed, they can fulfill their needs on their own. If this is the case, Hashem will not share His treasures with them.

We are staggered by the King of Katzia’s character, wisdom and morality. He puts up a challenging mirror for learners to peer at: I, who wish to keep a lost item that isn’t mine, I, who am tirelessly looking for something I lost, do I owe my livelihood to that “thin animal”? This story challenges and even criticizes the halachic part of the issue. It sets a moral benchmark that is far higher than the benchmark set by Jewish law. The halachot regarding the return of lost objects tried to set a framework to reign in people’s lust for property, though stopping short of banning it altogether. There are no temptations in Katziah, though. There is no greed. People are happy with their lot in life, and accept their God.

According to this reading, this is the reason that the Jerusalem Talmud includes the story of the King of Katziah in its discussion of the halachot concerning returning lost objects: to set the highest possible moral and ethical benchmark. The Talmud doesn’t suffice with merely establishing a legal framework to regulate monetary interactions between people. In addition, it would also like to set another goal, which is an even greater social challenge: to create a world in which no one lusts for property, a world without jealousy or competition. The halacha sets a minimum threshold that we must never fail to achieve. The Aggadah sets a moral threshold ascending high into the heavens, which we should strive to achieve.

There is another way to interpret this story. I believe that while the inhabitants of Katziah represent an awe-inspiring perception of morality, ultimately, they, too, are like Alexander, inasmuch as they represent a worldview that isn’t human. Alexander comes across as a monster for being so eager to kill a human being just to be able to keep that person’s treasure, but the inhabitants of Katziah, too, who have lost all interest in property, have fallen out of touch with human nature. Humanity means having weaknesses and desires, but it also means we observe the command of “not lusting”. None of these exist in the Kingdom of Katziah.

Could it be that the Jerusalem Talmud wedges this story between other halachic issues in order to establish the status of the halachot, which ostensibly caves to human weaknesses? Could it be that the Jerusalem Talmud wishes to argue that the altruism of the inhabitants of Katziah isn’t a Jewish quality? That it is characteristic of some other realm? The Jew, who connects heaven and Earth, finds room for the Earth as well. Even when he touches the heavens, his feet are firmly rooted in the ground. Therefore, the cultural gap illustrated in this story isn’t about the contrast between idyllic harmony and cold separation[4]. The gap will be between setting an ideal that negates human weaknesses and setting one that tolerates them, using that environment to engender morality.






[1]Exodus 23:3, and in the equivalent passages in Deuteronomy 22:1-3.

[2]For more on the halachic question of returning a lost object to a gentile, please see Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, Laws of Theft and Lost objects, Chapter 11, Section 5, verses 1-5.

[3]For more on the relationship between Halacha and Aggadah, please refer to Rabbi Yisrael Porat’s article, “The Halacha wears us down, and the Aggadah is meticulous”, in the introduction to Tractate Sanhedrin, Volume 5, published by Gavriel Porat.

[4]As Kosman suggests in his literary analysis of this story. For more, see Admiel Kosman’s new review of the Aggadic story of Alexander the Great’s journey to Katziah, in Sidrah, Volume 18 (5763).

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