It’s not my problem…
The gemara in Bava Metsia discusses certain circumstances in which someone is exempt from the mitzvah of hashavas aveidah (returning a lost object). It lists three different situations:
- The finder is a Cohen, and the lost object is in a cemetery. As we know, Cohanim are not able to enter a place of tumah, and so they are not required to enter in order to retrieve the object.
Incidentally, the gemara provides further detail, stating two possible reasons why the Cohen is in fact exempt:
A) One might think that the Cohen should enter the cemetery and retrieve the object, in light of the principle of ‘aseh docheh lo saseh’ (i.e. where an action will fulfil a positive commandment and break a negative commandment simultaneously, one is generally allowed to proceed with the action). However, in this case, we are actually dealing with additional factors, as follows:
|Do not enter the cemetery||Enter the cemetery|
|Aseh: Keep yourself pure||Aseh: Return the lost object|
|Lo saseh: Do not become tameh||Lo saseh: Do not ignore the lost object|
This is not a simple case of a single ‘aseh‘ against a single ‘lo saseh‘, so that principle cannot be applied.
B) In any case, we have another principle that mamon (monetary matters) should not take precedence over issur (legal rules governing permitted/forbidden action). As such, the Cohen should not enter the cemetery (which is assur, forbidden) in order to retrieve the object (which is mamon).
- In retrieving and returning the lost object, the finder will incur costs greater than the value of the object. The Torah makes it clear that the loser’s money worth no more or less than the finders, and so the finder is not obligated to go to great lengths (and expense) to return the object.
- The finder is a zaken, and it is beneath his dignity to pick up the object. Where picking up and returning the object is below the dignity of the finder, then he is exempt from doing so. (There is a debate amongst the meforshim if zaken here means only a talmid chacham, or anyone over a certain age).
Beneath one’s dignity
Now, the meforshim ask an interesting question on this third category above:
Why do we have an exemption based on a person’s dignity? How can it be beneath your dignity, as after all, it is a mitzvah! Hashem commanded you to do it!
Let’s strengthen the question: The Shulchan Aruche goes to great lengths to explain how various great rabbis paused their learning, to be personally involved in the shabbos preparations:
- Rav Chisdah used to cut up vegetables.
- Rabbah and Rav Yosef would chop firewood.
- Rabbi Zeirah would light the fire.
- Rav Nachman would put away the weekday tableware and take out the shabbos tableware.
But wait a second, these are menial tasks! Isn’t it beneath these great rabbis’ dignity to be involved in such tasks, when they could be learning Torah?! The Shulchan Aruch says no: in fact, he states explicitly that it is actually a kavod for them to do so, as it is in honour of the shabbos!
So what’s the difference? By shabbos, a talmid chacham can engage in menial tasks, and that is a dignified act. But when it comes to another mitzvah in the Torah, hashvas aveida, it is suddenly beneath his dignity.
As always, there are several answers given. One answer, given by the Biur Halachah, is as follows:
- The acts of preparation that one does for shabbos are nikar (recognisable) – Anyone watching from afar can easily see that the menial tasks are for a higher purpose: for shabbos! Rav Chisdah is clearly not cutting up vegetables for the fun of it – when he does so on Friday morning, he is clearly doing it lekavod shabbos!
- By contrast, the act of hashavas aveidah is not so nikar. When the finder bends down and pick up a lost wallet in the street, it is not entirely clear that he is doing a mitzvah at that time. We cannot see that inside his mind, he is thinking about the mitzvah of hashavas aveidah.
Chizuk for the workplace
We go about our daily chores and tasks in the workplace. It is not clear externally whether these are for a holy purpose or not. Only us and Hashem can really know what our true intentions are inside our heart.
However, just like hashavas aveidah, we can do the most mundane of acts, but when we do it with the correct intention, that is a lofty mitzvah that deserves its place amongst the 613 mitzvos.