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by Dr. Avigdor Bonchek


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Parashas Vayikra(66)

This week we begin the third book of the Torah, Vayikra, "the Law of the Priests" it has also been called. As its name, so its contents, it deals with the laws of the service in the Tabernacle, and eventually, the Temple. This is the charge of the Priests. Later on in the book it deals with the laws of every Jew in his status as a member of the "Kingdom of Priests" . As an example, in Parashas Kedoshim we are taught how every Jew can attain holiness though his behavior.

Let us look at one of the laws at the end of the sedra.

A puzzling comment, and one that can give us a clue to interpreting puzzling Rashi comments.

Verses 5:20 & following tell the laws of a person who is obligated to bring an guilt offering. One of the cases is the following:

Leviticus 5:24

"Or anything about which he will swear falsely, he shall pay its price and add an additional fifth to it to whom it belongs, he shall give it on the day of his guilt offering."


To whom it belongs: Rashi: To whom the money belongs.

A brief comment whose purpose is unclear and which has elicited many interpretations.

What would you ask?

Your Question:


A Question: What is Rashi adding that we didn't know before. Of course he returns the money to its owner! That is what the verse says and that is what logic would dictate.

What's bothering Rashi that he needed to make this obvious comment?

Your Answer:


Some Suggested Answers:

Several different answers have been suggested by the super-commentaries. Let us look at some of them and then see how we can best understand Rashi.

1) An answer given: "He cannot salve his conscience by donating the sum to charity or the like but he must return it to the man he defrauded." ( The Metsudah Rashi) This answer is difficult to accept. Who would ever think that a person can acquit himself of robbery by giving the stolen money to charity?! Stealing from the rich to give to the poor is fine for Robin hood, but not for Judaism ! Has not the prophet Isaiah (61:8) stated emphatically that G-d "hates robbery in sacrifices."

2) Another answer suggested : "He should not give it to a friend or a relative [of the victim]. This law is not as we find in Numbers 5:10 where it says 'a man's sacred objects shall be his...' From which we derive that the Israelite, who is obligated to give his tithing to a priest, can choose which priest to give it to. Here, however, the verse tells us that he must give the stolen money back to its owner. (Mizarchi)"

This is a strange comparison between the Israelite who is obligated to give a tithing but may choose the priest and the robber who is obligated to return the theft to the victim. The Israelite is giving his tithing to a priest, so the Torah allows him to choose his priest. But in our case, the thief is giving back the owner's own money. He certainly cannot choose to give it to someone else.

So we must search elsewhere for an answer.


To understand this we must ask a more basic question:

A Question: Why does the Torah itself (not just Rashi) tell us the obvious - that he must "give the money to whom it belongs"? To whom else would he return it? So the question we asked of Rashi is an equally valid question to ask on the Torah verse. Answering this question will help us understand Rashi.

The Torah must have used these words, emphasizing the obvious, to steer us away from a possible misunderstanding. In our efforts to understand Rashi we should arrive at a better understand of the Torah's meaning of these words.


When confronted by such a puzzling comment it is wise to see Rashi's source. (Rashi's sources can be found in Chavel's Rashi or any English translation of Rashi, Artscroll, Silbermann or Metsudah, for example.) In this case, Rashi's source can be found both in the mishnah and in the midrash Toras Cohanim.

Let us see what mishnah 9:5 in Baba Kamma says (also on page 103a of tractate Baba Kamma).

"If a man steals from his neighbor even a prutah's worth and swears (his innocence ) to him, (and then admits his guilt) he must take the money even to Medes (a distant land) He shall not give it to his son or his messenger..."

This last phrase is our clue. "He shall not give it [even] to his son," but rather to the victim himself. In his commentary to the Talmud, Rashi explains that this law derives from our verse "he shall give it to whom it belongs." So we see clearly that Rashi understood the halachic message of this verse to mean that the thief must return the stolen money to the victim and not even to his son. Now we can understand why the Torah stresses the obvious, i.e. that the money must be returned to the victim himself, because it cannot be returned even to his son, which common sense would have thought would be sufficient.

But we must understand this law. Why cannot the stolen article be returned to the man's son or to a messenger?

Can you think of an explanation?

Your Answer:


An Answer: We must bear in mind that this law of stealing (or keeping an object given as a safekeeping ) refers to a particular condition: that the man took an oath denying guilt, and only later did he confess.

The Rambam (Laws of Stealing ch. 7:9) offers an explanation for the requirement to return the theft personally to the victim and not through a messenger. He says that once the thief swore that he did not take the stolen goods, the victim gave up all hope of ever retrieving it. He saw the robber swear under oath in a court of law, which is certainly no less an awesome experience than taking a lie detector test, and nevertheless he denied all guilt. Seeing this, the victim's last thread of hope vanished, thinking that now he would never get his money back. Therefore, says the Rambam, the thief must make a special effort to return it to the man personally, to be 100% sure he receives it. Perhaps in order to shorten as much as possible the latter's distress.

I would suggest another possible answer to the question as to why the Torah stresses that the thief must personally return the money to the victim.

We see that the fact that he swore falsely is the crucial ingredient in this case. As it says at the beginning of this chapter: (5:21)

"If a person will sin and commit a trespass against Hashem and be deceitful toward his friend regarding a pledge or about a putting a hand or about robbery; or deprived his comrade. or he found a lost item and denied it - and he swore falsely about any of all the things, which man does do, to sin by them - so it shall be that he will sin and become guilty he will return the robbed item that he robbed or the proceeds of his fraud or the pledge that was left with him or the lost item that he found, or anything about which he had sworn falsely - he shall repay its capital and its fifths; he shall give it to the one to whom it belongs on the day of his guilt-offering. And he shall bring his guilt-offering to Hashem - an unblemished ram from the flock, of the value for a guilt-offering - to the priest."

His false oath has caused him to pay the additional fifth and to bring a guilt-offering. The guilt-offering is atonement for the false oath which is a sin against G-d. Now notice an unusual phrase in this verse.

"..he shall give it to whom it belongs on the day of his guilt-offering (ביום אשמתו)" What is the point of these latter words? Why is the day of his guilt-offering stressed? Why can't he bring his guilt-offering and then on the next day "he shall give it to whom it belongs." ?

An explanation may be : The law is that one may not bring a sin-offering before he has returned the money (tractate Baba Kamma 110a). Only after returning the money is the Temple offering valid. This coincides with the general laws of repentance. Man must first be forgiven by his fellowman, before G-d will forgive him. This, then, may be the reason why the Torah emphasizes that a man must return to the owner the money and not rely on someone else - a son or messenger - to do it. He must be certain that he has made full amends before ( "on the day of his guilt offering "ביום אשמתו ) he is allowed to bring his offering.


An important lesson can be learned from the above analysis. As we have explained (see "Appreciating Rashi" in the Bereishis volume), one of the basic types of Rashi-comments is what I have called the Type II comment. This is the short comment whose purpose is to help us avoid a likely misunderstanding. The above Rashi-comment is of this kind. In such cases we don't ask "What is bothering Rashi?" because there is no real difficulty in the verse. We ask, instead, "What misunderstanding is Rashi helping us avoid?" In such cases, it is important to keep in mind that the to-be-avoided interpretation should be truly a reasonable mis-interpretation and not some far-out possibility that would rarely be occur to anyone.

As we saw with some of the suggested answers above, it is hard to imagine that any student would think, for example, that the stolen money could be given to charity or to anyone whom the thief chooses. It hard to conceive that Rashi saw the need to make his comment in order to reject such unreasonable possibilities. The answer which comes from the Talmud (Rashi's source) is a likely misunderstanding, to think that the thief could fulfill his obligation by returning the money to the son of the victim; or to give it to him to pass on to this father, is a most reasonable way of repaying his debt. Therefore, Rashi had to clarify that in this particular case (once the thief had sworn falsely) it is not sufficient to repay the debt in this way.

In any Rashi-comment of the Type II kind when trying to understand what interpretation Rashi was rejecting, reasonableness must be our guide. We have not fully understood Rashi by coming up with just any possible misinterpretation; we must find a likely one. Only then we can we be confident that it was this misinterpretation that Rashi is implicitly warning us about. Rashi's thinking is always straightforward, clear and eminently reasonable. Ours must be likewise, in order to understand him.

Shabbat Shalom
Avigdor Bonchek

"What's Bothering Rashi?" is a production of "The Institute for the Study of Rashi." The 5 Volume set is available at all Jewish bookstores.

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