Monday, August 27, 2012

Maimonides (1135-1204):  Clarifying Mark 2:23-27; Usury (ouch!)

Mark 2:23-27 is the story of Jesus and his disciples eating some grain with their hands during the Sabbath day.  The Pharisees immediately criticize that this is a violation of the law.  This ruling of the Pharisees has always puzzled me, since it didn't quite seem to fit.  The original command regarding eating grain is thus:

"When you enter your neighbor's standing grain, then you may pluck the heads with your hand, but you shall not wield a sickle in your neighbor's standing grain." - Deuteronomy 23:25

Maimonides provides this explanation on the verse:

"Traditionally interpreted, this verse refers only to a hired worker.  If he was not hired, who permitted him to enter the vineyard or the grainfield of his neighbor without the latter's consent?  Hence, Scripture means to say: if you enter the owner's domain for work, you may eat." - Mishneh Torah: Civil Laws.

From this Pharisaical perspective, Jesus and his disciples could only have been in the grain field to work, but they were doing it on the Sabbath when work was forbidden.  Of course the original instruction includes: "you shall not wield a sickle", which would seem to imply that either this instruction was not given to workmen or else workmen were prohibited from using sickles.

There was an interesting note regarding the Hebrew word for interest or usury, נֶ֫שֶׁך (neshek). Maimonides makes a claim that is confirmed by my Hebrew lexicon that the word neshek also means "to bite off".  Thus, to charge someone usury is literally to take a bite out of them.

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