Shabbat 112 A Mensch Lower than Donkeys
In today’s page, while trying to resolve the question of what to do with a sandal strap that happens to snap on Shabbat, one rabbi comes up with an innovative solution to the status of a repaired sandal that breaks again. And another exclaims, “This one is not human [Aramaic bar enash]!” to be so inventive. But others interject – he is indeed human, a paragon of humanity. The Hebrew translation for a generic human is ben adam [literally “son of Adam”], and a Yiddish equivalent which has made its way into English is mensch. But a mensch is more than a person – it is what the others interjected, the highest kind of person one can be.
Nevertheless, for the devolutionist perspective of traditional rabbinic perspective, the best of today cannot hope to equal what was in centuries before. As Raba ben Zimuna said, “if the rishonim [first (scholars)] were sons of angels, we are sons of people. If they were sons of people, we are donkeys.” And not like the saintly donkeys of Rabbi Pinkhas ben Ya’ir (which refused to eat untithed grain) or Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa (which would deliver its wage back to its master, but only if the amount were exactly correct, no more and no less) – we are like all the rest of the donkeys!
I much prefer to think of the people of the past as people, no more and no less. We may be wiser in many areas of life than they were, and they experienced the natural world very differently and more immediately than we do today – I’m sure that the stars were brighter at night than in our cities and suburbs. What does that make us if they were people? Simply people too.
Rabbi Adam Chalom
Note: The Soncino Talmud translation renders “donkeys” as “asses,” but I restrained myself. . .