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Thought for the Day: Why Stealing An Animal for a Korban Doesn't Work, But Conversion Does

Some days you just know they just checked off on item on that great Task List in the Sky of things you are supposed to accomplish in this world.  I've had a question for years, going back to my emergence from the mikvah on Aug 7, 1990.  There is a mitzvas asei m'di'oraisah to convert.  We learn many of its halachos from Rus, many others from klal yisrael as they prepared to accept the Torah at Har Sinai.  My question has been: exactly who can fulfill that mitzvah?  The goy entering the mikvah can't, because... well, he's a goy!  The Jew emerging from the mikvah can't, because... well, he's already Jewish!  This morning, HaShem explained it to me.

I sat down across from my chavrusa and said (as as I usually do), "I wonder what HaShem wants to reveal to us today."  I heard once that davening is talking to HaShem and learning is HaShem talking to you; I find it a lot easier to pay attention when He's doing the talking, actually.  We opened our gemaras to find ourselves poised to tackle a tosafos (Bava Kama 67a, d.h. amar ulla, mi'nayin l'yi'ush sh'eino koneh) that started half way down the daf and continued most of the way down the next.  Not for the faint of heart.

The gemara quotes Ulla as asking, "from where do we know that the owner's despair of ever seeing his item again [aka, yi'ush] does not transfer ownership to the theif?"  Says Rabeinu Tam, one can infer from here that Ulla holds that yi'ush alone is not enough to allow the robber to acquire.  (That made me uneasy, because it sure seems to me that Ulla is saying that straight out, I don't need to infer anything!  Obviously Rabeinu Tam has something up his sleeve.)  Rabeinu Tam pulls another gemara out of his sleeve, Gittin 55a, where Ulla explains that a stolen animal that is sanctified as a korban is not effective in securing a kapara, because it is a mitzvah ha'ba b'aveira -- a mitzvah that was executed with the help of a forbidden act (stealing the animal).  Hang on, exclaims Rabeinu Tam: Ulla is telling us that except for that technicality, the korban would have worked.  But that means that animal belonged to the theif (you can't sanctify some one else's stuff ) and it must have been after yi'ush (since before yi'ush that is not basis whatsoever for a property transfer), and so ... drum roll please ... one can infer from that gemara that Ulla holds that yi'ush does effect a property transfer.  How do we resolve this apparent contradiction?

Both Rabeinu Tam and the R"i conclude that Ulla holds that yi'ush alone does not work to transfer ownership except in one case.  The disagree, of course, as to what that one case is.  Rabeinu Tam says that if the action is intended for a mitzvah, then the Torah grants a leniency to transfer the ownership.  The R"i says the reason for the leniency is because the action changes the categorization of the object; before it was chullin (ordinary meat on the hoof), now it is hekdesh (holy cow, as it were).

So according to Rabeinu Tam, the Torah grants the goy the opportunity to do a mitzvah because the action he wants to perform is specifically to gain the opportunity to do mitzvos.  According to the R"i, the Torah grants the goy the ability to do a mitzvah because the action will change his category from goy to Jew.

I can hardly wait to see what the Creator of the world has to say to me tomorrow!


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