22. אם [Im] – What if …

The word אם [Im] means ‘if’. It is used to introduce a condition into a sentence. You use it to say that something will happen only if a predetermined condition is met. Conditions are part of everyday life and we make conditions all the time.

The word אם is particularly useful in contract law. Many contracts include conditions. The contract states that ‘If a person does X there will be fine; if a person does Y they will be entitled to compensation.” Conditions are what contracts are about.

In Jewish law a contract is only valid if a condition is written in a special format. This is known as the ‘Condition of the Sons of Gad and Reuben’. The source of this law is in the Torah. At the end of the book of Numbers the Children of Israel are just outside of the Land of Israel and are preparing to enter the land. At that point, that leaders of the tribes of Gad, Reuben, Ephraim and part of Menasha come to Moses and say to him that they do not want to cross the Jordan with their families. They wish to remain in the Transjordan; ideal territory for flocks and herds. At first Moses is appalled by this request, but the tribes assure him that they are not trying to shirk their responsibilities towards the other tribes. They promise that they will send their men into battle and continue to do so until all the other tribes have taken possession of the territories that have been allocated to them.

Eventually Moses accepts their argument. He agrees that the women and children can remain behind in the Transjordan while the men with the rest of the people of Israel. Only then, can they return to their families. The Torah says:


Moses said to them, “If you do this, if you go to battle as troops at the instance of the Lord… But if you do not do so, you will have sinned against the Lord; and know that your sin will overtake you.” [Num. 32:20-23]

Note that this is a double condition. He doesn’t say if you do X then you will get Y. Rather, he says if you do X then this is what will happen but if you do not do it, then this is what will happen. This way of spelling out a condition, which explains what will happen in all of the different circumstances, is ‘the condition of the sons of Gad and Reuben’. In Jewish law, all contracts need to be worded in this manner.

This might seem to us like a strange and superfluous requirement. It is obvious that if you do not do what you have promised you will not get anything. But the relationship between people is complicated. Any agreement is open to interpretation and reinterpretation and anyone who has worked in the courts knows how much anguish can be caused by poorly worded contracts. A contract can never be specific enough. That is the reason that it is worth taking the extra time to spell out the consequences of all the different possibilities that could develop in the future. All this from a seemingly random conversation in the Torah.

Rabbi Chaim Weiner

Adar 1, 5776

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My Hebrew Word thanks the World Zionist Organisation and Masorti Olami for their support of this Project.


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