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Jewish Thinking

Shakespeare Never Really Studied Torah….

Published on Wednesday April 8th, 2020

More than four hundred years have gone by since William Shakespeare created Shylock, the protagonist of the Merchant of Venice. Shylock is portrayed as a Jew who loaned money to the Christian, Antonio. This anti-Semitic play, although imaginary, has become a symbol of the blood and money sucking Jew in the eyes of anti-semitic gentiles.

For several hundred years, this play has set off innumerable reactions from anti-Semites, who have sided with Shakespeare, as well as opposition from Jews who wanted to protect the truth against the lie surrounding the awesome Shakespeare.

Both schools (for and against) failed to touch upon the internal dimension of these developments!

But one person who touched the heart of the story, and who managed to prove that this play was "distorted" is a Talmid Hacham (scholar), who asked a simple question: how does Jewish law view the contract signed between Shylock, the Jew, and Antonio, the Christian?

The answer is in the Parshah of Mishpatim (Chumash Shemot). It leads to the conclusion that the Christians, and not Shylock, the Jew, should have been dragged through the mud by these accusations.

Before describing the halachic details, let us go over the events:

In the city of Venice, the Jew, Shylock loaned the Christian, Antonio 3000 ducats for a period of three months. Both men signed a contract stating that if Antonio failed to repay the loan on time, the lender would have the right to cut off a pound of the borrower's flesh.

During the period leading to the loan’s deadline, the Christian loses all his fortune, and once the due date arrives, he does not have enough money to reimburse Shylock. Meanwhile, Christians are attacking Shylock, and on the day of the trial, Shylock is overcome by bitterness and decides to stubbornly abide by the terms of the contract: cut off a pound of Antonio's flesh.

Defense lawyers argue that the contract is not applicable because it is impossible to cut exactly one pound of flesh. The judge decides that although Shylock is allowed to cut a pound of Antonio's flesh if it turns out that he cut more or less than a pound of flesh, he will be sentenced to death.

In a longer halachic text, Rav Zavin zatzal analyzes the agreement between Shylock and Antonio. The key question is: how would a Jewish Beit Din (rabbinical court) have reacted if Shylock had submitted his request before them? From a halachic point of view, was the contract signed between Shylock and Antonio valid?

To answer this question, Rav Zavin lays the following foundation: the life force of the human body is not man’s private property and thus, it is impossible to sell or mortgage any limbs of the human body. "It is as if a man acquires something that cannot belong to him, and this acquisition has no effect. (Leor Hahalacha, Shylock's trial) He proves this foundation via a number of arguments.

The conclusion reached is that human organs are not at man’s disposal, and he does not have the prerogative to use them in a bargain.


The author concludes: "To date, the works of Shakespeare in general, and The Merchant of Venice in particular, are considered to portray not only individuals but characters and prototypes. Indeed, Shylock’s character, as reflected in the narrative, has become a typical portrait of the Jew, amid the enemies of Israel.

But everyone ignores one point: the Venetian court recognized the validity of the contract in which Antonio pledged to allow Shylock to cut off a pound of flesh from his body. While, from a halachic point of view, the contract would have been null and void from the start!

Shakespeare created an absurd play, which contradicts itself: he accuses the "Jew" of a crime, while the expiry of this gruesome contract rests on an accusation derived solely from non-Jewish laws! From the point of view of Jewish law, this play is null and void.  Shakespeare, although considered a genius by the nations, never studied Torah!

The Torah-Box Team - © Torah-Box Account

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