Sometimes paying careful attention to the Talmud’s small details can reveal surprising results. In this case, repeated references to the Jewish population of the Babylonian town of Mechuza suggest the presence of seemingly innocent qualities…and devastating consequences.
One braissa teaches that (untying shoelaces or sandal straps on Shabbos) would incur the need to bring a sin offering, another braissa teaches that there is no need for a sin offering but the act is forbidden rabbinically and a third braissa teaches that one may freely untie laces…That braissa which taught that shoelace knots would incur a sin offering is referring to permanent knots made during manufacture, the braissa which taught that the act is forbidden rabbinically is referring to shoes worn by rabbis [who often remove and replace their shoes with the laces still tied] while the braissa which teaches that one may freely untie laces is referring to shoes worn by the men of Mechuza. (Shabbos 112a)
The men of Mechuza – they have broad appetites (רחבי לבב) and insist that their clothes and shoes be perfect. Thus, they tie (their shoes) tightly and must therefore untie them each evening. (Rashi)
Levi announced in Nehardea that one may wear a ‘kelila’ (a type of tiara) outside one’s house on Shabbos (without concern for the prohibition of carrying). Twenty four women subsequently went outside throughout the entire city of Nehardea. Rabba bar Avuha announced in Mechuza that a kelila was permitted and eighteen were worn outside in a single alleyway [meaning that Mechuza had far more women in possession of these extravagant ornaments than Nehardea]. (Shabbos 59b)
There are those who work hard and gain, and those who work hard and lose; those who are lazy and gain and those who are lazy and lose. Those who work hard and gain (are those) who work all week and don’t work before Shabbos (choosing to enhance the Shabbos by starting early). Those who work hard and lose (are those) who work all week and before Shabbos (not being so careful to honor Shabbos). Those who are lazy but gain (are those) who don’t work all week and take Friday off too. Those who are lazy but lose do no work all week but do work on Friday. Rava said: those women of Mechuza, even though the real reason they don’t work before Shabbos is because they are lazy – which is clear from the fact that they don’t work the rest of the week either – nevertheless, they are considered like those who are lazy but gain. (Pesachim 50b)
…Even though they didn’t (refrain from work on Friday) specifically because it is a mitzva, it is still considered a mitzva act, albeit for the wrong reason (שלא לשמה). (Rashi)
So the people of Mechuza took care to dress fashionably and enjoyed expensive jewelry. And their women were perhaps not the most energetic of housewives. But these are hardly capital crimes. Perhaps these references are incidental and are, as a pattern, of little importance.
Perhaps. But the Jews of Mechuza did seem to keep some pretty rough company:
…But heretics, informers and apikorsim who deny the Torah’s authenticity and that the dead will be revived…go down to Gehenom and are punished there for all generations…and of them Chana said (Shmuel I 2:10) “God will cut down those who fight Him.” Rabbi Yitzchak bar Avin said: “And their faces are like the (burned) bottoms of cooking pots.” And Rava said: “And they are more than the very finest of the men of Mechuza and they are to be called men of Gehenom.” (Rosh Hashanah 17a)
The men of Mechuza – they were pampered and fat. (Rashi)
On first glance, the fact that the Gemara uses the men of Mechuza in this specific context does suggest that their pampered nature somehow so corrupted their moral values that they’re in fact no better than heretics and informers. Intuitively, however, it’s hard to equate this lifestyle so closely with those crimes…and commentators to this Gemara haven’t given us any obvious philosophical rational to connect the two. So just why should self-indulgence achieve such grave status?
Here’s how the Ritva read the Gemara: the men of Mechuza lived, as we’ve seen, lives of legendary luxury. For people who knew the city’s citizens – and even for those whose only contact was through their reputation – Mechuza would evoke images of healthy, robust hedonists. If physical human perfection is to be visualized, the men of Mechuza are the perfect models.
Nevertheless, wrote the Ritva, even that physical excellence pales when placed next to the cleansing power of gehenom. Even the very worst sinners, once they’ve experienced at least some of what gehenom has to offer, will “look” better than the most pampered of this-worldly humanity. Thus, taught Rava, those already burned by the “fires” of Gehenom are, for all the burden of their sins, more perfect than the self-indulgent men of Mechuza. It’s a lesson in Gehenom’s purpose and power, rather than the guilt of luxury.
Still, at the very least, we can understand this Gemara as another characterization of the excessive materialism of Mechuza’s residents (not to mention a lesson in the relative value of this-worldly pleasures). But why should we care?
For the sin of theft, locust swarm and famine comes and men eat the flesh of their sons and daughters, as it says (Amos 4:1): “Hear this thing, you cows of Bashan of Mt. Shomron, who oppress the indigent and crush the helpless and they say to their husbands, bring and let us drink!” Rava said: (an example of the “cows of Bashan” is) those women of Mechuza who consume but don’t work and (about them) it is written (Amos 4:9) “I will smite your (crops) with blight…” (Shabbos 32b-33a)
They consume but don’t work – and thus rob their husbands and, worse, since they have come to expect and demand fine food and drink they cause their husbands to steal… (Rashi)
What is the connection between materialism and the oppression of the helpless? The Chofetz Chaim (Be’ur Halacha at the beginning of ch. 529) complains about people who
…Don’t properly consider how to manage their household expenses by avoiding excess. Many are the casualties of this corrupt behavior which, in the end, brings a man to theft and disgrace…Happy is he who stands firm, who pays no attention to these enticements and guides his household expenses in a calculated manner according to his wealth and not more.
As self-gratification grows to become a primary value in a person’s life, it’s only a matter of time before intervening obstacles (and moral principles) are pushed aside in the rush. The significance of other people’s needs – and their property rights – fades.
Then you’re only a hair’s-breadth from the edge.