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Friday, July 29, 2016

Wine in, Secrets Out — BT Sanhedrin 38a — #47

Yehudah and Chizkiyah, the sons of R. Chiyya, were sitting and eating with Rabbi but did not say anything. [Rabbi] said to [his servants], “Overpower them with strong wine so they will say something.” When they became intoxicated, they began to speak, “The son of David [i.e., the messiah] will not come until the two ruling houses of Israel end, and they are: the Exilarch [in Babylonia] and the Patriarchate in the Land of Israel, as it is said, He shall be for a sanctuary, a stone that men strike against: a rock men stumble over for the two Houses of Israel… (Isaiah 8:14).” Thereupon Rabbi said to them, “My children, [would] you cast thorns in my eyes?!” R. Chiyya said to him, “Master, let this not be bad in your eyes. The letters of ‘wine’ (יין) [sum to] seventy and [so too] the letters of ‘secret’ (סוד). When wine goes in, secrets come out.”

Talmud tells the story of an awkward situation at a dinner party. The general discussion preceding this story is inspired by Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5, which gives instructions on admonishing witnesses in capital cases in order to dissuade them from giving false testimony. The mishnah includes a homily on the value of every human life, since witnesses may hold the life of a human being in their hands. Reference is made to Abel, who is murdered by his brother, Cain. In the Torah, God says to Cain,“The bloods of your brother cry out to Me!” (Genesis 4:10). Why is “bloods” plural? The mishnah cleverly interprets that murder deprives the world not only of the person killed, but of all their descendants, as well. In the Gemara's discussion that follows this  mishnah, R. Yehudah, the son of R. Chiyya, says that after receiving Abel’s blood, the earth never opened up again. His brother, Chizkiyah, challenges  his claim, citing Korach and his minions. R. Yehudah responds with two comments about the atoning quality of exile (because Cain is exiled for murdering his brother). A supplementary view is offered by R. Yochanan, who cites verses demonstrating that King Jehoiachin, who sat “on the throne of David,” was childless until he went into exile, where he fathered Shealtiel, whose son Zerubbabel was the governor of the Jewish community that returned from Babylonian exile sometime between 538 and 520 B.C.E. Hence, exile atoned for his sins.

Thus, leading up to Talmud’s story of the strange dinner party conversation, Talmud has recounted several opinions expressed by R. Chiyya’s sons, mention has been made of the throne of David, and the effects of exile have been discussed. These all come together when wine does what it normally does: reduces inhibitions and loosens the tongue.

R. Chiyya and his sons are dinner guests at the home of R. Yehudah ha-Nasi, the patriarch of the Jewish community in the Land of Israel. The Temple has been destroyed and much of the Jewish community is in Exile. The country has been decimated by wars with Rome and its population is largely impoverished. R. Yehudah ha-Nasi is the Nasi (“prince,” or president) of the Sanhedrin, a position reserved for members of his “household” (i.e., bloodline), who are presumed to be direct descendants of Hillel. In Babylonia, the Resh Galuta, who is presumed to be a descendant of King Jehoiachin, and therefore also of King David, is the leader of the Jewish community. The Nasi and the Resh Galuta are the political leaders of their communities, representing them to the Roman and Babylonian governments respectively.

Rabbi seems disappointed that R.  Chiyya’s sons say nothing. In a move best entitled, “Be careful what you ask for,” R. Yehudah ha-Nasi orders his servants to give R. Chiyya’s sons strong wine to  loosen their tongues. Unsurprisingly, the ploy is effective, but what they say is devastating. They say that messiah will not come until the two ruling houses of Israel—R. Yehudah ha-Nasi’s own family in the Land of Israel, and the Resh Galuta in Babylonia—cease to exist. What is more, they quote a verse from Isaiah that, in context, says that God will be a sanctuary for those who are loyal to God, but a stumbling block to those who, among the “two houses of Israel” (referring to the Northern and Southern kingdoms of Isaiah’s day) are not. When R. Chiyya’s sons quote Isaiah 8:14, they mean to communicate that the “two houses of Israel”—the Patriarchate and the Resh Galuta—are a stumbling block to the coming of the messiah. Predictably, R. Yehudah is aghast that they would think such a thing, let alone say so at his table.

R. Chiyya seeks to smooth over the awkward situation by pointing out that the numerical values of the words “wine” and “secret” are identical, suggesting that “when wine goes in, secrets come out.” However, R. Chiyya’s excursion into Gematria is not the same as a disavowal of what his sons have said. Rather, it is a distraction.


  1. There are several ways to understand what R. Chiyya’s sons are saying: They might mean that when the messiah comes, the two ruling families will no longer be necessary. Or, they might mean that the messiah will not come until the two ruling families are no longer in power. In either case, it seems a wry comment on human political enterprises. Which do you think is intended and why?
  2. Have you ever inadvertently (perhaps when intoxicated) said something you later regretted? Were you able to smooth over the situation and make peace?
  3. Some people have sent tweets or posted pictures on the internet that have been misinterpreted and cost them their reputations and jobs. What precautions can you take to insure that inappropriate pictures and material about you do not end up on the internet?

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Return Receipt Requested?—JT Baba Metzia 2:5 (7a)—#46

Shimon b. Shetach was employed in flax [to support himself]. His students said to him, “Rabbi, lessen your workload. We will buy you a donkey and you will not have to work as much.” They went and bought him a donkey from a Saracen [Arab]. A pearl was hanging on it. They came to him and said, “From now on you will not have to work.” He said to them, “Why?” They told him, “We bought you a donkey from a Saracen and hanging on it was a pearl.” He said to them, “Did its owner know about [the pearl]?” They said to him, “No.” He said to them, “Go and return it.”

Our story comes from the Jerusalem Talmud (also known as the Talmud of Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel), which was completed some time around the year 400 C.E., two centuries earlier than its Babylonian cousin. The Yerushalmi, as it is known, is considerably shorter than the Bavli (the Babylonian Talmud) and has a very different flavor. It contains more narratives and far fewer lengthy, technical discussions and arguments. It follows the same Mishnah, though there are some small variations in the text and the order of material. As we would expect, the Yerushalmi reflects the culture of Eretz Yisrael during the period 200 C.E. (when the Mishnah was completed) through 400 C.E., while the Bavli reflects the culture of Babylonia.

Torah establishes the obligation of hashavat aveidah (returning lost articles) in Deuteronomy 22:1-4. The Babylonian Talmud discusses, at great length, when we are obligated to locate the owner—primarily, if there are identifying marks on the object, such as a wallet with ID—and when we are not, such as scattered dollar bills in the park with no clue as to the owner. Since the scattered bills have no distinguishing mark (siman) to identify them, the owner is presumed to have given up hope (ye’ush) of recovering them. The money therefore becomes ownerless (hefker). However, if we find twenty $10 bills rolled up and secured with a red rubber band, that is an item that is considered to have a simon because the owner can accurately describe it so that the finder recognizes it from the description. There is no ye’ush in this case; the owner certainly hopes to recover the lost money. We are to understand that the pearl hanging around the donkey’s neck has no distinctive characteristics, and hence R. Shimon b. Shetach is technically not obligated to return it.

Shimon b. Shetach’s students want to ease his work burden so he can devote more of his time to Torah study. Toward that end, they buy him the latest work-saving appliance: a donkey. The seller sold them the donkey with a valuable pearl hanging around the animal’s neck that he didn’t notice. The gem was not intended to be part of the sale. When the students present the donkey to Shimon b. Shetach, they are clearly very pleased with themselves. They tell him that his days of hard work are over. He asks why, and they explain that not only is R. Shimon now the proud owner of a late model donkey, but the pearl around its neck is worth a great deal of money. R. Shimon could cash in the pearl and virtually retire on the proceeds. R. Shimon asks them curtly, “Does the seller know about this pearl?” meaning: Did he intend to include it in the deal? They say no. R. Shimon thereupon instructs them to return the pearl to the seller because it is not rightfully his.

But is this the case? The owner placed the pearl around the animal’s neck and sold it that way. Strictly speaking, he sold the animal “as is” — and that would include the pearl. 

But R. Shimon b. Shetach is not satisfied with fulfilling merely the letter of the law. He insists upon lifnim mi-shurat ha-din, going beyond the letter of law. I would imagine he thought to himself: “Did the owner of the donkey intend to include the pearl in the bargain? Certainly not. My students could claim it was sloppy of him and his tough luck, but morally, that would be callous. After all, who hasn’t felt less than 100% and made careless mistakes, or overlooked something when distracted? The owner surely intended to sell only the donkey, and that is all I have a right to.”

Another interesting aspect of this story is revealed by comparing it with another version found in midrash Bereishit Rabbah 3:3. In this version, R. Shimon himself purchases the donkey from an Arab, unaware of the gem hanging around the animal’s neck. His students discover it and quote Proverbs 10:22 to him: It is the blessing of God that enriches: You hit the jackpot! He rejects their assumption that it is God’s will that he possess the gem, explaining that he bought only the donkey, but not the gem. When he returns it, the grateful seller exclaims, “Blessed is the God of Shimon b. Shetach.” The midrash comments: “Thus from the faithfulness of a human being we learn the faithfulness of God, who is faithful to pay Israel the reward for the mitzvot that they do” — suggesting that R. Shimon will be rewarded for doing the right thing, if not in this life, then in the world-to-come.


  1. Have you ever found a valuable object? What did you do to find the owner?
  2. Would you have acted as R Shimon did? Would your decision differ if the pearl were worth $500 or $5,000? Would your decision differ depending upon who the seller was? Whether the seller was rich or poor? Whether the seller was a friend or stranger?
  3. Do you think that R. Shimon b. Shetach’s decision was, at least in part, in response to his realization that his students knew at the time they purchased the donkey that they were taking possession of a pearl they had not agreed to purchase?

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Compassion or Honesty? — BT Chullin 94b (part 2) — #45

Mar Zutra, the son of Rav Nachman, was traveling from Sikara to Bei Machuza, and Rava and Rav Safra were coming to Sikara. They met each other on the road. Mar Zutra thought that they were coming to greet him [in order to show him honor]. [Mar Zutra] said to them, “Why was it necessary for the rabbis to trouble themselves and come so far?” Rav Safra said to him, “We did not know that the master was coming, but had we known we would have troubled ourselves even more.” Rava said to Rav Safra [later in private], “Why did you tell him and dishearten him?” Rav Safra said to Rava, “But we would be misleading him!” Rava replied, “It is he who misleads himself. We are not required to correct him.”


In the previous edition of TMT (“Fraud Without Money,” #44), R. Meir provided examples of acts that would constitute genivat da’at (“theft of the mind”)— fraud or deception that is committed with words rather than money.  R. Meir’s examples entail the sorts of things people might easily do to give others the impression that they are revered and respected more than they truly are. We might well think: What’s wrong with that? How can it be bad to make someone feel good about themselves? What is the harm in appearing to accord them more honor than you actually feel and would accord them if your actions honestly reflected your feelings?  The Rabbis are not at all insensitive to this point, but believe that honest relationships are more important even than making another person feel valued and important. 

Torah forbids stealing, and while some commentators derive the prohibition against genivat da’at from “You shall not steal,” in reality it is rabbinic in origin. Tosefta (Baba Kamma 7:8) tells us it is, “the first among all” the forms of theft, probably meaning the most common type.

Before diving into our narrative, it helps to learn a bit about the protagonist of our story. In another tractate of the Talmud, Makkot 24a, we are told that Rav Safra was entirely honest, exemplifying Psalm 15:2 dover emet bi’levavo (“speaking truth in his heart”). On this basis, a later gaonic volume (She’iltot of Rav Acha #36), tells this story: Once Rav Safra was engaged in reciting Shema when a wealthy customer entered the room and offered a certain sum to purchase something from Rav Safra. Rav Safra continued praying the Shema. Since he did not respond to the man’s offer, the man thought Rav Safra was rejecting this offer and raised it. It may be that this happened several times; the account is not entirely clear on this point. When Rav Safra completed the Shema, he told the man that in the moment the man made his initial offer, Rav Safra decided in his mind to accept his terms. Therefore, he could not now accept the subsequent higher offers because doing so would be deceitful rather than truthful. (A similar story is told of Dama ben Netina in the Jerusalem Talmud.)


This week’s passage tells the story of two sages (Rav Safra and Rava) who meet a third sage (Mar Zutra) along the road. Mar Zutra incorrectly presumes that other two came out especially to meet him in order to show him great honor. As a result of Mar Zutra’s erroneous assumption, Rav Safra and Rava have the opportunity to allow Mar Zutra  to give them credit for something that is not true. All Rav Safra and Rava need to do is say nothing—which seems to be precisely what Rava intends to do. Rav Safra, however, tells the truth.

Rava, we are told, had planned to remain silent in the face of Mar Zutra’s erroneous assumption. Rava does not want to hurt Mar Zutra’s feelings. He reasons that he has not intentionally caused the misunderstanding, and correcting it would cause Mar Zutra emotional pain. For Rava, as for Rav Safra, this is a moral decision, not merely an opportunity to benefit from the misunderstanding by appearing to have (unintentionally) accorded Mar Zutra honor, which could be reciprocated—if the potential benefit even occurred to Rava. Rav Safra reasons that while it will be (at least potentially) painful to Mar Zutra to learn the truth, misleading him would be worse.


  1. A midrash in Bereishit Rabbah 8:5 tells us that in order to create humanity, God found it necessary to cast truth aside: “R. Shimon said: “When God sought to create humanity, the angels were divided, some favoring their creation and others opposing it, as it says, Compassion (chesed) and truth (emet) came together, while righteousness (tzedek) and peace (shalom) kissed” (Psalms 85:11). Compassion favored their creation, saying that people would be completely compassionate. But Truth opposed their creation because people would be an inveterate liars. Righteousness favored their creation because people would perform righteous deeds, but Peace opposed their creation because people would argue. What did God do? God cast Truth away, as it says (You) cast the truth to the ground (Daniel 8:12). At this, the angels declared, “You have shamed Your Own seal, which is Truth. Please raise it up,” as it says, Truth will arise from the earth” (Psalms 85:12). Having cast Truth aside, God created humanity. What do you think the Rabbis had in mind concerning human honesty and dishonesty in telling this midrash?
  2. Our story ends with Rava’s statement that had Rav Safra not told the entire truth, Mar Zutra could think what he chose, and he would have deceived himself—suggesting that they would not be guilty of deception. Do you agree? Why or why not? What would you have done? Why?
  3. Sforno (Vayikra 25:17) says that genivat da’at derives not from the prohibition against theft, but rather from the prohibition against ona’at devarim (causing distress or oppression through words). What are the implications of categorizing deception as theft or as oppression? Does one category seems more appropriate to you? Why?

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Fraud without Money — BT Chullin 94a — #44

It was taught [in a baraita]: R. Meir used to say: One should not urge a friend to dine with him when he knows that his friend will not do so. One should not offer another many gifts when he knows that his friend will not accept them. One should not open [for a guest] casks of wine which one has arranged to sell to a shopkeeper, unless he informs [the guest] of it. And he should not invite [a guest] to anoint himself with oil if the jar is empty. If, however, the purpose is to show the guest great respect, it is permitted. But surely this cannot be right. For Ulla once came to Rav Yehudah’s house and [Rav Yehudah] opened up casks for him that were later to be sold by the shopkeeper! He must have informed him of this fact. Or if you wish, I can say that the case of Ulla is different, for he was so dear to Rav Yehudah that he would have opened for him even those [casks] that were not [to be sold by the shopkeeper].


The context for this account is a mishnah that teaches honesty and transparency: “One may send a Gentile a thigh [of an animal] which still contains the sciatic nerve because its place is known.” Lying behind the mishnah is the concern that the Gentile might give or sell the thigh to a Jew, for whom the gid ha-naseh (the sciatic nerve) is forbidden (Genesis 32:33 connects the prohibition  to the account of Jacob wrestling with the angel). The mishnah tells us we don’t need not be concerned because the sciatic nerve is easily visible—there will be no fraud in the exchange. However, the Gemara will say, if the thigh is cut into pieces, it may not be given to the Gentile because that would constitute genivat da’at (fraud, lit. “theft of the mind”) and, according to Shmuel on this same page of Talmud, “It is forbidden to deceive anyone, whether Jew or non-Jew.” I don’t know much about cuts of meat—since I don’t eat meat—but it appears that once the thigh is cut into pieces it is no longer easy to see whether the gid ha-naseh is present or not. 

Genivat da’at is not simply lying, though it is certainly a form of falsehood. It is fraud and deception in the realm of image and reputation. This is the subject of R. Meir’s teaching. Specifically, he summons examples of things people do for the sake of appearance in order to influence others’ opinion of them, to create a false impression, and to solicit the goodwill of others. Is this honest? Is this permissible? R. Meir tells us it is genivat da’at.


R. Meir offers several examples of deceptions that come under the rubric of genivat da’at. His examples involve emotions, manipulation of relationships, and reputation—not money. The first example is that you should not urge someone to come to dinner if you know before you extend the invitation that they will not come. Second, if you send someone numerous gifts that will be returned, is the generosity genuine, or is it an attempt to promote one’s self image at no real cost? R. Meir’s third example concerns opening a cask of wine. A cask holds a lot of wine—far more than people would consume at one meal. Often, one would arrange ahead of time to sell the leftover wine to a shopkeeper; otherwise it was likely to turn sour in short order. To open a cask of wine for a guest without having made an arrangement with a shopkeeper would connote great honor to the guest due to one’s willingness to devote the entire cask to the one meal. Appearing to do so—when in reality one has made an arrangement to sell the leftover wine—is a deception. Hence, if the host is honest with the guest about arrangements made with a shopkeeper, there is no deception. Fourth, inviting a guest to anoint himself with oil is much like the duplicitous dinner invitation: the host knows the guest will decline, so the invitation is not genuine. 

Each of the cases cited by R. Meir involves soliciting the goodwill of someone on the basis of deception. But is every situation open and shut?

The Gemara responds to R. Meir’s examples by saying that if the intention of the host is to honor the guest, then these ruses are permissible, even if seemingly fraudulent. An objection is raised: This is precisely what Rav Yehudah did when Ulla was a guest in his home. Rav Yehudah opened a cask of wine for him—wasn’t that a deception? The Gemara replies with two plausible explanations: (1) Rav Yehudah must have informed Ulla of the arrangement he had made with a shopkeeper to purchase the leftover wine; hence it was not genivat da’at; or (2) possibly Rav Yehudah opened the cask of wine solely for Ulla because they were such close friends. In either case, Rav Yehudah did not commit genivat da’at. The Gemara’s effort to justify Rav Yehudah reminds us that we often do not know the full story and should reserve judgment until we do.


  1. Have you ever known someone to send a wedding invitation to people they know will not come? (Is this in reality an invitation to send a gift?) Is this genivat da’at? Or perhaps the invitation is a legitimate way to honor the invitees, make them feel valued, and not make them feel excluded? Several commentaries hold that extending an invitation to a party or a meal, even knowing the invitee cannot attend, is permitted if the purpose is to be polite. Can we always discern genuine motive—even our own?
  2. Politicians create photo-ops to boost their imagine and market themselves—kissing babies used to be a popular image. What do people who are not politicians—people like us—do in the hopes of being seen doing something that creates an impression or image of themselves? Consider for a moment what you have done in the past month for the sake of appearance. Is  this genivat da’at? Is padding one’s resume genivat da’at?
  3. Talmud records that Shmuel once crossed a river on a ferry. He instructed his attendant to pay the ferryman, but then became angry with his attendant. Why? Abaye suggests that the attendant gave the ferryman a tereifah hen, representing it as kosher-slaughtered; Raba suggests he gave the ferryman diluted wine, representing it as unmixed. Do you think Shmuel was angry because his attendant committed genivat da’at, or because it reflected on Shmuel, or both? Has anyone ever committed genivat da’at that reflected on you?