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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?

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