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Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Breaking Bad News — BT Baba Metzia 59b — #110

It was said: On that day all objects which R. Eliezer had declared tahor (ritually pure) were brought and purified through fire. Then the Sages took a vote and blessed [i. e., excommunicated] R. Eliezer. The Sages said, “Who shall go and inform him [that he has been excommunicated]?” “I will go,” answered R. Akiba, “lest someone inform him inappropriately and thus destroy the entire world.” What did R. Akiba do? He donned black garments and wrapped himself in black and went and sat at a distance of four cubits from R. Eliezer. “Akiba,” said Rabbi Eliezer, “what happened today?” “Master,” he replied, “it appears to me that your companions are avoiding you.” Thereupon, R. Eliezer also rent his garments, took off his shoes, got down off his chair, and sat on the ground, all the while tears streaming from his eyes. 

Have you ever needed to deliver bad news? Doctors, chaplains, and police officers do so as part of their job, but at one time or another, each of us is called upon to to inform someone of something that will pain, frighten, or devastate them. Is there a proper way to deliver bad news? 

This passage is part of what is arguably the best known sugya in all Talmud, the oven of Achnai. It caps off a story that illustrates the danger of “overreaching” with words. For the Sages, words have power, both for good and for evil. Just as God is said to have created the world with words, so too do we create worlds of reality and emotion with our words. At the end of a discussion on the danger of using words cruelly or carelessly, the Rabbis tell a story about R. Eliezer b. Hyrcanus, who finds himself in fundamental opposition to his colleagues concerning a matter of ritual purity. When they vote, he refuses to abide by the majority’s decision and holds his ground. What ensues is nothing short of a literal natural disaster. R. Akiba attempts, with limited success, to redeem the situation through a sensitive use of words. The story overall has much to teach us. This short passage teaches us how we might deliver bad and painful news, which is certainly a way we use words for good or for ill.

The object under discussion is an oven, which R. Eliezer declares unsusceptible to ritual impurity, but the Sages declare in a vote to be impure. R. Eliezer’s refusal to accede to the majority means that his declarations of what is pure or impure can no longer be vouched for. Hence, everything he has declared ritually pure is forthwith considered suspect and requires purification by fire. But the Sages do not stop there. They take a second vote and excommunicate R. Eliezer (in absentia), an exceptionally harsh punishment that, in itself, is extreme overreaching. So horrific is the idea of excommunication that the Talmud cannot bring itself to use the term and employs the ironic euphemism “blessed.” 

Taking this harsh measure makes the Sages anxious. R. Eliezer, we learn in the earlier part of the story (not recounted here), is a miracle worker and wields enormous power. In this story alone, he causes a tree to uproot itself and jump 100 cubits (~150 feet), makes a stream flow backward, and causes the walls of the Study House to lean in menacingly on those within who dare to disagree with his judgment. Therefore, angering R. Eliezer has practical implications: he has supernatural power and is therefore dangerous. Excommunication is a dreadful punishment to bear, both because it brings shame and because it imposes restrictions on one’s associations: most notably, people in the community may not come closer than four cubits (~ 6 feet) to one who has been excommunicated.

R. Akiba, who enjoys a reputation for exceptional sensitivity, assumes the task on behalf of the Rabbis, lest someone perform it clumsily and R. Eliezer, enraged, wreak havoc on the community. Here is where the lesson on how to deliver bad news begins. R. Akiba dresses in black and sits four cubits away from R. Eliezer. He says nothing. Black garments, which R. Eliezer can see from a distance, signal that R. Akiba is mourning a great loss (the loss of R. Eliezer from the circle of scholars in the Study House). This immediately warns R. Eliezer that something bad has happened, but doesn’t assail him with the news. Since the restrictions of excommunication are well known, when R. Akiba sits at a distance of four cubits, R. Eliezer understands what has transpired. R. Akiba waits for R. Eliezer to speak first—he waits until R. Eliezer is emotionally ready to hear the news. When R. Eliezer finally asks, R. Akiba gently says that it appears that the other rabbis are avoiding him, without explicitly saying that R. Eliezer has been excommunicated. R. Akiba’s style is slow and gentle, conveying only as much as R. Eliezer is ready to absorb. Having digested R. Akiba’s communication in full, R. Eliezer mourns his loss of collegial community: he rends his cloak, removes his shoes, and sits low on the ground—several are mourning rituals practiced to this day—and he weeps. What the midrash does not tell us, but we are to understand, is that R. Akiba remains nearby, a comforting and consoling presence.

  1. Why do you think people often say “passed away” rather than “died”? Does it have something to do with the power of words and the starkness and finality of death? Do euphemisms protect the recipient of bad news, assuage the feelings of the bearer of bad tidings, or serve the needs of both? Are euphemisms for death intended to provide spiritual comfort, or do they allow the speaker to avoid being perceived as abrupt or offensive, avoid their own discomfort and grief?
  2. Have you ever delivered bad news and felt unequal to the task? Were you able to complete it in a way you consider honorable and compassionate?
  3. Why do people often rush giving bad news? Is it to minimize their own pain? How might you employ R. Akiba’s approach to delivering bad news?

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