Sunday, October 18, 2020

Withholding Information is a Form of Theft (Eruvin 71)

A merchant once sold a barrel of wine with oil floating on top.  The purchaser believed that it was a barrel of oil, and invited guests to share it with him.  When the host went to serve them the oil, he found that it was a barrel of wine.  Thoroughly embarrassed, the fellow tragically went off and choked to death (Chulin 94a).

שֶׁמֶן שֶׁצָּף עַל גַּבֵּי יַיִן, וְנָגַע טְבוּל יוֹם בְּשֶׁמֶן — לֹא פָּסַל אֶלָּא שֶׁמֶן בִּלְבַד, וְרַבִּי יוֹחָנָן בֶּן נוּרִי אוֹמֵר: שְׁנֵיהֶן חִיבּוּרִין זֶה לָזֶה.

If tithed oil was floating on the surface of wine, and one who immersed during the day, touched the oil, he disqualifies only the oil.  Rabbi Yochanan ben Nuri says: They are connected to each other.

Our Sages (Chulin 94a) caution against a number of ‘geneivas daas’ common practices.  Geneivas daas – literally ‘stealing the mind’ – best translates as ‘misleading.’  It’s not exactly stealing, but even if you give a false impression, that is wrong.  An example of geneivas daas is going into a store and examining a product.  You ask the shopkeeper the price of the item and he tells you.  You then proceed to bargain him down.  Eventually, you leave the shop, never having desired the item in the first place.  You just fancied a game of bargaining.  Meanwhile, the poor proprietor had been led to believe that he had a bona fide potential customer.  That’s geneivas daas. 

Another example of geneivas daas suggested by the Gemara in Chulin is the story of the fellow who thought he was purchasing a barrel of oil and it turned out to be wine.  Why would they place oil on top of the wine in the barrel?  The Sefer Iyunim B’Divrei Chazal (110) connects our Gemara with the story in Chulin and explains that this is the Italian method of preservation.  The oil is placed atop the wine in order to prevent oxidisation. 

It’s hard to imagine that the fellow thought he was purchasing oil and he bought wine instead.  Perhaps he intended to purchase a barrel of wine and was then flummoxed when he could not remove the layer of oil from on top.  He couldn’t bear to face his guests knowing that he had invited them to taste his special wine.  Now it was tainted by this oil! 

What should the remedy have been?  It’s simple.  Instead of trying to scoop up wine from the top, one attaches a spigot to the side of the barrel, towards the bottom.  That way, the wine can be drawn from the barrel without disturbing the oil perched on top of the wine.   Rather than taking from the top, you take from the bottom.

At first blush, the case of geneivas daas offered by the Gemara seems a little inconsequential.  How often do people sell wine and try to disguise it as oil?  And why would anyone fall for such antics?  The geneivas daas here was the explanation of how to extract the wine without dealing with the oil.  Had someone simply explained the method to the purchaser, the story would have had a happy ending.  Instead, the fellow “choked” on his oil and wine mixture. 

In other words, our Sages are teaching that it is geneivas daas not only to give someone an impression with your words or actions, but even by your absence of words or actions.  Either the seller or one of the guests should have had the good sense to explain to the purchaser-host how to serve the wine from the barrel.  Instead the guests probably stood around snickering as they watched him struggle with the removal of the oil from the wine.

If you have information that can assist another person and you withhold that information from them, in a certain sense, that’s geneivas daas.  You’ve stolen that knowledge from them. 

Sometimes we think that that helping another person means financial or other forms of tangible assistance.  But it needn’t necessarily always mean reaching your hand into your pocket.  The classic notion of teaching a person how to fish underpins the importance of sharing knowledge and information with others.  The right advice and guidance have the potential to long outlast a monetary endowment.  Setting someone on the right path with the right guidance enables everything in their life to fall into place.

Withholding information and watching your fellow struggle is a form of geneivas daas.  May you strive to become a source of information and guidance for all those around you!

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Schnapps on a Yahrzeit and the World’s First Paternity Test (Eruvin 70)

 A wealthy individual once took a business trip with his assistant, leaving his pregnant wife at home.  While overseas, the businessman died.  The assistant then claimed that he was the son of the deceased man and seized all of his possessions.  Sometime later, he married off his daughter to the son of a prominent family.  Meanwhile, the real son was born and reared by his single mother.  He eventually grew up and recounted this story to Rav Saadia Gaon (C10 Iraq), explaining that he was afraid to reclaim his assets, given the former assistant’s powerful familial ties.

When Rav Saadia Gaon heard the story, he offered to advocate on behalf of the young man in the king’s court.  He then took a sample of the young man’s blood and sought a sample of the former assistant’s blood that he had let.  He placed the blood of the assistant into a jar containing a bone from the deceased businessman, but the blood and bone stayed separate.  He then repeated the exercise with the blood of the son and immediately the blood was absorbed into the bone, thereby demonstrating who the real son was (Sefer Chasidim 232).

בְּעָא מִינֵּיהּ רָבָא מֵרַב נַחְמָן: יוֹרֵשׁ מַהוּ שֶׁיְּבַטֵּל רְשׁוּת הֵיכָא דְּאִי בָּעֵי לְעָרוֹבֵי מֵאֶתְמוֹל מָצֵי מְעָרֵב — בַּטּוֹלֵי נָמֵי מָצֵי מְבַטֵּל, אֲבָל הַאי כֵּיוָן דְּאִי בָּעֵי לְעָרוֹבֵי מֵאֶתְמוֹל — לָא מָצֵי מְעָרֵב, לָא מָצֵי מְבַטֵּל. אוֹ דִּלְמָא: יוֹרֵשׁ כַּרְעֵיהּ דַּאֲבוּהּ הוּא?

Rava asked Rav Nachman: With regard to an heir, may he renounce rights in a courtyard? (If a person who had forgotten to establish an eruv died on Shabbat, may his heir renounce his rights in his stead?) On the one hand, perhaps only in a case where, if the person wanted to establish an eruv on the previous day he could have established an eruv, he can also renounce his rights on Shabbat. But this heir, since, if he wanted to establish an eruv the previous day he could not have established an eruv, as he was not then a resident of the courtyard, therefore, today he cannot renounce his rights either. Or perhaps an heir is like his father’s foot (an extension of his father).

The Sefer Chasidim (231) offers our Gemara as the source for the traditional custom to fast on the yahrzeit of a parent.  As further evidence of the fact that a child is an extension of the parent, Rabbi Yehuda Hachasid recounts the story of Rav Saadia Gaon’s miraculous paternity test.  He explains that since a child is an extension of the parent, the commemoration of their death is a physically painful day, manifested by placing pressure on the body by fasting.  The Shelah adds an additional reason for fasting.  Since one’s parent passed on that date, it is a day of poor mazal for the individual.  One fasts in order to be engaged in teshuvah and have no further difficulties befall him that day.

Nowadays, however, fasting on a yahrzeit is rare.  Most prefer to invite their friends for a l’chaim.  The source for the reversal of the traditional practice is the Zohar.  Prior to his passing, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai instructed his students that his yahrzeit should not be a day of sadness, but one of celebration.  Each year on the yahrzeit, he explained, the souls of the righteous are elevated from one level of heaven to the next, based on an assessment of the ongoing consequences of their actions and accomplishments during their lifetime. 

Let’s say, for example, a great individual started a charity for orphans while they were alive.  Certainly during their lifetime, they accrue merit and reward for their efforts.  But the orphans who go on to lead well-balanced lives, replete with mitzvos and positive behaviour, all continue to accrue merit to the soul of the charity-founder, without whose assistance they may never have gotten a decent start in life.  They will then parent children and further generations, all of whom owe their accomplishments to a righteous person who lived decades and centuries earlier.  Each year that soul continues its heavenly ascent, on account of the enduring consequences of their actions during their lifetime.

The Shem Aryeh questions the promulgation of this practice amongst the masses.  It’s one thing, he contends, for Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and particularly righteous individuals to claim this fasting exemption on their yahrzeit.  But who decided that every Moshe Goldberg merits a feast rather than a fast on their yahrzeit?  In fact, it’s gotten so bad, he says, that minyanaires are made to feel guilty if they fail to bring a bottle on their yahrzeit!

The Chesed L’Avraham responds with a justification of the contemporary practice.  He explains that the act of bringing people together in brotherly love and unity to make blessings brings merit to the neshama, prompting its annual elevation.  He maintains that the contemporary practice did not happen randomly, but was encouraged by our saintly rabbis, who instituted the custom in order to standardize the customs of a yahrzeit.  Since fasting was too difficult for most people in recent generations, the preference is to bring people together to evoke merit for the soul.

Sadly, right now, due to coronavirus, the yahrzeit l’chaim is more challenging.  Shuls conscious of the health and safety of their congregants have proscribed the sharing of food and drink.  Nevertheless, we Jews are always creative and innovative.  The solution to the l’chaim conundrum is the 5cl whiskey bottle. 

When air travel began shutting down, whiskey proprietors wondered what they would do with all their 5cl bottles.  All of a sudden, shuls starting ordering them for their kiddush-to-go and yahrzeit-to-go bags!  Strictly speaking, the Chesed L’Avraham’s reason for commemorating a yahrzeit with a l’chaim entails the gathering of people together in brotherly love, which we can’t fulfil properly right now.  Nevertheless, the merit of the joy you give your fellow minyanaires when they receive their yahrzeit-to-go bag is the next best thing!

May you constantly accrue merit for your dearly departed loved ones every day of the year, and may you set the wheels in motion for merit to accrue to your soul long after you have passed into the Garden of Eden!