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!