Mens Rea Without Actus Reus

My weekly halachah column for parashas Be’Haalosecha:

Parashas Be’Ha’alosecha concludes with the episode of Miriam and Aharon “speaking against” Moshe and the consequent affliction of the former with tzara’as. The Torah later (Devarim 24:9) adjures us to “Remember what Hashem thy G-d did unto Miriam”. The Ramban (Sefer Ha’Mitzvos #7), following the Sifri, understands this as a commandment to verbally recount Miriam’s conduct and its consequences so that we should avoid the sin of lashon ha’ra (evil speech, i.e., slander) and its punishment. The Chofetz Chaim (Esin #1) declares that one who speaks lashon ha’ra perforce violates this commandment, as at best he must have forgotten Miriam’s punishment at the time of the offense, and if he remembered it and nevertheless sinned, he has the far worse status of an apostate with regard to the prohibition of lashon ha’ra. Elsewhere (Shemiras Ha’Lashon Sha’ar Ha’Tevunah #12), the Chofetz Chaim explains that although we observe that people do speak lashon ha’ra subsequent to, and even during (!) their remembrance of Miriam, this is due to the merely superficial nature of their remembrance.

The Rambam (Hilchos Tumas Tzara’as 16:10) points out Miriam was punished despite the presence of numerous factors mitigating the severity of her lashon ha’ra: she was his older sister, had raised him, and had risked herself to save him from the sea; she had not actually criticized him, but merely erroneously equated him with other prophets (failing to recognize the uniqueness of his prophecy); and Moshe had not minded her comments. We can therefore infer the egregiousness of the sin of the “villains and fools” who speak arrant slander.

My friend R. Daniel Z. Feldman recently published “False Facts and True Rumors: Lashon HaRa in Contemporary Culture”. I consider R. Feldman one of the very best contemporary English language (or really, any language) writers on halachah, combining a deep and broad familiarity with the traditional literature with an understanding of modern society and culture, and a command of traditional analytical methods of Torah study with the thoughtful and serious consideration of the realm of meta-halachah.

About a year ago, R. Natan Slifkin challenged the Chofetz Chaim’s often reiterated insistence that the dispensation of תועלת in the laws of lashon hara requires purity of intent:

A while ago – I forget the details – I was telling some people about how a certain person posed a harmful influence. One person objected that this was lashon hara. When I pointed out that it was leto’eles, for public benefit, this person argued that it is still only permissible if the speaker’s motivations are pure. Since my motivations were suspect, then it was not permissible.

Now, the first observation to be made here is that Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan’s “Laws” of lashon hara are not “laws” in the same sense as the laws of Shabbos found in the Shulchan Aruch. A must-read on this topic is Benjamin Brown’s “From Principles to Rules and from Musar to Halakhah: The Hafetz Hayim’s Rulings on Libel and Gossip,” which you can read at this link. Furthermore, while the Chafetz Chaim’s conclusions became the standard for much of the Orthodox community, this was primarily simply due to his being the first person to systematically discuss the topic.

But what about within the parameters of the Chafetz Chaim’s framework? Is it truly forbidden to warn people of someone’s faults if one’s motivations are not pure? Surely this makes no sense – why should these other people be put in harm’s way just because of one’s own shortcomings?

If we look at the Chafetz Chaim’s discussions of this topic, an interesting discrepancy can be seen. When discussing the laws of lashon hara and cases where it is permitted in order to help others, he lists purity of intent as being an essential condition (Hilchos Lashon Hara 10:2). But later, when discussing the laws of rechilus (tale-bearing) and cases where it is permitted in order to help others (Hilchos Issurei Rechilus 9:2), while he likewise lists pureness of intent as being an essential condition, there is a footnote to his Be’er Mayim Chaim commentary. In the commentary, he notes that even if one does not have purity of intent, one must nevertheless still relate the rechilus. After all, we are discussing a case where it is in order to help others from being harmed, and there is a mitzvah of Lo Ta’amod Al Dam Re’echa, not to stand by when someone is going to be hurt. Rather, he says, when describing purity of motive as a requirement, he means that one should try as much as possible to focus on doing it for positive purposes.

Now, why did the Chafetz Chaim not make this same point in discussing cases where it is permitted to state lashon hara? I don’t know, but it seem very clear that it should equally apply. Perhaps it was simply an oversight. (Alternately, looking carefully at the Chafetz Chaim’s language in discussing lashon hara, it seems to me that he is talking about having proper motive insofar as assessing that there is a genuine chance of helping people, not in terms of one’s inner motives. If I am correct, this is something that has been lost in the ArtScroll translation.)

One who sees the Chafetz Chaim’s work as being a halachic work like the Shulchan Aruch will probably not apply this principle (that purity of motive is not an essential condition) to lashon hara, since the Chafetz Chaim didn’t mention it there. But one who sees the concept of permitted and forbidden speech as being a rational matter of creating a moral society will likewise apply this principle to cases of permitted lashon hara. If it’s a matter of stopping someone from harming others, then it doesn’t make a difference what your personal motives are (except insofar as giving reason to doubly check that it really is a matter of stopping someone from harming others).

It is extraordinary that the works of the Chafetz Chaim, intended to make the world a better place, have often been used to make the world a worse place. Sometimes it is people not giving over harmful information about a shidduch, sometimes it is people not reporting dangerous behavior in a rabbi, sometimes it is people trying to quell frank discussion about social policies. The Torah’s principles of speech are supposed to improve society. We have to use our sechel in applying them.

At the time, I argued that the basic question of whether the need to protect the innocent is somehow overridden by the problematic motivation of the intervener seemed to be the subject of dispute between the Sema and the Taz. They argue over whether the dispensation for a third party to use force against one attempting to perpetrate an assault in order to protect his victim from harm is limited to where we have no reason to suspect the intervener of any personal animus toward the aggressor:


[אם] זה הבא להציל ולהכות המכה אינו בר הכי דרגיל לאפרוש מאיסורא דכמה פעמים רואה שמכה אחד לחבירו ואינו חושש לאפרושי המכה מאיסורא אז אמרינן דאסור להכות לזה המכה דודאי מכח שנאה בא להכותו ולא בא להפרישו מהאיסור1


ואיני יודע טעם לזה החילוק דכיון דדינא הוא שיכול להציל על ידי הכאה את המוכה מה {לנו} בזה שיש לו שנאה על המכה מכל מקום הוא עושה מצוה להציל את המוכה וכי בכוונת הלב תליא מלתא ואף אם אין דרכו כן לפעמים אחרים הרי לא יפה עשה באותן הפעמים אמנם בהאי מעשה שפיר קעביד ומצוה קעביד2

The Erech Shai apparently sides with the Taz that intent is irrelevant insofar as the action is objectively correct, and he actually applies this standard to lashon hara. He is discussing the question of whether truth is a defense against liability for the tort of defamation, and he argues that insofar as the dissemination of the defamatory information is in some way beneficial to the public, this eliminates any liability, despite the purely malicious intent of the defamer. He does seem to take for granted, however, that malicious action is nevertheless sinful, and he is merely arguing that it is unreasonable that the halachah would establish a penalty for an action that is inherently desirable:

הג”ה [הקורא לחבירו] עבד או ממזר והוא אמת פטור

בשבות יעקב חלק א’ סימן קע”ט כתב בקורא לחברו גנב ומברר בעדים שהוא גנב חייב דשאני עבד וממזר שאינו יכול לתקן בתשובה ומצוה לפרסמו שלא להתחתן בו …

ול”נ דגם בגנב נ”מ שנדע שהוא פסול לעדות ושבועה וגם להזהר ממנו ואף דכונתו אינו רק לביישו ועברה הוא מכל מקום כיון דמבייש בדברים שנו חכמים דפטור רק תקנת גאונים לקנוס כמבואר בבית יוסף מנ”ל דתקנו לקנוס על האמת ותקנתא לרשיעי ולא מתקנו מלתא דאתי לידי תקלה שלא יתפרסמו עוברי עבירה הפסולין לעדות ושבועה … אם לא נדע שהוא גנב לא נשמר ממנו ומצוה לפרסם החנפים ואף דזה לא מיכוין למצוה מכל מקום כיון שגוף הדבר מצוה אין לקנסו וכמו שכתב הט”ז לקמן סימן תכ”א סעיף י”ג.3

[I hope to return in a future post to the basic question of whether halachah recognizes truth as a defense against libel and slander.]

At the time, I did not have the benefit of R. Feldman’s magnificent work; I now see that he notes that the Chofetz Chaim himself elsewhere mentions this dispute between the Sema and the Taz. Here’s an excerpt of R. Feldman’s treatment of the general topic:

However, the very premise of the Hafetz Hayim, that a motive of “purpose” does not by itself justify the relating of information if it is tainted by an accompanying ulterior motive has been the subject of some debate. … Once again, a serious objection can be raised from the need to protect the innocent; it may be that the only one in a position to provide this protection nonetheless bears a personal animus against the subject.

More conceptually, as many note, the premise can be challenged, particularly when the question is abstracted to a broader issue in talmudic law: the role of intent or ulterior motive in undermining the legitimacy of suspending prohibitions under extenuating circumstances. … The theoretical underpinnings of the issue are substantial enough that a later scholar, Rabbi Gershon Robinson, devoted an entire book to defending this premise of the Hafetz Hayim, particularly against the background of the broader talmudic issues. The author notes that lashon hara may differ significantly from other areas of Jewish law in which mixed motivations are present. … if one has such an antipathy toward another that he is eager to speak negatively about him, that bias may fundamentally affect the content that he is relaying and indeed the decision to convey it in the first place.

Practically, this issue is complex and indeed the Hafetz Hayim himself emphasizes different elements of the equation at various points throughout his writings. While the specifics of this consideration are controversial, it seems that two fundamental points emerge from the debate. First, one who is tainted by antipathy toward the subject is prone to the prevalent biases and prejudices that may skew the reliability and even the basic truth of the report, even if he believes he is motivated by the protection of another; thus, a more objective source, if available, is greatly preferable. Second, when there is no alternative, it is incumbent upon the speaker to take all steps possible to compensate for his predisposition and to present as untainted a report as is feasible. …4

In a note, R. Feldman discusses the Sema and Taz:

[Hafetz Hayim] cites a dispute in a different area of Jewish law [the aforementioned Sema and Taz], the analysis of which allows for two views on either extreme of this position: that intent is irrelevant, and necessary speech is permitted regardless; and that not only ulterior intent but the mere presence of preexisting animus disqualifies (thus also rendering intent irrelevant, in the opposite way). The dispute between the Sema and the Taz is discussed at length in Tokhahat Hayim; see also Rabbi Moshe Samsonowitz, Keriya BaKeriya 1, pp. 190-91; Kodesh Yisrael 15; and Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook (of Rechovot) in the journal Marpei Lashon IV, pp. 6-12. See also the discussion of the topic by Rabbi Yehonatan Rozler, He’arot Rigshei Hayim to Hafetz Hayim, miluim, pp. 483-87.5

In light of the comments of the Erech Shai above, it is possible that even the Taz agrees that slander motivated by malice is sinful, despite the objective necessity of saving the innocent victim from harm, and his point is merely that it carries no liability.

We have also previously cited the position of Rav Yisrael Isser Isserlin that intent is the key criterion that determines the boundary between the category of defamation that is absolutely mandated by halachah and that which is forbidden:

וראיתי להזכיר פה ע”ד אשר כל הספרי מוסר הרעישו העולם על עון לשון הרע ואנכי מרעיש העולם להיפוך עון גדול מזה וגם הוא מצוי יותר והוא מניעת עצמו מלדבר במקום הנצרך להציל את העשוק מיד עושקו.

דרך משל במי שראה באחד שהוא אורב על חבירו בערמה על הדרך במדבר להרגו או שראה חותר מחתרת בלילה בביתו או בחנותו היתכן שימנע מלהודיע לחבירו שיזהר ממנו משום איסור לשון הרע הלא עונו גדול מנשוא שעובר על לא תעמוד על דם רעיך וכן בענין ממון הוא בכלל השבת אבידה ועתה מה לי חותר מחתרת או שרואה משרתיו גונבים ממונו בסתר או שותפו גונב דעתו בעסק או שחבירו מטעהו במקח וממכר או שלוה מעות והוא גברא דלא פרענא הוא וכן בעניני שידוך והוא יודע שהוא איש רע ובליעל ורע להתחתן עמו כולן בכלל השבת אבידת גופו וממונו

ועתה איה לנו הגדר והגבול לומר עד פה תדבר ולא יותר והכלל בזה שהדבר מסור ללב אם כונתו לרעת האחד הוא לשון הרע אבל אם כוונתו לטובת השני להצילו ולשמרו הוא מצוה רבה …

A haburah I gave about six months ago on the topic of עביד איניש דינא לנפשיה, in which I discuss some of the above, is available at the Internet Archive.

  1. סמ”ע סוף סימן תכ”א ס”ק כ”ז []
  2. ט”ז שם []
  3. ערך ש”י חו”מ סימן ת”כ []
  4. R. Daniel Z. Feldman, False Facts and True Rumors: Lashon HaRa in Contemporary Culture, pp. 99-101. []
  5. Ibid. n. 28. []

Alicorns and Amulets

From the NetHack Wiki:

A unicorn horn (or unihorn) is an important tool for curing your adventurer. …

For medical application

Cures from uncursed and blessed application

An uncursed or blessed unicorn horn can cure:

  • blindness except from cream pies and venom
  • confusion
  • hallucination
  • stun
  • sickness
  • nausea (from eating tripe/eggs)
  • lost attribute points.

Sickness is normally fatal, and the unicorn horn is the easiest way to cure sickness (you might not have the right potion or spell, and you might not be able to safely pray). The other ailments, such as blindness and confusion, normally time out, but a unicorn horn removes them faster. Repeatedly apply the horn until you are completely cured.
Applying an uncursed unicorn horn will fix between 0 and (2d2 – 1) ailments, whilst a blessed one can heal between 0 and (2d4 -1) ailments. …

What it can not cure

A unicorn horn cannot cure:

  • stoning
  • sliming
  • lycanthropy
  • wounded legs

It also cannot:

  • restore health
  • restore magic power
  • undo amnesia
  • fix fainting.

A question posed to Maran:

שאלה ראובן תבע משמעון שהשאיל לאשתו כוס אחד של עצם אליקירנו להשקות בו את בתו שהוכה ממגפה ואמרו שהיה מסוגל אותו הכוס לרפואת החולי והוא בשתית מים בו … יורינו רבינו מה יהיה משפט הפרעון של הכוס הזה … ועוד שהוא טוען שהיה שוה זה הכוס ממון רב שהיה מסוגל ושמעון טוען שלא היה שוה אלא מעט שכמה בני אדם שתו בו ומתו ושלחו בית דין לדעת שיווי זה הכוס והעיד אדם אחד שאומרים שהוא בקי ורופא שלא הכוס הנזכר מעצם אליקורנו כי אם עצם דג מהים ושראה כאלה רבות …1

Loose translation:

Query: Reuven sued Shimon, that he had lent his wife a cup of “alicorn bone” for his daughter, who was stricken with the plague, to drink from, for they say that that cup had the magical ability to cure disease, via the drinking of water from it. [The daughter died, the cup was lost, and the litigants were arguing over its value.] [Reuven] claims that this cup was worth a great sum, due to its magical property, and Shimon claims that it was only worth a little, for many men had drunk from it and [nevertheless] died. The court investigated the question of the cup’s value, and a certain man, who was reputed to be an expert and physician, testified that the aforementioned cup was not “alicorn bone”, but rather “the bone of a fish of the sea”, and that he had seen many such …

“Alicorn bone” is unicorn horn, to which legend ascribed marvelous curative powers (in addition to mere existence); the “bone of a fish of the sea” is narwhal tusk, a main source of counterfeit alicorn. The Alicorn page on the “Unicorns” site has a wonderful survey of the topic:

“Those who drink out of these horns, made into drinking vessels, are not subject, they say, to convulsions or to the holy disease (epilepsy). Indeed, they are immune to poisons if, either before or after swallowing such, they drink wine, water, or anything else from their beakers.”
— Ctesias. Greek physician and historian, Indica (c. 400 BC)

It has been recorded throughout history that six mysterious natural substances have been coveted by ancient rulers above all others. …
Of these six treasures, the horn of the unicorn or alicorn, was the most valuable and sought after. Sheer value and mystique made them sought after gifts among rulers, and they were used extensively to win friends, influence fellow monarchs or protect a poison-prone prince. (Considering the reputation of Catherine de’ Medici, a lady both lovely and lethal, it was most thoughtful of her uncle, Pope Clement VII, to give her fiancé, the dauphin of France, a gold-mounted alicorn as a wedding present!)

And the wonder-working horn existed. Alicorns were owned by monarchs and popes throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. The horn became an emblem of imperial power: The sceptre of Russia’s czars and the sceptre of Austria’s Hapsburg emperors were both made of unicorn horn. Two alicorns are among the treasures of Japan’s imperial palace. Charles V, Holy Roman emperor, settled what in today’s terms would be a multi-million-dollar debt by giving the Margrave of Bayreuth two alicorns. King Edward I of England owned a unicorn horn which was stolen. In 1550 Pope Clement purchased an alicorn said to be “the most beautiful unicorn’s horn ever seen.” It was elaborately mounted in silver and gold before being presented to King Francoise of France.

Mary, Queen of Scots, owned one, as did Francis I. Frederick III of Denmark had a throne made almost entirely out of alicorn. The Sultan of Turkey, the wealthiest ruler of his time, sent 12 alicorns to His Most Catholic Majesty King Philip II of Spain (1527-1598). At that time each of them was worth from 10 to 20 times its weight in gold.

A typical alicorn was up to 9 feet long, had a basal girth of 8-9 inches and weighed 18-20 lbs. Even the Swiss scientist Konrad von Gesner (the father of zoology), who had his doubts about unicorns, concluded in 1551 that “the animal must exist on earth, or else its horn would not exist.”

The Church also owned alicorns, which were put on public display at various times. The most famous of these belonged to the Church of St. Denis near Paris, where it was kept in a vault. One end was placed in a font and the water dispensed to the sick and infirm.

Allegedly it cured a wide range of illnesses after causing an initial fever. Unfortunately, this alicorn disappeared during the French Revolution. St. Mark’s in Venice possessed three famous alicorns, as did Milan Cathedral, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey in London and several others. Chester Cathedral in England still boasts an alicorn among its treasures.

Probably the most famous alicorn of all — known as the ‘Horn of Windsor’ — belonged to Elizabeth I of England. The horn was listed among Elizabeth’s crown jewels and valued at 10,000 pounds (more than 10,000,000 pounds at today’s prices), a sum which at that time would have been enough to buy a large estate plus castle.

This horn was given to the queen as a gift from the man who found it — Martin Frobisher. A captain in the British Navy, he had been trying to discover a northwest passage to India for some time. During his first attempt in 1576, rough winds and cold weather forced him to turn back. But the trip was not a total failure as some of his men had found some “black earth” and the rumor quickly spread that it was gold.

This made it much easier for him to find backers for future journeys and he was able to set out again the very next year. Once more inclement weather interfered with his explorations. And, after several ships were wrecked by a storm, Captain Frobisher had to end his journey. He had sailed as far as the inlet now known as Frobisher’s Bay in Baffin Island, Canada. His men, who spent most of their time there collecting ore, found “a great dead fish” with a hollow spiralling tusk almost two yards long.

During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, many people believed that for each animal of the land there was an equivalent animal of the ocean. Captain Frobisher and his men probably believed this animal was a sea unicorn. The sailors even tested the horn by placing poisonous spiders in the inner cavity.

As men, to try the precious unicorn’s horn,
Make of the powder a preservative circle,
And in it put a spider.
~ John Webster, The White Devil

When the spiders died it was considered adequate proof that the horn must belong to the unicorn of the sea. Frobisher returned to England and delivered the horn to Queen Elizabeth. He was later knighted for his valor against the Spanish Armada. …

The belief in the alicorn’s ability to cure a wide range of maladies and protect against poison was nearly universal. Unfortunately, it was only available to the wealthy as its price was prohibitively high. Poor people had to make do with small quantities of horn such as a single band worked into a metal cup, or shavings ground up and used as powders.

Its effectiveness was such that the smallest amount was greatly treasured. It was used to protect people against plague, fever, rabies, colic and cramps. Boiled in wine, it whitened teeth. Mixed with amber, ivory, gold, coral, raisins and cinnamon, it helped cure epilepsy. It’s no wonder that the Apothecaries Society of London, founded in 1617, chose a pair of unicorns to support its coat of arms—the symbol was easily understood.

This horn is useful and beneficial against epilepsy, pestilential fever, rabies, proliferation and infection of other animals and vermin, and against worms within the body from which children faint. Ancient physicians used their Alicorn remedies against such ailments by making drinking mugs from the horn and letting their patients drink from them. Nowadays such drinking vessels are unobtainable and the horn itself must be administered [as a powder] either alone or mixed with some other drug…Genuine Alicorn is good against all poison; especially, so some say, the quality coming from the Ocean Isles. Experience proves that anyone having taken poison and becoming distended thereby, recovered good health on immediately taking a little Unicorn horn.

The page proceeds with a discussion of the problem raised by our responsum: how to distinguish the genuine article from counterfeit:

Trade in alicorns was fairly widespread during the Middle Ages and numerous noble houses listed one of the horns among its treasures. The fact that alicorns were both so valuable and so rare (some legends say there is never more than one unicorn on earth at any one time) provided great temptation and opportunities for fraud. Merchants anxious to make a profit often sold the horns of other animals as alicorn.

With so much fraudulent alicorn being sold, it became necessary to devise some way of testing alicorns to determine which were real. Some of these tests included:

  • Drawing a ring on the floor with the alicorn. A spider placed inside the ring would not be able to cross the line and would starve to death trapped inside the circle.
  • Placing the horn in water, causing the water to bubble as if it were boiling, even though it remained cold.
  • Placing a piece of silk on a burning coal, then laying the horn on top of the fabric. If it was a true alicorn, the silk would not burn.
  • Bringing the horn near a poisonous plant or animal, which would burst and die in reaction.
  • Inverting a beaker carved of alicorn over two scorpions. If it was truly unicorn horn, the scorpions would die.

Not even kings were exempt from being defrauded. King James I of England purchased an alicorn at great expense (reportedly for about 10,000 pounds). He felt it was important to test its authenticity, even though he had no doubt it was genuine. He summoned a favorite servant and told him to drink a draught of poison to which powdered horn was added. The servant drank the mixture and promptly died. James could not have been more unpleasantly surprised—he had been deceived.

Times and values certainly do change! James I immediately believed his fake alicorn to be almost worthless. Yet in 1994 a fake alicorn was auctioned at Christie’s in London—and sold for nearly half a million pounds! This in spite of the fact that it was known to be a 12th Century fake. It’s been speculated that this alicorn may have once belonged to Hereford Cathedral. It was purchased in the 1950’s for next to nothing as part of a bundle of walking sticks cleared from a property in the cathedral close. …

The unicorn horns still in palaces and royal treasuries (e.g., the Schatzkammer in Vienna or the Kremlin Armory in Moscow) and in museums and private collections have one thing in common: They are in fact all narwhal tusks, the enormously elongated and spiraled single tooth of a 13-to-15-foot High Arctic whale.

The narwhal swims in small groups in the remote Artic and is a mammal, not a fish. Its chief value to humans is the male narwhal’s tooth, which juts out through its lips and grows in a spiral motion as long as eight feet. The tooth is ivory and exactly what most people picture when they think of an alicorn. In some ways, it is the alicorn.

It’s believed narwhal horns first made their appearance around the 12th Century. The tusks of the male whales were traded to the wealthy courts of Asia and Europe by Scandinavian fishermen who had discovered the narwhal off the coast of Greenland.

The narwhal-unicorn connection was probably the best and longest kept secret of all time and, perhaps, one of history’s most cunning marketing strategies. It was a trade carried on in utter secrecy; the middlemen, most often Vikings and Arabs, made millions and kept quiet. They were able to preserve their lucrative secret for more than 400 years because the narwhal seldom swam south.

The bubble burst in the 17th Century and the truth emerged as a result of growing trade between Greenland and North America. While alicorn continued to be listed as a scientifically approved medicine until well into the 18th Century, the price plummeted dramatically. One complete horn belonging to King Charles I dropped in value from 8,000 pounds in 1630 to only 600 pounds by 1649.

An article by William Jackson, in the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s Pharmaceutical Journal:

The unicorn is a mythical beast that has been associated with medicine and pharmacy for hundreds of years. …

The price of the horn

The sums quoted for the price of unicorn horn vary considerably, and the problem of estimating its value is compounded by the differing dates and by the varying currencies that are quoted. However, there can be no doubt that, although the price varied from time to time, it was never cheap. In 1609, Thomas Decker speaks of the horn of a unicorn as being worth “half a city” and a Florentine physician observed that it was sold by the apothecaries for £24 per ounce. In 1553, one belonging to the King of France was valued at £20,000 and the value of one specimen in Dresden in the same century was estimated at 75,000 thalers.

Obviously, unicorn horn was not something that was normally owned or used by poor people. It was its alexipharmic properties that were thought to be of particular use, and the fact that rich and powerful people were in the greatest danger of being poisoned ensured that there were always sufficient customers with enough money to maintain its high price. Considerable amounts would also be paid by collectors of curiosities for particularly fine specimens.

Medicinal virtues

The first mention of the therapeutic properties of unicorn’s horn is thought to have been by Ctesias, a Greek physician from Cnidus, who flourished in the fifth century BC. He believed the unicorn was an Indian wild ass that had a horn growing from its forehead. Drinking cups made from this horn could neutralise poison and afford protection against convulsions and epilepsy. In the middle ages it was used to cure plague, fevers and bites from serpents and mad dogs. It was even said that poisoned wounds could be cured merely by holding a piece of the horn close to them. Surely we cannot fail to be impressed when we read in ‘Doctors and Doctors’ by Graham Everitt that the unicorn was: “ … perfectly conscious of the sanitary virtues which resided in its nasal protruberance, and would dip its horn in the water to purify and sweeten it ere it would drink.”

Mary Stuart (1542–87), Queen of Scots was the widow of Francis II of France. Later she married Lord Darnley and, in 1565, gave birth to a son who became James VI of Scotland. She had brought a piece of unicorn’s horn from France and used it to test her food for poison. Unfortunately it did not prevent her developing rheumatic gout and dropsy later in life, nor did it protect her from the executioner’s axe when she was beheaded at Fotheringhay Castle in 1587.

In a letter written to Monsieur Belin in October 1631 Guy Patin, the Parisian physician, observed that he did not believe that unicorn’s horn was of any use as protection against the pestilential disease that was prevalent in the city at that time, nor did it possess any of the occult properties attributed to it.

Unicorn horn was also an ingredient in a remedy for the bite of a mad dog that was published in 1656: “Take a handful of Box, and stamp it, and strain it with a draught of milk, put into it a pretty quantity of Lobsters shell beaten to a powder, and some Unicorns horn, if you can get it, and drink thereof and wash the wound therewith.” The scarcity of unicorn’s horn is indicated by the phrase “if you can get it”. …

William Salmon’s ‘Pharmacopoeia Londinensis or the New London Dispensatory’ of 1678 said that although many were dubious about the existence of the unicorn, their doubts could have no foundation because it was mentioned in the “holy writings”. However, the country of its origin was dubious and Salmon mentioned a number of authorities that quoted widely differing places, including the West Indies, Ethiopia, Asia and the East Indies, though he reached no conclusion about the validity of any of these claims. Ludovicus Vartoman had described two beasts that had been presented to the “Great Turk” by the King of Aethiopia. Both had yellowish horns in the middle of their foreheads, a deer’s head and cloven hooves. Finally, he observed that the horn was the only part that was used medicinally being “alexipharmick” (counteracting poisons) “sudorifick” (causing sweating) “cardiack” (a cordial restorative) “antifebritick” (reducing fevers) and “cephalick” (counteracting disorders of the head). He added: “It potently resists Plague, Pestilence, and Poyson, expels the Measles and Small-Pox, and cures the Falling-Sickness in Children.” The dose to be used was 10 grains to a drachm (60 grains) or more.

In 1695, Nicholas Culpeper observed: “Uni-corns horn resists Poyson and the Pestilence, provokes Urine, restores lost strength, brings forth both Birth and Afterbirth.” Obviously Culpeper had no doubts about the medicinal value of unicorn’s horn although suspicions about its efficacy as well as its origin had been growing for some time. The phrase “restores lost strength” is a reference to its supposed value as an aphrodisiac.

At the end of the 18th century the French physician, Pierre Pomet, dealt with the subject at some length. He observed that the truth about unicorns was still unknown, but described and illustrated several beasts from which the tales about it could have been derived. The camphur was a wild ass found in Arabia that had a horn used to cure several diseases, especially venomous or contagious ones. The Arabs who lived near the Red Sea knew of the pirassoupi, a hairy animal about the size of a mule that had two long, straight, spiral horns. These were infused in water for six to eight hours and the resulting liquid was drunk to cure wounds or venomous bites. This beast was probably included despite its possessing two horns because of the recorded use of them as an alexipharmic.

Pomet illustrated three unicorns described by Johnston in his ‘Historia naturalis’.1 He observed, inaccurately, that there were five beasts with a single horn and that one must be the true unicorn. These were the “Orix, or one-horn’d wild goat”, the “one-horn’d Ox”, the “Hart with one Horn”, the “one horned Hog” and the “one horned Ass”. He mentioned that the people of India made drinking vessels from the horn of the latter, and that they freed anyone drinking from them from any sort of deadly poison or infection. It would seem that Pomet believed that unicorns did exist, though he stated categorically: “I shall only say, that what we sell under the Name of Unicorn’s Horn is the Horn of a certain Fish, by the Islanders called Narwal, or the Sea Unicorn.” He said that authors had ascribed almost incredible things to it, chiefly as a remedy for poisons, plague and fevers, and the bites of serpents or mad dogs. It was used as a cordial or restorative, shavings of it being boiled up in a broth and coloured with a little cochineal and saffron to make a jelly.

Pomet also noted that the narwhal, also known as the rhoar or sea unicorn, a large fish that some reckoned to be a sort of whale, was found in the northern seas especially along the coast of Greenland. It carried a spiral horn at the end of its nose that could be seen in some cabinets of curiosities. Pieces of this horn were sold in Paris as true Unicorn’s horn that was said to have many virtues, but he could neither authorise nor contradict these reports because he had not sufficient experience of its use. He also wrote of another “fish” called the sea unicorn that had been stranded on a beach on an island near Santo Domingo. It was about 18 feet long and had a spirally twisted horn (or tusk) that became smoother as it diminished in circumference. This measured nine and a half feet in length. A feature of this creature that is shown in an illustration is that on its head there was “a Kind of Crown rais’d above the rest of the Skin, two inches or thereabout, made in an oval Form, and ending in a Point”. It seems highly probable that the drawing was made from a description rather than being taken from life.

Pomet also quoted Nicolas Lemery, a doctor of medicine, as saying that the narwhal carried a spiral horn, five or six feet in length, with which it would attack the largest whales. This horn yielded a great deal of volatile salt and oil that was cordial, sudorific and useful to resist infections and cure epilepsy. The dose was from 10 to 40 grains. In addition, people wore it in amulets hung round the neck to resist infection. …

See also Odell Shepard’s Lore of the Unicorn.

Returning to Maran, he argues that although it is uncertain whether the cup in question was genuine alicorn or narwhal counterfeit, the preponderance of evidence (including the expert testimony) points to the latter: “[I]n our case, if it is made of alicorn, it is worth a great sum, but if it is of the bone of a fish, it is worth very little, and the physician witness supports this, so the straight path is to broker a compromise between them …” [It is unclear whether Maran is uncertain about the very existence of magical unicorn horns, or merely whether the cup in question was genuine or counterfeit.]:

ולענין שיווי פרעון דמי הכוס לכאורה נראה דהיינו ההיא דירושלמי בפרק הכונס חד אמר זיגין הוא מלא וחד אמר מטקסין הוא מלא … ואמר ר’ אמי הרי זה נשבע ונוטל אבל כי דייקת ביה לא דמי דשאני הכא דאומדן דעתא הוא שאין אדם עשוי להשאיל כוס שוה ממון רב בלא עדים ובלא משכון ולהניחו ביד השואל זמן רב ועוד שהעיד עד אחד בקי ורופא שלא היה אלא מעצם דג וזה מסייע לאומדן דעתא …
עוד שבנדון זה אם הוא של אליקורנו שוה ממון רב ואם הוא של עצם דג שוה דבר מועט מאד ואומדן דעתא שאינו שוה אלא דבר מועט והעד הרופא מסייע ליה לכן הדרך הישרה לפשר ביניהם …

I recently encountered this responsum of Maran cited by Rav Meir Arik as contradicting the remarkable, strongly held position of Rav Shlomo Kluger (Maharshak) that an amulet whose value derives from its magical powers is considered אין גופו ממון, and a borrower who loses it is therefore not liable for the loss:

רב שלמה קלוגר

ראובן שהשאיל לחברו קמעות לרפואה ונאבדו וטוען המשאיל שהיו שוין הרבה שהוציא עליהן עשרים ר”כ …
ואף אם היה יודע שהוציא עליהן הרבה אין בזה חיוב ממון דאין גופו ממון. וזה דומה לשטרות דאין בו דין שמירה דאין גופו ממון ואף שיכול לפעול הרבה בהם מכל מקום אין גופן ממון כן ה”נ בזה
עיין ביו”ד סימן של”ו דאפילו פסקו לו הרבה בעד סממנין לרפואה מכל מקום אין לו אלא דמיהן ומכל שכן בלא פסקה לו ומה גם ברפואה שאינו בדרך הטבע ודאי דאין גופו ממון.
ועיין כעין חילוק זה בין רפואה בטבע או דרך סגולה בפירוש המשניות להרמב”ם בפרק א’ דיומא ובתוספות יום טוב שם גבי מי שנשכו כלב שוטה דאין מאכילין אותו מחצר הכבד שלו. עיי”ש והוא הדין בזה וזה פשוט וברור לדינא:2

רב מאיר אריק

ראיתי בהגהות חכמת שלמה … ולענ”ד מדברי רבינו הבית יוסף זצ”ל בתשובות אבקת רוכל … נראה להדיא דיש בזה דין שומרים לשלם מה ששוה הכוס הנ”ל לפי ערך סגולתו יעו”ש3

The remainder of Rav Meir Arik’s discussion concerns an amulet that has been custom made for the victim and cannot be used by anyone else; he analyzes the question of whether a bailee or tortfeasor is liable for damage to property whose value is specific to its owner, but worthless to anyone else, a topic we have previously discussed here and here:

מיהו בקמיע שעשוי רק לאדם זה והפקידו ביד אחר יש לומר קצת דל”מ דחיוב שומרים לא שייך בזה רק גם בשורפו בידים פטור כיון דאינו שוה רק לו ולא יוכל למוכרו לאחר הוי דבר הגורם לממון דלאו כממון דמי כתוספות כתובות ל”ד.
מיהו בש”ך לקמן סימן שפ”ו ס”ק א’ השיג על תוספות הנ”ל וכתב דגם בכה”ג שייך דינא דגרמי רק דאפילו הכי בשורף חמץ שעבר עליו הפסח פטור אף דשוה לדידיה לפטור עצמו מהנגזל משום דלא שכיח וגם אין ראוי לקנוס השורף דהא בשריפתו עשה טובה לנגזל יעו”ש אם כן בשורף קמיע אף שאינו שוה רק לבעלים חייב על כל פנים מדר”ג [אולי צ”ל מדד”ג] דלא שייך הנהו טעמי דש”ך הנ”ל
ואפשר דגם דין שומרים שייך בזה ואף להתוספות בבא קמא וכתובות ל”ד הנ”ל יש לומר דה”ד בחמץ שעבר עליו הפסח דלדידיה גם כן אינו שוה כלום רק לפטור את עצמו מן הנגזל מה שאין כן קמיע דהוי גופו ממון לדידיה אין נפקא מינא במה שאין שוה לאחריני.
ושוב ראיתי סברא זו בתשובת השיב משה סוף סימן ק”ח יעו”ש
ועיין בתשובת בית יצחק … ולהנ”ל יש לומר כיון דעל כל פנים אצלו הוא שוה וצריך לו לגופו אף שאינו שוה לאחר הוי ממון גמור ולא דמי לחמץ שעבר עליו הפסח דגם אצלו אינו שוה כלום רק לפטור עצמו מן הנגזל וצ”ע עוד בזה:

I recently gave two presentations, both discussing these two themes of value deriving from an item’s magical powers (as well as related analysis of the category of אין גופו ממון and its extension to other types of property such as (not yet executed) bills of divorce, antiques and collectibles) and value specific to the particular owner of the property; they are available, with accompanying notes and sources, from the Internet Archive here and here.

  1. שו”ת אבקת רוכל סימן ק”ס, ועיין עוד שו”ת מביט א:קפב []
  2. חכמת שלמה חו”מ ריש סימן ש”מ []
  3. מנחת פתים שם, ועיין עוד אבני החושן שם []

Speaking Truth About Those In the World Of Truth

For S.B.

Several years ago, we cited a favorite passage of my father from Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky’s אמת ליעקב, asserting that there is no prohibition of לשון הרע on the dead, and even הוצאת שם רע is only forbidden by Rabbinic institution, and not Biblically prohibited:

[באמת] לשון הרע אינו אלא על החיים, ועל מתים מותר מצד הדין ואינו אלא חרם הקדמונים [עיין או”ח סימן תר”ו סעיף ג’], והחרם אינו אלא על מוציא שם רע ולא על לשון הרע.

I recently learned that both these claims are disputed.

The medieval sources of the prohibition against speaking ill of the dead consist of several passages in the מרדכי:

ונהגו רבותינו ואמרו שתקנת קדמונינו וחרם שלא להוציא שם רע על המתים שהם שוכני עפר
ורבים תמהו מה ראו על ככה ולא דבר רק הוא מהם כי באנו להגדה דר’ תנחומא פרשת ואתחנן אמר משה לפני הקב”ה רבש”ע כל הכעס הזה עלי למה וכו’ אמר לו אתה אמרת שלח נא ביד תשלח ומאז באתי אל פרעה לדבר בשמך לא ד’ שלחני ואם בריאה יברא ד’ שמעו נא המורים הנה קמתם תחת אבותיכם תרבות אנשים חטאים וכי אברהם יצחק ויעקב חטאים היו שאמרת לבניהם כך אמר לו ממך למדתי שאמרת מחתות החטאים האלה בנפשותם אמר ליה אני אמרתי בנפשותם ולא באבותם:1
וכן על חירוף של שוכני עפר אלו היה עדות בדבר או שהיתה מודה היה לה ליקח מנין ולילך על קברו ולבקש מחילה מן המת כדאיתא בפרק בתרא דיומא2
השיב ר”מ על עשיר שקרא בן גדולים בחור חשוב ממזר בן ממזר דינא דגמרא ידוע הקורא לחבירו ממזר סופג את הארבעים והכל לפי מה שהוא אדם [אם רגיל] בכך ראוי לקונסו יותר [אף לפי כבוד הגדולים] שבקש לפגם בקבר שפגע ונגע ביקר חקר כבוד והמחרף יחוש לעצמו ויסגוף עצמו בתעניות ובמלקיות וגם ממון יתן ויתכפר לו אולי יש תקוה כי מאד יש עון גדול ועונש לשלוח יד בקדושים אשר בארץ כדאמרינן פרק חומר בקדש …3

Prof. Nahum Rakover argues that we cannot conclude from the need for a special edict against speaking ill of the dead that without such an edict this would be permitted, as we can understand the edict as merely intended to strengthen a preexisting prohibition. He is, however, inclined to accept the other assumption of Rav Yaakov that the edict only interdicts false libel (הוצאת שם רע), and not truth, arguing that this is indicated by the language of the מרדכי and שלחן ערוך in their descriptions of the anathema, as well as the rooting by the מרדכי of the edict in the medrash he brings, in which G-d indicts Moshe for the falsehood of his defamation of the Patriarchs. He does note that the comments of the מרדכי and Rema concerning the “insulting of those who reside in the earth”, which do not mention the anathema, make no mention of falsehood, and he explains that these passages are concerned not with the Rabbinic edict, but with the basic prohibitions against slander, which are indeed not limited to falsehood:

לשון הרע על המת

אשר לביוש ולשון הרע על המת, אנו מוצאים שראו דבר זה כחמור עד שהתקינו תקנות וחרמות כנגד מוציאי לעז ושם רע על המתים. וכבר הבאנו למעלה פסק דינו של הרשב”א על “עשיר שקרא בן-גדולים… ממזר בן ממזר”.
[ועיין שם שהביא את דברי המרדכי, ושוב כתב:] מעצם העובדה, שהוצרכו חכמים לתקן תקנה מיוחדת בדבר דיבה על המת, אין להסיק שלולא תקנה זו היה הדבר מותר, מאחר שאין הדבר בגדר האיסור של לשון הרע – כי ניתן לפרש את התקנה כך, שבאו לחזק את האיסור הקיים בלאו-הכי.
ונראה שלא נתקנו התקנה והחרם אלא על סיפור לשון הרע על המת בדבר שקר, ולא על סיפור אמת. מסקנה זו עולה מתוך הדברים המובאים ב”מרדכי” בעניין זה, בו הוא מדבר על “להוציא לעז ושם רע”. ו”הוצאת שם רע” הוא המונח המתייחס ללשון הרע על דבר שקר. וכן לשונו של המחבר בשולחן ערוך (או”ח תר”ו, ג) “תקנת קדמוננו וחרם שלא להוציא שם-רע על המתים”.
אותה מסקנה עולה גם מתוך התבוננות באסמכתא לחרם אותה מביא ה”מרדכי”. בדברו על החרם הוא אומר: “ורבים תמהו: מה ראו על ככה?” כלומר, מה ראו להתקין תקנה זו; ועל כך הוא משיב: “ולא דבר ריק הוא מהם”. כלומר, יש טעם לכך. והוא מביא אגדה, בה מסופר כי הקב”ה כעס על משה, שאמר ‘והנה קמתם תחת אבותיכם תרבות אנשים חטאים’ “וכי אברהם יצחק ויעקב חטאים היו, שאמרת לבניהם כך? אמר לפניו (משה): רבה”ע, ממך למדתי שאמרת את מחתות החטאים האלה בנפשותם. אמר לו: אני אמרתי ‘בנפשותם’ ולא ‘באבותם’. כלומר, ההקפדה היתה על שהוצאה דבה על אבותם, בכך שקרא להם ‘חטאים’. והנה לפי אגדה זו הטרוניא של הקב”ה היתה על הוצאת שם רע על האבות על שקר: “וכי אברהם יצחק ויעקב חטאים היו?!”. וכך אף משתמע מדברי המרדכי הראשונים, שהובאו לעיל, בהם הוא מדבר על חרוף סתם, ולא על הוצאת שם רע, ולכן אינו מזכיר כאן את תקנת הקדמונים והחרם.
אמנם, לשונו של רבי משה איסרלש היא: “המדבר רע על שוכני עפר, צריך לקבל עליו תעניות ותשובה ועונש ממון כפי ראות בית דין”. וכאן המדובר על “מדבר רע”, ולאו דוקא על “הוצאת שם רע”; ברם, נראה שאין הלכה זו מתבססת על החרם, אלא על הדין.4

The author of the following article disagrees with Rav Yaakov on both counts, insisting that even true slander of the dead is prohibited, contrary to the view he has “heard” (but not seen documented?) attributed to Rav Yaakov,, and that the anathema merely reinforces a preexisting prohibition against speaking ill of the dead:

לשון הרע על מת

בעניין איסור לשון הרע על מי שכבר מת: הדין הוא שאסור לדבר לשון הרע על מת. …
[יש] חרם הקדמונים שלא להוציא שם רע על המתים, ואין לומר שכל האיסור הוא רק בהוצאת שם רע ולא בדיבור לשון הרע, דעיין באליהו רבה שם שמבואר בדבריו שהאיסור הוא גם כן בלשון הרע,5 אמנם שמעתי שדעתו של הגר”י קמנצקי זצ”ל שאין את החרם רק על מי שמוציא שם רע ולא על מי שמדבר לשון הרע, אמנם מדברי הא”ר מוכח שלא כדבריו וכמו שנתבאר.
ובעיקר העניין יש לעיין אם יש איסור לדבר על המתים והחרם רק בא להחריף את האיסור ולהוסיף עליו גם חרם, או שבאמת מצד הלכות לשון הרע מותר לדבר על מת וכל האיסור הוא מחמת החרם.
ועיין באליהו רבה בהלכות יום הכיפורים [שם] שמבואר שמי שמדבר על מת צריך לבקש ממנו מחילה [וכן מבואר במטה אפרים] ולכאורה מוכח שיש איסור גם בלי החרם, שהרי מסתבר שאם מצד הלכות לשון הרע אין בעיה לדבר על מת היינו משום שאינו יודע מזה וגם אם הוא יודע זה לא איכפת לו [וכמו שנבאר] ולא שייך לבקש ממנו מחילה על זה, ואם רואים שהם סוברים שיש כאן ענין של בקשת מחילה, אם כן וודאי שפשוט להם שיש איסור לדבר על מת לשון הרע כמו שאסור לדבר על חי משום שהוא יודע מזה ואיכפת לו. ועיין בא”ר שם שמבואר להדיא שיש איסור לדבר לשון הרע על מת גם בלי החרם.
וכ”ד הגאון ר’ בנימין זילבר זצ”ל שהחרם רק בא להוסיף איסור, ובלי החרם גם יש איסור, ולכאורה בפוסקים הנ”ל מוכח כדבריו.
אמנם עיין בערוך השולחן שחולק וסובר שמדברי הגמרא בברכות [יט] מבואר שאין שום איסור לדבר לשון הרע על מת מכיון שהוא אינו יודע מזה וגם אם הוא יודע זה לא איכפת לו וכל האיסור הוא רק מצד החרם שעשו הקדמונים.

An audio recording of a presentation I recently delivered on this topic is available at the Internet Archive.

  1. מרדכי יומא רמז תשכ”ד, וכן במרדכי בבא קמא פרק החובל רמז ק”ו בשם אבי העזרי []
  2. שם בבא קמא פרק החובל רמז פ”ב []
  3. שם בבא קמא רמזים ק”ה-ק”ו []
  4. נחום רקובר, ” על לשון הרע ועל הענישה עליה במשפט העברי” (סיני תשכ”ב), פרק שלישי #13 – קשר []
  5. איני יודע הוכחתו מהאליה רבה שהאיסור אפילו בלשון הרע ולא רק במוציא שם רע []