Calves and Coins

My weekly halachah column:

During the episode of the Golden Calf, Aharon seemingly goes along with the mob’s frenzy, to the point of proclaiming that “Tomorrow is a feast to ‘Hashem’” (32:5), apparently intending an idolatrous feast. The Ibn Ezra struggles greatly to reconcile Aharon’s conduct in this episode in general, and in this proclamation in particular, with his holy and pious character, in the course of which he reports that “many say” that what Aharon actually meant by “Tomorrow is a feast to ‘Hashem’” is that the worshipers of the calf would be executed by Moshe. The Ibn Ezra vigorously rejects this solution, declaring that a blasphemer (megadeif) and one who incites others toward idolatry (meisis) are executed based solely upon their verbal utterances, irrespective of their internal intentions. He makes the following analogy: Suppose someone asks his friend in court “Are you my friend to whom I lent such and such a sum?” and the friend replies “I am.” The respondent cannot then retreat from his concession and explain that he meant merely that he is his friend, but nothing more.

The claim that a megadeif cannot defend himself with the claim that when he blasphemed against “G-d” he really meant some other deity seems to be contradicted by a Talmudic assertion that when Moshe charged the Jews to “obey what G-d (elokah) says”, it was necessary for him to expressly stipulate that the oath he was imposing upon them was to be interpreted from the perspective of Hashem and Moshe, since otherwise it could have been interpreted as referring to an idol, since the Hebrew word elokah sometimes has that meaning. Similarly, the Talmud entertains the possibility that when a debtor swears that he has repaid his creditor, without the express stipulation that the oath the court is imposing upon him is to be interpreted from its perspective, the taker of the oath could plead that he really meant that he had given him some [worthless] tokens (iskundri), which he has chosen to refer to as “coins” (zuzi) (Shevuos 29a).

We have previously discussed these passages from the Talmud and Ibn Ezra here.

A Man’s Word Is His Bond

We have previously discussed the derivation of Halachic and ethical principles from the moral sensibilities of non-Jews and their culture, and particularly the question of whether non-Jewish reprehension of conduct that we consider acceptable means that we must abstain from it to avoid engendering a חילול השם. I recently encountered several additional sources on this topic, which we shall consider in this and several follow-up posts, בג”ה.

The ספר חסידים forbids breaking a promise made to a captor as a condition of regaining one’s liberty, on two grounds:

  • This will engender a חילול השם.
  • The parole of Jews will no longer be trusted in future cases of captivity.

שר אחד היה רע ליהודים שבעירו והיו רוצים לברוח משם ותפשם עד שנשבעו לו שלא יברחו משם

ואם תאמר ישאלו על השובעה ויתירו להם היה חילול ד’

ועוד שלא יאמין ליהודים יותר ושמא יתפוש אחד ולא יניחו עוד בשבועה

אלא יתעסקו עם המלך או עם שר גדול לקחת אותם משם על כרחו.1

Rav Ya’akov Emden raises two objections to the חילול השם consideration:

  • An oath taken under duress is inherently void (and does not even require התרה).
  • There will be no חילול השם, as the non-Jew understands the previous point.

היה חילול השם. באמת חסידות יתרה היא זו כי שבועת אונס לא כלום היא ואפילו התרה אינה צריכה גם אין מקום לחילול השם בכך כי גם העכו”ם יודע שאין שבועה באונס שבועה2

I am somewhat perplexed by R. Emden’s language in his initial point: insofar as he concedes the basic assumption of the ספר חסידים that even in the absence of a Halachic imperative to keep one’s promise, the necessity of avoiding חילול השם can still compel one to do so, what difference does it make whether the oath is valid, requiring התרה, or not? His entire objection to the stance of the ספר חסידים seems to hinge on his latter point, that there will be no חילול השם since the non-Jew understands the illegitimacy of his position, but whether or not the oath is valid and needs התרה, or is inherently void seems irrelevant.

The latter point of the ספר חסידים touches on a moral / game-theoretical paradox with which I have long grappled:

The perpetrator of a crime realizes that his crime has been witnessed, and that his only chance to escape the consequences is by ensuring the permanent silence of the witness. The criminal can threaten to kill the witness unless he promises to remain silent, to which the latter will certainly accede, but both are perfectly aware that the witness may subsequently repudiate his oath, on the grounds that it was entered into under duress, and the criminal therefore has no choice but to kill the witness.

Both players in this ‘game’ would clearly be better off if the witness could somehow render his promise binding, or otherwise guarantee his silence – the criminal would not have to commit a second murder, and the witness would escape with his life – yet there is no apparent way for the witness to irrevocably bind himself to the mutually desired course of future (in)action.

Ultimately, this paradox is the same one that is at the heart of the Prisoner’s Dilemma:

The prisoner’s dilemma is a canonical example of a game analyzed in game theory that shows why two individuals might not cooperate, even if it appears that it is in their best interests to do so. It was originally framed by Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher working at RAND in 1950. Albert W. Tucker formalized the game with prison sentence payoffs and gave it the name “prisoner’s dilemma” (Poundstone, 1992). A classic example of the game is presented as follows:

Two men are arrested, but the police do not have enough information for a conviction. The police separate the two men, and offer both the same deal: if one testifies against his partner (defects/betrays), and the other remains silent (cooperates with/assists his partner), the betrayer goes free and the one that remains silent gets a one-year sentence. If both remain silent, both are sentenced to only one month in jail on a minor charge. If each ‘rats out’ the other, each receives a three-month sentence. Each prisoner must choose either to betray or remain silent; the decision of each is kept secret from his partner until the sentence is announced. What should they do?

Both players would ultimately be better off if cooperation were the rational strategy – but that indubitable fact cannot make it so, and so cooperation remains irrational, and two rational players will therefore suffer suboptimal outcomes.

In our situation, too, both players would be better off if the witness’s strategy of keeping his promise and remaining silent would be the rational one – but it is not, as once the witness is out of harm’s way, it will typically be in the interest of both himself and society in general to report the crime – and both players therefore end up with suboptimal outcomes: death, in the case of the witness, and the need to further entangle himself in crime and subterfuge, in the case of the criminal. This often insoluble problem is nicely articulated in Nobel Laureate (along with our own Robert Aumann)3 economist and game theorist Thomas C. Schelling’s classic An Essay On Bargaining (the work he “believe[s] the Nobel selection committee considered [his] contribution to “understanding cooperation and conflict”” but which he “completed before [he] had more than a smattering of acquaintance with formal game theory”):

Among the legal privileges of corporations, two that are mentioned in textbooks are the right to sue and the “right” to be sued. Who wants to be sued! But the right to be sued is the power to make a promise: to borrow money, to enter into a contract, to do business with someone who might be damaged. If suit does arise the “right” seems a liability in retrospect; beforehand, it was a prerequisite to doing business.

In brief, the right to be sued is the power to accept a commitment. … The promise is a commitment to the second party in the bargain, and is required whenever the final action of one or of each is outside the other’s control. It is required whenever an agreement leaves any incentive to cheat.

This need for promises is more than incidental; it has an institutional importance of its own. It is not always easy to make a convincing, self-binding, promise. Both the kidnapper who would like to release his prisoner, and the prisoner, may search desperately for a way to commit the latter against informing on his captor, without finding one. If the victim has confessed to an act whose disclosure could lead to blackmail, he may confess it; if not, he might commit one in the presence of his captor, to create the bond that will ensure his silence. But these extreme possibilities illustrate how difficult, as well as important, it may be to assume a promise. If the law will not enforce price agreements; or if the union is unable to obligate itself to a no-strike pledge; or if a contractor has no assets to pay damages if he loses a suit, and the law will not imprison debtors; or if there is no “audience” to which one can pledge his reputation; it may not be possible to strike a bargain, or at least the same bargain that would otherwise be struck.4

The ספר חסידים sidesteps this whole issue by pointing out that our situation is actually analogous to the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma, in which cooperation may indeed be the optimal, perfectly rational strategy; as Schelling puts it:

The tactic of decomposition applies to promises as well as to threats. What makes many agreements enforceable is only the recognition of future opportunities for agreement that will be eliminated if mutual trust is not created and maintained, and whose value outweighs the momentary gain from cheating in the present instance. Each party must be confident that the other will not jeopardize future opportunities by destroying trust at the outset. This confidence does not always exist; and one of the purpose of piecemeal bargains is to cultivate the necessary mutual expectations. Neither may be willing to trust the other’s prudence (or the other’s confidence in the first’s prudence, etc.) on a large issue. But if a number of preparatory bargains can be struck on a small scale, each may be willing to risk a small investment to create a tradition of trust. The purpose is to let each party demonstrate that he appreciates the need for trust and that he knows that the other does too. So if a major issue has to be negotiated, it may be necessary to seek out and negotiate some minor items for “practice”, to establish the necessary confidence in each other’s awareness of the long-term value of good faith.5

R. Reuven Margolis’s characteristically erudite gloss to the above passage from the ספר חסידים includes a reference to an interesting responsum of Rav Yehudah Assad, who was asked about a Jewish barkeeper who sued a non-Jewish customer for a claimed unpaid tab of “one hundred and thirty three gold in money” (!). The customer denied one hundred of the claim, and the court ruled that the Jew could collect if and only if he took an oath to the veracity of his claim, which he was reluctant to do, since it was his family members who had actually served the patron, and his tally was based on their reports, so he could not be quite certain of its accuracy. After an intricate discussion of the laws of oaths taken under undue duress and the possibility of voiding an oath by the instantaneous articulation (either mental or sotto voce) of its nullification, the Mahari Assad rejects any possibility of taking an oath that may not be wholly true, ruling that the plaintiff may only swear to the sum that he is absolutely sure he is owed, even if this will result in the forfeiture of the entire claim. In addition to his technical halachic arguments, he adds that “Regardless, it is prohibited to publicize to an ignoramus any sort of permission in this matter, and a wise man’s eyes are in his head”:

ועל דבר שנשאל שאינו יהודי שתה יין אצל חנוני מוכר ישראל בהקפה וכשבא לתבוע חובו סך קל”ג זהב כסף כפר לו מאה זהב ונתחייב ישראל בדיניהם שבועה והוא ירא מלשבע לפי שב”ב [בני ביתו] נתנו לו והוא כתב על פיהם בפנקס שלו ואולי טעה ורצה היהודי לפשר עמו ואינו רוצה האינו יהודי בשום אופן רק שישבע הישראל …

[ועיין שם שהאריך לפלפל בסוגיא דשבועת אונסין וביטול בלחש ובלב, והעלה:] מכל הלין טעמי אין אני מסכים עם הדר”ג ני’ בדין זה לא למעשה וגם לא להלכה

מלבד זה אסור לפרסם לעם הארץ שום היתר בזה הענין וחכם עיניו בראשו

אלא על סך מה שהוא ישער בעצמו שודאי אצלו ממש בברי גמור ישבע עליו והשאר יפסיד ואם גם יפסיד כל המנה לא יכניס את עצמו בהיתר הביטול

וכבר הוי עובדא בק”ק שאדם גדול בישראל ידוע זצוקלה”ה שנפסקה לו שבועה בערכאות ונתיעץ עמי על רזא דנא ושמע לדברי ועצתי ועלתה בידו לטובה כי ד’ הי’ בעזרו.6

  1. ספר חסידים (ירושלים תשי”ז) סימן תכ”ג []
  2. מגדל עוז אבן בוחן פנה א’ סימן קי”ד – קשר, צויין בשו”ת זכר יהוסף אה”ע סימן נ’ סוף ד”ה והנה מה שנוגע, ועיין בפירוש מקור חסד על הספר חסידים []
  3. The two were awarded the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel in 2005. []
  4. Thomas C. Schelling, An Essay On Bargaining, in The American Economic Review, Vol. 46 No. 3 (Jun. 1956), pp. 299-300 – (PDF), (PDF). []
  5. Ibid. pp. 300-01. []
  6. תשובת מהרי”א / יהודה יעלה יו”ד סימן שכ”ז, הובא במקור חסד שם []

Minding One’s Yeas and Nays

In an interview with Slashdot, Richard Dawkins explains why atheists and skeptics should be less respectful toward religion, or perhaps why the attitude he advocates does not constitute disrespect (he is somewhat confusing):

Slashdot: In a TED Talk you gave a few years ago, you finished by speaking about how 9/11 changed you, and said “Let’s all stop being so damned respectful.”

Dawkins: Yes.

Slashdot: How do you feel your approach differs from people who are more apologetic, or more respectful?

Dawkins: Well, as I said, the appearance of my being not respectful is greatly exaggerated by the presumption that religion is owed respect. I didn’t mean we should be specifically disrespectful to religion. I just meant that we should not treat religion as any more immune to disrespect or ridicule or satire than anything else.

There’s another thing I’d like to say, which arose after the previous question you asked. To many people, clarity is threatening. There are many people, we’ll call them apologists or accomodationists, who, as it were, go ’round and ’round being so diplomatic you can hardly understand what they’re saying. And I do believe in “Let your yea be yea and your nay be nay.” I do believe in just speaking out truthfully.

So without being particularly deliberately offensive or insulting, just tell it like it is. Just be clear. And clarity, as I say, can sound insulting. A good example of this was a few years ago when I wrote a book review, I think it was in the New York Times, about a book that I think was about Creationism. I said “Anybody who claims to be a Creationist is either stupid, ignorant, or insane. Probably ignorant.” Ignorance is no crime. There are all sorts of things I’m ignorant of, such as baseball, but I don’t regard it as insulting if somebody says I’m ignorant of baseball, it’s a simple fact. I am ignorant of baseball. People who claim to be Creationists are almost always ignorant of evolution.

That’s just a statement of fact, not an insult. It’s just a statement. But it sounds like an insult. And I think that accounts for part of what you’ve picked up about my apparent image of being aggressive and offensive. I’m just telling it clearly.

Slashdot: Is there anything that can be done to tone the debate down, so that statements like that aren’t considered offensive to other people here?

Dawkins: I’m not sure toning it down is the right approach. I think that the right approach is to raise consciousness to the idea that there’s nothing special about religion that deserves respect; so whatever you would say about something you disagree with. If you’re having an argument about which is the best baseball team, you can have that argument and it’s not taken as an insult to disagree with something. People need to stop cosseting religion, as though a disagreement in religion is something like a personal insult.

If I say “I think you’re wrong about your God,” it’s not the same as saying, “I think you’ve got an ugly face,” or “You smell,” or something. But there are people who think it is, and I think we need to raise consciousness that it isn’t a personal insult. It’s just simply an argument about the way the cosmos is and the way morality is and so on.

Dawkins’s assertion of his belief in

Let your yea be yea and your nay be nay.

is an ironic (presumably intentional) reference to Matthew 5:37:

Matthew 5:37 is the thirty-seventh verse of the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew in the New Testament and is part of the Sermon on the Mount. This verse is part of either the third or fourth antithesis, the final part of the discussion of oaths.

In the King James Version of the Bible the text reads:

But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay:
for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.

The World English Bible translates the passage as:

But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No’ be ‘No.’
Whatever is more than these is of the evil one.

For a collection of other versions see BibRef Matthew 5:37

The exact meaning of this verse is much disputed. One reading is that one should simply answer requests with yes or no, and that anything extra, such as oaths, results in evil. This is very similar to a passage at James 5:12, which quite clearly has this meaning. For the Christian a simple yes or no should be sufficient, no oaths are required as they are to be trusted even without them. This is the most common understanding, and the WEB translation makes this view explicit.

However, the original Greek has the double word format shown in the KJV. The Slavonic Enoch states that a double yes or a double no were themselves forms of oath. By this understanding Jesus is not banning all oaths, but is stating that only this one form of oath is permissible. France believes the double words are simply a Semiticism that indicates the word is meant to be used on its own.

There is a similar, but not identical, Talmudic version of this injunction

רבי יוסי ברבי יהודה אומר מה תלמוד לומר הין צדק והלא הין בכלל איפה היה אלא לומר לך שיהא הן שלך צדק ולאו שלך צדק1

which is sometimes conflated with the Gospel version, as per the following two responsa of Rav Yuval Sherlow:

שאל את הרב – שאלות ותשובות ביהדות ובהלכה

מה הכוונה בביטוי שיהיה הן שלך הן ולאו שלך לאו

“הן שלך הן ולאו שלך לאו”

מה מקור המושג? מה ביאורו? מה הקשרו?

התשובה
מאת: הרב יובל שרלו

שלום וברכה

המקור לביטוי זה הוא דברי הגמרא על “צדק צדק תרדוף”, ומשמעות הגמרא היא החובה מהתורה לעמוד מאחורי המילים שלך: כשאתה אומר שתיפגשו בשש שיהיה השש שש ולא שבע; כשאתה מתחייב דבר מה שתעמוד בהתחייבות זו, גם אם הדבר פוגע בך; כשאתה מכחיש דבר מה שתהיה ההכחשה שלך אמת ולא שקר.

אני מבקש להדגיש ולחזור ולהדגיש כי זו מצווה דאורייתא. היא מחייבת עמל רב – גם להיות ישר עם עצמך, גם להתחייב רק על דברים שאתה יכול לעמוד בהם, גם להודות על האמת, גם לעמוד מאחורי שלילה או דברי התחייבות כאלה ולעשות אותם. אני רואה במצווה זו את אחת מגולות הכותרת של עבודת המידות.

כל טוב

שאל את הרב – שאלות ותשובות ביהדות ובהלכה

“שיהא הן שלך הן ולאו שלך לאו”

בכמה תשובות שהרב פרסם באתר, הוא ציטט את דברי חז”ל “צדק צדק תרדוף – שיהא הן שלך הן ולאו שלך לאו”. עניין אותי המקור למדרש זה. יש מדרש מוכר (בגמרא בבא-מציעא מט ע”א), על הפסוק “הין צדק” – “שיהא הן שלך צדק ולאו שלך צדק”, אבל כשחיפשתי באינטרנט את הפתגם שהרב ציטט – “שיהא הן שלך הן” – קיבלתי רק תוצאה אחת (פרט לתשובות של הרב), מספר מתי באוונגליון.

האם יש מקור יהודי למדרש זה?

התשובה:
מאת: הרב יובל שרלו

שלום וברכה

כנראה שאין ציטוט כזה, והציטוט שלך הוא הנכון. אני כותב כך בשיגרת הלשון, אולם בעקבות הערתך – אתקן.

את ספר מתי בוודאי איני מצטט.

כל טוב

Here’s the referenced cognate passage from Slavonic Enoch:

I SWEAR to you, my children, but I swear not by any oath, neither by heaven nor by earth, nor by any other creature which God created.

2 The Lord said: ‘There is no oath in me, nor injustice, but truth.’

3 If there is no truth in men, let them swear by the words ‘yea, yea,’ or else, ‘nay, nay!

4 And I swear to you, yea, yea, that there has been no man in his mother’s womb, but that already before, even to each one there is a place prepared for the repose of the soul, and a measure fixed how much it is intended that a man be tried in this world.2

The idea that a doubled affirmation or negation constitutes an oath actually appears in mainstream Jewish tradition, too:

אמר רבי אלעזר לאו שבועה הן שבועה

בשלמא לאו שבועה דכתיב (בראשית ט) ולא יהיה עוד המים למבול וכתיב (ישעיהו נד) כי מי נח זאת לי אשר נשבעתי אלא הן שבועה מנא לן סברא הוא מדלאו שבועה הן נמי שבועה

אמר רבא והוא דאמר לאו לאו תרי זימני והוא דאמר הן הן תרי זימני דכתיב (בראשית ט) ולא יכרת כל בשר עוד ממי המבול ולא יהיה עוד המים למבול ומדלאו תרי זימני הן נמי תרי זימני:3

האומר פעמים על דבר אחד אעשנו או לא אעשנו הרי שבועה והוא שיתכוין לשם שבועה במה דברים אמורים כשאמרם זה אחר זה בלא הפסק אבל אם מבקשים אותו עליו והוא אמר לא אעשנו ובקשוהו עוד ואמר לא אעשנו לא הוי שבועה:4

An interesting application of this appears in the laws of Gittin, where it is invoked by the Levush to explain a tradition to adjure the various participants in the ritual against answering questions put to them with “הן הן” or “לאו לאו”:

ויזהיר הרב את הבעל והעדים והסופר שכשישאל אותם דברים מכאן ואילך לא ישיבנו לו על דבריו הן הן או לאו לאו פעמים רק יושיבו לו פעם אחת הן או לאו.

דשני פעמים הוו כמו שבועה והוי שבועה שאינה צריכה5

I have long been puzzled by this, however, as insofar as we are concerned about an unnecessary oath, one should never answer questions or requests with doubled language, e.g.:

Please take out the garbage.

I will, I will.

should be forbidden!

It is sometimes suggested that Levush understands that we are particularly concerned in the context of Gittin, just as we institute there so many other stringencies, especially ab initio, as אשת איש and ממזרות are such grave concerns, but this seems to me to miss the point; those stringencies are generally ones that could potentially – even if sometimes remotely and implausibly – impact the validity of the Get, but insofar as we are concerned with an unnecessary oath, I see no reason to be more concerned in this context than in others.

  1. בבא מציעא מט. – קשר []
  2. 2 Enoch XLIX – here. []
  3. שבועות לו.‏ []
  4. שלחן ערוך יו”ד רלז:ה []
  5. לבוש הבוץ והארגמן, הלכות גיטין סדר הגט סעיף נ”ה, ועיין פתחי תשובה על סדר הגט של המחבר ס”ק ל”א ובברכות המים סעיף ל”ד []