Bava Metzia 23

Honesty is the best policy.

Honesty is the best policy, right? On today’s daf we get a fascinating statement that complicates this adage.  

The Talmud is trying to determine whether a rabbi who finds an item with no distinguishing mark and says it is his should be believed. To some extent, it depends on the rabbi’s character and whether he is known to be trustworthy. But everybody lies a little, so what kinds of lies make a rabbi a liar, and what kinds of lies are normal and do not speak to a broader character issue?

Rav Yehuda says that Shmuel says: With regard to these three matters, it is normal for rabbis to change their words: With regard to a tractate, and with regard to a bed, and with regard to a host. 

Let’s look at each of these ideas in reverse order. 

A host. Sometimes a rabbi might be traveling for work, to teach or to judge, and is hosted at a local inn or in someone’s home. And sometimes, that hospitality is not as great as it could be, even if everyone is trying their best. So if someone asks a rabbi if he had a nice time being hosted, he can lie and say that he did. 

A bed. The Aramaic word for bed, puryah, is related to the Hebrew pru, as in pru u’rvu, be fruitful and multiply. So if someone asks a rabbi invasive personal questions about his intimate life, and he doesn’t feel comfortable telling them to go kick rocks, he can lie about it. 

A tractate. I saved this one for last because the medieval commentaries on it took my breath away. Within the context of the Talmud’s teaching, this seems to be saying that if someone asks if you know a tractate, and you do, you are permitted to deny it. Why? The text doesn’t say, and we haven’t seen intellectual humility to this extent presented as a rabbinic value in other talmudic texts. But that opacity leaves space for medieval commentators to explain this statement in relation to their own times. 

The 11th-century commentator Rashi explains that the Talmud is saying that if someone asks you if you own a manuscript of a particular tractate, you can deny it even if you do, out of humility. While in the time of the Talmud, the traditions were transmitted largely orally, by Rashi’s time they had been written down and copied from manuscript to manuscript. And because someone had to take the time to do the copying, a manuscript of a particular tractate could cost a significant amount of money. So as a way to downplay your wealth, Rashi says, you can deny owning a tractate. 

Several generations later, Tosafot insists that the only time it is permitted to lie about knowing a tractate is “if someone comes to test him.” Now we might imagine a particularly obnoxious guest at a Shabbat meal trying to see what you really know, but I don’t think that’s what Tosafot is really referring to. 

The Tosafot is a collective name for several schools of commentators (or tosafists) active primarily in France from the 11th to the 13th centuries. And in 1240, Paris was the site of the first formal disputation between Jews and Christians, on whether the Talmud was blasphemous. Over the objections of the pope, King Louis IX convened a formal debate between a Fransciscan monk who was a Jewish convert to Christianity and four of the most important rabbis of France, all of whom were tosafists. Unsurprisingly, given that the Christian king had hosted the disputation, the rabbis lost and the Talmud was found guilty. Louis gathered all known copies of the Talmud in France at the time and burned them, a staggering loss which is still mourned in the Jewish community on Tisha B’Av. When Tosafot says you can lie about knowing a tractate if someone comes to test you, I think we need to read it against this historical backdrop. 

Let’s be honest — honesty is not always the best policy. There are times when social politeness or a sense of privacy mean that a little lying goes a long way. But as Tosafot also reminds us, sometimes in the face of threats to survival, lying has a more powerful purpose. 

It’s worth noting that on tomorrow’s daf, the Talmud concludes that a rabbi can only lie about these three things; if he lies about other things, then he becomes known as a liar and is not trusted to claim a lost object as his own. So lying might be permitted and even necessary, but only in very specific cases. 

Read all of Bava Metzia 23 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 22nd, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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