There’s plenty of scientific evidence that people behave better when they are being watched. Social pressure and fear of judgment can encourage us to conform to or even exceed societal expectations. But while that social pressure can be a positive force, spurring us to increased kindness, patience and generosity, it can also influence us to behave in ways that are against our instincts, values and best interests. When this happens among children and teens, we think of it as peer pressure. But even rabbis aren’t immune, as a story on today’s daf illustrates:
Rav Pappa arranged for his son to marry into the family of Abba of Sura, and went to the writing of the ketubah.
(Fun fact: Rav Pappa himself also married one of Abba of Sura’s daughters, so with this new marriage, he and his son became brothers-in-law.) Hearing that his rabbinic colleague was coming to town to write up the marriage contract:
Yehuda bar Mareimar came out to present himself before him.
Yehuda bar Mareimar was excited to meet Rav Pappa but, the Gemara continues, as the latter was about to enter his in-laws’ home, Yehuda bar Mareimar tried to leave, even after being invited to stay and witness the drawing up of the ketubah.
He (Rav Pappa) said to him: What is on your mind? Do you not wish to enter due to that which Shmuel said to Rav Yehuda: Shinnana (great scholar, literally one with long teeth) do not be a partner in the transfer of an inheritance even from a bad son to a good son, as it is not known what seed will come from him. And all the more so, from a son to a daughter.
The dowry that Abba will write for his daughter will inevitably diminish the inheritance his sons will receive. Rav Pappa wonders if Yehuda bar Mareimar does not wish to witness this transfer of money from one sibling to another.
Without waiting for a reply, Rav Pappa ventures a second guess about why Yehuda refuses to enter: Perhaps Yehuda does not wish to subtly influence Abba to write an overly large dowry with his presence. Countering this concern, Rav Pappa (still speaking without allowing his friend to get a word in edgewise) reminds his colleague that the sages recommend a man give his daughter a dowry that is equivalent to the amount he expects his sons to inherit.
At this point, Yehuda bar Mareimar finally manages a reply:
This applies only if the man gives of his own free will, but should one force him as well?
It seems that Rav Pappa was right about Yehuda’s concerns — he doesn’t want to influence Abba to write an overly large dowry. But force him? Who said anything about forcing him? Yehuda continues:
My very entrance forces him.
The social pressure of being observed by not one but two important rabbis might effectively compel Abba of Sura to write a giant dowry into the ketubah, more than he had originally intended to provide his daughter. And, as we learned yesterday, this giant dowry might eat into the inheritance he had planned to leave his sons.
Rav Pappa nonetheless insists that Yehuda bar Mareimar come to the ketubah writing. In fact, the Talmud says that Rav Pappa forced Yehuda bar Mareimar to enter the home and witness the ketubah writing. It’s the only overt act of forcing in the whole story. Here’s what happened next:
He (Yehuda) sat silently. Abba of Sura thought that he was angry with him and he therefore wrote down in the marriage contract all that he had.
Oh the irony! Yehuda bar Meimar stayed silent so as not to accidentally pressure Abba of Sura to write in an overly large dowry. As a result, he gave the impression of being angry, and the latter was cowed into doing just that. Now things come to a head:
Ultimately, when he (Abba) observed that Yehuda was still silent, he said to him: Even now the master (you) will not talk? By the master’s life, I have left nothing for myself.
Seeing the damage done, Yehuda now breaks his silence.
He said to him: If you are acting for my sake, that which you wrote (originally) is also not amenable to me.
Abba of Sura said to Yehuda bar Mareimar: Now I too will retract.
Relieved to hear that Yehuda’s silence has not been cold judgment, Abba of Sura decides that he will readjust the ketubah, changing the dowry to something he can actually afford. But alas:
Yehuda bar Mareimar said to him: I did not speak so that you should turn yourself into the kind of person who retracts.
Yehuda didn’t judge Abba for the original amount he was planning to give his daughter, but he does judge him for retracting a completed legal agreement. Abba is effectively pressured into leaving the ketubah as it stands. Ultimately, Abba is left penniless, all because of imagined social pressure.
We often think of coercion as something that happens intentionally. But Yehuda bar Mareimar knows that coercion can also happen more implicitly — with a differential in power, just by observing someone or being observed. Yet even the sensitive Yehuda bar Mareimar cannot completely anticipate how social pressure will operate and in his attempt to protect Abba from it, he ends up applying it anyway — with disastrous results. Today’s story — an ironic tragedy of not quite Shakespearian proportions — reminds us that power differentials and social pressure are complicated, requiring care and intention, especially on the part of the more powerful party. And even then, things can still go awry.
Read all of Ketubot 53 on Sefaria.