In the New York Times’ The Ethicist column, a moral dilemma is brought each week to an expert for adjudication. In one such piece, a questioner asked if he could justify tricking his girlfriend, to whom he intends to propose, into accepting a ring with a lab-grown diamond even though she wants and expects a real one.
Though lab-grown diamonds were unknown to the rabbis of the Talmud, the same moral quandary underpins the mishnah on today’s daf:
(If a man said to a woman): Be betrothed to me with this cup of wine, and it was found to be a cup of honey; or with a cup of honey, and it was found to be wine; or with dinar made of silver, and it was found to be gold; or with this dinar of gold, and it was found to be silver; or if on the condition that I am wealthy, and he was found to be poor; or if on the condition that I am poor, and he was found to be wealthy, she is not betrothed.
Rabbi Shimon says: If he misled her to her advantage, she is betrothed.
In the mishnah, one thing is promised as the means of betrothal, but something different is delivered: a cup has honey instead of wine (or vice versa), for example. If the woman accepts the item and agrees to the betrothal, is she betrothed even if it’s not what she expected? The mishnah says she is not, but Rabbi Shimon says it depends if the swap is to her advantage. If she got more than she bargained for, then she’s betrothed.
There are two issues at play here: the deception and the monetary value of the item. Regarding the latter, the Gemara considers whether the price of an item is the only thing worth considering when assessing its value.
If he misled her to her advantage, she is betrothed. But doesn’t Rabbi Shimon accept (the statement of the mishnah in Tractate Bava Batra that if one sells) wine and it was found to be vinegar, or vinegar and it was found to be wine, both (the buyer and the seller) can retract the sale? Apparently, there is one for whom vinegar is preferable and one for whom wine is preferable. Here too, there is one for whom silver is preferable and gold is not preferable.
Rabbi Shimon’s opinion is that a woman is betrothed if a man gave her gold instead of the promised silver because gold is worth more than silver. But what if the woman prefers silver? In Tractate Bava Batra we learn that if a sale was made for vinegar and it turned out to be wine, the sale can be canceled by either party even though wine is worth more. A merchant might prefer vinegar to wine, perhaps because they planned to pickle something rather than drink something. Shouldn’t the same be true of a betrothal?
The Gemara then considers that the betrothal may have been proposed by an agent and offering a gold coin instead of a silver one was due to a simple miscommunication. The daf ends without ruling one way or the other.
Fortunately, Maimonides provides an answer. In the Mishneh Torah (Marriage 8:1), he states that “in all these (cases) and in any similar instance, the woman is not consecrated. The same rule applies if she (makes a condition based on) false information.”
In other words, if the promised item is switched for something else, whether intentional or not, the betrothal is not valid. The issue isn’t the relative value of the items, but the deception. The woman should be betrothed for the item she was promised, regardless of whether the item ultimately given is worth more or less.
The Ethicist agrees, writing: “The worldly consequences of your individual purchase, by itself, would not be significant. What is significant is your willingness to consecrate your union with a lie … That ring is a promise, and you would be establishing that you can’t be trusted to keep one.”
Betrothal under false pretenses is a bad way to start a marriage, whether in the first century or the 21st.